I first met Joanne Oussoren and Frans Hakkemars of Droomtheater in Hong Kong, where we had gathered for Mingri Theatre Company’s Puppetry in Education conference. There, even amongst a crowd of other puppeteers, we repeatedly found ourselves in conversations. Perhaps it was because of their similar interests in puppetry as a vehicle for passing on cultural inheritance or our shared love of ancient forms of theatre. Most likely, I suspect is was simply their open and inquisitive nature that drew me to them.
As community artists working often in their own neighborhoods in and around the burgeoning working-class metropolis of Rotterdam, Holland, they saw added complexity to the questions we were asking about traditions, inheritance and heritage as their immigrant population continues to swell. We went our separate ways after just a few days, looking for future ways to put our questions into practice.
Fast-forward to November 2012 and I find myself across from Joanne and Frans at the breakfast table in Holland. We’re still heavy in conversation, but this time over toast with chocolate sprinkles and an impressive array of cheeses. Our dream of a collaboration was made real with generous funding from both private and public Netherlands entities and we’re anxious to get started.
Joanne and Frans have envisioned a program to fully involve the children of Feijnoord (a small township in the city of Rotterdam) in a cultural story important to Holland: Sinterklaas and his carnival of animals. I’m here to guide the creation of this story within a simplified Chinese shadow style, accessible for ages 5-14. The children begin with shadow puppet design and creation, then rehearsal and finally a performance for the community. By letting the children become apart of every step of the process, we believe that this will deepen the embodiment of the story and enrich the learning experience.
Of all the iterations of our workshops, the most exciting was working in Feijnoord’s private afterschool program with children ages 6-12. The township of Feijnoord is a historically popular place for new immigrants with its low rent and convenient proximity to the city center. Currently, 80% of the township’s population is non-Dutch, with most of the immigrants coming in from Turkey and Morocco.
The afterschool program is a rare hold over from decades past – their building awkwardly stuck right in between rows of traditional Dutch apartments.
As the clock strikes three, dozens of kids speaking a myriad of languages stream into the waiting activities of the able-bodied volunteers. This time, we’ve got shadow puppets for them.
And while these puppets may not look anything like the puppets I’ve been researching for 4 years, they are inherently Chinese in design and engineering. We’ve developed a simplified method of using permanent markers on clear plastic so that kids don’t have to spend five years mastering leather cutting before they can make a great shadow puppet. The control rods and joint methods are all faithfully Chinese. I wonder if all this newness will derail their energy – it doesn’t. They don’t even hesitate – there is an appetite here. They dive in, mistakes and all and create some of the most alive puppets I’ve seen yet.
I’ve often been ‘warned’ about the ‘chaotic nature’ of such groups but I never find it to be thus. Yes, they’re awfully loud and yes, it’s hard to keep them on track sometimes, yes. But, truly, it’s only kids being kids in the best way possible – fully. I’m much more disconcerted when I see children so well behaved that they’re afraid to color outside of the lines. This paralytic fear of wrongness and failure are a much more serious problem.
I could go on and on here about the necessity of arts in a child’s development and how tests and data prove that the arts help children excel in all other fields but I won’t. I’m just going to say that at its most fundamental level, the arts erase the right/wrong binary and encourage the infinite possibilities of everything. I strongly believe that in the near future we’re going to need more creative and empathic thinkers than good chart readers.
After just an hour and a half of managing the chaos, the kids funnel out as fast as they funneled in and for a moment we are left in the loud silence. I am exhausted but smiling. It’s clear that these kids, with their unflinching ability to move forward – mistakes and all – are ready for anything. And now, they have shadow puppetry in their arsenal.
Joanne and Frans and I pack up, talk to the volunteers and smush into the van once more. We head home for a supper of fresh Marrakech sausages from the nearby Moroccan butcher and some typical Dutch mashed potatoes and greens. Over the fading daylight, we crowd closer and closer to the warm table lamps – preparing the next workshop’s materials and jotting down our thoughts.
They’ll continue rehearsing after I’m gone and prepare for a final performance by the kids, for the community. The project comes full circle this way. The shadow puppet revolution is closer than ever.
After a week or so of this routine, we catch ourselves – it seems as though I’ve been here all along, we’ve been friends all along, we’ve been doing this all along. Weirder still is that this is a reoccurring feeling I get when connecting with fellow puppeteers around the globe. As the web gets larger, the feeling gets more intimate. I can’t wait to get back.
Thanks for reading~