Two humpback whales—a mother and calf—magically appear in a Kauai preschool after ‘migrating’ around the Hawaiian island chain. Each year since 2012, ‘Captain’ Mark Jeffers of Storybook Theatre has toured with the whales visiting nearly thirty schools and reaching over 1,600 preschoolers, as well as their parents and teachers. The program allows children to crawl inside the inflatable mother whale, listen to whale sounds, and stories and then get spat out. Face-to-face, each wide-eyed child experiences the enormity of our humpback friends and learns firsthand about whale anatomy.
Captain Mark guides the children on a fantasy trip around their island while telling tall tales and singing sea shanty songs. He challenges the children by asking, “Can whales see the stars?” Their reply comes not with words but instead he inspires their imagination, encouraging them to draw a picture of the answer. The results he receives are amazing. Mark knows children well: in 2003, he was honoured by the state legislature as Hawaii’s Outstanding Children’s Advocate, an honour that he well and truly deserves.
I first met Mark at the 1986 Crossroads Festival on Oahu when he recruited several of my Bellyacres buddies to perform. We stayed in touch through mutual Big Island puppeteering friends and met again when he toured his famous “Russell Da Rooster” show. Mark and Russell are legendary throughout the islands as prolific ‘edutainers.’
Russell’s roots go back to Mark’s teenage years when his aunt took him to meet Mister Rogers in a show that featured puppets, music, and creative learning. Being hugely inspired, Mark studied puppetry at the University of Hawaii. He also met crew members of Sesame Street who vacationed in Hawaii and learned about puppetry from them, as well. He has a degree in early childhood education and he founded a preschool in Honolulu. He believes that it’s critical for children’s creativity to be constantly stimulated “They need to be able to imagine, and puppets help them to do that.”
Old Russell has long been sharing aloha, spreading good news, and helping youngsters learn about the environment, native species, and local history. He’s often joined by his sidekick, a dog named Calvin Barker, brought to life by Will Welsh, and filmed by cameraman and technical director, Robert Zelkovsky. Twenty-five years and nearly 300 shows later, one might expect Russell Da Rooster to exhibit some signs of aging: maybe moving a little slower, being more cautious, or needing more rest; however, old Russell is just getting started and recently married a beautiful puppet named ‘Silkie.’
After Hurricane Iniki devastated Kauai in 1992, Mark wanted to help young people understand their stressful experiences and to help restore childhood essentials that had been lost after the storm. He wrote a powerful story in a book entitled, ‘The Eye of The Lion: The Story of My First Hurricane,’ inspired by the children who lived through the trauma. He also assembled a team and raised money to restore the historic Storybook Theatre in Hanapepe. In the last 25 years, he’s created a mountain of aloha for children by organising children’s activities at the Theatre and at community events around the island. For many years, he has produced educational television programming including several award-winning documentaries on Hawaiian history, ecological tourism, waste management, and environmental interpretation. His half-hour TV shows provide children with a positive and rich early-life experience relevant to their lives in Kauai.
It was in 1994 that we began a long established tradition in the HICCUP circus that lasted until 2019. Mark invited me to bring over my young stars—Ari, Chris, Eli, and Marcellus—to present workshops and shows. I think Mark, being the sharp public relations man that he is, quickly realised the media potential of our unusual group. He had us all, especially the boys, appearing regularly on local radio and cable TV shows and we always made for good newspaper photos whenever we appeared. Almost annually from that time, a contingent of HICCUP performers would fly to Kauai island to perform and run circus workshops organised by Mark.
As executive directors of a small non-profits, our life journeys have intertwined in many ways over many years and I’ve been truly blessed to have shared my circus history with him. The connection between Mark, his StoryBook Theatre, and the HICCUP’s extends way beyond a personal friendship with me. ‘Uncle Mark’ has also become a friend, brother, and uncle to many in our HICCUP family (ohana). I returned with a wide variety of circus groups over the years and now that I’m ‘retired,’ Mark books my protegé, Tristan, and the next wave of performers.
Uncle Mark has always treated us well and we loved our trips to his garden isle. He magically found us regular accommodation at the prestigious Waimea Plantation Cottages resort and we lived like celebrities. He transported us around the island from radio stations to schools, summer programs, parades, and his own workshops and festivals in Hanapepe. He also took us on trips to his favourite places on his island home, including secret beaches and misty mountain vistas and trails. He is a generous host and a wonderful tour guide. He met many generations of HICCUPers and we got the honour of entering his personal theatrical creation.
Mark loves Kauai and has spoken out to protect it from invasive species like fire ants, mongeese, drive-through package liquor stores, nuclear devices, or the dangers of the proposed Superferry. He is also a powerful advocate for giving more power—politically and economically—to Kauai’s sovereign island people proclaiming that, “Hawaiian Kanaka Mauli people are not seen by our present administration as one people, an indigenous people, deserving to have what was taken away from them in the overthrow and the subsequent annexation and statehood political travesties.” He dreams that someday Kauai will secede from world globalisation and focus on protecting its own people and its places of awesome natural beauty.
International Peace Day has always had a special significance for Mark and he found a way to make it a permanent celebration. The late U.S. Senator Spark Matsunaga, who came from Kauai, believed “There has to be a better way than war” and, through Storybook Theatre, Mark raised funds to build the Spark M. Matsunaga International Children’s Garden of Peace. Sparky’s garden is a magical place where social and cultural boundaries dissolve, providing a safe and inspirational space for the outdoor classroom, for the public, and for the creation of new culture.
My final trip to the Garden Isle of Kauai came during the 45 days that I was granted to sort out my affairs before being deported from Hawaii. It was 12 days, well spent, performing with my family—Dena, Bailey, Isla, Liberty, and seven-year-old Noelani. Billed as “Cirque Ohana,” we presented 14 shows at schools, summer fun programs, and local shopping centres. As always, the media covered our story; however, this time included the drama of my imminent dolorous departure. We were all blessed to spend this valuable time travelling with Mark and staying in his house. It left me with a certain sense of completion, especially with our final show on ‘Art Night’ in Hanapepe town where the stores, restaurants, and galleries stay open late and a vibrant festive atmosphere takes over the whole community.
‘Uncle Mark’ has dedicated his life to educating children and the world about caring for the ocean, Hawaiian culture and history. He built his centre and peace garden up from rubble at a demolition site and turned it into a mecca for the arts. He’s undoubtedly a master of the spoken word and well worthy of the title, ‘a bright, shining renegade spirit.’
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