Cincinnati Children's teams up with Ryan Seacrest, Madcap Puppets to create kids' video series

Project aims to comfort uneasy patients

CINCINNATI -- Melanie was nervous about being a patient at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

But after a behind-the-scenes exploration of the hospital with her Aunt Mel, she realized she had nothing to be afraid of.

Now, through a series of videos, Melanie will share that comfort with every patient who is admitted to the hospital.

Melanie is actually a puppet. She was created by Dylan Shelton, the artistic director for Madcap Puppets, who approached the hospital about producing videos using a puppet to help put children’s minds at ease.

“I know kids often have anxiety before a procedure or surgery; the hospital can be a scary place,” Shelton said. “But when they see a puppet go through something similar, it can calm them before going through whatever it is they have to go through. I’ve worked with Children’s for a number of years, but making videos like this is a first.”

Madcap has been working on the project for several months with Seacrest Studios, the broadcast studio and media center in the hospital. Within Seacrest Studios is WKID33, an educational and entertainment TV station that airs in all patients’ rooms. The studio was built in partnership with the Ryan Seacrest Foundation, which began opening studios in pediatric hospitals six years ago. WKID33, just outside the cafeteria, gives children the opportunity to request songs, participate in games or even be on a show.

A Children's employee helps out with the filming of a scene that stars Melanie the puppet, her "Aunt Mel" who is portrayed by Mel Hatch Douglas, and cardiac sonographer Katie Lehmkuhl. Photo provided by Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

Funding for Melanie’s videos was provided by a grant from PNC Bank. The videos will be broadcast on WKID33 on a regular basis starting in the next couple of weeks.

“We wanted something educational and fun, but that also would be beneficial in a therapeutic way,” said Jenna Zayatz, child life specialist at Children’s. “We wanted to demystify places and procedures that might be scary to kids. Some things may seem threatening, but a puppet makes them seem less threatening and more playful.”

Madcap has been entertaining with puppets since 1981. The company has two troupes that will combine to do 100 shows in about a dozen states this summer at libraries, parks and festivals. During the school year, roughly 200,000 students nationwide will see a Madcap show. Each one is original with a purpose of introducing kids to theater and storytelling. Madcap also conducts workshops, performs in conjunction with symphony orchestras and builds puppets for productions.

Shelton built Melanie and was the puppeteer behind her. Aunt Mel was played by Mel Hatch Douglas, associate artistic director for Madcap.

Much like casting an actress in a movie, a lot of thought went into “casting” Melanie. Shelton was originally going to build a male puppet, but he decided a sweet and innocent female who was best friends with her aunt was a better fit for this project. He also put a lot of work into how Melanie’s face was constructed.

“We wanted her face to be able to express a gamut of emotions,” Shelton said. “If you build a happy or sinister puppet, you can get different emotions out of it, but it’s not easy. With Melanie, we were able to make her nice and sweet and cute, but also kind of neutral.”

Melanie and Aunt Mel traveled throughout the hospital visiting different departments. A separate video was made of each department visit. They got to see how blood is drawn, how a brain scan is done and where the medical helicopter lands. They made stops in the cardiology and dentistry units as well as the hospital security control room. Children’s employees played themselves in the videos.

“We left the scripts very open because we were working with hospital personnel and not actors, and we wanted them to be comfortable,” Shelton said. “The interviews were fluid and improvised. It left a lot of room for humor.”

Zayatz said there was certainly a lot of laughter during the production.

Melanie, a Madcap puppet, made several stops at different Cincinnati Children's departments with her Aunt Mel during the filming of the video series. Photo provided

“At first, it was very strange talking to the puppet; Dylan never breaks character. But it was so much fun,” Zayatz said. “And when we were inside the studio, we had more people — many of them adults — stop to watch than we ever do when celebrities are here. Puppets have this power. People of all ages just love puppets.”

Zayatz said each video will run no more than 30 minutes. While they won’t be live like some other shows that air on WKID33, they will still be interactive for the patients. Zayatz said there will be questions at the end of each video for patients to answer, and patients will be able to call the studio to share their experience about a procedure they have already had done that they saw on a video.

Shelton said the videos will appeal to children of all ages, and should be able to be used for several years.

He added that this project was personally gratifying for him in a unique way.

“I’m used to performing live, so I can see the immediate impact we’re having on kids,” Shelton said. “In this case, I won’t be able to see the reactions kids have in their rooms. I’ll miss that aspect of it, but I know the videos will be making a difference. It’s very rewarding, just in a different way.”

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