Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre brings the story of Iowa hero Kate Shelley to life

'Kate Shelley's Train Rescue'

Sunday, July 26 at 2 p.m., online (limited on-site seating at Ron-de-Voo Park)

Stephanie Vallez performs her original production ‘Kate Shelley’s Train Rescue’ on Sunday, July 26 for Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre audiences. — courtesy of Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre

In July of 1881, the 17-year-old Irish immigrant Kate Shelley heard the sounds of a crash — a locomotive with a crew of four had plunged into Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River in Boone County. Knowing that a passenger train was due to travel the same route that night, Shelley ran to the creek, found the survivors of the crash, then ran to nearby Moingona to sound the alarm, gather a rescue team and make sure the passenger train was stopped.

In 1901, a newly built steel bridge was quickly named in her honor. She was the first woman in the U.S. to have a bridge named for her (and the only one, until the 1970s). She’s one of Iowa’s most delightful and intriguing heroes.

Puppeteer Stephanie Vallez agrees. She’s turned Shelley’s story into a puppet show, Kate Shelley’s Train Rescue, that will be presented by Eulenspiegel Puppet Theatre Sunday, July 26, at 2 p.m. for a limited audience in West Liberty’s Ron-de-Voo Park, and livestreamed to Eulenspiegel’s Facebook page.

“I landed on this story because of a history grant,” Vallez said in an email. “Monica [Leo, Eulenspiegel founder] and I both love stories with girls heroes, and those are especially easy to find in Iowa. I looked at a lot of true stories of women in Iowa who did something extraordinary, but the story of Kate Shelley really held my attention because it had such wonderful possibilities for visual presentation. Kate’s story is active, vibrant and noisy. There’s a storm, a flood, a train crash, a daring rescue: This story was meant for the stage!”

Stages, of course, are hard to come by lately, with COVID-19 still preventing large gatherings. Eulenspiegel has been working diligently since the pandemic began to re-envision their existence and still bring the joy of puppetry to the public, as they have for the past 46 years. The socially distanced, in-person show will seat at most 20 people (dependent on how many audience members arrive as family groups). The company will have masks available for those who show up without. But the bulk of the audience will be watching online. This is the second of their livestreamed series; they’ll be performing Appleseed! in Ron-de-Voo Park on August 30.

“We’ve had respectable size groups watching the livestream and many more watching it after the fact on our Facebook page (the show we livestreamed three weeks ago has now had 445 after-the-fact views),” Eulenspiegel founder, Lead Puppeteer and Managing Director Monica Leo said in an email. “We’ve also taught about a dozen workshops over Zoom. I was reluctant, but have found that there are things I really like about the medium. Holding work up close to the camera, I can really see their work and they can see the details of my example. An unexpected bonus: My great-nephew in Vancouver took one of the workshops; my niece in Hamburg watched the June show with her 5-year-old; puppeteer friends from the West Coast attended workshops and watched our shows.”

“The pandemic has definitely changed things,” Vallez concurred, “since most of our work took place in schools or in front of crowds — but we’re very creative. When the cancellations started coming we got busy planning ahead. We learned how to live-stream our shows and do Zoom workshops. It’s been difficult but we have discovered a few advantages, like being able to interact with people from very far away. We had been talking about doing birthday parties before the pandemic, but we were very busy, so we’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to start doing Zoom birthday parties. We’re working on a drive-in show right now. We’ve always been open to new ways of doing things. As an artist, sometimes working within constraints and limitations leads to exciting things you would never have been able to do otherwise.”

That drive-in show, Shenenigans: Animals in Charge!, is directly inspired by the current situation.

“It’s an original story based on reports of the things animals were up to during lockdown, and it stars penguins, monkeys, goats, an alligator and a giant Mother Earth puppet,” Leo said.

“Over the years, we have had to turn on a dime more than once to continue doing what we’re doing,” she continued. “This is simply the most extreme example.”

Kate Shelley’s Train Rescue is a perfect show for this new pandemic existence, as it is a one-woman show, from jump. Vallez, also the company’s outreach director, created every aspect of the production, from the script to the puppets to the performance, including writing a few original songs for the piece (it’s not a musical, she says, but “it’s just fun when there’s music in a puppet show!”).

“The show began as an idea, then there was cotton, paper, ink, glue, advice, wire, self-doubt, sweat and lots of cardboard. I started with research, then I wrote the script and asked for the opinions of others. It’s a pop-up book show, so I made six pop-up pages of scenery. Then I made puppets — so many puppets! There are a bunch of paper puppets, six rod marionettes and various props and accessories to tell the story. The only thing I didn’t make is my costume. I bought that and then altered it. Otherwise, what you’ll see and hear during the show is all my work. I spent 200 hours making this show, so I hope I’m performing it for a long time!”

The show is free, both in person and online, but Eulenspiegel welcomes donations to the theater.