PORT TOWNSEND — It’s the second night of rehearsals, and Stephen Schumacher is still having trouble getting his character’s moves right.
For one thing, the character keeps buckling at the knees.
He also tends to drag his feet on stage.
It’s even a struggle to get him to open his mouth when he says his lines.
“I’d like to do a better job of mouthing the words,” Schumacher said, “but opening the mouth is hard. My hand starts to cramp.”
Schumacher is one of the six puppeteers of the 4th Century Players now rehearsing for a performance at the St. Nicholas program at St. Herman of Alaska Orthodox Christian Church on Thursday.
Now in its 10th year, the free, family-oriented program features 4th century choral music and a visit from St. Nicholas himself, who brings bags of chocolate coins for the children.
But the highlight of the evening is the performance of the true story of St. Nicholas, also known as Santa Claus, by the players and their cloth counterparts — six large, colorfully-costumed Muppet-like puppets created by Leni Rodes of Sequim.
“I feel like the hidden star behind the show is the woman who created these beautiful puppets,” Schumacher said. “They make it real.”
Rodes, a retired kindergarten teacher who moved to Sequim from Texas 10 years ago, prefers to work behind the scenes, even declining a request that she be photographed, saying she is a “private person.”
During her years as a teacher, she developed a technique of turning a large cloth doll into whatever puppet character she needed for her class.
The puppets operate by inserting one hand in the back to move the mouth, and holding a metal rod in the other that moves the marionette’s hand.
When Rodes told the church she was making puppets, they expected simple figures with papier-mache heads and cloth robes.
They were amazed when she presented them with large, elaborately coiffed and costumed characters.
“It brings a level of professionalism that it wouldn’t have had,” Schumacher said.
The puppets made their debut last year, drawing a standing-room only crowd to St. Herman’s, an onion-domed church at 1407 30th St., Port Towsend.
Origin of Santa?
According to the story, St. Nicholas secretly helps a poor old man provide dowries for his three daughters.
How the bishop, a real person who lived in Asia Minor in the 4th century, supposedly delivered the sack of gold coins may be the origin of the Santa Claus story, according to Father Nicholas Kime, the priest of St. Herman’s.
“Saint Nicholas may be the most well-known saint in the world,” Father Nicholas said.
“I think the reason he is so loved and well-known is because he’s the perfect model of Christian compassion and love. He embodies the spirit of Christmas.”
St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of children and sailors, and one of the 318 bishops who attended the first ecumenical conference in Nicea, Father Nicholas said.
His saint day, Dec. 6, is celebrated in many countries, with children putting their shoes out the night before in hopes that St. Nicholas will come by and fill them with candy and gifts.
At St. Herman’s annual program, a church member portraying St. Nicholas makes an appearance, accompanied by angels who distribute the gift bags.
The program, which will start at 6:30 p.m., will conclude with refreshments and crafts.
This year Rodes made another puppet, one that resembles Father Nicholas, and presented it to him as a gift.
Rodes also embodies the spirit of the holiday — she’s made about 50 of the puppets over the course of her lifetime, she said, and given them all away.
The St. Nicholas program is open to everyone.
For more information, go to www.orthodoxporttownsend.com or phone 360-385-0585.
Port Townsend/Jefferson County reporter-columnist Jennifer Jackson can be reached at email@example.com.