JP Neighborhood School Students Create Original Musical Play ‘Balancing Water’

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Joaquin Saldana becomes friendly with one of the water bird puppets.

Every other year, the students at Neighborhood School in Jamaica Plain present an original play. This year’s production, "Balancing Waters," explores themes of scarcity and plenty, hoarding and sharing, and the question of whether everyone can get what they need.

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JP students Beatrix King and Zoe Fulton bring to life one of the water bird puppets while puppet coach Michelle Finston looks on.

One of the most unusual things about the mangrove tree is that it can make its own home. Mangroves are specially adapted to live where the land meets the water, and they are able to tolerate levels of salt that would kill most plants. They have huge roots — some, called prop roots arc out from the trunk, supporting it like a cathedral’s flying buttresses — which combine into dense tangles. Under the protection of the mangrove roots, small animals like fish and shrimp feed on decaying plant matter. Larger fish feed on them, and still larger animals feed on those fish. A rich ecosystem, a “mangrove swamp,” has come to life because of what these special trees do. The mangroves form a protective wall, slowing waves, providing a coastal defense in the face of storms or a tsunami. The mangroves build a home for themselves, and all their neighbors benefit.

When the curtain rises, this is where the audience finds itself — deep among the mangroves, where a river flows into the ocean. A colorful group of birds enjoys this paradise as their parents did, and their parents before them. But there is trouble on the horizon.

"Balancing Water" represents a departure from the realism of the last few Neighborhood School plays. The action takes place in a fantasy world, with an emphasis on movement and visual storytelling. Like all NS productions, "Balancing Water" tackles serious themes from the present moment — environmental change, the plight of the refugee, the challenge of mutual understanding in times of fear — but it does so at a remove.

“The reality of politics has been a bit heavy for everyone,” said director and writer Steven Yakutis. He recalled seeing a documentary about the mangrove, and then having a dream about some of the creatures he’d seen. He was especially drawn to the birds for both their beauty and their vulnerability. So for this, Yakutis’ sixth biannual NS play, he began to trace the troubles the birds faced up-river; this, with help from his Level 4 (5th and 6th grade) coauthors, is how the tale unfolds, as well.

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Joaquin Saldana becomes friendly with one of the water bird puppets.

As "Balancing Water" was taking form, Level 4 students were reading "Seedfolks," an interconnected collection of stories by Paul Fleischman. The book is set in Cleveland, around a community garden where people are suspicious of each other and divided — young and old, newcomer and long-time resident. In the garden, though, the residents begin to see each other’s humanity, in part by seeing the care that others are taking with the plants. The play includes many of the themes found in the book, and these themes have been part of Level 4’s continuing work this year. They visited a community garden in Chinatown, where they could contemplate the generations of people who left their homes for Boston — and the reception they were met with here. Level 4 also studied hurricanes, and the displacement wrought by the string of disasters last fall. "Balancing Water" picks up on all of this: the shifting environment, and the complex effects this has on communities, natural and human.

This year’s play is unusual for its use of puppetry. The puppets were created through a process of collaborative evolution, under the creative guidance of art teacher Jai Underhill and director of puppetry Michelle Finston. Early on, Finston worked with the students on movement exercises, and Underhill helped them use papier mache to imagine wonderous heads of birds. This initial work led to characters, who came to life through movement, feeling, and storytelling as well as color, texture, and even a bit of sparkle. Underhill’s Sheridan Street home became a workshop, a place where she and Finston, along with parent and student volunteers, worked together to create puppets that reveal their inner workings and the actors behind them. This transparency is part of the magic.

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Puppet creators Jai Underhill and Michelle Finston with the flock.

There is also a deeper connection between this form of story telling and the story itself. Finston worked with the players to teach them how to hold their puppet with just the right amount of tension — too loose, or too tight, and the creature will not spring to life. Even more important, though, is learning how to look through their character’s eyes. Each actor must watch their puppet character, guiding it like a director, but also, to be truly successful, the actor must inhabit the puppet.

“With a puppet, you are taking the essence of yourself and putting it into something that, without you, doesn’t have life,” said Finston.

We use another word for this: empathy. The word comes to us from the German word Einfühlung, which literally means “feeling-in.” Empathy is what brings puppets alive, and also what draws you, the audience, into their story. Empathy is what allows all of us to see the humanity in one another, even when we feel threatened, even when we worry that there is not enough to share. It is what allows us to feel that mangrove trees, and everything that lives among them, have their own story to tell, if only we will listen.

"Balancing Water" will be performed at the Media Arts Center at Roxbury Community College, 1234 Columbus Avenue, Roxbury Crossing, on Friday, March 9 at 7 pm and Saturday, March 10 at 3 pm. Admission by donation at the door. Appropriate for ages 4 and up. 

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