FOR THE RECORD: Isabelle Kesslerâ€™s name has been corrected in this story.
One chilly morning, I could think of nothing finer than the opportunity to sit in an elementary school and watch a puppet show. It started like you might expect. Longtime Albuquerque puppeteer Loren Kahn strapped on her theater box, a one-of-a-kind performance space decorated in silk and brocade, and soon she was eliciting squeals and laughs with a one-woman burlesque of kazoo, tin horn and a trombone-playing, wisecracking frog starring in a revamped version of Grimmâ€™s fairy tale â€śThe Frog Prince.â€ť
Things quickly turned existential.
â€śThis is an hour we will spend together,â€ť Kahnâ€™s theater partner, Isabelle Kessler, told the third- and fourth-graders at Eubank Elementary in a thick French accent. â€śAnd when itâ€™s over, we will never have it again. You have expectations for today, which I think is not to be bored, and we have expectations of you, which is to feel. So I hope our expectations meet.â€ť
It was Kesslerâ€™s way of asking for complete attention to the program â€śThe Art of Being a Spectator,â€ť which Kahn and KesslerÂ have been taking to elementary schools under funding from the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico Arts and the McCune Charitable Foundation.
That request, as it turned out, was hardly necessary.
The 40 or 50 kids sat in rapt attention as the puppet show unfurled and as Kahn and KesslerÂ led them through a discussion of art and perspective, the difference between thinking and feeling, how the reactions of others influence how we feel.
â€śWhat is the difference between being a spectator and being a witness?â€ť Kahn asked.
â€śWhat is going on in your head when you see art?â€ť KesslerÂ asked.
â€śFeelings,â€ť KesslerÂ said abstrusely, â€śthey can multiply.
When someone asked whether the frog in the puppet show was really a frog or a prince, Kahn and KesslerÂ both exclaimed, â€śAhhh!â€ť Now we were really getting to somewhere.
â€śEveryone,â€ť KesslerÂ said, â€śhas a prince or princess inside themselves.â€ť
Then KesslerÂ made a reference to the humanist philosopher Montaigne and told her ponytailed and sneakered audience that Montaigne believed â€śinside of us we have a crowd of people.â€ť
I turned to the kids to check for yawns or frowns or giggles.
Nope. They were locked onto Kessler.
When Kahn and KesslerÂ asked the 10- and 11-year-olds what a spectator is and what he should do, hands went up.
â€śThey sit and watch.â€ť
â€śStay and be quiet.â€ť
â€śYes,â€ť KesslerÂ said. â€śAs a spectator we build something in our head.â€ť
Kahn and KesslerÂ developed this interactive curriculum to influence how children think about the various media that surround them â€“ television, video games, movies, theater, art and music.
Instead of zoning out and wasting time, or accepting messages without analyzing them, they want to encourage even the youngest children to engage with everything they see.
â€śI want to tell them that if you are looking at something, you are alive. Take the time to enjoy what you see, what you feel. I hope that they understand that when they are spectators, itâ€™s a nourishment. To not think, to not engage, itâ€™s terribly dangerous.â€ť
As the world of media grows and fractures into special-interest outlets all with their own â€śfacts,â€ť engaged, critical thinking might be what separates shepherds from sheep.
When â€śThe Art of Being a Spectatorâ€ť program is complete, Kahn and KesslerÂ will have put on 42 shows for a couple thousand kids â€“ all for $15,000 in funding, which seems like a bargain.
KesslerÂ is a theater director who was a professor of cross-cultural communication in France and who believes preschool isnâ€™t too early to start talking to children about philosophy.
I pointed out to her that she uses some sophisticated language and concepts in a presentation to elementary school kids.
â€śAnd they get it!â€ť she said.
When I talked to the kids before they lined up to march back to their classes, they said they loved the show. In fact, it had gone a half-hour over the allotted hour and no one had gotten fidgety.
They all told me they watch some TV and movies, but spend more time with video games â€“ the â€śscreen mediaâ€ť that is becoming a constant in the lives of children.
Jack Lockhart, who is in fourth grade, told me he liked to play â€śMadden NFL 13â€ť and to watch â€śAdventure Timeâ€ť on the Cartoon Network.
But when I asked him to tell me his favorite thing to watch, he surprised me.
â€śWatching my baby brother sleep,â€ť he told me. â€śIt makes me feel good.â€ť
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor. â€” This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal