Children's Puppet Show Brings Rachel Carson to Life

Plankton, fish, and birds are taking center stage at the Carnegie libraries this summer. They are the stars of a puppet show that illustrates the way pesticides spread through the food chain to affect animals big and small. The Allegheny Front's Amelia Possanza saw them perform.

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They are the stars of a puppet show that illustrates the way pesticides spread through the food chain to affect animals big and small. The Allegheny Front's Amelia Possanza saw them perform.

POSSANZA: Rachel Carson, the naturalist who chronicled the damage done to nature by pesticides in her book Silent Spring, was born here in Pittsburgh. But seven-year-old Katie Bednar and her mother Lisa have never heard of Carson. Neither has Birdie.

ALEXANDRATOS: Clears throat. Did y'uns ever hear of Rachel Carson? Nah. Me neither. Did you ever hear of Rachel Carson? If she's from Pixburgh I'da heard of her. I've heard of Gene Kelly. whistling.

POSSANZA: [Fade whistling under] Birdie is one of the characters in the puppet show "Lessons from the Birds." Katie Bednar listens on the floor of the Children's room in the Main Branch of the Carnegie Library to learn about Carson for the first time. The playís author, Buck Favorini, learned about Rachel Carson when her book first came out.

FAVORINI: I read excerpts from Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring in the New Yorker magazine in 1962 and ever since then I was interested in Rachel Carson and in the issues she was a pioneer in raising. And I felt obligated as an artist to address it.

POSSANZA: Favorini often writes about scientific subjects. The University of Pittsburgh based playwright has written about Charles Darwin, archeology, and Rachel Carson. He was especially captivated by the way Carson helped save the American Bald Eagle. It almost went extinct because DDT, a pesticide used in the 50s and 60s, made the birds' egg shells very fragile. Carson's book Silent Spring helped stop the use of DDT in the U.S. and save the birds. Two of Favorini's other plays also depict the life of Carson and aim to teach her brand of conservation science. Lessons from the Birds is a one woman show.

ALEXANDRATOS: A hundred years ago almost every little girl wore a bow in her hair. So, when I play Rachel, I will wear a bow.

POSSANZA: Actress Elena Alexandratos plays all the parts, from the sweet-voiced young Rachel to Birdie, the Pittsburghese speaking puppet she interacts with. Birdie tells Rachel that the pesticides sprayed on crops have spread from the farm to the rivers, the ocean, the fish, and finally to the birds that eat the fish. The young Rachel, now wearing a flower in her lapel to show her maturity, enlists her animal friends to act in her play to help get her message out. She also needs the audienceís help.

KIDS and ALEXANDRATOS: 3:03 to 3:33 These are the eggs laid by the bird that gobbled the fish that swallowed the plankton that ate in the ocean fed by the stream that carried the chemical that Jack sprayed. Now give yourselves a round of applause. Applause.

POSSANZA: [Fade applause under] The kids help recite this version of the nursery rhyme, "This is the House That Jack Built." But the playwright, Favorini, hopes their interaction won't end here. At the exit there's a stack of handouts with some tips from the University of Pittsburgh's cancer institute on how families can help.

FAVORINI: Part of the message is every individual can make a decision to reduce those chemical hazards if they take some responsibility.

POSSANZA: By the end of the show, Katie Bednar's almost got the message down.

BEDNAR: I knew that they sprayed chemicals to kill like pesty stuff, but I didn't know that it would stop birdies from having their eggs hatch.

POSSANZA: While Katie finishes munching on her potato chips, her mom explains to her how they can help with the situation.

BEDNAR: You know what you can do? You can buy produce that hasnít been sprayed with pesticides, like fruits and veggies. Organic. Does that sound good to you?

BEDNAR: Yeah.

POSSANZA: Other youngsters like Katie will get a chance to learn about Rachel Carson and how chemicals make their way into the food that animals and people eat. The puppet show, presented by a partnership between Shakespeare in the Schools and the Carnegie and Allegheny Libraries, will be touring the Pittsburgh schools this fall .. For the Allegheny Front, I'm Amelia Possanza.