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The power of puppetry

Puppets can help us have difficult conversations

By Carolyn Pogue

Project Ploughshares once asked me to write a puppet script. Ploughshares is a Canadian non-profit that researches and teaches peace. At the time, their Puppets for Peace program hired professionals to give school presentations. Crucial work.

I thought hard about their request to write a play that would help kids act when they witness bullying. And I remembered a story that haunts me to this day. I wrote Birds of a Feather, a story about Guatemalan-born Luke, Egyptian-born Amal and Canadian-born Erin, typical Canadian Grade 4 students. Luke is worried when he witnesses playground violence, but believes he can’t do anything about it. A magpie, seeing Luke’s dilemma, breaks into human-speak to encourage him to think through possibilities for action. Birds was performed in several Alberta schools.

Photo by Carolyn Pogue
Photo by Carolyn Pogue
The story that drove the script was one I had heard in a Salvadorian village. My husband Bill, moderator of the United Church at the time, had been invited to commemorate Archbishop Oscar Romero (assassinated in 1980) and to listen to stories of war, courage and hope. I joined him and packed a puppet named Jack, although I’m no puppeteer.

Arriving at a village school, I excused myself to use the washroom. I headed to a cement outhouse, but was quickly redirected. When I rejoined the group, they were standing before that cement outhouse. It had been decorated with flowers and votive candles. A large photo of Romero hung inside. Village women were telling the story of what had happened during the war. Suspecting that rebel collaborators lived there, the militia approached the village through the thick jungle one morning, entered the school and murdered the children. They then hacked the bodies and stuffed some of them down the latrines.

I don’t know what happened in the group after that story was told and the tears were shed, because I backed away quietly and stood apart so that I could breathe. Eventually, I heard children’s laughter nearby. I sank to the ground, unzipped my backpack and took out Jack, my furry, long-limbed puppet. I suppose I was in shock; Jack saved me. Curious, the children approached, accompanied by a teacher. In their hands, Jack spoke Spanish fluently.

Part of that story found its way into my script for two reasons. I had been a literacy volunteer at a local school through Scarboro United in Calgary. There, I met children who had survived war. One girl wanted me to meet her mom, a landmine victim with a prosthetic foot. Secondly, I was then discovering the power of puppetry. Puppets can say what humans find too difficult.

Last month, I attended a conference brilliantly entitled “Puppet Power: The Fearless Face of Puppetry,” presented by Calgary’s W.P. Puppet Theatre. There, I listened to Martin Robinson, Sesame Street’s Mr. Snuffleupagus. Today, he helps production teams in countries like Cambodia set up culturally appropriate versions of the American show.

Other presenters use puppets to help kids grieve. Many presenters were adult-focussed, teaching about parenting skills, female genital mutilation, sexual abuse and the link between breast cancer and the health of Earth. Puppeteers without Borders lead life-giving workshops in Kenya, Israel, Central and North America.

At the end of the Birds script, Magpie says, “I admire humans very much when you try to work things out. You can actually make progress that way.” May it be so.


Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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