Ethnic puppet show helps school children

Victoria, Australia, 1978
Polyglot Theatre

ARTICLE – New Idea, 22 July 1978

Written by Janet McIntosh

A play with a definite cosmopolitan flavor cleverly gives children an insight into the different cultures and lifestyles which exist in Australia’s contemporary society.

His hands are little gloves in the Italian national colours, his feet little shoes of the Spanish flamenco dancer, his hat a tiny Turkish turban and his body round from eating Greek cakes is tied with an embroidered Serbo-Croatian belt.

He is the central character of the Polyglot Puppet Theatre’s production – The Good Friends – which is touring Victorian primary schools.

The story revolves around a small creature from outer space – a five pointed star – who arrives on earth asking: “Who and where am I?”

He meets a cat called Mog who tells him to come and meet his friends. The English-speaking Mog acts as a mediator, taking him around the various ethnic communities where he sees something typical of each nationality and receives symbolic gifts.

Through these gifts he finds his feet, hands, head, body and his own identity.

“In the end he gets the sort of identity he wants,” executive producer, Naomi Tippett, said.

“Proving that everyone has a language worth listening to, and everyone has something to offer. We hope it will teach respect for self, others and the world around.”

Puppet-makers, Patricia Mullins – who in 1975 received a travel grant to study puppetry overseas – and Virginia Mort, spent three months making the 17 glove and rod puppets.

The enchanting characters are a combination of traditional and modern aspects of six different cultures: Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Serbo-Croatian and Italian.

Nasareddin, the Hodja, a traditional Turkish character illustrated in many children’s books, is a “wise fool”, and the Italian love of celebration is epitomised in an Italian wedding with lots of fun and music.

The show helps to prove the double world standard with the traditional Green grandmother, as many children see her, dressed all in black, while her grand-daughter wears an Australian school uniform.

Only three manipulators handle the puppets in the 50-minute show, but it is a culmination of 30 very experienced people working behind the scenes.

They have been involved in creating and choreographing the puppets, collecting, writing and taping traditional music and making the 2.4 metre (8ft.) collapsible stage.

The script was translated from English by the Ethnic Education Department, considered more sensitively attuned to the needs of children.

It then had to be transliterated, to read as English phonetic spelling so that the manipulators could understand it and work the puppets from the sounds of the words.

Formed through the Australia Council’s Creative School Holiday Club, the Polyglot Theatre received grants totaling $17,000 in 1977 to go ahead with its ambitious production.

This provides for the initial outlay and the theatre hopes to earn $500 a week from the schools.

Naomi hopes it will reach as many children as possible. “When you spend that sort of money you have to get mileage out of it,” she said.