The door leading into the pink and green building that lies at the corner of a sprawling park has a sign warning intruders to stay out: “Do Not Enter: Puppets at Work.” Inside a man sits hunched at a large wooden table, with a paintbrush in one hand and a ruler in the other. There is no inch of space left empty on the walls around him; framed black and white photographs hang against one wall, large cardboard canvasses that serve as backdrops in puppet shows are stacked against another, and shelves carrying an odd assortment of tools run high around the room. Lying across a table in one corner are the casualties of the shows – puppets with missing arms and legs and eye-buttons, puppets with frayed jackets and ripped seams – all carrying the same transfixed leers or grins or frowns their makers bestowed them with when they were made.
“That’s the puppet hospital,” says C.J. Hirschfield, director of Children’s Fairyland, as she points at the somewhat grotesque collection of injured dolls, and laughs. The man looks up from the canvas he is painting to follow Hirschfield’s gaze and nods.
“That’s where we fix them,” he says. If anyone can fix them, it’s Randal Metz, the man who worked here as artistic director for 20 years before becoming the director of the puppet theatre.
Inside this vast warehouse space are puppets dating back to the earliest shows that the Storybook Theatre at Fairyland put out in the 1950s. Stowed in black trunks and plastic containers, some of them hang together by threads, and others remain as good as new. Metz fixes them, and makes new ones, along with a team of workers, to put on shows for children mostly under the age of eight.
Over the years, Fairyland has kept its focus on storytelling alive. Each week, the puppets go live in front of a crowd of children, telling classic tales like “Sleeping Beauty” and more obscure ones the puppet masters have borrowed from other cultures. This week, it is a Japanese story about a boy who struggles to sell firewood, and a turtle that helps him out by singing for him in the town square. Across the park, adults and children assume various roles to tell stories; kids dress up in professional costumes to play out fables at Aesop’s Playhouse (the Children’s Theatre), and a storyteller delights an audience at the Emerald City Stage.
“You don’t need a lot of technology to tell a story,” Hirschfield says. “And it is how we pass along our culture – whatever it is – through the stories, through generations.”
A painting hangs in Hirschfield’s office near the entrance of the park that echoes her sentiment – it is an African image of a storyteller, surrounded by a group of people, gathered somewhere outdoors. It was something she saw at a gallery once, and could not stop thinking about. She knows that part of what keeps Fairyland relevant today is the park’s emphasis on making diverse stories available to the children that visit it.
“I think there’s a much greater chance that we are going to attract the attention and keep the attention of a child if they see themselves in some way reflected in what we’re doing,” Hirschfield says. “I also think our kids have as much fun watching a play about a culture that’s completely different from their own. We think you have to go to a place and see yourself reflected everywhere – that’s not Oakland.”
The diversity of the stories on display does help Fairyland with its audience, says Hirschfield, saying the picnic area looks like a meeting of the United Nations on most weekends. “That’s what we love about Fairyland – we are in the heart of Downtown Oakland, and we get not only different cultures and races, but also different classes.”
To keep that tradition alive, Fairyland celebrates Black History Month the last weekend in February. Hirschfield asked a professional storyteller to come and tell children stories from Africa and the American South. As she makes her way to the Emerald Stage where the performance is scheduled, Hirschfield looks rather charged up herself. “We’re all excited to see what she will do,” she says.
“Can you raise your hand if there’s something you are afraid of?” Muriel Johnson asks the children looking up at her, some cramped onto the low-lying benches scattered across the open sitting area, others sitting cross-legged on the floor. Several hands shoot up.
“Monsters!” yells one girl.
“Fire dragons!” yells another boy.
At the back, a little girl in a pink jacket and bow hops off her bench to stand so the storyteller can see the hand she is waving frantically.
“Yes?” Johnson says, turning to her.
“My Daddy!” she yells, turning around to look at her father, who laughs and buries his head in his hands.
Now that Johnson has the attention of the children, she tells them a story from the American South about a boy afraid of squeaky doors. It is an old story, one that does not immediately make children think of African American history, but then, none of her stories are obvious in that way. Earlier that day, Johnson told the story of Brer Rabbit. “All these stories came from people who have no power, they had everything taken away,” says Johnson, referring to African American slaves. “They’re enslaved, but these people used these stories for comfort.”
Johnson knows that Brer Rabbit’s story is not the most ideal one to teach kids about morality. “He’s a trickster, but they [African American slaves] could feel powerful through that. They could live vicariously through Brer Rabbit, because he created something out of nothing.”
But this is not something Johnson explains to the audience at Fairyland that day, which is mostly under the age of five. “Young kids can just enjoy the story. When I talk to elementary school children, I go more in depth,” she says. She says she feels that the stories will still enrich the children’s understanding of complex subjects, as they discover the different levels of the story as they grow up.
Like Hirschfield, Johnson also believes stories help children understand the diversity of people and cultures around them. “I love that there’s this commonality between stories from around the world – there’s always a stepmother, always a villain,” and that helps children relate, she says. “For every story, you can find a counterpart, a parallel, in another culture.”
She grew up listening to stories her mother told her, which ranged from Shakespeare to the tale of Mother Goose. Her mother died when Johnson was five, and although she did not understand all of the stories she had heard, what little she had heard made her fall in love with the medium of storytelling, and she continued to tell stories during her career as a pre-school teacher.
“It creates a bond, a connection with the children that makes them feel warm,” she says. “It’s very intimate.”
Hirschfield has similar thoughts. “It’s a really nice way for the kids to connect, even with their parents, in a situation that’s kind of low-key, fun, safe, happy,” she says. And everything at Fairyland, from the puppets to the oral stories, is geared toward creating that space. “You know you can intellectualize it, but at the end of the day, it’s the stories.”