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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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