Break on through (to the puppet side)


Special To The Japan Times

It is often said that truly gifted teachers make their subject matter come to life. Jesse Glass has taken that concept to a new level by asking his students to take literary characters off the page and dance them about the room.

So in this professor’s classes you might find a thigh-high likeness of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus bragging of his scholarly accomplishments and enormous intelligence to the delight of a group of highly attentive students, as follows:

“How I wish old Archimedes could come back from the dead for a debate. Or Aristotle! I’d show Aristotle who knows what about what! I’m the smartest man in all of Wittenberg, all Germany, all Europe, the whole world! I want to know more! How can I learn more?”

The student controlling Faustus receives feedback and encouragement from his classmates and professor, fiddles with the puppet’s strings, laughs happily, and continues with his recitation.

Another group rehearses lines from a scene that will see each one assume the role of one of the seven deadly sins. Still another group surrounds a table, thoroughly engrossed in the process of drawing and coloring a large sheet of paper that will serve as backdrop scenery within the puppet theater.

After Faustus exits the classroom, the seven sins take the stage, each behind a grotesque wooden mask. One by one they recite the lines they’d been rehearsing. In an impressively confident and convincingly salacious voice, one of the students states:

“I’ll be the host

Of girl and boy parties where kissing’s expected

If you make Lust your friend, with desire you’re infected

Now raise your right hand and repeat after me

I will, if I can, live to love Lechery.”

In an atmosphere abuzz with activity and enthusiasm, and with poetic English fluttering about seemingly effortlessly, it is easy to forget that the language these students at Meikai University in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, are speaking isn’t their native tongue.

And with the camaraderie and excitement so evidently in the air, one wonders if Glass’ innovative method of using puppetry to teach language and literature to students of a different culture is nothing short of an educational breakthrough.

“There was a push to open up the English Department here to new ideas and new methods of teaching, so the idea of puppet theaters came to mind and I thought it would be a perfect way to get students interested in literature, and not only literature, but to improve their English skills in a practical way,” the 57-year-old U.S.-born academic explained.

“I’m a believer in doing something in an experiential manner over just a purely lecturing manner,” he continued.

“Working together to set up a puppet theater, working together to learn, not only intellectually but to learn with your whole body the story of Faust or Gilgamesh, and speaking English to each other in practical ways like ‘hand me that screwdriver’ or ‘would you please change these strings on this puppet?’ — all these things make for a very hands-on English-learning experience.

“It’s a whole arc from the theoretical, the intellectual, and the cultural all the way to the very basic and practical. It’s more an experience to live within a story than to learn about a story.”

True to Glass’ vision, the group of students designing scenery communicate even the most banal banter in English. “Can you hand me that green marker,” says one, while another asks, “What color should we make these mountains?”

Though still in its first year, the Meikai puppetry program looks set to be part of the curriculum for years to come. The puppets themselves were handcrafted in Prague and draw so much interest from students that in addition to the upperclassmen enrolled in the course, a club was started by first- and second-year students eager to try their hand at animating the world-class works of art. The deadly sins masks, as well as the intricate woodcarving that borders the stage, were also made by the same Czech artisans.

Glass personally went to Prague to meet the puppet-makers. Of that trip the 19-year resident of Japan recalls, “I met a wonderful family. All of them are very gifted artists. Many of the puppets were specifically made for our projects, which is very nice. The man of the family is the woodcarver and his wife sews the costumes. All the puppets are carved from linden wood, which is also known as lemon wood, so they smell nice, too. We have about 20 puppets in all.”

Happily for Glass, his colleagues at Meikai couldn’t be more supportive. Prof. Yuji Nishiyama, head of the English Language Department, was eager to sing the puppetry program’s praises when he declared, “I think it’s a really interesting enterprise. Puppet theater isn’t so popular in Japan, so for lots of students it’s their first time to see these kinds of puppets and have this experience.”

In addition, Nishiyama pointed out that, “It’s purely Western. It’s very important for us to understand Western culture, in particular very traditional culture, like the story of Faust or other folk traditions. This is a very good chance for our students to have such an experience, so in that sense it’s not just an enterprise but a very deeply academic one. I really appreciate Dr. Glass’ work.”

One need only read the title of Glass’ original script titled “Faustus and the Golden Keitai” to see that this production in not content with merely exposing its participants to Marlowe’s classic tale first published in 1604, 11 years after its author’s death. Instead, the work strives to convey to them just how much the story’s timeless themes are still relevant to their daily lives now.

“Keitai” is the Japanese word for “cell phone,” and this beloved technology plays a critical role in what happens to Faustus this time around. The text is sprinkled with many other references to contemporary Japanese life, but Glass is also quick to employ traditional methods of Japanese theater throughout the presentation.

The use of masks was inspired by noh and kabuki, and part of the performance also uses kamishibai, the ancient art of storytelling using a series of drawings.

Meanwhile, the program booklet includes the original English script as well as a Japanese translation. As they will on occasion perform to mixed non-English-speaking and English-speaking audiences, it is essential the students learn their lines in both languages.

Glass has fondly dubbed the students involved with the program the Meikai Puppet Buddies. Here’s what a few of them had to say about the experience thus far:

Chihomi Yoshizawa (second year) — “I feel I’m learning a lot about the body language of native English-speakers. English uses much more intonation than Japanese and manipulating my puppet’s arms, legs and head to correspond with intonation has given me a much deeper understanding of the role that gestures and movement play in communication.”

Akinori Fukai (fourth year) — “Even though Japanese students begin studying English in the first year of junior high school, we are never really encouraged to use English to freely express our emotions.

“Through puppetry I’m learning to align words and feelings for first time. Also, in another of my classes I’m learning the importance of studying Western history and culture as a foundation for mastering the English language. Professor Glass’ class lets me put that notion into practice.”

Yuichi Takaura (fourth year) — “Just reading the script helps my speaking skills, and it’s nice to read English dialogue. I knew this story from a previous literature class. I’d originally studied it in Japanese and I’ve been interested in how elements of the Faust tale appear in many kinds of stories, books and movies. I enjoy trying to find these connections. So I’m very happy to be a member of this class.”

The Meikai Puppet Buddies will perform “Faustus and the Golden Keitai” at the Meikai University Cultural Festival on Nov. 4, 5 and 6. The festival is open to the public and there will be performances in both English and Japanese.