A triumph of puppet power

After decades of conflict, Afghanistan is littered with land mines - and its children are the most likely to be killed or injured. But now the creators of The Muppet Show are teaching them how to play safe. By Rosie Waller
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The Independent Online

Michael Frith is the man who invented Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie Bear. He's an eloquent, surprisingly intellectual figure with a white beard and a particular way of saying "wonderful". Not exactly a Prospero, but his family have lived on Bermuda - the island that may have inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest - since the 17th century.

He met and fell in love with the puppeteer Kathy Mullen 25 years ago while working on The Muppet Show. They are now of retirement age. Their apartment on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan has a scattering of Frith's original sketches of Muppet scenes on its walls, and here and there a pile of Beaker puppets, but the Muppets have been sold to Disney and the chirpy days of creative mayhem in London are long over.

Kathy and Michael are now focused on a remarkable new project in Afghanistan. Sometime before Christmas, security permitting, they will hand over a new puppet show they have created, to be performed by a specially trained company of Afghan actors and storytellers. The actors will travel the length and breadth of an immense country where there are 10 million land mines, and where children live in constant danger of being injured or killed by the legacy of decades of conflict.

After September 11, as America went after Osama bin Laden, Kathy and Michael were wondering what two puppeteers could do to help the Afghans. By a coincidence they now see as destiny, they met Johnie McGlade, an emergency aid worker who, while working in feeding centres in the world's most wretched outposts, had found a scruffy rabbit puppet his most useful tool. It would bring smiles to the faces of people who had lived through earthquakes, hunger or genocide.

Seamus the puppet had finally collapsed when McGlade's mother put him through the wash. McGlade's flatmate at the time was the niece of Kathy Mullen, who was one of the principal Muppet creators and animators. He asked his flatmate if Mullen could fix Seamus.

"We would have dinner with friends of ours, all these brilliant creative minds, people from Disney, and everyone was on the same track," Frith says. "Afghanistan, Afghanistan. But what? There was so much focus on New York, yet also the feeling that the world had deserted the Afghans. Ideas were thrown around, we tried to get a few things going. But we really didn't have the big thing that clicked."

When Mullen got the call to fix Seamus, she said of course she would: she'd make McGlade five brand-new puppets if he wanted. At the time, McGlade was actually in Afghanistan with the agency War Child. When he finally spoke to Mullen five months later, it was to say that what he really wanted were some puppets that could teach children there about the danger of land mines.

The idea galvanised Frith and Mullen. No Strings (www.no-strings.net) came into being, a non-governmental organisation that would deliver life-saving educational messages through puppetry, in the form of live shows in countries such as Afghanistan (where children have little access to television), and through films of the shows that could be played across Iraq, for example, where there are also huge numbers of land mines, unexploded ordnance and cluster bombs. Next year No Strings will focus on HIV/Aids, taking a show to Africa where, again, the puppets will be handed to people who will be taught how to use them.

"People think the idea is cute, though maybe a bit light," McGlade says, "but we've already taken one or two puppets out there, and when you see this incredible reaction, with crowds of children appearing within minutes of a puppet's arrival, and then you remember the Muppets and their effect on a whole generation, you realise that they're an incredibly powerful tool. The show is funny and hugely engaging, but the lessons it puts forward are ones that will keep the children alive.

"What we aim to do in Afghanistan is to go in for a period of time through a local group which is already dealing with mine clearance, and provide a selection of people with training so that the whole thing becomes theirs," McGlade says.

"It's the locals who will put on the show and take it around the country. So it's almost like an outreach project, with the puppets going into areas with no radio, where some people don't even know what a television is, and where there are no real means of getting these vitally important safety messages across. These children don't even have a word for land mines. So just telling them that their grandfather's field over there is mined is gibberish."

The actor and voice of Bob the Builder, Neil Morrissey, is a patron. He accompanied McGlade on their successful mission in Afghanistan to persuade the authorities to implement the project. "These puppets have to be the most effective communication tool I've ever come across," Morrissey says. "Very often, it is the children who are sent to collect firewood, fetch water and look after livestock, which is where the danger is. Several types of these mines are temptingly bright in colour. Knowing that they should never touch them, and that they must avoid certain places, will help to prevent the daily tragedies, with children losing their legs or being killed."

Frith's prime thrust as a children's entertainer has always been educational. He was once a creator and illustrator of Dr Seuss books, and met the late Jim Henson, the principal founder of the Muppets and Sesame Street, while working on the Cat in the Hat series.

"My daughter was friendly with his, and she took me to see a production. There was this huge yellow bird walking down the street. The Sesame Street concept was a lot about what I was doing in publishing, and Henson asked me, 'How would you like to design some characters for me?' Eventually, I made the move to TV."

He met Mullen, and they worked together on the Muppets and The Muppet Movie, among other things. They then created Fraggle Rock, basing their underground world on the Crystal Caves explored by Frith during his Bermuda childhood.

The challenge of the Afghan project was that they knew nothing of the country's culture or the parameters in which they could work. They befriended a couple who had grown up in Afghanistan as children and who went back whenever possible. They remembered seeing puppeteers travelling the land when they were small. They described the characters in Afghan folklore they were familiar with, and gave feedback on cultural sensitivities. Still, it was hard to know how to develop the show: whether it should be didactic, like Sesame Street with its learning songs, or story-based. Given the Afghan tradition of storytelling, they decided the latter was more appropriate.

"Within the story, there would be some straightforward lectures to our little hero about what he should and shouldn't do," Mullen says. "He has adventures and is affected by land mines. Because of the seriousness of the message, it was going to be hard, however we presented it, but somehow we had to get around it."

Pinocchio - half boy and half puppet, so he could lose his legs and regain them - provided the answer. Someone suggested that he should be made of carpet: a little carpet boy whose weaver grandmother has lost all her family to war and land mines, and who must learn how to avoid those dangers himself before he can become a real boy. "Where are you going on those fine legs of yours?" ChucheQhalin, or Little Carpet Boy, is asked by the two evil jinns who want him to look for treasure for them in old houses or disused fields.

In Connecticut this summer, at the annual Eugene O'Neill Puppetry Conference, McGlade joined Mullen, Frith and a team of volunteers to make a 45-minute video of the show, which will be used to teach children until the funding is in place to set up the puppet theatre. Filming takes two weeks in a wooden 18th-century New England barn.

The result is astonishing: a mountainous realm inhabited by fantastical puppets, one of whom, the Deew, an old Persian genie, is 30ft tall. The rough edits have the same magical essence as the worlds of the Muppets and Fraggle Rock. If anything, the puppets are more engaging. They are certainly more elaborate, though they have been designed so that anyone can pick them up and bring them to life regardless of experience.

"It has to be as performable as possible," Frith says. "Even now, after making the video, they are showing signs of use. Out there in the bus in Afghanistan they will take a huge battering." There is a lot of humour: even a burqa is used (after consultation) as the basis of a funny moment. "Humour is what we do," Frith says. "It's fun, and it attracts a broader spectrum of people. The kids feel reinforced because the adults are enjoying it, and there are a lot of adults who need to learn these lessons too."

The Little Carpet Boy and his friends will almost certainly be the first puppets their young Afghan audience will have seen, with any representation of the human form banned by the Taliban regime. The show will spill out from the bus that carries it from village to village, and children and their parents will be treated to something they will never forget - spellbinding colour and belly laughs, in a world where there is one land mine buried just beneath the surface for every two people who live there.

So there is pathos for Western eyes: a lovely show, at first, but also a humbling and brutal insight into everyday reality for these children. "Never go where the grass has grown thick over paths, or pick up a plastic or metal object, no matter how old or how interesting," the Storyteller summarises as Chuchi is replaced by a real boy.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, McGlade, Mullen and Frith have some other objectives. "Under the Taliban, music was banned, kite-flying was banned - of all things - and much of the country's cultural heritage was trampled on, including the touring puppet shows," Frith says. "One of the fabulous things about puppetry is that it's a combination of all the arts - puppet-making, painting, dance, music, singing. When you reintroduce an art form to a culture, you bring all these disciplines with it.

"We hope that when we have taken this in, it will flourish and become a whole new experience and a way of life for people who would not otherwise have had the opportunity to relearn these traditional skills. Maybe puppetry will have a revival there. Using these puppets as a base, we think they could do their own stories and styles, and maybe as they advance they can do it on television," Frith says.

Mullen adds: "We're hoping that there might be an opportunity to use these characters and sets to do short filmed pieces, like public-service announcements, that can bring very specific messages to kids in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. What we will probably do is get a couple of people there who are really good and who really want to do it and train them more fully.

"We don't just mean with land mines, but with the more difficult knock-on effects of war, like childhood trauma. These kids are growing up as damaged people, and not just physically. I've been working with puppets for 35 years, and we know that through puppets you can reach children in ways you often just can't as an adult.

"Puppets are unthreatening and non-judgemental: they're not a human face. An adult with a puppet has all the understanding a child requires, but none of the threat and authority a child might associate with the adult. We know through their use in therapy and counselling that children will tell a puppet things they'd never tell an adult. You can even get through to a child in mid-tantrum with a puppet. Think what you can achieve by way of teaching simple safety lessons."