Folksy puppets perch on makeshift bookshelves, overwhelming the kitchenette of Svetlana Smelansky’s tiny San Francisco apartment. Orange-haired, gray-bearded, kerchiefed, potbellied, cross-eyed, pop-eyed, or slump-shouldered, they represent only a fraction of the 500 kuklas—hand puppets and tiny dolls—that Svetlana designed for her performance and puppet therapy company, the Theater of Miracles.
Though puppet psychotherapy is not uncommon in the United States, such non-traditional techniques were rare in the Soviet Union when Svetlana, now 57, spun off her career in puppet theater into therapy seven years ago. Creating the dolls, writing the scripts, animating these inanimate objects, she realized, held healing benefits for puppet makers, performers, and audiences alike.
Founding the first department of puppet therapy at the Russian Open University, Svetlana collaborated with a Speech therapist on treatments for children who stutter. “When they are behind a curtain, where they can’t see the audience, and are manipulating the puppets, they don’t stutter!” she says.
Today, the depressed and lonely Russian immigrants at the L’Chaim Senior Center in San Francisco, where Svetlana settled four years ago, benefit from these methods. The center’s 166 members tend to be withdrawn and distrustful. Of an average age of 70. many don’t speak English, have medical problems, and can’t get out easily. On the whole, they resist trying anything new, according to L’Chaim art director Natasha Marselly.
Enter Svetlana, energetic, warm, upbeat. Armed with folk and fairy tales and biblical stories, she has charmed the seniors with recollections of working in Russian theater and explanations of puppet history. Svetlana observes that the participants, once so withdrawn, have now formed friendships. What’s the magic? “Puppets are capable of reaching the child within us, helping to repair the damaged psyche.” writes Canadian puppet therapist Nancy Cole.
Svetlana theorizes that the childlike aspects of puppets awaken dormant feelings in older people. She also thinks the process itself—inert puppets brought to life—is a metaphor for the individual’s power to take control of her own life.”