by Michael Garrett
The Magic Lantern Marionette Theater, under the direction of Monique Grund, has been quietly performing iconic fairy and folk tales for young children in San Francisco for over 20 years. The San Francisco Waldorf School’s gifted kindergarten teachers and their many friends have created stunningly beautiful stage presentations of classic fairy tales from Grimm and new stories based on Native American, Chinese, South American and African folklore. To make the Magic Lantern’s presentations more relevant for children who live at the edge of the sea, Monique dreamed for years of creating a story that takes place under the sea. On Sunday, September 22, The Princess Mermaid made her debut in Dakin Hall at San Francisco Waldorf School.
A story taking place beneath the waves presents unique challenges for the puppeteers. Instead of colored silk settings artfully arranged on a long table with marionettes that walk on the earth, the characters in The Princess Mermaid live on many levels. The turtle and cranky crab stay near the sea bottom. The curious and beautifully garbed mermaids swim above them, with schools of silvery fish and sea horses. The whale and dolphins move majestically above. Hours upon after school hours have been spent rehearsing, learning to move the sea creatures convincingly through a watery element. Elaborate choreography weaves the creatures (and their handlers) back and forth, up and down through the shadowy deep.
The drama of The Princess Mermaid involves an abduction. A fearsome octopus, captivated by the Princess Mermaid’s singing, abducts her, and keeps her prisoner in his secret cave. How the tale is resolved offers a pedagogical lesson for the young viewers about sharing and fellowship.
The Magic Lantern Theater presents stories accompanied by music, lighting, song and sound effects. The many characters in these fables- the King and Queen, the Woodcutter and Witch, Good Children and Not So Good, Prince and Mermaid Princess are all individuals, but the children recognize parts of each character within themselves as well. Sometimes they’re Kings, kind and wise, but other times they’re more like the Foolish Brother or the Cruel Sister. The moral movement of the tale charts an interior map that can be used to navigate conflicts that arise in the children’s daily business of growing up.
“The fairy tale represents, symbolically, what we are as a human being” explains Monique. “Although there are many characters it deals with one human soul.” As a child in Europe she was captivated by puppet shows presented in schools and the public square and remembers fondly the first puppet she made herself. The goodness and kindness played out in these stories kindled in her a life long love of the art. Later, as a teacher, seeing TV assert its primacy in every household, Monique wondered if puppets might serve to counterbalance television’s influence on small children. Visible stories, with beautifully costumed characters, might provide a portal for the children into a state of dream consciousness, serving as an anodyne to the constant tugging of the adult world.
What is revealed on stage in these tales are the human being’s inner qualities. “We all,” Monique says, “have something of the delicate beautiful princess within us, but we are also jealous, we can be mean, sometimes we lie.” As the children grow, they experience challenges on their journey, just like the characters in the stories. Sometimes the resolution means, as Monique explains it, that “we stay where we end up, and sometimes it means going back home to our parents or our own countries.” In the years to come, these children may be able to meet a challenge with the feeling that “Oh, it’s just like in the fairy tale – He’s acting just like Rumpelstiltskin!”
So why this challenging under sea adventure? Monique’s kindergartners live by the sea. The sea creatures- the crab, the turtle, the dolphins and the whale are familiar to them. They are the subjects of the children’s daily conversation. To honor this unique place, to challenge her puppeteers with something totally new, while at the same time anchoring the story in the familiar, Monique has brought us this beautiful new story of The Princess Mermaid.
Michael Garrett, theatrical lighting and scene designer, is a founding member of The Magic Lantern Marionette Theater.