Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. Ascension Day? Evidently the day of Jesus’ ascent back into heaven is celebrated pretty widely across secular Europa while we more religious Americans hadn’t even been informed that it was a holiday. I felt gypped. (Hey wait a minute isn’t gypped from gypsy? Uh oh I feel something politically correct hovering about. Down damn you!)
Meanwhile back in Salzburg everything was closed except the Hohensalzburg Castle, which fortunately contained the small puppet museum of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. I also discovered there that it would be impossible to interview any of the Salzburg puppeteers because the office was closed for the holiday. But I did have tickets for the theatre that night.
I found my seat in the Salzburg Marionette Theater, amid children and Japanese tourists, for an unseasonal (to my mind at least… Or maybe it fits the Ascension Day festivities?) performance of The Nutcracker. This was the most expensive puppet show I had attended on my entire trip through European puppetry: 28 euros (nearly $40 US) and hardly the best seats in the diminutive antique theatre. But after all the Salzburg Marionettes had toured the world. And when I saw their show I knew why. Their technique was elaborate, flawless. It was like watching a three dimensional film without the glasses. The use of lighting was particularly good. But it was the actual movement of the marionettes that was stupefying. Whether it was a parade of snowmen or a Middle Eastern dancer, the performance was truly lifelike. The puppets appeared to be actual miniature beings rather than mere pieces of wood, wire, fabric and paint. As the ballet concluded the possibilities of puppetry appeared nigh endless to me. Although it was curious that the group with the most refined style moved about primarily to prerecorded music. If Buchty a Loutky in Prague had this kind of technique what would they do with it? Indeed many of the students at Charleville would eventually have this level of technique and they were already beginning to move far beyond traditional concepts of puppeteering.
As I walked back to my hotel in the darkness over the Salzach River I stopped on the bridge and looked across to the lights Salzburg and the castle reflected in the dark water. I reflected on what a journey it had been. I could see that puppetry was still an untapped artistic treasury, from the folk art of Guignol to the philosophical experiments at the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM, from the savage comic timing of Der Weite Theater to the gentle humor and earnest ideas of DRAK, from the pure displays of light and shadow at the Fuguren-Zirkel to the dark seriousness of play’s like Groteska’s Balladyna and from the perfect professionalism of the Salzburg Marionette Theatre to funky absurdism of Buchty a Loutky. And I could also easily see how much was left, acres, countries, galaxies to be explored in the puppetry matrix, including masks and objects. Puppetry had been a folk art for so long, with only tentative steps towards art having been made in the 20th Century. It was as though though this art form was still in its glorious silent movie stage awaiting the advent of sound.
I also had another reflection: I remembered back in Berlin going to a rock club to watch three indie bands play. I left before the third one started. Why? Well I think it’s safe to say I’ve seen a lot of music in my lifetime. And these bands were doing what so much music does these days. They were providing a rather predictable experience for the people who like that sort of sound. The club was full of the usual suspects: hipsters standing around looking coolly bored or the folks who invariably bob their heads in approval of the beat. But nothing surprising was occurring. And without some element of surprise nothing new can be said. The musical conversation that had stretched back into the mists of the 20th Century and before now looked to have become stale. (Yes I’m well aware that there is plenty of good music out there. The problem is that it has ended up as our personal portable soundtracks.)
But in puppet theatre after puppet theatre my mind was being blown all ways from Sunday. Puppetry, by retaining its tangible, tactile character, had stepped up to the artistic task of confronting the infernal virtuality of the 21st Century. The European puppets that I saw raised questions that most of the other arts could no longer confront in our maelstrom of hi-tech simulacra. Puppetry can be used effectively in films, but it is barely contained by them. And the best puppet films by Wladyslaw Starewicz, Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay or Genevieve Anderson throw us back upon the textures of the real world with its mysterious essence. But the only way to truly know why the once and future art of puppetry is able to speak into our dismembered reconstituted times is find a real puppet show (not some muppety kiddie show either) and get thee henceforth. And that’s the point puppets require our presence, which gets us out of our isolation.
As I stood on that bridge crossing the Salzach River watching the lights of Salzburg it occurred to me that everywhere you go there are endless musical bands, singers, organizations. But where were the puppet troupes? Why shouldn’t there be just as many? The punk puppets of Buchty a Loutky provided an excellent model. But why not shadow puppets? Marionettes? Toy theatres? Rod Puppets? Puppet films? Crafty automata? Reconditioned action figures? Recycled junk? And not just to make kids laugh either? (But then again why not?) And not just to make adults giggle? (And again why in the name of hell not?) But why not make versions of Shakespeare, Faust or Alice in Wonderland? Why not make versions of movies? Buchty a Loutky did Rocky IX why not The Maltese Falcon or Night of the Living Dead? Or my own personal dream – a live outdoor version of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with a small audience following the Stalker puppet to the Zone. Puppetry is an ancient art with a deep past that ranges from Punch to King Kong, from Captain Pod to Michel de Ghelderode. But it is also an art that is still discovering its grammar, especially since it is not just a language of homunculi and funny animals but of all objects. On my journey I saw stones, grapevines, electric trains, water and light all used as puppets.
And so I determined right there on that bridge that I would take on this art myself and see if I could get it to work back in Alaska, back in North America. And take it I did. And I believe it has worked… But that is another story. It was time to leave Europe and the rich panorama of faces and characters, both human and animated, I had encountered on this astounding journey.
In early May during my last stop in Europe I had one closing benediction related to puppetry. At my hotel in the Latin Quarter in Paris the desk clerk, whom I had known for years, told me that the man on the night shift, Jorge, was a Bolivian puppet master. He introduced us and I interviewed him. As he discussed puppets made out of paper in the shape of condors I realized how much more of the world of puppets I had yet to encounter. There were indeed puppet shows all over the world. I asked him if he thought puppets would have problems surviving in a world of televisions, computers, video games, etc. “No!” He replied with passion. “People need puppets.” “Why?” I asked him. For him all of puppetry came down to one word “Simplicity.” And after all I’d seen I couldn’t help but agree with him: simplicity and a tangible reality.
March 4th 2012
And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 6 – The Czech Puppet Trail
I stole my way into the Czech lands by train. I arrived at the obscure town of Chrudim, looking for the Muzeum loutkářských kultur Chrudim (The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim) in the heart of its medieval core. Passing the central plague monument I eventually found the museum located in the Renaissance Mydlář building. Museum Manager Alena Exnarova, a very knowledgeable woman, and one of her assistants, a spark-plug of a guy named Radek, graciously spent an hour and a half giving me the Czech history of puppets. (A history I’ve already spent some time writing about back in Antidote Art #1.)
What was curious to me then was that Czechs had been doing mature puppet plays ever since the 1700s. They had been performing medieval church puppetry before that but were highly influenced by wandering Punch and Judy Men and other homunculoid riffraff drifting over from England and Germany. The traveling Czech puppeteers would give miniature versions of famous plays and novels for people who might not be able to see the real thing or read. It was during this time that classics like Macbeth, Don Juan and Faust put down their puppet roots. And this also proved to be a significant influence in helping to keep the Czech language alive while under a ban from the Austrians after the devastating Battle of White Mountain in1620. This was the battle that destroyed the Reformation that Jan Hus had started nearly a century before Martin Luther. Puppets therefore occupied a very special place in the Czech psyche for while their Austro-Hungarian overlords spoke German, the puppeteers performed in Czech: a language too far beneath them for the Austrians to notice.
Puppets were sometimes a way of presenting messages that the authorities overlooked. Kašpárek, the Czech Punch, sometimes made salty comments about the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the late 1800s more was being done for children as the trend was developing in many countries. Many children looked forward to getting miniature puppet theatres as Christmas gifts. Yet before World War One there were thousands of roving puppet troupes, some for children many still for adults. They even started a puppet magazine called Loutkář (puppeteer) in 1912… and it continues today. Later Joseph Skupa invented the characters Spejbl and Hurvinek who actually made such anti-Nazi remarks so as to get Mr. Skupa thrown into a concentration camp. The Soviets, ironically, as they had done in other Iron Curtain countries, encouraged puppet theatres. And yes there were many times when the audience saw something beneath the obvious surfaces, they were used to reading the allegories. I realized that alone of all the countries in the world the Czech Republic was the only country I could think of where puppetry was not just woven into the warp and woof of its history but was positively heroic! Astounding.
It was a fascinating history from a fascinating museum in an undiscovered little medieval town. They also housed a library of 70,000 multilingual books, magazines and other items pertaining to puppet history. The museum was supported by the Czechs because puppetry is respected as a vital art form by the Czech government. The museum also serves as a focal point and aid to the Amateur Puppet Festival in Chrudim. The amateur festival is held each July for Czechs only, but foreign guests are also invited. It is a pretty big deal and might warrant a return to Chrudim someday.
As I concluded my interview with Alena Exnarova I asked her about the meaning of puppetry. “The puppet has limitations but then again it can do things actors could never do.” She explained that there is a life to puppetry that will continue even with all of the modern digital screenal gadgetry. What were some of the new trends in Czech puppetry I asked? Radek explained that there was a movement translated as something like Illusion Theatre. It was a return to certain aspects of the roots of traditional puppetry particularly the used the hidden puppeteers. In other words while Americans hardly knew much beyond the Muppets except in a few isolated zones, most of us having not even seen puppeteers standing on the stage with their puppets performing, some Czech puppeteers have already been there, done that and have started to return to the mystery of the hidden hand by behind the puppet.
There is no European spiritual program that allows one to return to states feeling vaguely in touch with the ineffable. It’s not like a trip to Asia. Instead one often just feels as stupid as a laundry bag in need of some real education. (Oh thank you American public school for partially teaching me English and English alone!) And I was hardly finished with my lessons in puppet history. I was now on my way to receive a few more instructions and to tag along with a Czech puppet troupe across some of the most dangerous roads in Europe.
A short one-hour train ride the next day took me to my next destination Hradec Kralove. My purpose in coming to this town was to visit the DRAK (an acronym that spells ‘dragon’ in Czech) Theatre. And to meet with Jakub Krofta, son of Professor Joseph Krofta, who did, and continues to do, so much to change Czech puppetry. Jakub is the de facto director of the theatre most of the time and was rehearsing a new play with actors in bear costumes. When I arrived I spent the first two or three hours interviewing and chatting with Jakub. After giving me a tour of the facilities, that I must say inspired a little wistful envy, Jakub gave me much of the history of the theatre and so many interesting perspectives that it would be difficult to begin to unravel it all here. As I watched them rehearsing their bear play I felt a need to speak out from the Alaskan perspective. Bears sniff around with their sensitive noses. If you ever see this play you might notice the bruins sniffing around a bit… now you know why.
I was temporarily adopted by the troupe and was even invited to travel the next day with them back and forth to Prague on the crazy Czech roads. I felt honored. I got to know several of the cast and crew, including the petite Petra Cicáková an unusual actress/clown/puppeteer and folk musician Filip Huml. Driving on the narrow Czech roads to the wild music of a Balkan brass band was one of the more disturbing adventures I’d ever experienced. Cars passed each other in waves on the two lane highways. Once a car drifted out into the opposing lane from some three cars back and passed three more in front of us an instant before a semi-truck plowed forward on that same lane. It didn’t comfort me to later read that indeed the fatality statistics for the Czech roads are basically the worst in Europe, all fueled by the incredible (and incredibly cheap) beer. Our able driver passed at least 60 cars on the night time ride home.
And the play, The Enchanted Bagpipes, contained a life-size puppet or two and several actors and musicians in devil costumes. The music was curious, rewritten versions of Czech folk tunes while the lead character, Filip Huml, a Czech musicologist as well as actor, played the gajdy, the Moravian bagpipe. Quite an earful! DRAK had over time been moving more into an area that used circus techniques and masks as much as puppetry. This coincided with some of the developments at Teatr Lalka and Teatr Groteska. The message of the piece was intriguing as well. The bagpipe symbolized the Czech soul. The devils tempted Filip to surrender his bagpipes. They used the authority of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the cold uniformity of the communist system and finally the randy cash of the Americanized West. I was happy to see that the old Czech tendency to use puppetry and theatre for questioning the reigning powers was far from moribund.
Finally in a side note, as I strolled around Chrudim, Hradec Kralove and Prague I noticed something. There is a kind of connection between Alaska and the Czech Republic. Back in the U.K. men often wore a sort of uniform short post-skinhead hairstyle. In the Netherlands a very absurd waxy hairstyle predominated for male fashion. Poland was a bit formal. France a bit more stylish. But in the Czech Republic men didn’t seem involved with any particular hair trend: Short, long, beards, mustaches, shaved headed it just didn’t seem to matter, just like back in Alaska. I felt visually quite comfortable. This has nothing to do with puppetry, or does it???
Next time we finally enter the puppetry capital of Europe… Prague.
For more information on DRAK:
Go see them in Hradec Kralove!
The Museum of Marionette Culture in Chrudim is remodeling until June 2012
But this website might be helpful until then:
Eventually their English page will be back up.
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 5- Finding the Roman Polanski Puppet
I arrived in Poznan, Poland a day after Pope John Paul II died. After spending a requisite amount of time being thoroughly confused by Polish housing numbers I found myself at the main entrance of the Adam Mickiewicz University along with what started off as fifty or so mourners to the late Pope and which eventually grew to a march of what appeared be about twenty thousand people. I was searching for the Teatr Animacji for puppet shows. I passed it and didn’t even recognize it. The building was much grander than I was imagining any puppet theatre would be. Eventually the next day I would find it in a massive colonnaded grey cement building. I also discovered that all cultural venues in the country were closed for a week. This included puppet theatres. I also found that no one in the offices of Teatr Animacji spoke a word of English.
I continued on to Warsaw. And I met my friend Marta Czanik at the train station. Again the city was in mourning for the Pope. I attended one outdoor service that was extremely moving amongst over 100,000 thousand Poles. Although the puppet theatres were not performing that week there were a few people in the theatre. Marta came to my rescue in regards to the titanic bulk of the Teatr Lalka (teatr = theatre & lalka = puppet) and set up some meetings for me. We interviewed the artistic director for Teatr Lalka, a Polish woman with a strong character named Joanna Rogacka. Sitting in her dark office in the Palace of Culture and Science, the massive Stalinist Gothic building at the center of Warsaw, listening to this regal woman unravel the history of puppetry in the communist era, provoked quite a few thoughts. The gray morning light drifted through the windows shading the woman and her assistant Anna Bojarska is high contrasts. The furniture surrounding us was old heavy dark wood. Pani Rogacka explained that the Soviets encouraged puppetry as a form of art, though Teatr Lalka had a more elaborate history. She explained that how back in the forties a man named Jan Wilkowski began to change the presentation of puppets by stepping from behind the curtain to work with the puppets themselves on stage. Also there was clearly an influence upon the Polish style by the Russian puppet genius Sergey Obraztsov. This moved the world of Polish puppets closer towards a more artistic idea. She showed me photos of elaborate stage shows, including some tantalizing images from their version of Homer’s Odyssey. I was missing one performance because I was on my way to Krakow. But I certainly got the idea. At a certain point the interview, rather the monologue, was over. I had been granted my time. I was brimming with questions. But she was indeed a busy woman, and I was indeed fortunate to have been granted an audience. I watched a rehearsal of a story about a noble bunny rabbit, some strange looking black creatures and shadow plays. I also watched the troupe put on a clown play that reminded me of a cross between Laurel & Hardy and a child’s version of Waiting for Godot. I owe Marta good words for translating the entire interview for me. I couldn’t have done this without her.
It was soon time to go to Krakow. The city was thoroughly fascinating and well worth several visits. I also detoured for a day to visit Auschwitz, which left me with conflicted emotions about the nature of our presentation of the tragedies of the past. At last I made my way over to Teatr Groteska, which was housed in another large old domed cement building. Inside, up the four or five flights of wide marble stairs, were housed examples of the theatre’s sixty-year history. I was also allowed into the puppet storage facilities. An usher named Olga told me that she had become so fascinated with the reactions of children to puppets that it had become the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She arranged interviews for me with one of the actors of a mature puppet play, Balladyna, which I would see later in the day. But first it was time to watch a kooky version of Little Red Riding Hood. The interesting thing about all of the daytime performances was that they were all full. The theatre had made arrangements with schools across southern Poland to bring kids to the theatre. I was told that over 90,000 students a year viewed the various shows. Now that’s how it should be done!
The afternoon show, Balladyna, was full of high school students. This was a serious work with some eerie raggedy puppets, puppets that reminded me somehow of Auschwitz, used in a way I’d never seen before. Live actors interacted with the humanoid shapes as they manipulated them. And somehow at one moment they were actors and in the next they were the puppets. The story was a dark Polish legend of sorts from a work of classic Polish literature. It was clear to me that puppets could easily do work as serious as Shakespeare’s plays if they so chose. Afterwards I spoke with one of the actors, Franciszek Mula, about the differences between puppetry and standard acting. This was actually his first puppet work. He explained that puppetry was far more humble than theatre work; that the actor had to give space to the puppets, which actually went against the obvious inclination of actors to be seen. When I asked if he would pose for a few photographs with the puppets he replied with a knowing smile, “Of course, I’m an actor.”
A couple of days later, after seeing one more performance with a Chinese theme and a wild use of masks, smoke and balloons (!), I had an interview through a translator with the slyly sagacious director of Groteska, Adolf Weltschek. He too explained that the theatre started as a result of the Soviet push towards classical culture at the end of World War 2. Essentially the way it worked was that the Russians thought that there were four pillars of culture: Ballet, Opera, Theatre and Puppets. That is why every Polish puppet theatre was so large. They had been financed at great expense by the Soviets. He also explained more of how the censorship issues worked. How the text of the play would be submitted to the censor for approval and then how the images might contradict the text to get another message across. He also offered me his theory that all Polish artistic puppetry was influenced by the Russians. And in fact, unlike the Czechs, the Poles did not have such an involved history of puppetry. There were some folk puppets. But the real burst in Polish puppetry had come after the Second World War. When I asked how this transference might have occurred he said probably during the war when Polish and Russian troops were fighting side by side. Before the war he said puppets were nothing special in Poland, just a folk art, but in Russia… And there was no way to get to Moscow on this trip!
As I was leaving Adam Weltschek, descending the marble stairs, my translator stopped. She pointed to an older funky looking puppet and remarked with pride, “This is the Roman Polanski puppet. When he was 12 years old he used to work with this puppet.” Teatr Groteska in Krakow had just become yet another crucial element of this poetic topography of puppet history.
Next we travel to heart of puppetry in Europe – the Czech Republic
January 25th 2012
For information on Krakow’s Teatr Groteska run this page through a translation tool
And this one on Warsaw’s Teatr Lalka
And get yourself to Poland!!!
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 3- The Reality Principle
We walked three floors up to an attic room with a pitched ceiling and exposed beams at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières, France. A Polish student, with the nearly unpronounceable name Przemyslaw Piotrowski, dragged in three scruffily constructed crosses as the room darkened. He also had several nameless placards like the one that read I.N.R.I. hanging above Christ on the cross. He handed one to an audience member with a faint smile foreshadowing death. He handed out another. Then he set up the crosses and began to reveal how each of these people died and their relationships. They were just people from his life. People he was intimate with. He was the crucifier. The story was predominately about his complicity in their deaths. In the end he crawls to a light emanating from a box. He finds a small door. He knocks on it and prays in Polish. Finally a dark eerie face comes to the window. But there is no sound coming from it. He finds that it is just a mask. But a mask for whom? He doesn’t know. He stops there waiting for an answer.
Before we can find out we descend again back to the long dark hall downstairs continuing on to the next student performance. This time we pass through the long blackened hall into a room where a woman is reading names and stories on a wall. It felt like autumn with dead twisted branches on the floor and walls and walnuts in rows on the ground. The voice continued reading from brown pages on the wall. It is the elfin black haired girl again. She is of Russian ancestry from Romania. Her name is Aurélia Ivan. When she introduced Julia’s piece she seemed shy and quiet with a whisper of a voice and an open smile. But now no one had any trouble hearing her strong words as she read from the wall in her dark dress while holding a wicker basket full of walnuts. She was transformed from petite girl with a gentle smiling face into the strongest of women. She spoke directly and with authority, but also quite sadly and compassionately. She finally leaned over while reading a list of attributes describing a proud man named Jean (John). She pronounced his final name, ‘Jean le mort.’ (John the dead.) Then she picked up a walnut and looked at it. She backed down this hall beckoning us to follow. The text was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man).
Aurélia then stood behind a wooden drawer that had been filled with sand. Then slowly she picked up a strange twisted root with a little plaster face attached to it. Faces inspired by the work of artist Jephan de Villiers. And she brought it slowly forward speaking in its voice. Then she planted it in the sand. Then she brought forth another root in a quite different shape with a different motion, with a different voice and planted that in the sand. By the time she was finished she had more than a dozen of these root creatures in this box carrying on a conversation in different voices about how they would eat the body below them. We followed her and walked through a jungle of phrases hanging from the ceiling which were in French and a little too poetic for me to quite understand. Finally we stood before long scraggly bare branches whose shadows grew as she waved her illuminated hands before them. Suddenly they seemed alive. She came to a door, rapped with her knuckles and it opened. She turned to us with her basket full of walnuts and bid us to leave through the door. As we left she handed us each a walnut, the fruit of decomposition, the possibility of something new.
I stepped outside into the light my head exploding with ideas. I viewed a few other student shows but these few quite exploded my concept of puppet theatre while confirming exactly why I had taken this journey. I had been attracted to the general idea of puppetry, suspecting that as an obscure art it contained ways of communicating that been barricaded in other art forms. Yet here was a form that could speak to children, everyone’s first prejudice about puppets, yet could also in the right hands deliver strong philosophical ideas as well. I didn’t necessarily agree with all of the content of what I saw. But I didn’t need to be kicked in the head to realize that this was indeed a powerful medium for ideas. And it had both ancient rules and a new vitality. It was also clear to me that it could communicate in a way that could possibly move beyond the postmodern dilemma. And this was the time to explore it.
The day ended with my talking to Julia Kovacs and Aurélia Ivan and photographing parts of their presentations after their evening shows had finished. As I was talking with Aurélia, who was quite serious and curious about why I had come all the way from Alaska to watch the student performances, there was an older French man who stood near us occasionally supplying French or English words to help the conversation along. As I was finishing my discussion with her she said “Oh! Do you know who this is?” Of course I didn’t. “His name is Francois Lazaro.” And then she proceeded to tell me he had been a teacher there for 15 years and had is own puppet theatre in Paris, the Clastic Theatre. And I turned and said, “So I guess should interview you?” He agreed and we set up a time the next day. And I walked back to the hotel that night, my head bursting with ideas, realizing that I had just had an unrepeatable day. I thought of the performances I had seen and the people I had met. And the way that puppetry could speak volumes in the right hands.
The next morning I met student Clea Minaker from Canada at a café for coffee and an interview. The first thing she said to me was that not all of the presentations were as serious or philosophical as the ones I had seen. The other set of performances had a lot crazier pieces. Her own piece was evidently built upon a mountain of consumer rubbish as she was coated in latex sheathes. (She had shown me the structure the evening before. A photo of the performance briefly glimpsed lead me to conclude that it must have been a wild piece.) Clea also explained the way the school worked. Oddly enough, there were only fifteen students in the school at any one time. The course lasted three years. And the same fifteen students moved together from an understanding of traditional puppet techniques, theatrical history, acting skills, experimental ideas and live performances. Several important European puppeteers passed through Charleville-Mézières with their shows. And the education was all for free, including the room and board. The students didn’t even need a college degree. They just needed to demonstrate their interest through past projects, speak passable French and survive the winnowing process. Clea also came back to the same line of thinking that Pascal in Paris had, that in today’s world puppet theatre provided a real tangible presence rather than yet another televised electronic spectacle. (Not that she was against puppet films.) The live performance was the chief importance of puppets in our times. So here at the International Institute for Marionettes it was quite clear that they were quite consciously leaning against the currents of the day. Clea certainly spoke of a profusion ideas herself and understood the importance of fighting against the tide of virtual electronic images to find something new. That is what struck me about the school in general: It was a place that profoundly encouraged intellectual searching and questioning in both a theoretical and a practical manner. These students truly were asking serious questions. Puppets were not seen as yet more mindless entertainment but as a means for provoking real thought.
Later I met Francois Lazaro for a beer in a café and we had a fascinating conversation about puppets, theatre and philosophical ideas. He had been performing puppet shows since 1966. We discussed his influences: Beckett, Švankmajer, even Tarkovsky. He also was quite aware of the special nature of puppets to reality in this media saturated age. For him puppets held revolutionary possibilities, not in the political sense, but in changing our view of things. He felt that traditional theatre had come to a dead end and was borrowing increasingly more from puppetry to stay alive. As we were talking Aurélia dropped in and joined the conversation. We all talked about the reality principle a little more. Aurélia was just as serious as Clea and Francois in her feeling that puppetry was a unique art form for the present moment. She planned on producing her own plays. And she had the intensity and commitment to pull it off. When she asked me how I even knew to come to see the students perform she locked eyes with me in a way that showed the need to have the question answered earnestly. She would be joining Francois’ troupe after graduation. These puppeteers understood the need for engaging the brain, a desperate shortage everywhere these days. They knew well that this world of simulated knowledge, cheap information and hollow entertainments could only be opposed by something as small, humble, tangible and intelligent as puppets. It was a way forward culturally, a way out of the maze, possibly a way to actually get people to laugh or cry or miraculously to reconsider their ideas, especially those created in virtual miasma of this 21st Century.
But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first. Matthew 19:30
(Next time we discover shadow puppets in Berlin and have a serious laugh.)
To learn more about Clea Minaker’s recent activities:
And to see images from her 2005 ESNAM performance:
To discover what Aurélia Ivan has been doing since 2005:
To learn more about The Clastic Theatre this link might be helpful:
For more information about the Institut International De La Marionnette (en Français):
And about ESNAM:
They used to have an English page but there are translation tools… Here is an English version of the course of study:
Puppetry As Antidote
Once we have dispensed with the idea that puppets are a quaint cute cheap children’s theatre we are still faced with a central obstacle to an appreciation of the value of puppetry as an important art form. We might call this the ‘so-what-factor’. After all is said and done we live in an age where we can find visual electronic images moving on a vast array of screens. We can walk through Times Square assaulted by televisions peering down on us from the sides of skyscrapers. We can pry into the most private acts of another human being through the computer. We can watch live televisuals from New Guinea or Antarctica. We can inhabit filmic science fiction worlds. The average person has nearly immediate access to the most fantastic phantasmagoria ever imagined. What is the point of watching a little puppet show?
I have asked several puppeteers the same question. And the answer I found was surprising: for even though we are surrounded by screens there is something that happens in reality that no cluster of digital images can touch. In 2005 I was on a journey through Europe looking for puppet theatres, following my curiosity about the nature of these moving objects. I stopped in at the Theatre Guignol Anatole to watch Guignol, that rascally cousin of the nefarious Punch, entertain a group of French kids outdoors at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. What was fascinating to me in this largely traditional performance was how the French children were completely caught up in the reality of the puppet. At one point a Crocodile swallows the Gendarme by the side of a river. A little later Guignol shows up at the same spot and then the kids erupt trying to warn Guignol to go somewhere else. Guignol responds that there is no danger that he can see. He turns away for a moment and a brief glimpse of the Crocodile’s snout sends the French youngsters into a fit trying to get Guignol to notice the reptilian beast.
I later asked Pascal Pruvost, the Guignoliste, about that reaction. He told me that it was traditional in Parisian Guignol performances to get the kids involved. I then asked him if he thought children had changed as a result of all of the televisions, video games, films, DVDs etc? Absolutely, he replied He told me that some kids come having only experienced visual media. They are used to controlling the images in some manner. But Guignol was really interactive. The puppet was not under their control. They couldn’t press stop or repeat. At times he even used the puppet to exercise control over troublesome children. Did the change in their behavior hurt the show? Oh no! Because it was even more surprising for them to see the tangible reality of this very tactile character.
I found the same effect among high school aged students in Poland at the Teatr Groteska in Krakow. I was sitting amidst an afternoon matinee of teens on a field trip. The theatre was fairly full. They were talkative and noisy, as one would expect, until the lights were turned off. Then we all watched a rather dark intellectual folk tale called Balladyna. There were actors who had puppets on the ends of the hands. The puppets were designed from some sort of burlap type of material. Sometimes it was the actor speaking, sometimes the puppet. The Polish students were engrossed completely. Now these students had certainly been exposed to the plethora of screenal creations that we all are. But the puppets caught them with a dark intellectual work that they might not otherwise have fully grasped.
But then again I’m using children, teenagers and Europeans as my examples…
I had a chance to explore these dynamics on my own in the autumn of 2009 as our Reckoning Motions puppet troupe made a very large two month arc through North America from Whitehorse in Canada to the East Coast down to Florida across through Texas to Los Angeles and finally back up through the Pacific Northwest. We took a show called The Great Ziggurat, which was a reflection on power and towers. The show was certainly not designed to be easily digested in one sitting. My confederate, Carsten Hyatt, and I decided not only to not dumb things down but in fact to go against the grain and to make people reach for what we were saying. We purposely stocked the show with dozens of historical references. Many of the puppets were known personages. Carsten presented shadow theatre that focused on the meaning of language. (Think about that for a moment.) We made allusions to folk tales (Rapunzel), films (Vertigo & King Kong) and famous murders (Charles Whitman & the Kennedy assassination). And we used the biblical story of the Tower of Babel as an overarching theme.
We performed for a wide variety of types. (One of the great things about puppetry is that after it is determined that these aren’t children’s puppets people get a touch confused and then you can play anywhere.) We played in a rock club in New York City. We played in a tiny native village in the Yukon. We played for an anarchist art collective and we played at a fundamentalist Christian high school. We played for professional puppeteers and for people who had never ever seen a puppet show before. We played in theatres, gymnasiums, backyards and front rooms. And in one truly bizarre occurrence we played in a small drive-through wannabe Starbucks in South Carolina mini-mall. (Thanks to Danielle Howle for that one!) And here is the point of breaking down the odd demographics of our trip: It really didn’t matter the place, the age, the beliefs or lack of them. The majority of people got it. They enjoyed being wrestled with creatively, even intellectually. They took the bait and afterwards I could see people discussing what it all meant. In Bellingham a guy came up to us grateful for the breath of non-digital fresh air. One girl in North Carolina came up to us and said “That sort of disturbed me, because I could tell that you were trying to get us to think. But you were telling us how.” To which I responded, “Exactly.”
Our philosophy was this: Before you can get people having real discussions about the issues at stake they have to get out of the irrational mode that our society favors at present. I know that puppets can also be used for the same kinds of spectacular entertainments that surround us at every turn. But why leave them merely as amusements. Puppets can do so much more. And here’s a hint: At this moment, the field is wide open. The reason we could perform anywhere is that few people have seen a puppet show. We could have just told funny stories. But why waste the opportunity? Why not really say something? If we were musicians we would be quarantined to where bands of a certain ilk play. But as puppeteers? No one even knew what hit them. How many other arts are there like that left? (There are others.) In puppetry there is still an element of wonder and mystery. I asked a Bolivian puppet master once if he thought puppetry would survive in our media bloated age. It has to, he replied, people need puppets. But why? I asked. He spoke only one word. “Simplicity.”
There is so much more to say about puppetry… but I’ll leave this as an introduction. Meanwhile go look for an interesting puppet show.