The puppet master

HANAPEPE — Imagination, said Mark Jeffers, the executive director of Storybook Theatre, is a muscle you have to exercise. 

“If you don’t use it, it atrophies,” he said. “The kumu hula say that if you can’t imagine your future, you won’t have one.”

Storybook Theatre recently received a $20,000 grant to study and spread the value of fostering imagination and effective early education. 

With a lifelong passion for early childhood learning, Jeffers used a previously awarded $17,000 contract from the Governor’s Office of Early Learning and through the UH foundation to videotape and study childhood learning.

“We shot 20 hours of video inside four Hawaii preschools,” he said. “Then we edited them down to five videos that educate and demonstrate five areas of child development; cognitive, social, emotional and physical approaches to learning.”

The result is a series of educational videos about how children learn. They will be presented to parents and educators at various locations across the island starting in the fall. 

“Generationally, we want to affect the future,” Jeffers said. “We know the value of the early years. Some 80 percent of adult intelligence is established by the time a child enters preschool. Young children learn from their experiences through trial and error. Their successes become the basis for their conduct, emotional foundations and conceptual development. All children want very much to succeed.”

During Jeffers’ 18 years as a preschool teacher, he saw the value of nurturing the imaginations of children. That has been his driving force in the development of Storybook Theatre. For him, the dream began when he was 12 years old. 

“My aunty took me to see Mr. Rogers at WQED – TV in Pittsburgh,” Jeffers recalled. “That’s when I knew this kind of thing was possible.” 

Convinced that simple sets and props allow a child’s imagination to fill in the blanks of a story, he converted a 1933 building in Hanapepe into a home for puppets to come alive and for children to play and learn organically. 

Jeffers’ puppetry fascination was partially inspired by Kermit Love, the legendary originator of the Kermit the Frog Muppets character. During summers in the 1970s, while Jeffers attended the Oahu college in the children’s theatre department, he studied with Love and another famous puppet master, Caroll Spinney, who made The Sesame Street character Big Bird come to life. 

Jeffers said he vividly remembers the awkward hand movements used by Spinney to operate the oversized yellow bird. But the summer workshops were filled with other imaginative lessons.

“We worked in the costume shop together where it was bedlam and the most imaginative place possible,” said Jeffers,  who holds a master’s degree in early education from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “There were tons of materials, 20 hot glue guns and contact cement everywhere.” 

The result of their workshops was a show where Jeffers entered the stage atop stilts while wearing a chef hat. His job was to pull gigantic noodles from the lip of a bowl that had 2,000 noodles glued onto it by students. Love played the master chef. Besides performing with Love, Jeffers said both Love and Spinney allowed him to see into the personality of a puppeteer. 

“Putting your persona into a thing like a puppet is like playing God in a way,” Jeffers said. “It is like breathing life into something.”

Today, Jeffers and other like-minded puppeteers literally use their hands and their imaginations to bring a mongoose, rooster, dog, and owl to life – puppets created to stimulate the imaginations of children just as Jeffers was inspired when he was a child. 

Their next scheduled Storybook Theatre Event will be the Hiccup Circus this weekend. 

 

Lisa Ann Capozzi, a features and education reporter can be reached at lcapozzi@thegardenisland.com.

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