A Journey Into European Puppetry

Ladislaw Starevitch

Gravity From Above: A History – Part 1

Before we begin let’s just remind you to hit this link and pitch into Gravity From Above. You know you want to do it. So what are you waiting for?

Fifty Foot (1)
My first puppet event in October 2003. The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, with Julie Johnson.

And so we come to another crossroads in our our efforts to complete Gravity From Above. Maybe it’s time to give you folks a summary of the origin and history of this project thus far. And why I’m determined to try to get this done… in my lifetime.

I did not grow up around puppetry. The most exposure I had to puppets was in watching the occasional Davey And Goliath children’s show, the odd early pre-Sesame Street performances of the Muppets on the Ed Sullivan show and other variety acts seen on television during the 60’s and, of course, televised reruns of the 1933 King Kong. As a child I never once watched a live puppet performance. Music grabbed my attention much more fully.

King Kong Puppet Show (1)
Looking back from our digital fantasy land King Kong is now obviously a true puppet animation film, courtesy of Willis O’Brien.

And recently as I began to wonder when I actually saw my first puppet show, I realized that it wasn’t until I was 32 years old in Paris at Sacre Coeur in 1987 where I watched an unusual street performer who brought various sculpted heads out from under a large red velour curtain of sorts on the steps of that cathedral. They interacted with each other in pairs. All the while a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played from a boom box. It was a moving performance, but I did NOT even recognize until only a couple of years ago that what I had been watching was indeed puppetry. What an astonishing first performance!

Svankmajer Last Trick
Jan Švankmajer’s The Last Trick and other films. Human puppets, strange textures and black theatre techniques. THIS is when I discovered puppetry.

Near the end of the 1980’s I ran into my first Jan Švankmajer films and then the Brothers Quay at the Film Forum while I lived in New York City. But even then I was more attracted to the curious animation techniques of the films than I was to the puppets they used. By the mid-Nineties I had been working in the New York art world for a while and I was puzzling over the defects of much of the contemporary art scene. I was writing a few notes down for some kind of new art that would use forgotten elements from the past in a different configuration. I wrote ‘puppets’ down. I had been thinking about the Brothers Quay and Švankmajer’s use of puppetry more. I made it through most of the first half of the Nineties without a television set or VHS player. But I did decide that I needed a couple of VHS tapes. The first I videos I bought were by Švankmajer and the Quays. And I was just beginning to suspect that it was Eastern European puppetry that was a key to apprehending their unique qualities.

quay brothers streetofcrocodiles Screw heel (1)
A still from Street Of Crocodiles by the Brothers Quay. Pointing towards the mysterious realms of European puppetry.

By 1996, my last year in New York City, I had begun to articulate a serious interest in puppets. I visited a Guignol show in Paris early in the year. I watched Vietnamese water puppets at Lincoln Center. I sat through a boring student performance in NYU that was more noteworthy for the anticipation of the show than in the loopy postmodern politically correct posturings of the actual show/diatribe. And I was accumulating more animation videos in anticipation of my move to Alaska.

In the year 2000 I took my first true steps to find puppet theatres in Europe as I spent two months visiting friends and traveling by train. I did not get to see the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which was on tour, but I did run across a seasonal Christmas marionette entertainment in Vienna. In Romania I came across puppetry that mixed jovial full sized actors with various hand and rod puppets . And then I arrived in Prague…

Prague 2000 (1)
The National Museum in Prague in December 2000. The white marks on the building are from the Soviet invasion in 1968.

Prague was a revelation. I came seeking to encounter some kind of puppetry. After checking into what would be last cheap hotel I could ever frequent in Prague, I wandered into the night and quickly discovered why it was called the ‘Golden City of a Thousand Spires’. As I walked into the Staré Město I turned around catching the towers of the Tyn church and other structures. My mouth was agape. With abrupt understatement I realized I was in PRAGUE! And I was there to look for puppets and other odds and ends of theatrical culture. I saw my first Don Giovanni show at the National Marionette Theatre. I visited Lanterna Magika. I took in a black light show. I saw a strange play that also featured puppets and masks. I was also obscurely aware that I was only scratching the touristic surface of Czech puppetry. I would need to come back someday.

Don Giovanni Prague (1)
The flyer from the National Marionette Theatre’s production of Don Giovanni in Prague in 2000 and still playing as of this writing.

Now I didn’t go home and start a puppet theatre. Nor did I even become particularly obsessed with puppets. And frankly to this day I’m not overwhelmed by puppets qua puppets. Just because something is a puppet I don’t immediately go gaga. Cute puppets, Muppets, many children’s puppets, ill conceived and textureless puppets don’t grab my attention is all. (Which largely explains why so many features of American puppetry don’t interest me.) But I saw just enough to know that there was much more to see and to know. And so I began reading more about puppetry, began my library on the subject, puppet books were hard to find for me at that point. Found DVDs and online interviews with the Quays and Švankmajer. Picked up more animation videos. Names like Starewicz, Trnka, Barta became second nature. In late 2003 and I performed a shadow play with a student of mine for a few friends: A version of The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman. (A small figure was the normal size, a full human in silhouette was the giantess.) But I wasn’t rushing to get back to Europe to see more puppet theatres. I hadn’t really seen enough to convince me yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the right kinds of performances yet. But all of that would change in 2005.

Fifty Foot_1 (1)
Another image from my shadow play, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman.

Next week we’ll discuss how that happened. Come back soon! Meanwhile click this and do help out.

And while you’re here seriously if you have been following this journey at all do help us get back to Europe. It’s quite possible that we’ll get enough footage to finally wrap up the journeys for a while and start editing everything together. Wouldn’t you LIKE to see what this is going to look like? (If so watch the video directly below this.) Any amount would be appreciated. Help us to avoid being stranded overseas! And thanks to all of the supportive folks along the way!

 

This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

7/30/2017