If Puppets Could Talk
By Mike Gillis 

Sam Snail is more than a curiously stitched sock draped over the left arm of Lesley Smith. When she's asked, Smith explains that Sam Snail is a "real puppet"," an extension of herself and her message, and capable of reaching out to kids in a way most adults cannot. Sam, of course, does most to the talking. In fact, Sam Snail seems able to break through the inattention or indifference of many elementary school students with complex issues like conflict resolution and problem solving. 

"I realized Sam could teach anything," the puppeteer and performer from Durham said. For nine years, Smith has crisscrossed New England with Sam and a small cast of puppets to help point out a path of "peaceful revolution" and responsibility to the environment, her Theater of Life Puppets. And now - actually, for the last two years - Smith is preparing Sam Snail for the limelight. Preproduction is under way at The Troupe in Windham for a 30 minute television show, "Sammy and Friends," that Smith hopes will reach even more young viewers via public television and schools. 

Smith believes her performances at schools across the region have a lasting effect on students who see it. "He's so popular with children," Smith said. Smith said Sam's appeal became clear to her at a performance before a kindergarten assembly not long ago. Sam Snail, during a skit she had performed hundreds of times before, said, "'I used to be so mean to myself. Now I say it's okay to make a mistake."' "All of a sudden, the kids started clapping," Smith recalls. "It got very loud. The pride they felt for him." That moment brought clarity to Smith and her message: 'It's things like that just made me realize we have a mission here," she said. "The response makes it all very clear." 

Although the springboard for her career was acting and modeling, she said helping children is what moved her most. Her skits also address issues like tobacco prevention, peer pressure, bullying, problems she deals with as a parent or experienced as a child. The scripts are tied to curricula used in most schools, she said. Television spots featuring Sam and his message appeared last winter and spring throughout New England, and recently, began turning up on Nickelodeon, MTV and the Fox Family Channel. "He's an important role model for children," Smith said, pointing out she often hears from teachers and students who can recall a Sam Snail performance long after it's concluded. That's one reason why Smith has guarded Sam Snail from the entertainment industry and not shopped him around to major cable companies. "I'm very protective of the character," she said. Smith said she wants to control the story and message, which she can do from New Hampshire. 

But the creative work involved in preparing the show has been easier than finding the money to fund it. In fact, Smith and her partners, including an advisory board for Children and The Living Earth Initiative, for which she is executive producer, and the Antioch New England Institute in Keene, are still seeking corporate sponsors to fund the show, which she anticipates wrapping up next spring, and which will span 25 episodes over the next two years. 

Smith said she is working with a talented crew and production company, including puppeteer Nikki Tilroe, who has worked with Jim Henson. Apart from puppets, Smith said she is looking for a young actor to portray a live role on the show. Smith believes what will ultimately sell the show to a wide audience is its message, whether it is social responsibility or how to treat the environment. "I'm convinced we can do it," she said. One market she hopes to tap is public education. She hopes Sam Snail can become part of the education process at school, using television to complement teachers and curriculum both inside and out of the classroom. "It can be a very effective tool," she said.