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At Seattle Children’s Theatre, A Puppet Master Creates The Magic

One of the stars in the latest production of Seattle Children’s Theatre is the perfect example of how theater can be something magical. The performer’s name is “Trueheart.” She has a carved head, a sweet personality and by the show’s end, everyone wants to nuzzle her.

Trueheart is one of the title characters in the current production, “Dick Whittington and His Cat.” And he’s a scrawny but amiable creation of puppet master Annett Mateo.

“Oh yeah, I have the best job ever,” says Mateo, who’s been connected with the theater company for the past 13 years. After falling in love with puppets as a child — she discovered puppet books in her school library as a sixth grader — she eventually gave up a high-paying career in computer programming to devote herself to puppetry.

“I just love the blend between the technical and the aesthetic,” she explains.

At work in the theater’s shop, she’s surrounded by some of her favorites. They include “Mr. Horse,” a black spotted horse from “PippyLongstocking;” as well as Toto, a brown-haired (well, brown-yarned) terrier from “The Wizard of Oz.”

Mateo designs, creates and coaches the actors in how to maneuver the puppets.

“She tells us that you always have to keep the puppet alive,” says Mike Spee, who plays Dick Whittington. “You never want it to be just still in your hands because a real animal wouldn’t just sit still.”

So in the play, which tells the story of an orphaned boy named Dick and a cat that brings him good luck, the actor moves the puppet’s head and scratches underneath its chin.

When it first appears, it always prompts whispered debates in the seats: Is it real?

Performances are often followed by a Q&A session.

“Almost every show, we get a ‘Is the cat alive?’” Mateo says. “It’s fun when we can help along that illusion.”

Creating illusions and nourishing one’s imagination is just what Seattle Children’s Theatre is all about. And a lot of that is owed to Mateo, says SCT’s artistic director Linda Hartzell. She’ll toss out ideas and even some huge creative challenges to Mateo and the puppet master will, in turn, problem solve.

“How do you deal with the scale of a little girl and a giant?” Hartzell says. “Well, you use a puppet as a little girl and then a human being who’s 6’3’’ or 6’4” who suddenly looks like a giant. That’s what we did for ‘The Borrowers.’"

For the upcoming production of “Mwindo,” Mateo needs to figure out a way to transform a gray hawk into a gold one right on stage — with all the lights on as everyone watches. You can whether she’s able to pull it off when the show opens next month.

In the meantime, Trueheart and his human colleagues perform at Seattle Children’s Theatre through Dec. 21.

Florangela Davila is KNKX’s news director. A journalist in Seattle since 1992, she’s earned numerous individual and team honors in print, online and broadcast, most recently three regional Murrows for KNKX.