Looking for a Monster Pilot Schools Program
By Gary Friedman

When you stand in front of a class of high school kids for the first time and the words ‘He was a Jew’ gets mumbled in the crowd, it could make one feel quite uncomfortable and ill at ease. But in the context of our project, it was something to be expected. The stimulus for my recent project was a puppet play, written by a thirteen year-old Jewish boy (Hanus Hachenburg) in a concentration camp in 1943 - discovered by myself in a Jerusalem archive in 1999.

The high school class was a group of Year 9 and 10 students, from a lower-middle socio-economic group in southern Sydney, Australia. They were mainly from Muslim Lebanese and Southeast Asian backgrounds and for all of them it was the first time being exposed to historical material from a creative perspective. In fact, it was the first time they were being exposed to ANY classroom material beyond simply sitting at a desk, listening to a teacher, answering questions and writing essays.

This pilot project was conceived by ourselves, and expanded by the teachers. We used the puppet play (Looking for a Monster) and poetry by Hanus Hachenburg as a springboard for students to start observing and reflecting upon themselves, their community and greater world around them. The overall themes were using the Arts to challenge and change the world, thereby becoming everyday heroes themselves. The aims were scholastic (to enhance literacy objectives) as well as to provide students with an opportunity to develop a sense of their own identity, empathy, tolerance and resilience, enhancing team building, leadership and task management skills. 

We also ran the project in a local Primary School, with students from Grades 5 and 6. In both schools, the project would run for 10 weeks, with each class attending a weekly workshop session of roughly 2 hours with myself, followed by classroom activities to broaden the themes and develop the puppetry scenario narratives.

Our workshop process:
The project started with an intensive interactive session into the background of World War 2; Hanus and his world; as well as how the arts and puppetry specifically, is being used all over the world to challenge the status quo and bring about social change. Students participated in group activities introducing the themes of identity; diversity; multi-cultural tolerance; power and talents; patriotism; leadership; heroes; children’s rights; compassion and changing our world: All of which would be developed in classroom activities with their English teachers throughout the coming term. 

The workshop component of the project then began. Simple “world of paper” exercises, in which the students had to bring their heroes to life, using brown paper puppetry required precision team work and abstract nonverbal communication skills that none of them had ever been exposed to.
The following sessions included demonstrations of building and performance techniques using shadow puppetry. High school students used the stimulus of their written “Identity” poetry to develop their shadow puppetry characters and performances. The primary school students took a different tack and brought to life various themes:

  • Historical stories of heroes and events that they found inspirational 
  • Important messages that they wanted to share
  • Current (controversial) events in the news
  • Literature they had enjoyed

It was fascinating how many of the high school students stated that they began the project with a bit of trepidation, cynicism or pessimism. This was mainly put down to the fact that they were weary of not being able to cope with the change in their learning. It was soon evident that the difference in learning style suited most of them, and their enthusiasm and engagement was contagious.

Each member of the team had a specific role (whether it be design, construction, narration, performance, sound or visual effects) and the project required intensive team-work and demanding organisational skills.

Another interesting element was using meditation (guided visualisation) at the beginning of the sessions. The primary school had no problem with this technique, but in the high school classes, the concept of lying down, closing your eyes, keeping still and quiet was just too much of a leap into an unknown world for many of the students, and it resulted in more struggle then it was worth.

“ When the students came up with their stories and engaged in the creative process, what they produced and what I think they learnt from the whole ten-week program was quite amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this group of children do something to such a high level. 

In terms of the stories themselves, although some of them weren’t original, the messages were so powerful, for example ‘Rabbit Proof Fence’, the story of Nelson Mandela’s life were very important in the stories to tell. To have done them in a different way could have worked, but I believe this is a way they will remember. They will always know what people like Nelson Mandela achieved throughout his life, because that whole process has scaffolded and I think that Gary’s involvement in facilitating that scaffolding was crucial. I think the high level of the shadow puppet plays were produced was very important because children are very often able to play and create, but they often don’t have that expertise that was provided by the artist in residence.”
– Jan Warhurst, Deputy-Principal, Curl Curl North Primary School

For the High School, the final session was spent watching video footage and programmes about the Freedom Theatre in Jenin, (West Bank, Israel-Palestine); as well as the associated documentary by Juliano Mer-Khamis based on his mother Arna and her work with the Freedom Theatre.  This theatre was developed to provide Palestinian youth with an alternative to using violence to bring about change in their struggle. It was a forum to make their voices heard, as well as for pushing the boundaries with in their own community: An exceptionally controversial enterprise, which cost Juliano his life. Our students found this documentary very touching and inspiring, and reflected on the power of the Arts to bridge gaps and explore taboo and the “unspeakable.”

After the term of development and rehearsal, I filmed the shadow puppetry scenarios and edited them into short video clips. The parents, students, friends and teachers were then invited to an evening screening of the final productions.

The students took up the challenge to deal with some complex issues of identity, tolerance and acceptance, and their feedback highlighted their growing ability to reflect on their attitudes towards their fellow students, finding each other’s strengths and talents and expanding their preconceived views of each other. Many of the final productions celebrate their joy and pride in their multi-cultural backgrounds and identities. Numerous “productions” explored their growing empathy with refugees, asylum seekers and Aboriginal history: All controversial hot- topics in Australia at present.

“Our students today are often told to focus on testing, and teachers told to ‘teach to the test’ so we can maximize marks and look good on websites. Sadly, not all students are built for academic study. They have energy moving through their limbs, giggles exploding from their lips and minds that are constantly turning. We all learn differently- and for some, the kind of physical activities they would do with Gary and the real world discussions we had in class really got them thinking about the world around them, and their power to become everyday heroes themselves.

Students who were rarely engaged in classroom activities were the first to put up their hands and to help Gary. Their cries of astonishment as Gary moved his puppets, their eager answers to his questions and their general enthusiasm to make their own puppets (once pushed a little) made the process instantly rewarding. As a teacher, I saw previously disengaged students working hard to be the first students finished and filmed. Regular truants appeared in the back seats, shy students showed me their poetry with pride. Questions and tables previously incomplete became full of answers. I hope every student involved completes the program with a sense of pride in what they have achieved, an understanding of tolerance, resilience, and hope, and respect for the creative arts industry. As Gary says, ‘Art can challenge the world, and turn everyday people into every day heroes.’”
Isabel Clark, Grade 10 teacher, Strathfield South High School

Related Video Links:
Looking for a Monster
Strathfield South High School Documentary
Strathfield Student Shadow Puppet Films
Curl Curl North Public School Documentary
Curl Curl Student Shadow Puppet Films

Hanus’s World
In 1943, Hanus and his friends were transported from their hometown Prague, to Terezin, a Czech camp that was quite unlike any other, in numerous ways. The greatest difference (and that which is most relevant to this story), is that Terezin was a hot-bed of many of the greatest Jewish minds of the time, in the fields of philosophy, art, poetry, politics and science. Hanus was housed in a boy’s home, under the care of an exceptional leader, who was keen for the boys to be exposed to the knowledge of these mentors. So in clandestine classes, the boys heard lectures that would expand their creative and world vision.

Hanus had always been a rather introverted boy, who “found his voice” in his poetry and prose, being able to express his hopes, dreams, frustrations as well as an uncanny insight into the truth behind the façade of the world in which he found himself. His writing formed an integral component of a secret magazine “Vedem,” which he and the other boys of his room “published” every week. Unfortunately, despite all the elders’ attempts at nurturing these boys, they were mostly still deported to Auschwitz where they met their end. Hanus was known to still be writing poetry till the very end of his young life.