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A little about the Bunnyfish play…

October 16, 2009

So, I thought you might enjoy learning more about the first puppet play in “Two Puppet Plays,” which premieres tomorrow (Saturday) at 10am! We’re very excited.

It’s based on an old European folk tale that seems to common to several countries with variation. The Brothers Grimm collected it as “The Fisherman and His Wife.” The story is simple: poor fisherman catches a magic talking fish and lets it go. Wife sees the fish as their chance for upward mobility and demands the fisherman demand favors from the magic fish. The wishes get more and more opulent and the wife more and more intoxicated by greed, until the magic fish decides that enough is enough:

“What does she want then?” said the flounder.
“Oh,” he said, “she wants to become like God.”
“Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”
And they are sitting there even today.

What’s the moral? Stay in your place? Don’t give magic flounder to poor people? Or, perhaps, quite while you’re ahead? Or, material wealth will not bring happiness and neither for that matter will poverty. Great stuff for kids!

So I took that basic form and made something new. The first thing that needed changing was the gender. Why is it always the selfish stay at home mom?

Years ago, in the wonderful book by oceanic explorer Sylvia Earle called Sea Change, I read about the Ama of Japan. These women collect shellfish while free-diving…women can hold their breath longer than men, and it has remained a female vocation. It goes way back. The Ama did pretty well for themselves and their families, and interestingly, the fisherwomen often organized themselves into collectives and managed their own affairs. (Here’s a great article about Ama). This gave me a good chance to talk not just about greed, but about the desire to be the boss and rule over others, which is not always a temptation worth giving in to.

So I switched the action to Japan. Ever since reading about the Ama, I’ve wanted to write a story about one. In this nascent story, an Ama learns how to speak dolphin and gets an earful, the entire history of humans as seen from the dolphin’s patient gaze. Anyway, this is not that story, but it was fun to work with the Ama.

The next issue was the fish. A flounder? I mean, there’s living proof that intelligent design holds no water. I caught a flounder once when fishing with my Mom in Scituate, Mass., and I haven’t been the same since. It still makes no sense to me, like it was invented by a Cubist. (In Slavic versions of the folk tale it’s of course a Carp, which are also kinda nasty looking fish in my opinion). Plus a flounder is hard to make out of felt. Or easy, but it doesn’t look like anything.

Then I found this photo of an art installation by a Japanese/American artist team Kozyndan:

Ama swimming through a school of bunnyfish (Installation)

Ama swimming through a school of bunnyfish (Installation)

By the way, the Ama traditionally dove topless.Nudity in Japan, as in Europe and almost every other place other than America, is not treated to puritanical attitudes. Our puppets are a little shy, however (and their clothes are sewn on!)

I had my fish! At first, I thought Kozyndan were using a character from traditional Japanese folklore. It just seems that way, it’s entirely their creation. They even sell little crocheted bunnyfish. However, not all the bunnyfish art and photos on their website is for kids! (Please refer to the nudity proviso above.)

One night while babysitting for a friend, while the kids were asleep, I took out my massive roll of brownish-gray felt, and cut out a bunnyfish to make a puppet. Two bunnyfish shapes sewn together, with little antique purple button eyes and thread whiskers inspired by the great children’s book The Forest Hotel that my dad used to read me.

The whole story came together. The Ama catches the bunnyfish, and it’s her husband, unhappy at his wife being the primary breadwinner, who pushes them to seek not just wealth but greater influence in the community. There is even a nice way in which the idea of an emperor as a living god comes into play. And, of course, I got to include some brief (and nonviolent) cameos of ninjas and samurai.

My hope was to create a fun story with a good, non-depressing moral, and a story that will introduce kids and adults to a unique aspect of a different culture. Hope you all will enjoy it as well!

Special thanks to Kozyndan for letting me create something with their character!

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