In the play, a puppet starts to offer a cigarette to a friend but his cough gets the better of him, which makes his voice a bit funny-sounding — eliciting peals of laughter from a roomful of a hundred schoolchildren (and some peeking in through the windows, from outside).
“Kids, smoking is bad for you,” the friend/puppet says, turning down the cigarette, while the other continues hacking. The pair talks about the dangers of smoking, as their young audience nods and murmurs, looking bewitched by the flamboyant puppets. Soon, new characters take the stage for another vignette, this one about handwashing.
Behind the theater are two trainee marionette puppet masters, Han Su Yin, 29, and May Zin Thant Thant, 25, both residing in Myanmar’s former royal capital, Mandalay. They often travel to nearby impoverished villages to put on shows for children.
In traditional Burmese marionette theater, a string-puppet-based performance art called yoke thay was practiced underground for decades in the shadow of the repressive governments. However, this pastime, once enjoyed by kings and queens, never fails to captivate audiences.
“Puppet masters have been traditionally male,” says Ma Ma Naing, who is in her 50s and has been a puppet master herself for over 30 years. Naing grew up in a theatrical family, and marionette puppets were an integral part of her upbringing and education. She founded the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre in the 1980s to keep this tradition alive while reforming its age-old gender structures.
“Everybody here loves these puppets, and it’s a very important part of our culture. So, why should it be just men who continue this tradition?” says Naing, an elegant and boisterous woman who lights up when she speaks about puppets. “It’s also often women who pass our traditions down the generations and preserve our culture.”
Hence, Naing felt women should have a more active role in Myanmar’s professional performances. Although her company doesnt exclusively hire females, she worked to perfect her craft and then trained dozens of young women such as Su Yin and Zin Thant Thant. In the evenings, the company puts on shows for tourists, and several times a week, their time belongs to rural children.
The last royal capital of the Burmese kingdom, Mandalay is home to UNESCO World Heritage sites and great architecture. However, many of the surrounding villages experience this geography differently. Although Myanmar saw stable economic growth over the last decade, a third of its population still lives in poverty, according to The World Bank. These figures are even more intense in rural communities, where 70 percent of the population is poor, often lacking access to basic services such as sanitation, education or electricity.
Historically at an important crossroad for regional trade activities, Mandalay has also been a so-called hot spot for human trafficking. Naing says girls from poor villages are particularly vulnerable to falling victim to human trafficking.
Every year, thousands of children in the country catch illnesses that could be prevented with information and instructions. Around 260,000 people live with HIV in Myanmar, and many come from an impoverished background.
Women like Su Yin and Zin Thant Thant are tapping into the magic of marionette puppets to educate rural children and their communities about health, hygiene and human trafficking.
Zin Thant Thant recently finished her bachelor’s degree in zoology, although she’s hoping to work in hospitality and performance arts, whereas Su Yin runs a beauty salon in Myanmar.
“But our passion is puppets and educating our communities,” Su Yin says. Zin Thant Thant nods with approval. “We put a smile on children’s faces. They might forget what they learn from the books, but they won’t forget what puppets teach them,” Su Yin explains. “Sometimes there are human trafficking or domestic abuse survivors in the audience. It’s rewarding to entertain such people,” she adds.
In wealthier countries, many people talk about incorporating technologies such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality into education curriculum. However, Dr. Shakuntala Banaji, a communication scholar at the London School of Economics whose work focuses on children and young people in the Global South, says face-to-face learning has no replacement. She describes the Mandalay Marionette Theatres approach as “entertainment for education.”
“Being in a room with other empowered community members and participating in an engaging activity is one of the most effective ways of learning and behavior change — particularly for rural communities experiencing issues of access,” she says.
More importantly, Dr. Banaji says when children attend an emotional and engaging performance, it kick-starts a conversation that accelerates a positive change.
“When children experience an exciting event, they continue to talk about it when it’s over. It enforces a peer effect. They begin to ask each other, Did you actually wash your hands and practice good hygiene?”
However, Dr. Banaji warns that the “behavior change” can go two ways: While entertainment-for-education tools can fill a void in terms of access and help rural communities implement good habits, these captivating methods can also be used for propaganda and spreading hate speech. In India, where Dr. Banaji conducted her research, as well as in Myanmar, “hugely entertaining comic books were used to spread Muslim hate,” she says.
Toward the end of the show in Mandalay, the children learn a song about washing their hands, and they chant in unison with the puppets.
According to the marionette traditions, when the performance is over, the curtains are lifted to reveal who is controlling the strings. Su Yin and Zin Thant Thant remain loyal to this ritual and slowly lift the curtains, revealing their faces to the students. The children squeal with delight and clap energetically. Su Yin and Zin Thant Thant beam and bow with a pride they cannot hide after a successful performance.
Puppetry took Naing and her company all around the world from Japan to Mexico. She’s determined to keep at it and train many more women to spread positive messages about health to rural communities.
“Both Su Yin and Zin Thant Thant really blossomed since they started to learn the art of puppetry,” she says.
“Among the women [I met] not only from Asia but also from all over the world, Myanmar women are the most modest and the shyest of all,” Naing says.
However, she says this is slowly changing, as dozens of young Myanmar women are now literally pulling the strings.