Meet Kathie Guild, the woman who has been delighting and educating audiences for years
By James Dupree | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Projected behind the stage in Century Hall is an animated backdrop of a snow-covered forest. The sound of a heavy wind fills the room as children and parents alike watch a young boy eagerly search for the Wish Tree. At the end of the show at the Carrboro Century Center, the puppets bow to parental applause, and children dance to cheerful music. Hiding behind the table covered in a sparkling red velvet sheet is sole puppeteer Kathie Guild. She’s the executive director of Puppet Show Incorporated, a nonprofit organization that uses the art of puppetry to inspire imagination and to educate children at venues like Orange County Public Library, Kidzu Children’s Museum, and numerous local public and private schools over the years.
Though Kathie officially started Puppet Show Inc. in 2017 after her retirement as a counselor for 25 years with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, puppetry has been a part of Kathie’s life for decades. In 1990, after having earned her master’s in school counseling, Kathie moved from New York to Büdingen, Germany, where her husband, Pete Guild, an armor officer and instructor at the U.S. Military Academy, had recently been assigned. There, she was offered a position working with children of U.S. military personnel through the Department of Defense Dependents Schools network. “I had to immediately start teaching the next day,” Kathie says. “I was really nervous because I didn’t have any materials. [A resource teacher] gave me a Steiff [brand] frog [hand puppet] and said, ‘Take this, and maybe you can do something with it.’”
Using puppetry, Kathie counseled students during the Gulf War and was honored for her work with a Meritorious Civilian Service Award. “The puppet shows became instrumental in explaining war to children. I realized if you can talk to children about war, then anything is open with puppetry,” Kathie says. In 1992, the family moved to Chapel Hill, and she worked as a counselor at Seawell Elementary School and McDougle Elementary School. Using an assortment of purchased and handmade puppets, Kathie performed shows for countless students, including her daughter, Chelsea Guild, now 31. “She saw all my puppet shows,” Kathie says. “She’s real good at sewing, and she made the costumes for [some of] the puppets.”
Programs include 21 original stories – often hosted by Kathie’s first puppet, “Froggy” – and accommodate audiences of up to 125 students from preschool to second grade. Themes range from bullying and peer pressure to the importance of honesty. She also adapts Grimms’ Fairy Tales and fables from Japan, Africa, Mexico and India, to name a few. “They’re beautiful stories and hundreds of years old. This keeps them alive,” Kathie says. After each show, children are given time to make their own puppets, allowing them to retell those stories or make up their own. Kathie also leads residencies and workshops for all ages to learn puppetry.
“There’s always something to learn through [a] story,” says Saskia Etter, a mother of three girls ages 3 to 10 and regular show attendee, who discovered Puppet Show Inc. through the Carrboro Branch Library. “Kids take to that so much more than parents trying to teach them in everyday life,” she says.
Along the way, Kathie has had help from three high school volunteers, who set up materials for arts and crafts, greet parents and take videos and pictures. “I loved watching the kids interact with the show. They would gasp at certain parts and shout things out,” says Marielle Rath, a 2020 Northwood High School graduate who started volunteering in 2018. “It was refreshing to get a glance of the world from their perspective,” she says. “Doing crafts alongside them helped bolster my creativity as well.”
With most shows free to the public, Kathie keeps the program running through grants and donations. “The Mary Duke Biddle Foundation’s grant really propelled us,” she says, allowing her to buy equipment including a projector, screen, sound system and a rolling cart for easy transport. Then came the pandemic. “The public library closed, so I had to switch to a digital platform. I didn’t have a Zoom account, and it costs money,” Kathie says. Luckily, a small grant through the Durham Arts Council allowed Puppet Show Inc. to continue, paying for Zoom and Streamable accounts. “[This year] I have a grant from Wegmans to do shows partnering with Orange County Public Library,” she says.
As vaccines become available and some restrictions lift, Kathie looks forward to returning to in-person performances. “I’d like to go back to schools and libraries because it allows the community better access [to the programs],” she says. “And I hope that, in whatever format, people continue to come out and participate in the puppetry shows.”