WALLA WALLA, Wash. --In a world where political and social debate too frequently turns rancorous and antagonistic, is it possible the most effective communicators are those whose personalities are least imposing or threatening?

With that possibility in mind, a small group of Whitman students has worked behind the scenes in recent months to breathe life into the Flying Fox Puppet Theater, a troupe that flavors its activist voice with puppet characters, comedy and music.

Art majors Katie Shook, Becca Dondlinger and Michelle Hannibal, along with music major Todd Trebour, gave a handful of shows during the fall semester, touching on a variety of volatile subjects, everything from political greed and persecution to ethnic prejudice and gender inequity.

Regardless of what they might say or do, however, puppets seldom strike a threatening chord with audiences. Perhaps because of their child-like nature, puppets have license to make statements that viewers tend to accept as thought-provoking rather than reject as offensive and alienating.

Shook, a junior from Spokane, Wash., was the driving force behind the idea of creating and then unleashing politically-active puppets on the Whitman campus. Her inspiration came from a month-long internship she enjoyed last summer at Vermont's renown Bread & Puppet Theatre, which was founded in 1963 by Germany's Peter Schumann, a sculptor, dancer and baker of bread.

"Becca, one of my roommates, was also interested in puppetry, so we started playing with the idea and writing scripts for shows," Shook says. "Todd and his musical talent were a great addition, and Michelle jumped in also. This is something that has been an entirely collaborative effort, and membership is really open to anyone who wants to help."

Whitman's puppeteers have crafted about a dozen puppets thus far, all of which either fit onto a hand or sprout from the top of a stick. "Becca made a really wonderful fox for our first show," Shook says. "Her name is Foxy. She's furry with a big fluffy tail and a papier-mache head. I love that one. Foxy also has a boyfriend named Brad."

Stockpiling puppets as they go, Shook and friends look forward to the day when each new show won't necessarily require creation of all-new puppets. "Making the puppets is a lot of fun, but it also can be very time-consuming," she says. "Eventually we'll have enough variety on hand to give shows without having to make new puppets each time."

For their Halloween show, Dondlinger, who hails from Edina, Minn., made a collection of jungle figures for a shadow puppet production. Painted cardboard has set the stage for performances given so far, but the group plans to build a more permanent and elaborate structure as time allows.

Flying Fox will continue its operations in the spring semester, although Shook will be in London taking classes sponsored by the Institute for the International Education of Students. Her schedule will include literature, theater and art classes, but she also hopes to intern at one of Britain's many puppet theaters that have descended from a Punch-and-Judy tradition that is centuries old.

While in London, Shook also plans to take workshops at a circus school. "I've studied dance and ballet since elementary school, and there is a chance I'll use performance as part of my senior art thesis. The movement found in circus acrobatics and the trapeze are complimentary, I think."

Shook, whose art interests range from drawing to painting to print-making, is giving thought to a senior thesis that combines two-dimensional art with performance. "One possibility is to create installation space that correlates with the ideas I'll be exploring with performance," she says. "We could have live performances in the installation space itself."

She also recognizes that her spring experiences in London may yet influence the ultimate direction of her senior thesis, as might an ambitious project she has pending with associate professor of theatre Deborah Holmes.

Backed by funding from the Abshire Research Scholar fund, Shook and Holmes will begin work next fall semester on a new theatre class, titled Mask and Character: An Experimental Theatre Project. Initial work will focus on research into the historical uses of mask in both ritual and performance, as well as an investigation of 20th century theater groups known for their physicality. By the end of that semester, Holmes and Shook will also finalize their class plan, order materials and secure workspace.

The class itself will debut in the 2002 spring semester and involve 12 students -- actors, artists, dancers and possibly musicians --in the creation of a performance piece. Each student will design and construct a mask and costume, a life-sized puppet, or an animated set piece that will act as a character on its own. Each student will also develop a physical life for his or her character, and then collaborate in creating a single scenario or storyline.

The class goal will be to present a preliminary piece at that spring's Undergraduate Research Conference, followed by performances of the finished piece during Commencement Weekend.

Whether Shook's Abshire project will weave its way into her senior thesis work remains to be seen. For now, there are many more immediate concerns looming.

After the holidays, Shook will fly to Connecticut on Jan. 3 to assist Eileen Doktorski, a visiting art professor at Whitman, with a show she is curating there. From the East Coast, she will fly to London for her spring term, which ends in early May. If circumstances unfold as she hopes, Shook then will spend most of May in Florence, Italy, assisting Linda Goodman, also a visiting art professor, with a print-making workshop.

And while many students might look forward to a summer of relaxation, Shook has her sights on summer classes at the University of Washington in Seattle. By finishing up a few distribution credits in the sciences, she figures to free more time for what promises to be an ultra-hectic senior year at Whitman.

With so many activities in the air for her senior year, in fact, Shook might be well advised to add juggling to the list of skills she plans to acquire next spring at one of London's circus schools.

Most seniors expect to have their hands full with final graduation requirements. Yet Shook may be unique as she hits her collegiate stretch run, one hand immersed in a theater class she helped create, and the other hand giving life to a merry band of fun-loving, politically-astute puppets.