Swimming Against the Stream

Clastic Theatre

Journey into European Puppetry #8

Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005

Part 8 – Staring into the Dark River

The Salzburg Marionette Theater, Salzburg Austria


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!)

This baby puppet was found in the Salzburg Marionette museum. It serves as a good reminder that the differences between dolls and puppets are not that great.

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.

A Baroque Woman in a Baroque city. From the Salzburg Marionetten Theater’s museum at the castle.

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.

A postcard showing the antique interior of the Salzburg Marionetten Theater. My own seat had a similar perspective.

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.

Another postcard, this time showing the same Nutcracker show that I watched:      The dance of the sugar plum fairies.

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.

A postcard from the Nutcracker featuring a marionette ballerina. Most Salzburg marionettes are controlled by nine strings.

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 heck 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.

A mannequin on the streets of Salzburg… Again the distance between the mannequin and the puppet is infinitesimal. And in the hands of Czech puppet filmmaker Jiří Barta… non-existent.

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.

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Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

March 4th 2012

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And if you are in Salzburg at the right time dig deeply into your pockets and see the Salzburg Marionette Theater. Visit their website:

http://www.marionetten.at/marionetten09/index.php