Michelle Warkentin poses with the puppets that will be in her new play called “The Rumble Follies.” PHOTO: DWAYNE WARKENTIN

Michelle Warkentin acted on stage for years but after inquiring about an ad for a puppeteer, her career was completely turned around. Now during the pandemic, she has been using her skills to create personalized puppet messages for people who need it.

When Warkentin started her career in the theatre, she never gave a second thought to puppetry. But after a lack of acting gigs, she was open to new opportunities. Once she picked up a puppet, there was no going back.

Instantly, Warkentin connected to her new occupation. She said she didn’t have to think about the character each puppet would possess, but it would come to her like it was always meant to be.

“I understood the characters. I would get characters coming, and I would know who this person is. I know what they sound like. I know what they feel like. And I just loved it, so it changed my whole life direction,” she says.

Global News: Personalized puppet messages spread smiles

Warkentin remembers how one day she came home with a bunch of puppets and shocked her kids because of how much they enveloped their lives so quickly. She used the puppets for everything, from family events to entertaining her children’s friends when they came over. Warkentin says her puppets gave her the freedom to speak how she wanted, so her kids never knew what they would hear.

“It changed my kids growing up because all of the sudden mom went a little crazy with all of these puppets at home. So [they’re] scared to bring home a date maybe.”

With a laugh, Megan Chapman, Warkentin’s adult daughter, says she was always wary of bringing guys home.

“If I ever brought a boy home, she would take out the puppet, and she would flirt with him and just scare them.”

While Chapman may recall some memories of embarrassment from her childhood, after becoming a mother herself, she found a renewed admiration for her mother’s puppetry. Not only does Chapman cherish the art as a mother, but also as a person. She says it has helped her grow into an accepting individual who has learned “to appreciate things that aren’t normal.”

Chapman remembers how her friends would come over and Warkentin would bring out her puppets to entertain them, and her friends “loved it.”

Warkentin adores sharing her passion and finds value in having people be involved in learning through puppetry. She says the use of puppets allows people to become vulnerable and help them express their feelings.

Through the use of puppets, Warkentin has been able to use them as a teaching tool for all ages, touching on struggles experienced by both children and adults. Warkentin believes she creates a safe environment for people to communicate through the puppets in ways they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

“To be able to teach it really makes me happy because I find little kids, well everyone kind of breaks down…they become a little more vulnerable with the puppet. They just kind of let go a lot more,” Warkentin says.

Brenda Wong, Warkentin’s performing partner and friend of 22 years, says she has learned many life lessons through Warkentin and her puppetry.

“She really encourages you to just be yourself. Be spontaneous. Be creative, laugh and go with the flow.”

“To be able to teach it really makes me happy because I find little kids…they become a little more vulnerable with the puppet. They just kind of let go a lot more.”

Michelle Warkentin

Wong and Warkentin’s shared interests are what bonded them for so many years. Together, the pair has fun creating plays, writing stories and adding music to their productions. Even so, the partnership is strengthened by their mutual admiration for the encouragement of the next generation.

“We both [have a passion] for reaching out to kids, encouraging their creativity, bringing them music and bringing stories to life, [and]encouraging their imagination,” Wong says. 

Together, they have spread joy to children in women’s shelters, at Christmas parties and in schools. However, since the COVID-19 outbreak, their partnership has been put on the back burner.

Since the pandemic hit, Warkentin hasn’t been able to do what she enjoys, which is interacting with people. Seeing so many individuals struggle during the outbreak, Warkentin thought of ways she could help. She landed on the idea of offering free personalized puppet videos to anyone who asked.

“I normally would volunteer someplace, but not being able to do that, I thought, I’m stuck at home. I’m stuck here. I can’t go anywhere. This is the skill that I have. What can I do to give back?”

Ranging from wishing people a “happy birthday” to giving a message from a grandparent to a grandchild, Warkentin has fulfilled any request. She says the pandemic has been especially hard for grandparents because they’re most susceptible to the virus, making it nearly impossible for them to see their loved ones.

Warkentin has made 50 personalized videos. She says she has appreciated being able to help spread joy during the pandemic, but she is very excited to be back on stage, where she can  connect with the audience doing what she is passionate about. 

“I love being with people, it’s everybody together. It’s the performer, and it’s the audience; it’s all of you that make the experience the way it is. And it just makes it wonderful because you all share in the story and in the moment.”