Puppetry, plays put spiritual principles in front of kids
Rory is a fuzzy little orange 5-year-old with blue hair who lives in a guitar case. He is vulnerable yet bold and curious about the world around him. Children love calling out with him as he exclaims, “My name is Rory. Raaauuur for Rory!”
“It’s sweet how much the children love him,” says Faye Dupras. “He gets lots of hugs at the end of each show when I bring him out for the children to meet up close.”
Rory is a puppet, as you likely guessed. He’s a star of Cozy Corner, an interactive multi-episode puppet and music project Dupras and a team of Baha’is and friends are developing and testing through staged productions. With lively music and the help of a host of puppet and human friends, Rory learns about gratitude, compassion, love, kinship with all humanity, and other spiritual values.
“Parents and children seem to hunger for this content. Parents continually come up to us and express their amazement at how focused even their youngest child was during the show,” says Dupras.
A rewarding response, because Cozy Corner was designed from the start to help fill a need parents have expressed for “programming with spiritual content,” she says.
Cozy Corner is one of several theater projects Dupras, a Baha’i in Somerville, Massachusetts, has produced over the past two decades in a quest “to have my artistic practice be firmly grounded in my spiritual practice and my commitment to community engagement through the arts.”
Collaborative process of learning
The core group developing Cozy Corner includes Jason Slavick, a veteran of Boston theatre; musician Max Weigert, a Baha’i in Somerville; children’s book writer Patti Tomarelli, a Baha’i in Boston; and accessibility specialist Mia Branco.
Dupras and Slavick have been collaborating on each other’s projects since 2013.
Last year Slavick conceived and directed A Story Beyond: A Musical Fable, which ran two weeks at the Boston Center for the Arts with Dupras as puppet designer/director.
From an interview with Dupras, a report about that production on public radio station WBUR’s website began with a quote from Baha’i literature on the power of the stage as “the pulpit of the future.”
Cozy Corner is Dupras’ and Weigert’s second project together. Their first project, I Spy Butterfly, got a big impetus from their involvement in the summer 2016 session of Spirit of Children, an arts development program based at Green Acre Baha’i School in Eliot, Maine.
She and Weigert had already started developing the play through a series of community-engaged workshops in Somerville. When they brought it to the Spirit of Children group, she says, “we asked for support to pull apart the work in order to look for opportunities to infuse and/or maximize the integration of spiritual principles into the fabric of the play.”
The team later spent a week as artists-in-residence at Green Acre working with children to further develop the intentionality of the script. “The play is steeped in spiritual principles of love, service and selflessness,” she says.
Weigert serves as the Northeast coordinator for the Baha’i-initiated junior youth spiritual empowerment program. His experience in that realm is extensive and, although the demographics are different, enriches and informs his contribution to the work, in particular his songwriting.
“I can still remember sitting with Max on Green Acre’s Reimer Porch digesting the summer’s reflections and sketching out the final arc of the play,” Dupras recalls.
I Spy Butterfly has since played to hundreds of families in venues throughout the eastern United States and up into Canada.
“My favorite pre-performance routine is to sing the prayer ‘O God! Educate These Children’ with Max to help set the intention of the work before we step on stage.”
Enlarging the vision, seeing the influence
Cozy Corner started as a spinoff to I Spy Butterfly and was born out of a curiosity to explore the question of what programming would look and feel like if its main focus was the spiritual education of children.
Central to the work is the desire to inspire the hearts and minds of both children and adults. “If we relate only to the children, the dialogue ends the moment the families leave the theater,” says Dupras. “Our hope is if we can engage the parents, too, they can support the learning beyond our limited time together.”
With this in mind, four episodes were created with support from the Somerville Arts Council and the Boston Foundation, first through a development period in local libraries followed by a series of work-in-progress showings in more traditional performance venues.
While the first audiences were “mostly preschoolers and caregivers,” the production gradually expanded to families with older children. As word of mouth spread, audiences grew beyond the original venue’s capacity. That forced the project to move to a larger space and “we ended the year with a sold-out weekly performance at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline.”
An encounter with a couple from out of town who had brought a grandchild to a Cozy Corner showing in April 2018 illustrates the impact on audiences.
When the couple returned in October, Dupras relates, “they approached us before the show and shared that they had recorded Max singing ‘We Are Drops’ [a song about unity] back in April but had only managed to record half of the song, which their grandson had since memorized and sang regularly.”
They weren’t planning on it, but how could they refuse? “We did a pre-show special and Max taught the room of 80-plus people how to sing ‘We Are Drops.’”
Ultimately the team wants to move the project from the stage to a medium that hits a wider audience. Dupras is researching possibilities that include pitching the production to a television network or web-based presentation.
Meanwhile, the development process continues this year with episodes five through eight planned in partnership with the Cambridge Friends School. Dupras reflects, “The Quaker testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship that the school is founded on are so in line with our goals.”
Learning about putting Baha’i teachings into practice
Tomarelli is not the least surprised by such a deep connection with audiences. “I think we are learning how to put what Baha’u’llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, has taught us about the reality of man and the nature of the soul into everyday lives of, specifically, young people.
“We ask ourselves what does it mean to ‘grow, develop and appear in the utmost beauty’ when you’re struggling with sharing or loss?” she reflects, referring to a phrase from the “Educate these children” prayer. “How does a young spiritual being express gratitude, compassion and love? When we think about a huge concept such as the oneness of mankind, … how does that find expression in the life of 4- and 5-year-olds?”
Tomarelli says guidance from Baha’i institutions on building community “shapes and influences the scripts and music. Particularly, our individual experiences … have influenced how we think about the spiritual destiny of children. What we do should prepare them to be of service now and in the future.”
Weigert says the team focuses on how young people are noble beings and gems. Baha’i-inspired materials on children’s spiritual education are an invaluable resource in that effort.
For example, he says, Episode 1 of Cozy Corner explores our capacity to reflect virtues; Episode 2 explores that this capacity needs nurturing and support in order to grow; Episodes 3 and 4 explore seeing beyond yourself. “You can’t grow in a bubble. Growth happens through service.”
Rory the puppet is the character “most in a state of learning,” says Dupras. “Rory is the child engaging in the lessons and Max is the teacher/animator accompanying Rory through the journey of growth.”
Trudy, a human character Dupras plays, is slightly older than Rory. “She is often engaged in a more sophisticated version of whatever theme the episode is exploring,” Dupras relates. “If Rory is learning about the idea of nurturing, Trudy is learning that nurturing is a repetitive motion.”
Trudy (excited): “I think I know the equation now.” Max: “Really, what is it?” Trudy: “Nurturing + Patience = Growth.”
Dupras says that as she and Tomarelli collaborate on honing the scripts for Episodes 5 through 8, the same spirit is in play.
“It’s wonderful to work with [Tomarelli] because we both reach to the same source for inspiration, and our common vision helps us have very direct and fluid consultations,” she says. “It also means our process can be very intentionally steeped in prayer and reflection.” ◾