Groupwork using puppets

Michelle Linger was a child care worker at Friedrich Schweizer Children's Home in Cape Town.

My involvement with puppets began with the realisation that so many of our children in children's homes are spiritual orphans and the knowledge that their involvement with a form of celluloid fantasy ďspecifically puppets ďmight offer them an emotional support ďa fixed point to take roots. When Jill Fletcher, a professional puppeteer, offered her help and home as mentor and venue to a group of our children, our own form of protest theatre was formed ďa place where the children could effectively express themselves through their puppets.

I think the choice of puppetry specifically as a form of therapy had a distinct advantage as it includes all the aspects of the child's fantasy life: speech, sight and action, thus proving the ideal medium. The group consisted of six eight- to ten- year-olds and we met on a weekly basis. The use of glove puppets seemed most suitable as these particular puppets are more direct and convincing.

I have for a while now been intrigued by the suffering of children removed from their homes and who, when placed in children's homes, are isolated from their surreal world. Pain is omnipresent and when it comes down to fundamentals they must know that they are ultimately alone. Obtaining a theme for our puppet sessions was therefore obvious ď"Why am I here?"

The answer was still a long way off, in fact still is ďperhaps will remain forever buried in files, in rejection and hopelessness, but our first tentative steps towards coping with this was to introduce the magical characters who would help bear the difficulties in life, and enhance the depressing effect of their surroundings. Jill and I helped the children to make "mouth puppets" from paper plates, materials and odds and ends. In the making of their characters the group handled different textures, discovered the joy of design and the exercise certainly helped with hand-eye co-ordination.

Jillís box of tricks proved an absolute delight. The biggest imaginable collection of junk with such potential. The puppets eventually took shape and were completed. The next step was perhaps the most vital in the whole process. The group now needed to "breathe life" into their puppets and to work on character-building to disassociate themselves and become totally objective.

We managed to create a home situation with dialogue but strictly within a puppet dimension. When starting out, the puppet almost always approaches the child and not the other way round. One needs to steer away from "you" and "I" in order to promote a more neutral level of play.

The group soon gained a sense of control over their puppets, which in turn brought out shyness, inhibitions and apprehension. It also brought out anger and hatred. The expressions of these two specific emotions led to the relief of a great deal of tension ďa form of purification and hopefully the first steps on the road to recovery. This is where the puppet play significantly becomes therapy.

The first important lessons to be gleaned for the group from their interaction with their puppets was that a puppet is immune to harm. It is also alive to the child for the duration of the play or therapy session. They become, in effect, the solvers of their own problems. When we first introduced our theme, Puppets in a Puppets Home to the children, Jill used the question-and-answer method and asked each puppet in turn why they felt they were in the situation they were. These were some of the answers:

We noticed the guilt, low self-esteem and hesitancy that accompanied the answers. It was interesting to note that puppetry also helps with imaginary fears. Their imaginative powers far overshadow their physical skills. In the presentation of fairy tales (the group enacted Red Riding Hood) conflicts and emotions are relived. To enable the group to relive conflicts effectively, totally without inhibitions, it helps if they can be concealed from the eyes of the audience, e.g. behind a stage. A stage with curtains and props, etc. also helps to develop a theatre environment thus making the deception more whole.

We felt that we learned a lot about the children, and the children in turn learned a lot about themselves. Amongst other things, they learned the following:

A few months ago, I was involved in "movement therapy" with much the same group of children and I found that the main difference between the movement group and puppetry is that the puppet is very much the go-between. With the movement everything is more direct ďthe emotions are seared raw in both cases, but with the movement the child had to deal with it directly ďhiding behind the puppet gives one more time and the feelings of failure and guilt can be placed on the puppet.

I think worthy of a special mention is Jillís neanderthal labrador, Inja. She formed part of the groupís audience each week, always greeted the children with great enthusiasm and remained totally nonjudgemental. For this special quality they are wholly indebted to her. As I dwindle to a close I feel privileged to have been involved in this shadowland of discovery and also somehow comforted that this particular group of deprived children will also in time learn that ever-soothing music verse from Simon and Garfunkelís American Tune.

Manyís the time Iíve been mistaken
And many times confused
Yes, and Iíve often felt forsaken
And certainly misused.

But Iím alright, Iím alright
Iím just weary to my bones
Still, you donít expect to be
Bright and bonvivant
So far away from home.

I know I did.

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