December 10, 2023 - January 20, 2024: Issue 609
Launch of Mrs Masek's Marionettes by Lyn Levy
Iva is one of millions of emigrants that have made Australia the enriched by the knowledge and temperament of others place it is today.
Iva Masek was born in Czechoslovakia in the short but tumultuous period of history between Nazi occupation and Soviet domination. Nurtured by her extended family and a system set on raising strong children, she grew up to become a national representative in gymnastics.
While her sheltered upbringing prevented awareness of the corruption and brutality of the Communist regime, when she fell in love with a young man whose family have suffered deeply as a result of opposition to the regime, the truth became apparent.
Following the 1968 Soviet invasion of her homeland, the couple were arrested for participating in an anti Communist demonstration, and their life plans were shattered. They made the decision to seek freedom and safety in another country. While determined to emigrate, they could not have realised what they stood to lose by leaving or foreseen the troubles which lay ahead.
By sheer chance she lands in Australia, with no English, no money, and pregnant. The letters Iva wrote to her childhood friend in Czechoslovakia reveal a vibrant young woman, homesick and struggling to find her place in a strange new land. Having three children in as many years, the first premature and profoundly deaf, she endures trauma, grief and isolation.
It is over a decade before she finally gains the opportunity to carve out an identity for herself and is able to share her skills, wisdom and passion, enriching the lives of thousands of young people at Barrenjoey High School in her ole as a PE Teacher and a guiding force in the Rock Eisteddfods that preceded, for decades, the current Schools Spectacular.
Just as she approached the time in which she might reap the rewards of her decades of dedication, she is confronted with yet another daunting challenge which would overturn her hopes for the future. She would need to summon the strength to adapt to her new circumstances and work to retain the spirit of joy and optimism that has underpinned her life.
The Rock Eisteddfod Challenge, also known as the Australian Rock Eisteddfod Challenge, was an Australian dance and drama challenge for government-funded high schools that was active between 1980 and 2012. Initiated by the Rock Eisteddfod Challenge Foundation as part of the Global Rock Challenge, the aim of the event was to promote healthy lifestyle choices, particularly abstinence from drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. The event started in Sydney, New South Wales in 1980 and subsequently spread to other States and territories of Australia and a small number of other countries.
Rock Eisteddfod shows were stories on stage of no longer than eight minutes. Participants could have between 10 and 120 students on stage, as well as up to 20 back stage crew. The entire show is set to a pre-recorded soundtrack of contemporary music, and the aim is to use dancing and drama to tell the story. Each year a 'Challenge' on a certain theme was set for schools to respond to.
Today students take part in the School Spectacular annually. The School Spectacular celebrates its 40th year in 2023.
The name of this biography stems in part from Iva’s childhood. Her father Alois Dohnal was a school principal, a position that would keep him at work on weekends when Iva would accompany him to the school grounds. He would sometimes give here the keys to the puppet room where she would play, giving voice to the traditional marionettes; a princess, orphan, ballerina or witch, and not only be articulate about what the puppets were saying, but could give voice to all the dreams and aspirations that were developing in her young form.
UNESCO relates that puppet theatre for communities in Slovakia and Czechia is not only a popular form of traditional entertainment but also a way of conveying a vision of the world, and an educational tool with messages on moral values. The Theatre of Marionettes stems from mediaeval times in this region.
In French, marionnette means "little Mary". During the Middle Ages, string puppets were often used in France to depict biblical events, with the Virgin Mary being a popular character, hence the name.
In France, the word marionnette can refer to any kind of puppet, but elsewhere it typically refers only to string puppets.
Mrs. Masek's Marionettes at the launch
The Czech puppets, whose characters are real or imaginary, are mostly made of wood and animated using various methods. Initial bearers of the practice were families of travelling puppeteers whose works later absorbed local influences in language and themes using namely comical figures with distinct characteristics. Puppet theatre is an integral part of Slovak and Czech local theatre and literary tradition. It also plays an important role in socialisation, helping performers to develop as creative thinkers and learn about cooperation, communication and to strengthen their sense of identity in society. Featuring with other traditional rituals and festive events like feast days, markets and fairs, puppet shows today come in many different forms but still draw from tradition. Practice bearers include performers, playwrights, puppet and costume makers, as well as stage designers. Skills are transmitted by imitation and practice within performer communities, while in Slovakia also transmission takes place in traditional puppetry dynasties, as well as through workshops run by not-for-profit organizations and music and arts schools.
Iva related through her thanks speech how ‘Masek’ the clown hand puppet helped her to speak to others about subjects not broached – he also helped her with her isolation in an English-speaking nation when an apparent extroverted nature actually masked a shy nature and experiences that can stop your voice in its throat - all this needed to be overcome to speak. Despite learning German when occupied by Nazis, and forced to learn Russian, when occupied by communists, Iva’s way of expressing herself was through dance – through movement – not a language she had no knowledge of before landing here. So Masek connected her back to the time when she could be verbose.
While Lyn Levy’s biography communicates a common Australian story in an individualised and personal way the path this lady trod and the way she walked it – it communicates this so well you can smell the gymnasium, feel the trepidation and nervousness all experience before stepping on any stage, and discern in the shifts from a young woman who scaled European mountains to a teacher who led a community to overcoming some of the pitfalls every young generation is challenged by, it also underlines an ancient tradition from her homeland she will resort to still, as a still feisty soul, by keeping this angel hand puppet close as this unfetters the musical chatter that has filled her life and helped others form theirs.
Don’t be surprised if this turns up as a movie somewhere in the future - all the elements of a life journey that reflects so many changes that have occurred in our world are apparent, and at the core is the articulate telling about a lady whose approach to everything celebrates life itself.
Danne Levy, daughter of the author introduced her mum, commenting in her remarks that the room is filled with people from both the author and the subject and noting one table in the room has students people from Davidson High, where her father worked, as well as those here as former Barrenjoey High School students, Teachers and Parents.
‘’this project has been 8 years in development from the start of the research. There was a visit to Czech, interviews, phone calls, video chats – there have been structures and restructures, we’ve been faced with the challenges of the digital age, Iva likened learning to using a computer to learning the Russian language, in that if you don’t learn you get kicked out of school. She is (Iva and Lyn) so talented at inspiring others to get involved with her project, calling in favours and using the talents of those around her to bring an idea to reality. When I say she I’m actually referring to both of them because both my mum Lyn, and Iva, are so talented at drawing inspiration and then inspiring others. I’d like to congratulate them both on the project – if you’d like to join with me.’’ (applause, cheers).
I’d like to call on the published author Lyn Levy to say a few words.
I’m really please to welcome you all here this afternoon, I’m really happy to see so many familiar faces and it’s such a joy to be here on Gadigal land to celebrate this fabulous occasion to celebrate the story of Iva’s life.
The first day I met Iva, around 40 years ago, she immediately struck me as the most extraordinary person, so full of enthusiasm and cheek and laughter. In that first conversation I learned hat Iva had been a Czech gymnast during the time of the communist regime and her trips as a national gymnast gave her glimpses of life in the west, and she tasted freedom. She and Guy, who was then her boyfriend, planned a daring escape plan after being arrested for protesting against the communists. In one night all their dreams and life plans had imploded.
After hearing just a few snippets of her story I knew immediately that her life was a book, waiting to be written. I began to look around for somebody that make take that on.
Writing a book had once appeared on my bucket list, it was just before ‘ride around Australia on a Harley Davidson wearing pink snakeskin boots’. Obviously I’d never rally thought through what may be involved in these fantasies. It was a good while before I realised that I wasn’t going anywhere on a motorbike – and even longer to realise that I would have to be the one to write this book because nobody else was putting up their hand.
It was by sheer chance that they landed in Australia, they knew no one, had no English, and $39 in their pocket, and Iva was pregnant. Being madly in love, she could not imagine the difficulties their immigration would cause, as much as she couldn’t have seen the fabulous career she would forge for herself and the vast contribution she would make to her new community.
At first it was her warmth and enthusiasm and mischievous sense of humour that intrigued me, but as time went on, her daring escapades, incredible sacrifices, courage and unswerving determination took over. Her passion for nature, for art in all its forms and her total belief in the magic of human movement – it turns out Iva was something of a mystery wrapped in a riddle. She was a tomboy with a taste for elegance, a world class athlete who wasn’t game to join the staff tennis comp., a romantic who was ruled by her head, and a team player who is fiercely independent.
In many ways she was my opposite.
She became my teacher.
I had so much to learn.
I learnt about marionettes; how stringing together prices of wood and setting them in motion could move people, shape people, even shape history.
I learnt about the survival of brave and resourceful and resilient people.
And I’ve glimpsed the crushing loneliness of life as a refugee.
I’ve seen the universal power of laughter, irony, satire, nonsense, clarity, even slapstick all lighten our load. And I’ve learnt about the impact one passionate person ca have on many many lives.
I also learnt not to edit late at night because there is a possibility you are going to fall asleep with your finger on the delete button.
This is not just Iva’s story, this is an Australian story – nne out of ten of us has a family history that runs parallel. Most are not as dramatic or as heroic as Iva’s but what we really need to hear as a people, to move forward, are the stories of our first people – that’s the only way we’re going to become fair dinkum about who we are.
[applause – calls of ‘hear hear’]
This book aims to honour Iva’s outstanding contribution to Barrenjoey and this whole community. But it’s not really my book; I’ve taken her life and packed it and pulled it and warped it and then shamelessly taken the skills of almost every friend I’ve ever had to get it to print.
So my thanks are due to may many people – to my sister Julie Hill; from the first reading it was your tears that gave me hope, to Libby Meakin, Robyn Muldoon and Sue Martin, who pored for weeks over deeply flawed drafts and gave me detailed feedback; and to Warrick Simmons and Danne Levy, for their persistent faith in the project and expert assistance with editing, design and proofing the book, to my James, I owe you all my undying gratitude.
Thanks to Iva, for sharing her story with us, and for popping into Australia, and sharing her life with us – and to all of you have come today – I can’t believe the support of you all, this is the most surreal thing that’s ever happened in my life – I hope you all enjoy this story before amazon scoops it up and turns it into a miniseries.
Danne: I’d like now to introduce Iva with Masek – Masek is a clown that loves people. The clown came to Iva after she’d been away from Czech for 23 years. He was given as a welcome home gift at the airport on her return back to Czech. Please welcome Iva and Masek.
I don’t know which part of this story I should start with [very emotional] – there are so many thousands of thank yous I want to say to so many – to so many individuals and groups of people. It’s very touching to come here today and see so many people whom I know from the past, people who helped me, and people who became attached to me through funny situations; the camp for the students, the sports.
I want to thank Cathy for so many kindnesses over so many years – I remember at the airport her putting me in the trolly and pushing and telling me not to worry, everything is going to be fine. Cathy and the Morrison family, she is James Morrison’s mum, and George, this family and their music has brought so much pleasure to this world, so thank you very much for coming today.
Iva and Cathy
I should start with thanking my family members, thank you for coming – it is nice for us all to be here today, if feels like coming home. [very emotional again]
It took me a long time to be able to stand up and say a few words without crying – when you say you feel at home I mean it, I feel very at home in Australia.
Before we lived far away and we left because we didn’t have any freedom; w couldn’t speak what we wanted to say.
This one [referring to Masek the clown hand puppet Iva is holding] came when we were travelling back to Czech to visit. It took 23 hours to get there and my friend Payda came to the airport to meet us and gave me him. He is just laying on my bed or when I go somewhere I take him with me so when I start talking to people I don’t cry because I can just have him like that on my heart [places Masek over her heart]. It helps me, he helps me. He also covers everyone here with love when I put him over my heart – because I love you people. [ very emotional]
[Masek the hand puppet, or Mr. No-No as he is referred to in the biography, allowed Iva to broach subjects that were difficult to speak of for herself or for those she was speaking to. He was an intermediary – an angel for Iva and for those who could then speak to him about what needed to be expressed but had become ‘stuck in the throat’].
One person who is not here today is Lindy. In the book you will hear about Lindy Webster, my dear friend who died and who I still miss.
[Lindy Webster was a PE teacher at Barrenjoey High School when Iva first commenced there as a casual. Iva was teaching in many positions as a relief casual but obviously had the talent to be a great PE teacher. When Lindy became pregnant and then a mum she retired from teaching to look after her child – local legend has it that she stood up for Iva and campaigned to ensure Iva then became the fulltime PE teacher. The friendship deepened – they were like sisters according to those who knew both, until illness took Lindy from her family, community and Iva in November 1998.]
Every person I look in this room I have a memory of, but I won’t go on and on for a long time because you will probably realise – ‘we have the book’! ‘we are just going to go through the book’.
I would like to thank Davo (David Gavin) who was working with me to 2am when we were putting the Rock Eisteddfod together for the students, so they could get it right. Sue Martin, who also did so much for the students and me, Lindy of course, and the five people who were helping when she was so ill, thank you, Jess, and Cathy, and all of you here today.
[1991: Barrenjoey High school won the Rock Eisteddfod}
In 1964 to 1968 I was at university, those were my uni years. I was at the gymnasium and the university. In 1968 we came to Australia – a long way to come to be a teacher. I have all my papers still – once for when I got them in Czech and again here – when they said I could start slowly teaching again. I started doing casual teaching, and during this time there were a lot of things that helped me to start talking to people. I also wanted to do something all the time for the kids – I remember we started the Camp for them and when we were there how I would forget what the Department of Education had said about ‘you can’t do this or that’. I remember when we had the camp at Broken Bay and the kids were saying ‘can we do this or that’ and they went in the river – I said ‘look, just go, off you go’ and they went in – I thought ‘well, I have the First Aid’ and ‘I can save you in the water’ – and you have probably seen in Sue’s slideshow the picture in the snow – there are a thousand thousand stories – but they all survived, and I survived, and I’m here – so thank you so much for coming
Thanks to Lyn, who spent so much time – this took 8 years – so I hope you enjoy it.
a few more pictures from the launch
Delia Han and Sue Martin - just two of the midwives of Rock Eisteddfods - and Sue helped with read-throughs of Mrs Masek's Marionettes