A Journey Into European Puppetry

Phantom of the Wrocławski Teatr Lalek

The Strange Folkloric Political Dwarfs in Front of the Teatr Lalek Wroclawski

So I crossed back across the Polish border for the second time, assuming, foolish me, that the rail connections in Poznan would be waiting for us if we were a few minutes behind schedule. Alas Poland is not Switzerland when it comes to trains. But that was no particular strain. Another train left Poznan for Wrocław within the hour. I left a message for Czech theatre director Jakub Krofta with my new Euro cellphone. Nevertheless to save on roaming charges I had to keep the phone mostly off as the train rambled through the dark.

As I traveled a curious thing happened for the second time in the Polish phase of the journey. I sat across from a rather self-contained Pole who slowly engaged me in what would eventually be a two hour conversation. The first time this happened was on my way to Berlin with a man named Tomas, this time the man was named Szymon (Simon), he was selling organic food in Poland… not a simple task to be sure. But in both cases we had long elaborate discussions that ranged from puppetry to the issues facing Poland in a volatile age. In both cases I sat across from the man in a compartment. And in both cases there was hardly an acknowledgement of my presence to begin with. But something would come up. A little word or two might be exchanged. And then it was a two hour discussion on some fairly serious, sometimes humorous topics. I was struck by how unlike an American meeting and the usual level of discussion this seemed to be. (Not that I don’t have good conversations in America.)

Szymon did tell me one really funny story I should pass on from his teenage days during the waning hours of Communism. As you may know the old Soviet Empire was miserable at providing the goods. A line might form for any possible item no matter how seemingly irrelevant, for example windshield wipers. One day Szymon and a friend decided to stand in front of closed store to pretend to wait for a delivery, without naming the items to go on sale. They convinced a few other people that they had heard that some pretty fine merchandise was going to on sale as soon as the store opened up. Well soon they had a huge line of perhaps hundreds of people all waiting for the doors to swing wide. Meanwhile Szymon and friend had simply left the line. When the store was finally open the folks were on the verge of a siege waiting to grab the mythical articles. The store owners desperately tried to convince the now very angry mob that they had nothing new at all. Meanwhile Szymon and friend had a wild giggle over over the prank.

Anyway to get back to our tale Szymon offered to drive me if Jakub couldn’t make it. But Jakub was there. And as we scurried in his zippy auto through the maze of Wrocław’s streets Jakub and I got reacquainted.

I was sleeping at the highest point of the Wrocławski Teatr Lalek

I had originally met Jakub back on my 2005 journey. He was a director at DRAK in Hradec Kralove then. His father, Josef Krofta, was the groundbreaking artistic director of DRAK in the late communist era. Jakub had literally grown up around puppets. He had been invited to be the artistic director of the Wrocławski Teatr Lalek (Wrocław Puppet Theatre) and was itching for a challenge. We arrived at the massive structure. (Thanks to the Soviets the Poles have puppet theatres that all look like city halls or banks, very official looking structures.) He walked me into the administrative entrance, passed the night watchman, and up five flights of stairs to the attic apartment that was actually quite a well furnished room. He gave me a few pointers on Wrocław and told me there was a puppet show at around ten the next morning.

Wrocław Old Town Square in Brick Gothic

I slept well and woke up to take a walk past the ‘brick Gothic’ architecture of Wroclaw on my way to the center of the old town. There had been much damage during World War II. But as in Warsaw, everything had been reconstructed so that the casual observer might not even notice.

Eventually I found my way back to the theatre just in time to see very polite squadrons of kids lining up to enter the building. The Poles had figured out a key to keeping their puppet theatres alive. Make contracts with as many schools as possible for field trips to watch the lalki. I walked in through the back entrance and stepped behind the stage as puppets were being put into place on a large stage. An usher came up to me and I told her that Jakub Krofta had told me to watch the show. At first she was puzzled. ‘Why do you want to watch a children’s puppet show?’ It was hard to explain that it was just for the puppetry. But eventually another rather svelte, stylish woman with a firm command of English explained to the other woman and I was seated in the back. Never, the rule is solid, never sit in the front rows of a children’s performance. You will be deafened and distracted from the actual show. Eventually the entire 300 plus seat theatre was filled and I sat in the last row to watch a play called Konik Garbusek.

Kids are Filing in Waiting for the Show at Wrocławski Teatr Lalek

Konik Garbusek, set in a fairy tale past, concerned a young man who seemed to be on a journey, he rides a magic horse, gets in troubled with a rather feisty nobleman, meets a sea creature or ships masthead and eventually discovers a princess whom the nobleman wants to marry but she refuses him. Finally she marries our young man. I’m sure I’m massacring the story but you get the picture. Some very nice effects essentially the flying horse, the weird sea creature and the princess. Some very funny moments, especially when the young man tries to awaken the nobleman. And of course the kids were both surprisingly polite, well attired in dresses and neat clothes and they were volcanic as the play required their response.

The Moon Sea Masthead Creature from Konik Garbusek. (A still from a cheap little video I took.)

The best part for me was that I got to wander through the stage afterwards like the phantom of the theatre. I find skulking around a quiet theatre to be quite the experience. But I had an interview with Jakub to conduct. And technical chores to perform. Especially learning the new camera. And as I was figuring it out how it worked I immediately realized that I had completely forgotten to charge the battery. So I informed Jakub, who was in rehearsal for a new play, that I would have to wait till the evening. Fortunately that was not a problem.

Wandering Through the Darkened Sets Backstage

Jakub and Vratá (his long time collaborator in music) took me to one of their favorite eating establishments for a good Polish lunch. I had a continuing dialogue with Vratá about music and composers, which eventually ended with him coming up to the attic apartment to have his mind expanded by Georgian choral singing on my computer.

Later that evening after I had been running camera tests I came down as the cast of singers were harmonizing to Vratá ‘s glorious music for the new play. Jakub left the musical rehearsing to Vratá and accompanied me into the large entrance hall and stairway for our interview. I won’t elaborate on that because… that’s why I’m making the documentary, and I want you to someday see it, and not think you know something that you really don’t. But for now let’s just say it was thoroughly educational…

Vratá & Jakub After a Meal Together in the Old Town Square

I realized I’d made a mistake in Wrocław I hadn’t allowed enough time. At 6:30 the next morning Jakub met me at the theatre and drove me through the early morning streets of Wrocław where I boarded the train to pass through Germany (requiring an unforeseen expenditure) to arrive in the heart of European puppetry, the Czech Republic.

Byrne Power

Prague, Czech Republic

12/10/2012

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