Ever inspired by nature, Mark Jeffers and his Storybook Theatre Of Hawaii travel the Islands and beyond to share the wonders of Hawaii’s critters and culture
Access to imagination is everyone’s gift. “People can imagine anything,”says Mark Jeffers, executive director of Storybook Theatre Hawai’i.
And since he believes children are the heart of any society, Jeffers dedicates his organization to enhancing their imagination through storytelling.
“Imagination is a muscle,” he explains.
“It’s something that we need to practice with and strengthen.
And I learned something magical: If you respect the world of children, then you have access to that world of imagination.”
Not only does he produce events such as the Princess Ka’iulani Festival to help children learn about Hawaiian culture, he travels to schools across the state with a 35-foot inflatable Pacific humpback whale, and also stars in the 22-year-old Russell Da Rooster television show.
Jeffers credits much of his imaginative teaching skills to his own childhood. The Michigan native feels lucky to have grown up in a household that encouraged his creativity.
“I received healthy neglect,” he jokes. “My mom and dad really loved me very much, and they let me have a long leash.”
He was especially captivated by the outdoors.
“I loved to just wander,” he says. “I loved the sense of adventure.”
Nature is the source of human beings’ creativity, he says. “In other words, when you’re outside, you’re in the world of imagining things.”
The freedom he experienced as a child wasn’t the only thing that allowed him to become the master storyteller he is today. In high school, Jeffers discovered acting. “It gave me a really good mind-opening experience,” he says.
After entering junior college in Michigan, where he was president of the drama club, Jeffers realized he worked well with people and enjoyed perpetuating the spirit of play. He wrote, acted and created many shows.
But it wasn’t until he made his way to Hawai’i that Storybook became a reality.
“I couldn’t imagine myself joining in to what America was doing right then,” he says of why he left Michigan. Working in factories making automobile parts to put himself through college was not the direction the young actor wanted to head. Instead, he jumped in a Jeep and traveled West until a friend attending the University of Hawai’i invited Jeffers to visit O’ahu in 1972. Jeffers was enamored by the island, and by 1979 he founded Storybook Theatre of Hawai’i after graduating from the UHManoa with a degree in early childhood education.
“Basically we had a bunch of talent, and nobody knew what to do with themselves,” recalls Jeffers, who was closely involved in the university’s drama department.
The team would travel to schools across the state to perform shows for children.
“No other theater in those days was doing that, coming to the schools,” he says.
They performed some 50 productions, and each show was seen by around 5,000 keiki across the state.
There was one island, however, that he enjoyed visiting the most, and after receiving encouragement from friends, Jeffers moved to Kaua’i in 1989.
“I was a little tired of watching Honolulu just keep growing and growing and growing,” he says. “When I first moved to Honolulu, it was a city that had a lot of towns close by and everybody was still very aloha, and then by the time I left, there was something real different that had happened.”
He felt his connection to imagination also diminishing, and Kaua’i offered a level of closeness to nature that he could no longer achieve on O’ahu.
“Unless you’re close to the land, you don’t have access to imagination,” he says. “You’re not as good of an imaginative person when you live in a 40-story condominium.”
Shortly after his move, the now-famous puppet, Russell (Hana Kokolele Peanut Butter Jelly) Rodriguez was created, an idea that came to him while working at Koke’e Museum surrounded by chickens and roosters on a daily basis. The puppet played Queen Emma’s rooster in a show Jeffers wrote and toured.
“He got the privilege of waking Queen Emma every day when she journeyed up into the Alakai on her famous trip to the Kilohana,” says Jeffers.The show, which Jeffers touts as one of the most well-traveled productions Storybook has ever done, capturing some 30,000 young audience members, starred kupuna Sabra Kauka as Queen Emma.
“I was honored and fortunate to portray the queen,” says Kauka, who even traveled to the Cook Islands with Jeffers to perform the story. “I am so lucky to know this man and to have shared some incredible experiences with him.”
Though he made his start on stage, Russell didn’t begin his film career until 1997, says Jeffers with a laugh. What began as a partnership between Department of Education employee Will Welsh and Jeffers to produce an educational program for children to help them understand the effects of Hurricane ‘Iniki became a lasting relationship.
“Turns out we had a great rapport with the puppets,” says Jeffers about Welsh, who plays the dog, Calvin Barker, in Russell Da Rooster.
More than 200 shows have been produced since then, inviting children mainly 2, 3 and 4 years old to learn about events and people across the island.
Jeffers also enjoys watching children let their imaginations flow with Melody and Harmony, his inflatable mother and baby whales. Keiki learn about the anatomy of the marine mammals, their migration patterns and their important role in the ocean’s ecosystem.Kauka has hosted Jeffers’ inflatable whales at Island School, where she teaches Hawaiian studies.
“It is a marvelous lesson on humpback whales where the children climb into the belly of the whale. I love the special projects Mark has developed,” she says.
The 12-year-old whales were created to offer an exciting space for children to learn, says Jeffers, who has taken the adjoined inflatables around the state and across the Midwest.
It’s not just educational imagination Jeffers is perpetuating. He also is spreading the message of peace through the Spark M. Matsunaga International Garden for Peace located at the Storybook Theatre of Hawai’i in Hanapepe – a site he is responsible for saving from demolition after Hurricane ‘Iniki destroyed it.
“It’s a physical classroom to study peacemaking,” he says of the garden surrounded by native plants and a small outdoor stage.
When he isn’t restoring the building, creating documentaries, telling stories to children or hosting a radio show on KKCR called Children’s Earth Count, Jeffers is spending time with his family: newlywed wife Min and her 17-year-old daughter Yaoyao. He also enjoys working in his garden, biking and fixing up his Hanapepe residence.
Still, one of the most fulfilling moments in his life is when children, teachers and parents discover the power of their own imagination.
“Because that is something you can see and you can recognize,” he says. “It’s a happy moment.”