Award-winning puppeteer educates audiences about nature


By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

Debbie Costine shows the puppet characters from “Turtle’s Wetland Quest”.

Southborough – Working as a professional puppeteer throughout New England since 1974, Debbie Costine of Southborough has integrated her skills in visual arts and education. She received the 2008 USA Citation of Excellence from the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, an international puppetry association. Launched in 2011, his most recent show educates the public on a subject close to his heart: the natural environment.

“I’m an avid naturalist and love wetlands,” she said. “I live on the Sudbury River and have a beaver dam behind my house. The wetland is a nice place to paddle very slowly in my small kayak.

Raised in northern New Hampshire, she noticed the Bunny Rabbit puppet on the children’s TV show “Captain Kangaroo.” Costine, 10, transformed a papier-mâché-covered lunch bag into an ever-darling clown puppet.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in art education from Plymouth State University in 1972, she moved to the Boston area and took drawing classes. Costine attended drawing sessions organized by the Copley Society of Art on Newbury Street. There she befriended artist-puppeteer Lenny Gerwick, now from Marlborough.

In 1974 they co-founded Gerwick Puppets. Costine cites a memory from the early 1980s illustrating their ambitious efforts when they performed in four different locations in one day.

“We were determined to make a living from puppetry, so we took whatever jobs we could get,” she explained. “We calculated the time needed for travel, performances and dismantling.”

She created puppets and props while he painted sets. They collaborated on scripts. Gerwick Puppets has regularly secured bookings at schools, libraries and community events.

Costine and Gerwick joined the Boston Area Puppetry Guild, whose meetings are held at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline. They began performing in theaters in the late 1970s.

“Puppet Showplace Theater features the best puppet companies in the country,” Costine said. “I like that parents come to the theater with their children and that they like the shows too. It’s an amazing institution and a great place to perform.

While performing with Gerwick Puppets, Costine simultaneously began in the late 1980s to perform solo shows.

“I wanted a bit of simplicity,” she explained. “The Gerwick Puppets shows got bigger and more elaborate with sets, lights, props and music. I wanted to make shows that I could fit in the back seat of my car that wouldn’t involve so much transportation and setup time.

Costine received a grant from the Jim Henson Foundation to help him develop and launch the show “Turtle’s New Home” in 2011. The show is now known as “Turtle’s Wetland Quest”.

After studying the subject for two years, she created puppets of a turtle, beaver and salamander, as well as a set of plants and trees found in a wetland. The puppets tell the story of the turtle who needs a safe habitat due to fragmentation.

“I chose a Blanding’s turtle because it’s an endangered species in eastern Massachusetts,” Costine noted. “The turtle has a need and the beaver has the solution. The beaver is the only animal capable of creating a habitat. The character that completes it all is the salamander, who is friends with the tortoise because it needs the same basic habitat.

Among the many venues where she performed “Turtle’s Wetland Quest” was the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 2017. Gerwick Puppets retired last fall with his final show for the Fall River Public Library. Costine’s upcoming solo shows include return appearances at Brookline’s Puppet Showplace Theater.

“My mission is to use all my skills to promote spending more time in nature,” she said. “Exposure to nature is extremely important for every human being.”

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Debbie Costine stars in “The Twig Family in the Oak Tree.”

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