by Anne E. O’Malley
In a rehabilitated 1932 building that’s lived many lives, Mark Jeffers, founder and head of the Storybook Theatre of Hawai`i for over 30 years in various incarnations, has plans for the future that draw from the past.
This is the man who breathed spirit into Russell da Rooster and brought the puppet to prominence over the past 22 years. Jeffers has given Russell a voice through his own TV show, and made him the judge in the annual Crow for Koke`e contest, where kids and adults enter a crowing competition in an attempt to win loot from Russell.
Defining Jeffers, who has helped produce over 40 touring productions and played the role of Robert Luis Stevenson, brought Princess Ka`iulani to life in a festival named after her, told the story of the dreaded banana poka vine through, of all things, a banana poka vine puppet, and much, much more — comes down to this: storyteller, lover of drama, and a big kid at heart
Jeffers played hard as a child, and later, through a series of odd jobs, he found himself involved in early education as a career.
Puppets, drama — it’s all storytelling, and, says Jeffers, “It is story that is the vehicle in life. “We all get on at the same place and go.”
It works for all ages and all cultures, and he has made it his life.
In a recent collaboration with the newspaper For Kaua`i, the puppet Maka Nui, an owl, has become the spokesbird for children’s health after Jeffers learned that many west side children were becoming diabetic. The wise owl advocates staying physically active, eating lots of local fruits and vegetables and cutting down on screen time.
Says Jeffers, “Having a puppet as a spokesbird is the first step to community education.”
Jeffers plans on taking storytelling to a new level at Storybook Theatre. The mission remains the same — to share cultural diversity; encourage global understanding and citizenship; promote environmental and arts education; enable children to experience and participate in the performing and media arts; and use the medium of television to empower children and families through stories and other means.
The theatre that once lived in his closet, then two church offices and in the basement of a prior home and has evolved to become the building and programs it is today in Hanapepe, has yet another step to go.
After the official opening in its Hanapepe location in 2003, Jeffers had the idea to build a peace garden in the back yard of the theatre and cast about for a town hero to name it after. Right away, one name shot up — that of U.S. Senator Spark Masayuki Matsunaga.
“At the national level, he became a politician who made changes in the world,” Jeffers says.
Six years and $.5 million in numerous donations and grants later, The International Children’s Garden of Peace officially opened in July 2012.
What’s next? Jeffers says it’s critical to have some kind of combination of all the ideas bubbling up since folks involved selected the Hanapepe site, first identified as the future home for Storybook Theatre even as it lay wrecked after Hurricane `Iniki.
He and the board have come up with the notion of an Academy of Pacific Cultural Interpretation, a place that will help people of the Pacific to tell their stories.
“Conceivably, someone coming to the academy will take what they know about their culture and present it to another culture through festivals, storytelling, media and publishing. And those stories are one way to make peace.”