Michael Frith and Kathy Mullen team for an Afgan mission
of BBC News
Two members of the team behind the Muppets are embarking on a mission to save Afghan children from landmines by creating an elaborate stage-show to take there.
Michael Frith - one of Jim Henson's right-hand men on The Muppets and Fraggle Rock - has designed eight new characters with his wife, puppeteer Kathryn Mullen. The couple were enlisted by the War Child charity after Afghan children "went nuts" over a puppet taken by an aid worker on an earlier trip. Children take more notice of puppets than they do of adults trying to given them "boring" lessons and lectures, the charity says.
Mr. Frith and Ms. Mullen have come up with the story of an innocent Afghan boy made from carpet, Chuchi, loosely based on the Pinocchio fairy-tale. And if the show works, the idea will be rolled out to other parts of the world to teach children about issues like HIV.
In the Afghan show, the boy is led astray through minefields by evil figures from Afghan folklore - but saved after children shout out safety tips. There are more than 10 million mines in Afghanistan, plus unexploded bombs from the United States-led campaign. Half of all landmine fatalities in the country are children. The War Child charity is now trying to raise about $300,000 needed to take it to refugee camps in the Herat area, in the west of the country.
Ms. Mullen, who was one of the principal puppeteers on The Muppet Show, will teach locals how to keep the show running after the original team has left. "If it works, there are many other problems that can be addressed this way," she told BBC News Online.
Puppetry is an established way of teaching children that has been used on television shows like Sesame Street for years, she said. "We're very familiar with how well a puppet can do this job."
When War Child's emergencies co-ordinator Johnie McGlade first took a puppet, Seamus, to Afghanistan, he got an "extraordinary" response, he said. "Every time I went out to the camps with Seamus, they'd never remember my name but they'd always remember the puppet's name," he said. "When they saw me or anyone from my group, they would ask 'Where's Seamus - Seamus, where is he?' It was just incredible."
The new show will roll into camps in a brightly-coloured van that is quickly transformed into a multi-level stage. The two-and-a-half foot (75cm) tall main character, Chuchi, is woven by his lonely grandmother after her real grandson is killed by a landmine.
Chuchi wears a small cap, like the local boys, while his grandmother wears a traditional veil rather than a burkha. The show's creators hope the watching children will identify with the boy, who is sent to a wise man to be taught how to avoid mines. Chuchi is shown pictures of mines and told safety lessons, but is led astray by a series of evil characters. When he forgets the lessons, the audience is encouraged to shout out to remind him before it is too late.