Puppets build spirit and release pent-up feelings

by Angela Jeffs

Speaking from personal experience, Heather Goodwin believes that puppets can speak for human beings in ways that lead to improved health and confidence — indeed, improvement all round. Heather teaches puppetry at Emerson College in Sussex, south of London in the U.K., and she will be in Tokyo this month to introduce Waldorf-style puppetry — a uniquely European art form — to Japan.

Waldorf education was founded by the Austrian anthroposophist Rudolf Steiner, and stresses the spiritual growth of every individual. Now recognized worldwide, there is a Steiner school in Tokyo and other educational facilities throughout Japan.

Emerson College is an international center for adult education based on the work of Steiner. Students aged from 18 to 80 from all over the world attend courses and trainings in Waldorf teacher training, biodynamic agriculture, foundation studies, visual arts, sculpture, storytelling, creative writing, English, puppetry and the orientation program for 18- to 24-year-olds.

Arriving in early June under Liane Wakabayashi’s “Grunt and Howl Puppet Theater” banner, which seeks to establish a growing puppetry presence in Tokyo’s foreign community and beyond, Heather will provide a rare opportunity to study serious puppetry (craftsmanship and manipulation of puppets) in English in the capital for parents, teachers, therapists, teenagers and children. “I hope it will provide a doorway for me to make future trips here, even encourage other puppeteers to visit.”

Heather will give a puppet show and facilitate a children’s workshop on June 11 at Yoyogi Furiai Kaikan. Sunday June 12 will be the first day of the three-full-day “Biography Emerging” puppetry workshop (open to everyone but especially beneficial for parents and their teens, teachers, therapists and artists), which will continue on Saturday the 18th and end on Sunday the 19th.

Born in the suburbs of Nairobi, Kenya, Heather and her three siblings were taught to read and write at home in the wild of Kenya and Tanzania by their mother. “When I was 7, I was packed off to boarding school in Arusha, then four years later to England. Attending a school for ‘young ladies’ was not my idea of fun.”

Later she studied at London’s Westminster Catering College, which is where she met her husband. “I followed Francis to sea on Shell oil tankers, which was where our son Justin was conceived.” Her third child, Jonny, is 22 years younger than his sister Michelle and just 5 months older than his nephew — “our first grandchild!”

With Francis away at sea, schooling became “an interesting research.” Luckily Heather found a Rudolf Steiner/Waldorf School close by the family home. “The fact that they could go from preschool to age 18 seemed to provide just the good solid grounding we were looking for.”

At the same time, Heather applied to Emerson College but found that none of the courses would fit in with a busy mother’s routine. It was not until 1983 that she was able to take part-time Foundation Year studies. By this time she had enough experience of Waldorf Education to know there is a strong healing element in the way the curriculum is set out and followed through.

Beginning her studies, Heather decided to help pay off future fees by working, and where better than in Emerson’s kitchen. She stayed eight years, enabled to pick up her children from school and go home; then as time passed and their school days became longer, she began to take afternoon craft courses.

Making her first puppet was momentous. Just turned 40, she collapsed one day and ended up in a hospital. Recovered sufficiently to go back to work, a friend (now a colleague) breezed through the kitchen and said that what Heather needed to do to rebuild her health was to make a puppet. “So I did, and continue to do so.”

Puppetry work at Emerson began with Roswitha Spence, who had worked with Francis Edmunds, the founder of the college. She was asked to make puppets after creating and handling her first one, Max, as a playful research project.

Since then, hundreds of students from all over the world have seen puppets come into being in their own hands. As to puppetry in classrooms, the benefits are immeasurable. It focuses the attention of children with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and similar challenges, motivating them to learn. Children at schools that systematically use puppets score higher on aptitude tests.

Children who are learning English (or Japanese) as a second language can be greatly assisted by having puppets to support or encourage speaking. While those who are shy, withdrawn or suffering from other stresses, which they might not otherwise know how to communicate, can be helped and healed through puppetry — a holistic art that can embrace many disciplines simultaneously: art, drama, literature, history, foreign languages, creative writing, science, mythology, the study of foreign cultures and religions, for example.

Heather has been much inspired by this approach in educational puppetry research, trying to understand how it can serve us, and making herself available to further its curative properties and effects any way she can. “After making my first puppet, Sophie, puppetry work in my own life became a powerful force. My health improved. I became pregnant a third time.”

Jonny went along to many of his mother’s classes and often slept in the loft whilst they continued downstairs. One day, while students were making large puppets, he lay down on the table next to a puppet waiting for its strings. When the student returned, she was puzzled to find two puppets, one moving without strings!

Besides being a marvelous source of entertainment, the educational potential that puppetry provides as a spiritual discipline is fascinating. Both Heather and Liane hope that Emerson’s approach will help us all realize that puppets provide a safe outlet for pent up feelings, enabling adults and children alike to say things in their hearts that might otherwise get choked off.