Puppets break down the barriers

2 Denham St, Hawthorn, 1983
Polyglot Theatre

ARTICLE – Weekender, Friday 18 March 1983

Written by Elizabeth Wilson

They sit cross-legged on the floor, one hundred and fifty primary school children, absorbed in a puppet show which incorporates seven languages. Do they understand it?

Certainly. And when they don’t, they are bright (and curious) enough to ask one another.

“What did he say? What did he say?”

Heads turn and elbows nudge those children in the group who might understand. Migrant children find themselves suddenly translating – with pride – to their classmates. Local children feel (even momentarily) what it is like not to understand.

For six years the Polyglot Puppet Theatre has performed in Victorian primary schools and kindergartens and last year it toured South Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, ACT and Tasmania.

Its philosophy is simple: to develop in young children an awareness of various ethnic groups and of their contributions in the community.

The company’s executive director, Naomi Tippett, says: “We aim to foster self-esteem in all children through a sense of belonging, competence and worth.

“Respect for another’s language plays a primary part in this. A young child identifies very strongly with the language his parents speak. If we denigrate that language in any way, we are, in effect, saying that we do not respect his parents. This could have serious implications for the child’s relationships in the family.

“We want to develop, even in very young children, a dignified awareness of their social and cultural origins. A child needs to feel secure in both the Australian and the ethnic culture.

The Polyglot group has insisted on quality production since it began. “We employ only professional puppet-makers and our scripts are written by Dorothy Rickards, a former lecturer in drama and puppetry at the Institute of Early Childhood Development,” says Naomi Tippett.

While great care is taken to make national costumes representative, Polyglot avoids stereotyping national groups. Instead, it emphasizes a story of participation towards a common goal.

The characters include the traditional Turkish hodja, or wise man; a charming Spanish painter called Conchita who wears a flounced flamenco skirt; Juliano, a little Serbo-Croat girl, and many others.

Central to all the plays is a magical Star Child. This character is neither fat, nor thin, dark nor fair, male nor female. Through various adventures this little creature is helped by friends of many cultures. The puppets speak in their own languages throughout the play while the Star Child, who understands them all, responds in English and helps children to follow the story.

Polyglot’s audiences are made up of children from many backgrounds. In some schools there are children from as many as 26 countries. “We even found one class with children of 19 nationalities,” says Naomi Tippett.

‘This diversity presents an enormous challenge to teachers and a great deal depends on their enthusiasm and commitment to helping each child toward self-respect and respect for others.”

Polyglot performances are just a starting point for children trying to understand one another’s culture. The group also offers activity kits and wall posters which can be used later by teachers. They include a whole range of ideas, charts and games to help children share their customs and cultures with their peers. The kits contain different material each year and follow an educational theme.

“At each puppet show children are encouraged to join in the fun,” explains Naomi Tippett. “We clap those who stand up and contribute in their own language or who respond to questions in another language. All the time we are showing that language is just an individual method of expression. It does not demonstrate fundamental differences between people.”

After the show, children are invited to see and handle the puppets and their different reactions are interesting to watch. Often, reserved children find with the puppet on their hand, they can say things they could not when speaking for themselves.

The puppets for the latest Polyglot production, “Star’s Rainbow”, are being made by a talented young puppet-maker from Poland, Jolanta Maciolek, who worked for 13 years with the Arikin Puppet Theatre in Lodz.

The Polyglot Theatre was established through an Innovations Grant from the Schools Commission. It is a non-profit-making organization and is assisted by the Australia Council and the Victorian Ministry of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs. For the past six years it has survived on its box office takings and funds have been used to develop new programmes.

If you would like the Polyglot Theatre to perform at a school or family day, the rates are arranged on a sliding scale. Melbourne metropolitan schools: $110, $210, $310; Victorian country schools: $120; interstate schools: $125; Melbourne kindergartens: $75. The performances can be in English, or in English and a combination of other languages depending on the needs of the school. The languages include Spanish, Turkish, Arabic, Greek, Serbo-Croat, Italian, German, Maltese and Vietnamese. The cost of a performance includes sets of activities kits.

Where and when
For information, contact Polyglot Puppets, Creative School Holiday Club, 2 Denham Street, Hawthorn, 3122. Telephone 818 1512 from 10am to noon.

First Theatre in Schools Preview Programme for 1983: 21 to 25 March at the Drama Resource Centre, 117 Bouverie Street, Carlton. For bookings, contact Sue Galley, telephone 347 4602.