Vandergrift puppeteer spreads joy and uses crafts to help traumatized children



David English of Vandergrift has a passion for puppetry.

His love of art began when he was 3 years old. He went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in theater and puppetry from the University of West Virginia.

English said watching “The Muppets” when he was young in his hometown of Oakmont made a lasting impression.

“I said to my mom, ‘I want to be a Muppet,'” English, 43, said. He credits the late Fred Rogers and “Muppets” creator Jim Henson with enormous influence on entertainment.

He owned and operated the David T. English Puppet Co., as a professional puppeteer, for over 20 years.

From his beginnings in making homemade puppets from paper bags to making his own handcrafted puppets, English calls his puppets his “family”.

Single, English has no children but is focused on helping young people in the Pittsburgh area through puppetry.

“The puppet is happy for me,” English said. “I like to make people laugh.”

Neighbor Andrew Tvrodvsky, 65, said the Englishman was remarkably talented and audiences loved his performances.

“I’ve never seen children so intrigued,” Tvrdovsky said of the English-language shows, many of which are impromptu for neighborhood kids.

“My granddaughter was so inspired that she went home and made some puppets. I’m a tough, retired steelworker – and he captivates me.

English gives voice to each puppet. He is fluent in a German accent, a macabre voice and Eastern European dialects.

One of her favorite puppets is a ghoul nicknamed Mr. Funfangles.

Another is Polka Dancin ‘Stanley and Stanley Onion – the oldest onion puppet “man” who lives in the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Gertie the city’s polluted bird is a bright red bird fighting against smog and pollution.

His latest outreach work involves using puppets as an educational therapy tool for the children he works with at the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.

“Puppetry and education overlap a lot, especially in early childhood education,” English said. “The puppets model the human condition, (but) it creates this playful separation between you and the subject.”

English said getting through the pandemic was difficult. It received financial support from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.

His play, “The Polish Hill Dragon”, was due to debut in March 2020 before the Covid-19 shutdown.

“I was supposed to be on stage for a live audience, but instead we finished it and it’s a movie,” English said.

English said his private and public puppet concerts as a professional puppeteer were virtually obsolete last year, but he said reservations were coming back.

To make ends meet during the pandemic, English worked as an online tutor for the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.

Every student he works with has suffered some type of severe trauma and needed emotional support during the pandemic.

“Through this experience, I discovered the value and power of puppet therapy,” said English. “Conversing with puppets reduces their stress and opens them up. “

Students in Homeless Children’s Education Fund programs “find joy in creative and imaginative play” as English provided, said Kaitlyn Nykwest, director of extracurricular and enrichment activities at the Homeless Children’s Education Fund.

“When Dave shares his creations and talents with students, they discover new ways of talking about their emotions, playing games, reading and talking about books,” Nykwest said. “Dave’s puppets bring fun and imagination to the lives of the students in our programs. And, for students who have experienced stress and trauma, taking the time to imagine, play, and dream helps students relieve stress and build relationships, which leads to positive outcomes for learners.

Joyce Hanz is a writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Joyce at 724-226-7725, [email protected] or via Twitter .



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