A Journey Into European Puppetry

Buchty a Loutky

Puppetry and Texture Part 1

This essay was originally commissioned for a book. Alas it was not accepted. Please accept it here in three parts. You’ll notice that the style is slightly more formal than usual. That shouldn’t be a problem should it?

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Handa Gote Tomas

Handa Gote’s Tomáš Procházka striking a very textured set for extremely textural antique style puppets in a retro version of the Czech puppetry classic Faust.

I think puppetry is magic. Because you animate matter, make it alive. It’s the process of animation. You take a piece of wood, or whatever you’ve found, you are able to do some theatre with it. Or any kind of art. The process for me is the most interesting and important thing. I still feel like it’s magic. It’s like the photograph. You have traditional photography and it’s still connected to alchemy, because you literally capture the light by means of a chemical process. It’s all very tactile and physical. And digital photography, it’s all about watching these small screens. And it’s just about information. It’s completely virtual. And puppet theatre for me is about the physical experience, about the tactility, about how you change things by touching them. So for me it’s very physical.

Tomáš Procházka, Puppeteer with Buchty a Loutky, Prague 2012* (Later with Handa Gote)

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Puppets have texture.

It doesn’t sound like a radical notion. Not too long ago such a statement could easily have been put into the category of obvious, so obvious as to be unremarkable. Today it stands out as almost something of a miracle. In a world of dead surfaces: the flatness of glass on the sides of buildings, stainless steel walls, enamel refrigerators, plastic tables, white painted walls, faux materials and, most of all, the unbroken smoothness of the screens engulfing our imaginations, to say that puppets have texture suddenly seems like a mighty contradiction of the realities that have been created for us to inhabit. And yet we can now say it with courage: Puppets have texture.

151 Buchty with blood a

Buchty a loutky’s strange patchwork puppetry in Prague; including funky homemade stages, battered puppets, even blood runnels.

We often ask questions of ecology. What is the proper environmental habitat for creatures to live in? Humanity is something that we often assume should fit into this imagined ecosphere the way a frog does. And yet this only demonstrates a paucity of imagination. We rarely ask this question: What is the proper environment for a human being to live in? Yet without asking this question we often end up in such contradictions as the creation utopian communities which lack much of what makes the human experience worth living. Or we find people who lament the loss of natural habitat for snails and swans while simultaneously living themselves in cramped apartments, in crowded cities, in suburbs designed for automobiles, in universities of sterile modern architecture, eating processed instant food, injecting coffee into our veins to stay alive, turning music into the interpretive background score of our personal film through headphones, selfies taken to validate our passing through an unmemorable landscape, cruise ships that seem to keep us in one place as we move through space, endlessly addictive flickering images on our screens, which now are held in our hands. We don’t ask how much of this new environment is the place where a human can flourish. (And it really has appeared like lightning out of non-existence less than a hundred years ago.)

Escher With Ads

Like an Escher with advertisements. The sickly sweet rosy world of a mall in Warsaw, Poland.

The world we now live in is a rapidly changing unknown moving towards a total encirclement. It is a product of the more reductive experiments of Modernism (Bauhaus, Pop Art, Minimalism, etc) in an unholy commingling with the commercial forces of this world. While those art movements meant to focus us upon uncluttered form, the market realized very quickly that to eliminate the last vestiges of bourgeois ornamentation would be a boon to economical production. Thus by the 1960s most industries that crafted home merchandise had begun the shift from the solidly manufactured products of the 1950s to the more cheaply made and far more disposable world we now inhabit. Skyscrapers were made to look eternally new. Kitchens were made to be the most sanitary and empty rooms on the house. Art galleries objectify their wares by hanging them in utter isolation on blank walls. Shopping mutated into a journey into the deadest of spaces devoid of humanity, all utility, all prosaic shapes and angles in ‘big box stores’. Plastic was molded to look like any number of materials. ‘Contact paper’ with photos of wood grain was glued to the pressed debris of the lumber industry to imitate planks of oak or pine. The car became another dead zone waiting to be filled with the waste products of the fast-food industry. And into this toxic antiseptic landscape the screen increasingly was placed to mediate our nullity. Think of the last airport you spent much time in. Think of the GPS navigators in your vehicles. Think of your white living room wall punctuated by a flatscreen television. Look to your palms. A device so insidious that it keeps you from noticing the world, the trashy, dead, horrifically colored, brutally designed, world around you.

Svankmajer 19 Kasparek

Jan Švankmajer’s purposely corroded looking Kašpárek (the Czech Punch figure) from his miniature masterpiece Rakvičkárna, mistakenly entitled Punch and Judy in English.

Oliver Grau and Thomas Vogel in the Introduction to their book, Imagery in the 21st Century, have written: “Never before has the world of images around us changed so fast, never before have we been exposed to so many different image worlds, and never before has the way in which images are produced changed so fundamentally.”

And again: “The historical development of images, between innovation, reflection, and iconoclasm, is reaching a new level of global complexity in the twenty-first century. These transformations have hit a society that is to a large extent unprepared.”

And then there is the puppet. Not the puppet as toy, another cute entity for distraction, but the puppet, handmade, conceived as performer, as solitary three dimensional presence, made of wood, papier-mâché, bone, fabric, metal, etc. This figure does not fit into the flat landscape. It sits in the corner cautiously. There is a mystery to it. (Which is why some people fear the puppet.) Questions emanate from it. Questions about why we make our mirrors of such rough textures.

Monkey Shines 2

The kind of musical automata that inspired the introduction to Jan Švankmajer’s Rakvičkárna.

The texture of the puppet. That is what in inspired me to begin to investigate puppetry back in the late 90’s. I had seen the odd puppet films Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. And while I was impressed by their techniques, something else was speaking to me. The puppets themselves. Švankmajer seemed to go out of his way to add texture upon texture in films like Rakvičkárna (The Coffin Factory or Punch and Judy) where his two malevolent hand puppets smack each other silly in an environment of burlap, pages from old books and newspapers, badly painted automaton monkeys and a live guinea pig. Even the two puppets, not Punch and Judy but rather a Kašpárek and Harlequin, are purposely stressed and corroded in their appearance. And their puppet smocks likewise are texturally alive. The Quays likewise would use textures like a musical score: iron shavings, meat, dust, rubber bands, scissors, light bulbs, dirty glass, and old doll parts. And while their work hearkened to a gray (now mythic) Communist age, nevertheless in these evocations one could see the value of that grayness in contrast to slick illusions of high tech hypermodernity. (More than one puppeteer who had operated behind the old Iron Curtain has expressed a strange nostalgia for the gray, in contrast the ‘bright’ shiny present.)

This set a beacon for me to follow.

Quay Folk

Shadowy figures in the Quays’ London Atelier Koninck QbfZ. (Now sadly passing into history.)

To be continued…

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

November 3rd 2019

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Puppetry and Texture Part 2 coming within the week.

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And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry

USE THIS PAYPAL LINK!!!

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Footnotes:
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Imagery in the 21st Century Ed. Oliver Grau w/ Thomas Vogel © 2011 The MIT Press

Strange Gifts for the Cradle

Face Automaton

The Face of a Wooden Automaton created by Mirek Trejtnar.

And so I was in Prague to meet puppeteers. I had an idea to get a last round of interviews for Gravity From Above before going to Tbilisi to start editing. I wanted to get caught up on Czech puppetry since my last serious round of interviews in 2012. (I was also here in 2016 but that was more to capture performances.) And changes had occurred since then. One of the more serious changes in the landscape of the Czech puppet was that Josef Krofta had died in 2015. Krofta more than any other director in Czech theatre had changed the presentation of puppetry. The actor now came out from behind the stage to perform with the figures. His passing signaled the end of an era.

Christmas creature

A rather alien Christmas from Buchty a Loutky.

Another change had occurred over at Loutkář (the Czech word for puppeteer), the first serious puppetry magazine in the world and still in existence after over 100 years. Nina Malíková, daughter of famed puppeteer, historian and theorist Jan Malik, had been editor-in-chief for many years, but she had stepped down to allow Kateřina Lešková Dolenská to take over the post. And while in 2016 I had only briefly met Kateřina, so briefly that I hardly remembered her. I decided that it was time to formally make her acquaintance and to conduct an interview.

Katerina Dolenska

Kateřina Lešková Dolenská Editor-In-Chief at Loutkář.

Thus I spent a couple of sessions with Kateřina at the offices of Loutkář on Celetná Street in the heart of Old Prague. Again I find it curious, if you look down from the windows onto Celetná you see the aimless tourists, but inside I was connected to the real world of České loutkářství (Czech puppetry). In a simple office with shelves filled with copies of recent editions of Loutkář I met Kateřina. She was never a puppeteer herself, yet in university (DAMU) had developed an abiding interest in České loutkářství as a historical and intellectual subject. Kateřina is the kind of person you rarely find back in the USA. She obviously could have chosen any career path she wished. In America you might find a such a woman ensconced in the higher ranks of corporation or law firm. But here she was quite proudly a historian of loutkářství and now editor-in-chief of an old yet not particularly profitable puppetry magazine. That was perfect.

Buchty Children

Children study the set at Buchty a Loutky’s Vánoční raketa (Christmas Rocket).

We discussed the situation of puppetry at present in Czech Republic. One thing that was clear, Josef Krofta’s generation in the 1970’s, the one that had made the most changes to puppetry during the peak of the communist suppression after the violence of the Soviet invasion of 1968, had nearly completely departed the stage. Švankmajer remained, but his puppets were in films and Kateřina explained that there was too broad a gap between the worlds of theatrical puppets and film animated puppets. A divide she hoped to help bridge. Now the idea of the multi-media show had taken over, mingled with the concept of object theatre. She still considered this to be puppetry, yet I detected a wistfulness for the more direct tactility of the traditional puppet. And indeed she felt that the puppet would eventually emerge again.

Sad Loutek

A sad marionette hanging up in Mirek’s studio.

Kateřina pointed out a few puppet folks she felt I should meet, one of them was Michaela Homolová. Michaela was a director of puppet shows for children. But she treated these as art, not as simplistic entertainment. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see one of her shows. I met her at the Celetná Divadlo (divadlo = theatre) along with her friend fellow puppet director Jana Vyšohlídová, who also directed pro děti (for children). Now I may have had more prestigious and informative interviews with Jan Švankmajer, Nina Malíková, Josef Krofta, Henryk Jurkowski and on and on. But I’ve rarely had as enjoyable an interview. One thing that most Czechs seem to have in common is a sense of humor in a way that other cultures simply don’t. It is a dark sense of humor. But this humor is also passed through everyone. And every Czech I’ve met will give evidence of this humor in a way that other cultures simply won’t. And so while being a serious interview it was also one of the funniest I’ve ever done, with Michaela and Jana riffing off or each other like jazz musicians. For instance I asked them why do puppets in a world of instant entertainment on every screen. And they burst into laughter explaining that they like the puppet theatre and “we kind of don’t care about the audience.” Which was actually remarkably similar to what Jan Švankmajer told me back in 2012. (I’ve left a sample of their interview over at YouTube. Look below to watch it!)

 

 

I also dropped in on Buchty a Loutky over at the Švandovo Divadlo for one show pro děti called Vánoční raketa, which translates into Christmas Rocket. And is about these alien creatures called Špidlíci who bake a strange cake to take to Bethlehem by rocket. And somehow that strange cake reminds me of what Buchty a Loutky has always been. An odd but lovingly made thing given to us. It was good to see Marek, Vit and Zuzana again. Radek was out of town and I was hoping to interview him about his puppet film Malý Pán.

Buchty Christmas

A young girl watches Marek, Vit and Zuzana close up during their Christmas show Švandovo Divadlo.

On the last day I hopped on the number 22 tram and jumped off at the Vršovické Náměstí to meet Mirek Trejtnar of Puppets In Prague. (Link below) Puppets in Prague is a studio that both makes puppets and conducts multi-week training workshops in making puppets for film animation, toy puppet theatre, wooden marionette carving and in performance. It was a quiet morning when Mirek Trejtnar invited me in. Indeed I was in Geppetto’s workshop. Wooden puppets parts abounded. Half finished puppets made by students. Trick puppets. And the pièce de résistance, a nearly finished wooden automaton made for a woodcarver’s conference. Mirek in his conversation again underscored the importance of the tactility of the puppet. The need to see the thing itself. (You can sign up for his classes if you wish.)

 

 

 

That evening I got together with Nina Chromečková at a cafe to discuss translations for the film. Which I felt I would get enough support for to get accomplished soon. We had an excellent conversation but soon it was time to get back to my little apartment over by the Národní Divadlo (National Theatre).

Hear and see more from this visit!!

All in all it was a long full week in Prague, making me miss it more than usual. The tourism, as it often has, sticks in the throat, but as a man peering into the world of puppets I am soon blissfully consumed by the real Prague, away from that one main artery of tourism, and onto the puppet stages where I find something irreplaceable and completely Czech. I look forward to visiting again. Nina Malíková invited me to come in June for the 90th anniversary of UNIMA. I’m not that far away now. Let’s see what happens by then.

And so back to Paris, which is burning!

Come back next time

Oh and if I don’t write before then Merry Christmas or should I say Merry Western Christmas. Christmas in Georgian is on January 7th.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

20/12/2018

 

And if you are interested in puppet workshops in Prague with Mirek visit their Puppets In Prague site.

http://puppetsinprague.eu/

And to find out more about Loutkář in English:

http://www.loutkar.eu/en/

And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.

Click here to give.

 

 


Prague’s Faustian Bargain

Dark Karlova Most

The hordes wander to and fro seeking what? The Charles Bridge Prague ca. December 2018

Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.

Vodickova Street

Vodičkova Street, a place with fewer tourists, home to the Svetozor Kino (cinema).

I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.

Faustian Demon

A Demon in Handa Gote’s antique version of Faust. The long tongue speaks nonsense and lies.

One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.

Change Kino

Change? No. Use official bank ATMs. Kino (cinema)? Yes. The Svetozor is a very good one and check out their little store as well.

You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!

Polar and Panda

Polar Bear and Panda? In Prague? Why? Clever? Yes. Lucrative? Most likely. Authentic? As authentic as the Christmas Market has become.

Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)

But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.

Succuba

Evidently this gaudy strip club has a featured dancer with a surgically split tongue performing there. Her name, appropriately enough, is Succuba.

But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.

Night Horde

The Night Hordes stepping off the Charles Bridge to continue their trek into tourism.

My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.

Faustian Cast

Handa Gote’s Faustian Cast

The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.

Collerdo-Manfeldsky Palac Red Room

Inside the abandoned red room at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palac.

Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.

Kasparek Faust

Handa Gote’s Antique Kašpárek, the classic Czech ‘fool’.

I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.

 

Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!

Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)

 

 

Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.

I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.

But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.

Byrne Power

On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.

10/12/2018

And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.

Click here to give.

 

For Wolters World videos – Click this..

For HONEST GUIDE to Prague – Janek Rubeš.  Click me.

 


Gravity From Above: A History – Part 3

To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.

And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.

Quays Talk B&W

A conversation with the Brothers Quay in 2016

In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)

Yarn Puppets .jpg

Yarn Puppets in Charleville-Mézières in France.

And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)

And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.

GFA 2017 CVN

Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.

Brussels Patisseries

Okay, Okay I’ll confess that it’s not all suffering!

And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)

Buchty a Loutky Playing

Buchty a Loutky in Prague playing Hansel and Gretel.

So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:

“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”

What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)

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Visiting the Enchanting Hand Shadow Puppeteers of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi Georgia.

You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
(Loading up my storage room)
8/15/2017

 


Gravity From Above: A History – Part 2

36 Julia K
Julia Kovacs from Hungary at the International Puppetry School in 2005.

I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)

I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.

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Pascal ringing the bell before a Guignol show in Paris 2005.

What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.

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Aurelia Ivan with puppets made from grapevines in 2005.

Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)

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Byrne in front of one of the last red phone booths in London 2005.

In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.

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Eerie puppets from Balladyna in Krakow 2005.

In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.

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Mozart as a marionette in Salzburg 2005.

Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)

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Talking with the late Henryk Jurkowski, puppet historian, Warsaw 2012.
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Meeting the late Czech puppet theatre director Josef Krofta in 2012.

Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.

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Paulette Caron the French puppeteer who visited Alaska twice in 2013 & 2014.

Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

8/2/2017

So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/

 


2016 On The Puppet Trail

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A rather Funky Monkey from the Studios of Bucht a Loutky in Prague.

Well 2016 is nearly over. Just a mark on the calendar and yet these dates matter when it comes to taking stock of one’s progress in life. Or in making documentaries. It helps to keep me pushing forward. Or is it to feel mired in delays? Or perhaps to help figure out ways to move Gravity From Above to the next square.

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The Head of a Singing Cat from Ladislas Starewitch.

2016 was in many ways a fruitful year, particularly the first part of it. I took another journey through Europe spending three months on the road. I made new contacts, renewed old ones, got a bit closer to winding this project up, and was able to define what exactly needs to happen to finish this documentary. Then there were roadblocks. Most notably the money pretty much ran out and the sometime producers seemed to come to an end of their commitment. Which left me back in Alaska and beginning to search for help with getting this produced. And yes there is a frustration with that. But I didn’t feel it so much. I didn’t wallow in it. I have had interesting options that haven’t materialized. And there is some possibility of having film students help me get a professional looking edit.

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A serene Puppet Man from the Marjanishvilli Theatre in Tbilisi Georgia.

More importantly a recent development: When I was in Charleville-Mézières France I stopped in at the International Puppetry Institute and puppet school (ESNAM). There was some talk of a residency grant to help me with research. I weighed the possibility and didn’t really pursue it. A puppet friend, Kevin Tizer, sent me a notice about it on his own, thinking, correctly, that I might be interested in such a thing. But again I put that aside. Until the day the application was due. In fact, until literally the last hour of the day. And then I remembered and thought, ‘Why not?’ I quickly filled out a form and got it in just before midnight Alaska time. I received a message a few days later saying that I didn’t understand a certain part of the requirement. So I did my best to try to rectify it. And that was that.

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Soldiers from the Trenches of World War I from the Gadagne Museum in Lyon, France.

A few days ago I received word that I had been accepted to spend three weeks there in October with a place to stay and a small stipend. Well I’m not sure where the money is coming from to get there, but I am going. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up. And I’ve got nine months to work on it. And so I will be back in Europe working on Gravity From Above in 2017. Now if I can get the small film crew and extra funds to finish up the filming…. That would be perfect. Let’s just see where it leads.

Meanwhile back in Alaska I’ve decided to start serious puppetry classes for locals to get a few others immersed in puppets. I’ve said I will do it if I get three students. So far I have two. And it will be fairly comprehensive with puppet theory, history, materials, practice and a performance of some sort in May. The cost will be quite fair. (If anyone wants to come up to Alaska to join in I have a couple of rooms and we might be able to work something out.)

Meanwhile I’ve been editing my other project called Arca: A strange film about an alchemist, a box and a dark angel. We shot this back in 2014 but it’s only close to being assembled now. I’ll let you know when there is a way you folks can see it.

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Dream or Reality? Sasza Sandur in Arca. Coming sometime in 2018.

Thanks you to all of you who have followed my journey this year. I actually had more visits to the site this year than any other. And that’s heartening.

Meanwhile as 2017 knocks on our door may you find the inspiration to create something real in the midst of overwhelming artificiality. More importantly may you know the intelligence to produce something a lasting value and not mere propaganda based on the fears on the times. And mostly I wish you courage to pursue truth in your art no matter how much you have to face your failings. (S. are you there?)

old-fat-tree

And finally here’s a tree from Haines Alaska for you to start your 2017 properly.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
December 29th 2016


2005 Journey into European Puppetry #8

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The Nutcracker at the Salzburg Marionette Theater.

Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the final part. We stop in Salzburg Austria. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)

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. (Follow the link below to read the whole essay.)

via Journey into European Puppetry #8 | The Anadromous Life


2005 Journey into European Puppetry #7

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Preparing the ‘stage’ by putting the puppet in water at a Buchty a Loutky show in Prague.

How did GRAVITY FROM ABOVE begin? Read about the original journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the seventh part. One more to come. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)

Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs.

via Journey into European Puppetry #7 | The Anadromous Life


Roadblock to a Documentary

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Nicolas Géal and the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels Belgium

Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.

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Zon Zons in Lyon France

What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.

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The Brothers Quay get the Joke in London, England

The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.

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Interviewing Gela Kandelaki in Tbilisi, Georgia

So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.

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Beatrice Starewitch and François Martin outside of Paris, France

The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).

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Daniel Streble’s 1872 copy of a Guignol Parodie de Faust in Lyon

Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.

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Inside the Studio of Buchty a Loutky in Prague, Czech Republic

So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)

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French Puppeteer Paulette Caron in Lyon

Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.

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With Dimitri Jageneau &  and Biserka Assenova at Peruchet in Brussels

From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

9/19/2016


Buchty Style in Prague

Buchty Witch

Whatever you do DO NOT eat any psychedelic gingerbread cookies this Old Witch might serve you. Especially if you are named Hansel and Gretel!

Wang Jue from near Shanghai found me through the video of my lecture on Puppetry as Antidote Art. (Evidently there’s not that much done in a serious manner about puppetry on YouTube.) She’s a composer, whose main task at the moment is to find a way to make avant garde music for children. Quite a task when you really ponder the idea. Anyway she had convinced the Chinese educational authorities of her proposal to make music from objects, somehow puppetry fit under that rubric. So she was also exploring the world of Czech homunculi, though for very different purposes than myself. She found me through the usual internet means and thus met me at my first Buchty a loutky (Cakes and Puppets) performance, a children’s piece called Norská Pohádka (A Norwegian Fairy Tale). She was accompanied by three students who were taking part in a two week puppetry workshop. We met after the show and I introduced them to B + L, who were glad to see me again and happy to meet a few future puppeteers. Radek, Vit and Zuzana were performing this particular piece, which did indeed feature Vit dressed up as a polar bear. The story involved a girl trapped by weird creatures in the fjords with dreams of a polar bear who is actually a prince, or so I understood it.

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Children playing with Buchty a Loutky’s set and features from a Norwegian Fairy Tale.

After the show Jue, the puppet students and I ambled towards what felt like a communist era eatery where the food was cheap, plentiful and bland, served in a smokey cafeteria style. We discussed puppetry and I told them to come back to see Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded, their demented take on Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Sadly they all missed it.) Each of them seemed to intuitively grasp the need for puppetry to speak tactile reality into the abstract virtual present.

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Trapped Puppets at the B + L Studios

I showed up a couple of days later at the Buchty studios where Marek and the gang greeted me warmly. (I suspect it makes a difference that I keep coming back.) And they allowed me to wander around the take photographs and watch as they began work on a new piece. They joked at the beginning as they sat around, saying “This is often how we work.” Don’t be fooled. They have created dozens of shows over the years, traveling around the country and beyond, once getting in trouble in Canada for some un-PC Czech sort of thing. The Czechs don’t really get being PC. If you have a culture largely based on dark humor much of what you do is going to be problematic in a friendly politically correct place like, say, Canada. And you wonder why I don’t dive too deeply into North American puppetry?

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Buchty versions of the classic Czech Demons

The next Buchty a Loutky event was entitled Pět ran do čepice and involved the Czech rock band, Už Jsme Doma. I went there with French puppeteer Paulette. (I covered this in the essay immediately preceding this one.)

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Composer Jue & Marionnettiste Paulette meet at the Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square in Prague

And then next night I ended up at some weird place called Cross Club, that reminded me a bit of the old New York City club Gargoyle Mecanique on Avenue B. Only it was much much bigger and so labyrinthine that I arrived at the Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded ten minutes late because I got lost in the building. And I knew I was in trouble when I entered a room with five young dudes standing around Clockwork Orange droog style in old 19th Century Oom-Pah-Pah garb. Fortunately I had already experienced Psycho Reloaded before, back in 2012. And had taken a few shots, though I didn’t waste anytime getting more. Nevertheless they had actually dedicated this performance to me and I was lost in the old building escaping the Czech Sousaphone Society upstairs. Certain aspects of the show seemed crazier, then again this was NOT a children’s show… ever. But by the time you get to the big reveal that the dead mother is actually a stuffed weasel… okay let me say that again… that the dead mother of Norman Bates is actually, indeed literally, not exaggerating, this is a real taxidermy project, a dead weasel… It doesn’t matter too much that Norma has fallen in love with Marion Crane, who is still alive, as is Arbogast… well if you know Hitchcock’s Psycho you probably realized by the time that two of the Buchtys dressed as Mother start stabbing each other with violins while Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shrieks are set on a loop, that this was a comic version!!!

Buchty Herrmann Stabs

Marek and Vit struggle it out before the Bloody Curtain in Psycho Reloaded

After the show Radek gave me a DVD copy of his new puppet film Malý Pán (Little Man), which proved to be a minor masterpiece, and which I’ll review separately in May. I helped Marek, Radek and Vit load the Buchty-mobile and then, after an animated ride through the parts of Prague tourists never see, was dropped off, in the same near to Nerudova Street, where I was staying. I said my farewell’s Radek, who wouldn’t be in my last show with them on Sunday and then trundled up the cobblestones to my temporary abode, the Residence Green Lobster.

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Hansel on Gingerbread Cookies

Finally on Sunday afternoon, my last official day in Prague, I returned to the Švandovo one more time for my 4th and last B + L show, Perníková Chaloupka, the Buchty version of Hansel and Gretel. Their version spends quite a bit of time with the woodsman father before the kids go traipsing off towards the gingerbread house and the evil old lady. But when she does appear? Watch out. She’ll feed you sweets… But oh my don’t eat them.

Buchty Psychedilic Hansel Gretl

Life After Gingerbread Cookies???

After the show I bid my fond farewells to Zuzana, Vit and Marek, promising to return yet again and hopefully with a real film crew, and disappeared into the evening; satisfied that I had gotten the most I could get out of my time in Prague for this edition of Gravity From Above. I had wondered if I really needed to go back to Prague this time. In truth, once the ball started rolling I was busy everyday.

Buchty Practice

Zuzana, Marek & Vit Rehearsing a new Buchty a Loutky show.

But there are a few more Prague stories next time and a little side trip to Plzen before I depart the Czech Lands. Won’t you keep reading and maybe even share these glimpses into Europe and puppetry with your friends?

More of our Buchty a Loutky visits can be found here. And here. And even here.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia (Just wait till I tell you about Georgia!)

April 1st 2016


Czech Devils for Children

Czech Devil

A little devil and the problem of drinking too much Czech beer at a children’s theatre festival in Prague.

So my French marionnettiste friend Paulette Caron dropped into Prague for a couple of days on her way to play at Greek puppet festival. And Nina Malíková gave us free entrance to a theatre/puppet festival for children at Divadlo V Celetné (The Celetné Theatre). We braved the swarm of students of various ages to see a play called ‘Kapela jede! aneb Není pecka jako pecka’ (The band rocks! There is or isn’t a pit.) We were give a couple of the last seats in the crowded house. The lights were lowered and the raucous students came to a point of stillness. And then the play began.

Beer For Children
Actually this the end of the play when our friend looks at the beer and says ‘Enough is enough, time to get back to life.’ or at least that’s how I interpreted it. The kids understood…

Now imagine children’s theatre? Really what do you expect of the stage and the puppets? Do you see bright little muppety glove puppets singing songs? Do you see cute faces and happy performers? Well what about this? The scene opens on a bar. Oh oh! We are already a thousand miles from any performance for a mixed group of children, anything you could imagine in “age appropriate” America. This wasn’t France either. A man lies with his head resting on a mug of beer. This IS the Czech Republic. A bartender stands in a darkened corner. A cleaning lady walks in. There is some sort of maintenance man as well. They go through the motions of waking up through a precise set of motions all of which results in the man with a new glass of real beer and his head sleepily falls into it again. Lights out. Lights come up again on the same scene and a repetition of the exact same motions, only slightly faster. Lights out and up again on the exact same scene now playing in manic speed. And eventually in all of this the first puppet appears, a small red devil. Evidently this is Czech Hell. And the devil is there to show our beer swilling loser something. Now in the end some much needed Czech moral appears, thankfully not AA, but certainly not pro-drunkenness. Along the way there is a surgical operation deep in black humor of full-sized devils pulling out the man’s diseased liver in a near Grand Guignol performance. Not only was this not a children’s show in America, it was getting a little to sketchy for the American adults. (‘Really! Hmph! I come to the theatre to be entertained!) But the Czech kids ate it up. And considering the drinking and car crash statistics perhaps the devils’ warning was crucial. And it was a great theatre experience.

Liver Operation

The Devils operate.

Later I introduced Paulette to Nina Malíková, former Editor in Chief at Loutkář, the oldest puppetry magazine in the world, and they were able to converse more easily in French than English. One of the things we discussed was the fact that puppetry was being swallowed up more and more by a puppetless media theatre, exactly Jurkowski’s fears. And it wasn’t that puppets couldn’t exist in different environments. But I sensed that technology itself was part of the problem. There was just so much of it.

Divadlo S + H

Divadlo S + H in Prague.

That evening we dropped in on the Black Light Theatre’s show called Antologia, which did contain elements of puppetry, but were put on for the tourists. Black theatre is a technique for lighting in such a way that figures dressed completely in black are invisible and able to cause objects to float or spin without any obvious support. It was a collection of mildly comic skits and clever effects. Black theatre had drifted over the years from real absurdity in the best sense to coy inoffensive humor. There was something quite Czech about the whole thing that I wanted Paulette to absorb. In her own words “I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.”

S + H

Spejbl & Hurvinek about to go on a wild ride.

The next day we took the tram out to the Dejvice section of Prague to the Divadlo S + H to encounter Spejbl and Hurvinek the classic puppets originally created by the brilliant Czech puppeteer Josef Skupa. Hurvinek is the rascally son and Spejbl the thick-skulled father. (Spejbl & Hurvinek were actually arrested by the SS in World War 2, along with Skupa himself.) We were there to see a production loosely called How Mr Spejbl dusted ‘Jak pan Spejbl prášil’, which is also a play on words for the Czech version for Baron Munchhausen. And it was a crazy trip with Spejbl turning into a Munchhausen-like figure taking Hurvinek and co. from one fantastic scenario to another, including a trip to the moon. It was fascinating to compare the Czech children’s responses to the show and compare them to the children at Guignol shows. The Czech kids will laugh at pure words devoid of slapstick. Yet will often be very quiet until a time for laughter. French kids go nuts during the more frenetic parts of a Guignol show. French children will also talk back to the puppets. One gets the feeling that the French enfants are learning to be critics, while the Czech děti are developing a kind of absurd humor.

The Fish

The Fish that swallowed the Spejbl & Hurvinek cast of puppets.

The last of the shows I saw with Paulette was an unusual Buchty a Loutky gig entitled Pět ran do čepice (Five rounds into the hat) on the larger stage of the Švandovo Divadlo along with the Czech prog rock band Už Jsme Doma. We stopped up at their crowded studio above the theatre before the show. Paulette by this time was beginning to get a sense of the very different puppet world in the Czech Republic. The Buchtys made us feel at home. The performance was done as a contest to have the audience of children vote for the best creature, mostly puppets, to join the arguing creatures, who were also the band Už Jsme Doma, to settle a bet. Or at least that’s something of what I was told. Again another example of absurd Czech humor for the kids. After Buchty a Loutky’s Marek Bečka tallied the votes at the end Vit, also from the Buchtys, came out in his polar bear costume and stole the election. A few of the Už Jsme Doma tunes were left stuck in my head.

Gold Moth

Vote for the Moth! Buchty a Loutky with Už Jsme Doma.

In two days we watched four puppet plays. Only in Prague would this be normal. And the least interesting performance cost the most and was done for tourists. Real travelers who want to experience puppets should use a bit of skill in locating real Czech puppetry. But if you do you will be rewarded. My suggestion? Head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (Švandovo Theatre) and see Buchty A Loutky, even if it’s one of their children’s shows… But more about B + L next time.
Polar Vit

Vit as Polar Bear wins the vote!

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

29/3/2016


Back in Prague

Easter Market

The 2016 Easter Market in the Old Town Square of Prague

On the day I crossed the border into the Czech Republic from Germany things seemed to loosen up in a way they hadn’t since the beginning of my 2016 trip. It’s hard to explain. Czech’s can have their problems in the world. But there is a sense of things being relaxed in way that France, Scotland, England, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany are not. Not that the Czechs are like the Polynesians or the Caribbeans. They certainly don’t have that tropical insouciance. It’s just that the rules, if they are at all known, don’t seem to always apply. I didn’t have a train ticket to cover the stretch of track from the Czech/German border at Děčín to Ústí nad Labem (about a fifteen minutes travel). I also wasn’t really concerned about it, not like I would have been in Germany. And sure enough the conductor didn’t come to punch my ticket until after Ústí.

Parking Faces

Parking Faces?

Being my fourth time in Prague, my arrival at Residence Green Lobster in Malá Strana (the Little Quarter) below the castle, the Hradčany, went off smoothly without event. I was back in Praha now for ten days. At first it seemed like I might have too much time on my hands. In the end I was scrambling to get everything done, and due to an unexpected fever near the end I had to simply give up on a few things.

Prague Dogs

Irish Setter show at the Prague Easter Market.

After a stroll over the relatively uncrowded Charles Bridge, which can be an absolute cattle crossing, I walked into the Old Town Square, passing the booths being set up for the Czech Easter Markets, and found the only truly reputable currency exchange in Prague. As a rule you should only get your money directly from a banks ATM. Generally when in Prague you have to be extremely cautious about currency exchange rip offs. Once in 2005 I was taken badly by a dishonest shop advertising CHANGE. I looked into it and discovered that this situation is epidemic in the city. They have dozens of little tricks to weasel bad rates out of you when you think you’re getting a fair rate. You literally can’t win. It’s like three card monte. But the place called EXchange.cz on Kaprova Street is indeed reliable. And so I took the euros that I had and turned them into koruny. And then after buying a month long transportation pass I was ready to start circling Prague ca. 2016, a deal for effortless travel around the city and even to the airport.

Prague Easter Eggs

Hand Painted Wooden Easter Eggs

Things to do: There were plenty. Among the first was to make contacts with various friends and acquaintances. There was Nina Malíková from Loutkář (Puppeteer) Magazine, Radek from Buchty a loutky (More on them in coming updates.), Eliška whom I met working at the Alchemy Museum in 2012, Nina who translated my interview with Jan Švankmajer in 2012 and Jue from China who was a composer who had found me online and realized I would be here where she was studying. Not only that my translating French puppet friend Paulette was going to drop by for a couple of days on her way to puppet festivals in Greece. So lot’s of communicating needed to get done. I also saw that there was an interesting Czech horror film, Polednice, or Lady Midday, about the Czech legend of the Noon Day Witch, that screamed to be seen. Plus there was music to locate, films to hunt down on DVD and of course puppet shows to see.

Mucha Slav Dream

A strangely Muffled Character from Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Prague National Gallery. This is just a tiny fragment of the whole.

One thing I did early on during my Prague sojourn was to visit Alfons Mucha’s Slav Epic at the Galeria Narodowa w Pradze (Prague National Gallery). (Mucha is pronounced moo-kha – the ch is like the ch in Bach.) This massive undertaking by Art Nouveau artist Mucha was made in his later years and tells a poetic version of the great moments in Slavic history. It had recently arrived in Prague after years of wrangling. And when I say massive I mean it. Twenty immense painting take up a room the size of an airport hanger. Being part Polish and Ukrainian myself I could only feel the passion Mucha must have felt trying to impart a sense of the importance of the Slavs beginning millennia ago as a tribe out on the Steppes.

Nun on a Tram

Nun on a Tram

Another thing that always strikes me about Prague is the fascinating street performers and music particularly clustered near the Old Town Square. One man did and absolutely brilliant performance as puppet baby with a swazzle in his mouth for good measure. The swazzle is a device put in one’s mouth during a Punch and Judy show to give the voice a high pitched humorous rasp. In fact more than one living statue had added this accessory, which I had never seen in Prague before. Then there were the guys doing an Indian levitation trick. They just sat still seemingly impossibly hanging in the air. Musically I made one exciting discovery of a Czech musical unit called the Bohemian Bards, who played Scottish war pipes, a double necked acoustic guitar and an African drum while doing Medieval inspired dance music and Czech folk songs at a breakneck paced. I immediately bought their CD and talked to the guys between sets.

Bohemian Bards

The Bohemian Bards getting down.

And they played during the Easter Markets which I soon discovered happened everywhere in the Czech Republic and featured Old Czech Ham roasting on spits, painted wooden Easter eggs, special cakes, honey wine, hot wine, very salty cheese, thick sausages on grills, local students dancing and even an Irish Setter competition, among many other possibilities.

Levitation in Prague

The Old Levitation Trick

Many discoveries were made during my time in Prague. Polednice, turned out to be a quality Czech film with favorable similarities to the Babadook. I discovered excellent Czech Baroque and folk music in the stores. Several satisfying local meals were digested. And I discovered in a Czech mall, to my horror, that images from 3-D cameras could be fed into into a 3D printer to create miniature versions (idols?) of real people… which had many strange implications.

Baby Swazzle

Puppet Baby! There’s a full grown man in there.

But most importantly it was a time for puppets.

Stick around!

Byrne Power

Chopin Airport Warsaw, Poland

Waiting 8 and ½ hours for a plane to take me to Georgia.

23/3/2106


Hanging By A String

84 Groteska Balladyna2

We Come Humbly Beseeching You Like this Poor Puppet from the Groteska Theatre Production of Balladyna in Krakow 2005.

Okay I have a confession. I’m stuck. I need help. I did this crowdfunding dance two years ago and it was so hard I swore I’d never do it again, but I made it. This time it’s much harder.

On the evidence of 75 percent of the people who contributed to my last attempt to raise funds, the world is in a global recession deeper than anything since the great depression. I thought the recession was supposed to be bad back in 2009 and 2010. But this time, with a few happy exceptions, the majority of folks who seemed so supportive back in 2012 are in some kind of financial straights so bad that all I’m getting is exactly the kind of ‘I-wish-I-could-help-but’ notes that make one look a little too long into the dark water down at the dock at midnight. Or in a more pleasant variation, ‘this-is-all-we-can-afford-now’, and I graciously receive about a quarter of what I might have been given before. And it’s not one or two people. And it’s not one kind of person or just Americans.

Salzburg Mozart

This Mozart Puppet From the Salzburg Marionette Theater in Salzburg Has a Wistful Expression. Maybe it’s Because He’s So Poor that They are Going to Have to Bury Him in a Pauper’s Grave AND He Never Supported GRAVITY FROM ABOVE. Oh My!!!

Now I believe my friends and begrudge no one a dime. This must be a weird time for quite a few people. And I wonder about my timing. But then again by all reckoning the autumn is the best time to fund raise. But actually in Alaska summer is usually better. But many of these people don’t live in Alaska. Or maybe this whole crowdfunding thing is just getting overplayed and people are just giving too much to too many people.

Or, and here’s another theory, maybe it’s just me. Maybe some people are saying something like ‘Well we gave you money a couple of years ago, why aren’t you done yet?’ (I hope someone remembers how much it costs to make films?) Or maybe people are thinking ‘How can my little contribution help to make a film?’ (It can! It can!)

Or maybe it’s the lack of me? (How’s this for a convoluted theory that might actually be closer to the truth.) I mean, actually all this social networking doesn’t make you closer to people. And the occasional ‘Like’ doesn’t mean anyone is all that involved in anything you do. And so you think maybe people will understand why puppets might be helpful in this weird world. But then I think how can they? They haven’t read any books or essays on the subject. They probably have never seen a decent puppet show. And they certainly haven’t seen my film, because I’m having trouble finding the resources to make it. So it’s probably not me personally, it’s the ‘not me’ which makes me just another cluster of digital pixels.

100 Chrudim Museum

A Few Old Czech Puppets Hanging by a String in the Czech Puppetry Museum in Chrudim Just Waiting to Have Their Stories Told!

Now I’m not down and out on this project yet. I pushed the deadline back to December 18th. And I’m right on the edge of 15% of my total. (And if it gets really desperate I have one last January fallback position.) But I must say my plan to raise my money has been largely scuttled by these odd collective financial difficulties. I had planned to raise a certain amount through my friends and supporters from last time. Then to use that momentum to keep the ball rolling. There are also some other differences between then and now that I won’t burden you with, but they are differences that add up. But it’s also clear that I have to change my strategy. And I need help with ideas of how to do that.

One thing that I do have this time, that I didn’t have last time, is that more puppeteers and folks in general know about the project. Since I started doing this over 100 people have joined my Facebook page for Gravity From Above. Yet while I have received some very enthusiastic thumbs up, except for a few generous people, that hasn’t yet translated into anything financial. Maybe it’s because puppeteers are a fairly low rent breed and are also just scraping by. And yet I know also most anyone could make a 5 dollar, 5 Pound, 5 Peso, 5 Euro contribution and believe it or not little contributions add up and eventually inspire more money. So if each of those people gave $5 dollars I’d be up $500. Now that’s not likely to happen for the same reason that statistically most people will not give to anything. But wouldn’t it be great to buck the statistics! And this is a case where it should happen. (For the reasons I gave in my last essay.) Really.

108 Chrudim4

But Really We Are Just Puppets What Can We Do? These Puppets in Storage at Theatre Groteska in Krakow Poland Seemed to be Asking in 2005.

But here’s a thought for my friends who truly are strapped for cash and can’t afford anything at all. Help me in other ways. Sharing on Facebook etc is an obvious way. But in the end that produces the same low return. It’s just the numbers. But here’s where it counts. I’ve got a temporarily tax deductible project that is wildly unique and visually arresting. Gravity From Above is the very opposite of dumbing down and adding to the chaos of the present. This isn’t more noise. This film is a bid for people to try to find a way through the virtual gunk that clogs us up at every turn. It’s about reality, and how to connect people to it. Surely somebody must know somebody who can help with financing?

This is where you can help. You have a friend here (me) and someone trying to get something done that needs to get done. It quite literally won’t get made if you don’t help. If you are a puppeteer you should really be starting to understand what this project is about. So think with me. Work with me. Whoever you are? Even if you’re broke as I am. Look around. Who do you know who does have money that can help? Do you know an organization that can help? Does anyone know anyone who is willing to take very little risk, since it’s tax deductible, to help get this made? I don’t need people who say things like, “Hey have you looked into the Henson organization or the NEA or ARTE etc etc.” Helpful, but ultimately obvious. I need people who will look into those things themselves on behalf of this project. (If anyone brings in a live fish they will get some kind of Producer credit.) Who are your relatives? Friends? Employers? Associations?

These are short samples edited on iMovie. Give a listen. (We do need pro editing tools.)

Or let me ask another question: I’ve been working on this project in varying degrees for something like eight years. I’ve got a start, but nowhere near where I need to be. Am I the only one who sees the need for this? (I might be, because few people, even in Europe, have seen what I have and put the larger picture together.) Does anyone else want to see this film besides me? Seriously? (If you’ve given this time or in 2012 you are excused and have proved yourself.) I believe there are people reading this who do? So even if you really and truly don’t even have a couple of dollars to help out, get creative and think with me. How can I seriously raise this money before December 18th?

Salzburg Weird Puppets

And If We Don’t Get The Funds It’s Going to Get SCARY!!! (Salzburg 2005)

I realize I’ve probably violated some rule for fundraising here. The rule that says you are always supposed to remain confident. Well I am confident. I am also realistic. I’d rather seek your help now than wait until five minutes to midnight. I can recognize that my own resources are starting to get thin. But I’m fully confident that someone out there has a piece of the puzzle that I need.

If you have ideas? Connections? Encouragement? Etc?

Write to me at reckoningmotions (at) yahoo (d ot) com or at my Facebook account or below in the comments section. Or heck! Just get your helpful soul over to Hatchfund and throw a few coins in the hat.

This is not surrender. This is a fight to preserve the meaning of this project.

With Gratitude!

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

11/20/2014

By the way if anyone wants a kit with photos and narrative of the project to use let me know.


Why Make A Documentary About Puppets?

Two Rogues

A Couple of Serious Puppets Raising Deeper Questions About the Nature of this Thing called GRAVITY FROM ABOVE. Musical Automata in Prague October 2012

So as I find myself mid-ride on this strange crowdfunding roller coaster I ponder things. If I get the funds to continue. If I don’t. And then there is the deeper question: Why am I doing this? Why go through the obstacle course I have been treading for years to try to make this documentary? Does the world need another documentary? Does anyone need a serious documentary on puppetry in Europe? And given the shape of today’s technological entertainment and culture does anyone actually care? And to make a movie of puppets? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Aren’t I trying to communicate something to help us get out of the virtual chaos of the present? And then there folks who are going to use puppetry for exactly the wrong purposes: To indiscriminately make more cuddly cute things. To make purely visual spectacles. Or worse to add to the shrill scream of propaganda that is choking real dialogue and human contact. Why bother? Why make a documentary about puppetry? Why make Gravity From Above?

I wish I could tell you I’m just throwing these questions out there as straw men to blow over with a few optimistic clichés. I am not. Each of these questions has serious ramifications. And once the film is made I certainly can’t control how it is interpreted. I can try to include as much sanity and intelligence as is imaginable into the film. But given how things are grabbed by social networks, the media, politics, the taste makers, the trolls, commercial industry, other Procrustean forces and interpreted willy nilly, trying to throw anything against the wall of human culture these days is a potentially perilous, pointless, quite possibly ridiculous affair.

Skeleton Woman Hanging Up in the Buchty a Loutky Studios October 2012

Skeleton Woman Hanging Up in the Buchty a Loutky Studios October 2012

Skeleton Man Hanging Up in the Buchty a Loutky Studios October 2012

Skeleton Man Hanging Up in the Buchty a Loutky Studios

And yet if we give into the regnant dominions of our day we sign up for our place on that fun slide into the Brave New World that does indeed have such people in it. So maybe there is something in the effort. Although an awful lot of effort has been made by many no doubt sincere (and insincere) people since, say, World War 2: People wanting to change the world, make a difference, revolt against the masses, épater le bourgeois, liberate desire, do their own things, follow their dreams, the list is endless. I’m not interested in any of it.

For me what I saw in puppetry originally was something humbler. And it was small. It was also something tangible, something with complex texture, something with deep historical roots, with deep wellsprings of creative possibility. If you want to really understand puppetry go to some little dark theatre. Maybe someplace below ground level. Someplace with about 20 to 50 seats. Not a big theatrical space with all of the theatrical tropes. Something intimate. Then it really speaks.

Buchty Arthur 12

Buchty a Loutky’s King Arthur Redux in Prague October 2012

Now I want to try to impart something of that experience through a film. Can it even be done? Maybe. If I’m good. A shard of it. But then again the ultimate point of the documentary is to get you to really start ferreting a pathway out of the infestations of screenal existence that have so derailed us in this age.

Music in the 20th Century was a pivotal art that led many into questioning their times, yet music is also quite strongly implicated in leading us exactly into the virtual mess of the 21st Century. Puppetry certainly has dark potentials as well. But at the moment it is still open with good possibilities. I know from personal experimentation and experience that puppetry can be used even across the media soaked landscape of North America to raise questions that need to be asked. To encourage thinking rather than the anti-intellectual mush that passes for discourse in our times. There was something about a certain kind of puppetry that struck a nerve. One girl came up to me after a Reckoning Motions show in North Carolina and said “That kind of disturbed me.” “Why?” I replied, a bit concerned. “Because I could tell you were trying to get us to think, but you weren’t telling us how.” “Exactly.” I said. She did indeed get the point. We weren’t trying to get them to nod in approval with a certain kind of message. We were indeed saying. “Wake up. You have a brain. This is what it feels like to use it again.”

And that’s one thing, among many, that serious puppetry can do. (When I say ‘serious puppetry’ I include comic and children’s performances, but not all of them by a long shot, especially in the USA.) Even the animated puppet films of people like Jan Švankmajer, Ladislas Starewich or the Brothers Quay are so important for their textures in the face of a flattened graphic landscape.

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So then what can a documentary about puppetry do?

Well first of all it can’t be the puppet show itself?

If you watch Gravity From Above you won’t be able to say you’ve seen any puppet shows. But it is a finger pointing to this fascinating world that hides in plain sight.

Next it can be an introduction with some historical insight and respect for what is actually a separate and complete art in itself.

For puppeteers I hope the documentary will be something very different. Inspiration. Something to encourage more education and investigation. Something intellectual in the best sense of the word.

For my North American friends I hope to change much of our entire image of puppetry, if that’s at all possible. Instead of seeing only Muppets, children’s entertainment, or goofy postmodernism that appropriates images of bygone children’s television shows. To rouse at least a few curious folks to the more unlimited potentials of an art that still has room to grow.

And for the viewers of this film the ultimate point is to encourage them to turn off their screens for a while and to look for puppets. And if they can’t find any make some! To get back into a tangible reality with complex textures and to question the fictitious panorama that passes for 20th Century life.

SO THAT IS WHY YOU SHOULD SUPPORT GRAVITY FROM ABOVE!

Buchty Studio 12

A Few Actors from Buchty a Loutky Hanging Around at Their Studio in Prague October 2012

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

November 9th 2014


Give Ear to My Fundraiser!!

A few bashed in dwarf (Disney?) puppets hanging up in the Buchty a Loutky studios in Prague. Don't let us feel like these guys. Help us out.

A few bashed in dwarf (Disney?) puppets hanging up in the Buchty a Loutky studios in Prague. Don’t let us feel like these guys. Help us out.

There is something innately ridiculous about this whole crowdfunding hootenanny. I think every age has its patent absurdities. Once upon a time you had to go before the King or the Bishop to get some sort of patronage. You had to be good to get noticed. And antimonarchist or anticlerical tendencies wouldn’t get you through the door. I remember in the 1980s artists were required to learn the ropes of the granting process. Once upon a time, pre-internet, there was actually a big office, foundation, library, whatever in New York City (heaven help you if you lived in Texarcana) just to help you locate the names of foundations that would donate to your cause. The only problem with that system was that pursuing the illusive grant would then become a full time job. And it really helped if you were artistically (read politically) correct. Today one prepares for the fundraising battle online. And it really depends on how many contacts you have made. How many Facebook friends (over 300), how many Twitter followers (0) how many online groups you belong too (?). The quality of the work becomes less important than the quality of your schmooze.

Hanging Around with Buchty a Loutky in Prague During the Version of King Arthur in 2012. Don't leave us hanging.

Hanging Around with Buchty a Loutky in Prague During the Version of King Arthur in 2012. Don’t leave us hanging.

Of course, there’s the Van Gogh option. Starve. Hope your brother Theo sends you a little more money. Suck on tubes of paint. I can imagine Van Gogh in today’s climate. He’d probably have an aging Mac and bad phone connections. He’d be trying to raise the funds for a few painting supplies and maybe a bit of rent money. Immediately he’d be stumped. He puts his little project notice up on a site. No one gives him anything. Eventually his brother Theo throws him a few kroners. He gets a few francs here or there. But he’s not getting any other nibbles. Gauguin’s still pissed at him. He doesn’t have many friends. Vincent has 16 Facebook friends. He’s not even going to make his measly goal. And worse! Theo’s money is going to disappear too if he doesn’t get it. Who talked him into this madness? Gauguin that bastard! Yeah he gets his Tahiti money alright. What do I get? Nada. Finally he does the only thing he can think of: He starts offering premiums. 20 francs for a Sunflower variation. 500 Francs for an ear. He gets really depressed… And well you know the rest. Finally someone down the road sells one of his Sunflower paintings for a 100 million dollars.

Vincent Van Gogh Hand Puppet by Pezer

Yes Virginia there are Vincent Van Gogh puppets. This one by a guy named Pezer (Gerry Perez) Check out his site.

Well what’s this got to do with puppets??? And Gravity From Above? Well the observant soul might have noticed that we have until the 26th day of November to finish raising enough money to get back to Europe for round two of my interviews for Gravity From Above. And I’d just like to go on record as saying that this whole process is as crazy as anything that any other age has come up with to raise funds. But it seems like a model we’ll be using for a while.

The good news… We have accumulated something near 10% of the goal. We’ve had folks donating from far and wide. Last week I had my first French donation. This morning I had a generous gift from Le Théâtre Royal du Peruchet in Brussels, Belgium. So we’ve proved that anyone from any country can give to the project at Hatchfund. It is safe, quick, reputable and even tax deductible. So if you are reading this in Germany, Poland, Japan, Argentina, South Africa, Hawaii or Moscow give it a try. It doesn’t have to be a big gift. Give up some little luxury for a week or two. Gives us a few Euros, Swiss Francs, Pounds, Pesos, Yen. If puppetry matters to you then this documentary should matter too. It’s going to be your documentary as well as mine.

Have you watched this yet?

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I think one of the biggest misapprehensions about crowdfunding is that you list your project on a website and it’s like you hit the jackpot. You just sit and wait for the funds to come flooding in. It really doesn’t happen like that. It’s more like a roller coaster that you hope doesn’t crash. An emotional roller coaster. One day you feel giddy because you got $500 from friends that day. A week later you’re depressed because the momentum has stopped. But you can’t give up. You have to contact everyone you’ve ever known since high school. You have to talk about it, remain up, for a month. Your friends who promised to give mean well. They are living in their own world. They don’t know that the sooner rather than later is crucial to the success of the project. Yet you can’t keep pestering them. But eventually you do have to go back and say um…excuse me… you remember… pleeeeeeeze.

These Buchty a Loutky Puppets Looked Satisfied. They must have contributed to GRAVITY FROM ABOVE.

These Buchty a Loutky Puppets Looked Satisfied. They must have contributed to GRAVITY FROM ABOVE.

Well you know this documentary might be mine for the moment. But if you want to see a serious documentary introduction and overview to puppetry then it’s up to you too. Help us out. Support us today. We’re nearly at the 10% mark. But it’s not a place I want to stay too long. But we still have until December 18th at midnight Alaska time. I really don’t want to offer an ear as a perk.

Join us!

Above you’ll see a new video to look at… Watch it then go to the link below to learn more and to support Gravity From Above.

THANKS!!

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

November 1st 2014

To support Gravity From Above click on this link: GRAVITY FROM ABOVE.

And GRAVITY FROM ABOVE on Facebook

And check out Gerry Perez’ Vincent Van Gogh puppets.

And watch our latest 2014 GRAVITY FROM ABOVE Teaser Trailer update.


A Lecture on European Puppetry

(With a Detour into Alaska)

The Feet of Puppets

Looking up at the hanging puppets at the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels.

I recently edited together the lecture with slides which I gave while traveling through Europe in 2012 interviewing puppet people. The lecture was entitled Puppetry As Antidote Art. It was given to the students at the L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz Switzerland.

This lecture is an in depth introduction to serious puppetry focusing mostly on Europe. It is both a general survey of puppet history and styles in Europe and it is also gives an account of my personal journey into puppetry. The discoveries described in the lecture under-gird the structure of Gravity From Above.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to include the students questions with the video. The presentation itself lasted nearly an hour and a half. Obviously it contains great quantities of information on the subject of puppetry and is not suited to the casual YouTube surfer. My suggestion, download it and watch it in the best available format. (And by the way it is my experience that you can download it easier by going to the actual YouTube page rather than viewing it here.)

If you have any questions about puppetry or the forthcoming documentary Gravity From Above please get in touch here or through the YouTube page. (I hope to know something from Switzerland by the end of April this year.) (I still need more support for the documentary so don’t feel shy about that either.)

Meanwhile stay warm and stay creative…

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

1/7/2014


A Dark Labyrinthine Studio Visit

Skyscraper into

A Skyscraper in Southwark disappearing into the clouds.

In booking the Eurostar, the Chunnel train, I discovered that the United Kingdom starts with customs in Brussels at the Midi/Zuid train station. I wasn’t quite ready for the grilling and heavy security to take the train. I had gotten so used to life in the Schengen Zone that I was a bit taken aback by the sudden emergence of fences again. And it seemed to have gotten stricter since my last journey in 2005. And then there is the strange fact that the U.K. IS in the European Community but NOT in the Schengen Group, while Switzerland IS NOT in the European Community but IS in the Schengen Zone, which creates the odd situation that you don’t need a passport check to get into Switzerland anymore BUT you do need to show your passport to get into the U.K., and to show that you have a ticket out of the country, and that your luggage will have to pass through a similar degree of airport styled security to board the train. Nevertheless after a hair-raising set of circumstances I did make it into the U.K. In one piece.

At St. Pancras Station in London my old friend Nathan met me and took me back to his place in the Elephant and Castle area near Southwark (which should be pronounced Suth-uhk by the same unwritten English code which turns Greenwich into Grenich and Leicester into Lester). We dismounted a double-decker bus and strolled passed a large apartment tower, with non-working propeller blades on the top, back to his apartment to meet Annika and to put me up in his spare room, for which I was deeply grateful. And almost the minute I arrived in rainy old England a little tickle in the back of my throat became a full fledged cold with coughing symptoms. Fortunately my hosts had already been attacked by this very same creature. And also it was not the kind of thing which saps ones strength. Nevertheless I was determined not to go off into London simply to see things. I’ve been to London before, and, while I find it worthy of my time, I’ve never been as fascinated by it as I am by Paris, Prague, Lyon and other cities. And besides I had friendship to catch up with, which included a well cooked dinner by Nathan.

Nathan and the Cheese

I’ll try the Montgomery Cheddar… My friend Nathan samples the wares.

Nathan and Annika took me through the extensive Borough Market. Where I resisted the urge to buy Ostrich meat and large wheels of cheddar cheese and even the Stinking Bishop. Though I was in a mood to mostly rest, recover from my cold and get my strength back, there were two things I had to do while in London. One was more of an introduction to another puppet theater and the other was to find a couple of brothers quite high on my list of people to interview for my documentary.

Pinocchio

The Little Angel Theatre’s production of Pinocchio

We journeyed out to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre. While I couldn’t find anyone I could really talk to about the theatre they were performing an unusual version of Pinocchio. In their version Geppetto and most of the other characters were played by humans in paper masks on a stripped down stage, while Pinocchio was performed in a modified bunraku style by three different players in brown floor length coats. The puppet was a naked collection of raw wood, sans clothing, sans strings. This was not the Disney version but much closer in spirit to Carlo Collodi’s original. Yet still with a deconstructed essence. There were quite a few children present. And I was struck by how different, how quiet, they were compared to the French, Polish and Czech children’s shows I had seen. Ah the English.

Pinocchio Bunraku

I managed to squeeze off one blurry photo of Pinocchio being done bunraku style before being scolded for doing so.

On Monday I had one appointment. I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. It was with the Brothers Quay at their studio not far from my hosts’ apartment. Along with Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay were by far the most influential in getting me to explore the world of European puppetry. The Quays are twin American brothers who have been thoroughly europeanized and, having lived in London for about thirty years, speak with a bit of an anglicized inflection. And while they are not puppeteers themselves, their consistent and mysterious use of puppetry down through the years had raised a lot of questions about the nature of the puppet as an object. It was through hints gleaned in interviews found on DVD’s that I first heard of the Toone Marionnette Theatre, Richard Teschner, and generally realized that there must be a larger world of puppetry behind the former Iron Curtain. I also knew enough to dispel several misconceptions, that they had embarked on their course prior to discovering Švankmajer, that Starewich had had a greater influence upon them, along with Polish animation from the Sixties. I had contacted them by email after communicating with their longtime producer. We had exchanged several emails, which ranged between cordial welcome to questioning caution to finally being told that I must arrive with a bottle of chilled white wine “for provocation”. So I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. But I had a notion that there might be connections.

I arrived on a rainy London Monday at the place  at the appropriate time. I was welcomed into their crammed darkened studio. Books, vinyl record albums (CDs were in the WC) weird puppets and old European Christian iconography was practically falling off the walls in in their labyrinthine wunderkammer. I immediately greeted each by name and produced my clammy bottle of Grange Volet from Ollon in Switzerland. (Swiss wine rarely escapes the country.) I also passed on Madame Starewitch’s card with personal greeting, along with Cognac chocolate from Switzerland. We all sat down at their crowded table and poured the wine as I gave them updates on the Toone theatre and Švankmajer in Prague as well as the fact that Teschner’s Nativity was being performed by a Teschner expert at the theater museum in Vienna. I also filled them in on Buchty a Loutky, whom they had never heard about, ESNAM in France, Polish puppetry and a host of other subjects. Our conversation took us through their most recent projects* and their show at MOMA in New York. Before careening off into new territory.

T Quay 1 B & W

Timothy Quay at table in the studio

We discussed Georgia, the country, which they had also had some music from. I pointed them towards the Gori Women’s Choir. We had all discovered the fantastic book, The Empire of Death, about the ossuaries of Europe and beyond. To my surprise they hadn’t heard of Merhige’s Begotten, nor did they know that Peter Delpeut had released the mesmerizing Diva Dolorosa. We unraveled puppetry a bit more and I filled them in on my experiments in Alaska. They showed me books on Teschner and other related subjects. We shared an antipathy towards the virtual, wireless, digital contemporary world. And at one point they showed me their old film camera that they sadly needed to sell. (The camera they had made all of their classic pre-digital films on.) We were all being dragged into this present evil age. They also gave me a little tour through the narrow crowded corners of their atelier. At one point they showed me a pile of sand on a small table. “We just finished shooting that.” They told me. Coming from the guys who animated metal shavings with a magnet I had no doubt that the results would be gripping.

S Quay 1 B & W

Stephen Quay at table in the studio

At a certain point, somewhere around the three hour point I told them that we had had such a profoundly good conversation that it would be a shame to spoil it by filming an interview. They agreed completely. But we can do it when I come back next year. “By all means!” They concurred. They were fully on board with the project now. They understood what it meant. And in a way more than I hoped. While the interview was certainly a high priority for me, meeting and connecting with them was of greater consequence, of more import. In a way I felt that my whole study of puppetry had been to get me to the point where I could have an intelligent discussion with these guys. And I couldn’t help but be grateful for the time and the hospitality.

QQuays 1 V2

The Brothers Quay in their studio discussing puppets, film, animation and music.

London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

12/29/2012

*Animation aficionados will be glad to know that there are several newer Quay related things to look for. Firstly there is a great book for their show in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is over in January.

Secondly a DVD exists from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia of Through The Weeping Glass, their examination of the museum. It is well worth buying.

Thirdly a DVD exists for Maska their version of Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask (It could be region 2) Get this! I own a copy now. But it is tough to find. Good luck!

(Note from 2016: These can both be found on their 2015 Blu-ray ‘Collected Short Films.)

 


Dimensions of Dialogue (Moznosti dialogu)

The Original Bust of Stalin Painted in the Colors of the Czech Flag from The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia (Konec stalinismu v Cechách ) 1991

The Czechs. I’ve learned some very interesting things about them this time around. Prime lesson number one: Nothing is ever quite straight forward. You approach them and you ask what seems to be a simple question: Can I interview you for a documentary about puppetry? And if so when? I don’t know, maybe my American brain is too fixated on results. Yes or no? Next week, Monday at three? Too hard? Not for me. But for the Czechs?

One thing I noticed is that every one of my meetings with Czechs in Prague had little delays. Maybe not now? Why don’t you just drop by? Maybe next week? How long are you in Prague? Fortunately I was quite well prepared emotionally for this obfuscation and non-committal hemming and hawing. First of all I had read the book by Terje B. Englund, The Czechs in a Nutshell. This is a book I highly recommend to anyone who is doing more than a package tour of Prague. Secondly my friend Blair, who had married a Czech girl and really needed a copy of Mr. Englund’s book, had warned me that in his dealings with the Czechs everything seems to get delayed, and if you really want to get things done you kind of have to lean on them a bit, which he said he hated doing.

This is how Czech communications can feel sometimes… The gallery housing the major Svankmajer exhibit at Dům U kamenného zvonu in the Center of Prague

So true to form after some slight delays my interview with Nina Malíková finally happened, a bit later in the process than I imagined. I could tell Marek of Buchty a Loutky had become a bit hesitant about my interview and finally gave me a brief one, when I was beginning to doubt it would happen at all. Tomas was generous with his time. But I never knew when the interview might occur until it did. And I sent multiple emails all around just trying to get their attention. And finally there was the question of Jan Švankmajer.

So the way this worked was like this, my friend Silvie communicated with me on the internet that she knew a guy who was involved in Jan Švankmajer’s Surrealist group. Great. She then communicated with him, let’s call him Guy With Italian First Name (Gwifn for short) . So Gwifn writes back saying it depends on when your friend is coming to the Czech Republic. So I sweat blood and raise $10,000 or so for a trip to go interview Švankmajer. Silvie writes Gwifn again. What about October or November? Gwifn says it sounds good, Švankmajer is preparing a major retrospective of his art and films in Prague. It shouldn’t be a problem go ahead and come. Swell! I book the entire trip around this interview. It’s the linchpin of the entire film really. So I come to Europe, get a camera, start interviewing. Everyone has great things to say about Švankmajer. I meet Silvie. But she’s a little worried. She hasn’t heard back from Gwifn. Then his last email note sounded somewhat terse. Hmmm. Okay, I think, it’s the Czech Republic, let it roll. I’m booked at the hotel for twelve days. Then I must go to a nearby town to interview Josef Krofta. The interview with Nina is excellent. The time with Buchty a Loutky is wonderful. Prague has been quite interesting. I’m leaving Monday morning to go to Hradec Králové. The last week no word from Gwifn. I can tell Silvie is really feeling bad about this. She’s frantically sending emails. Gwifn says it will happen when it happens… I’m getting closer to leaving. Silvie is getting close to despair. Finally I hear from Silvie Saturday morning on my way to see the last Buchty show that Švankmajer will see me Monday morning at the gallery at center of town. We both breathe a sigh of relief. Silvie is also desperately looking for a translator, since Švankmajer’s English is as solid as my Czech, and since the delays have made finding someone a real pain. A guy named Daniel volunteers. Okay, I’m sure it’s going to happen.

This is one of the sets from Svankmajer’s Lekce Faust his treatment of the Faust story from every conceivable angle.

We arrive Monday morning, yes I’ve delayed my trip till the afternoon, at the old town square in front of the building. We enter the building with some trepidation. Several workers stop us. The gallery in the Dům U kamenného zvonu (House of the Stone Bell) is a hive of workmen installing Švankmajer’s years of art, films and other odds and ends. But no sign of the man himself. I let Silvie do the talking. One guy says he isn’t due in till this afternoon. Basically no one knows anything.

A Dark Hog-Like Puppet Sculture by Jan Svankmajer at Dům U kamenného zvonu

Now… Mr. Švankmajer doesn’t do email, he doesn’t give out his phone number, he is notoriously hard to reach… on purpose. (I admire that!) We are given the phone number of I believe his wife, must be second wife. Silvie calls her. As Daniel is telling me not to trust Czechs with Italian first names, Silvie jumps up and down! ‘He’s on his way down now!’ We turn around and walk back to the gallery. We run into a small bald man with a serious white beard. It’s Jan Švankmajer! We pass our dobry dens to him. He smiles and let’s us follow him. He seems to know what’s going on. We walk passed shelves and displays of his creatures from his films, posters of same. Statues made of bones and feathers. A bust of Stalin painted like the Czech flag. And even the Punch/Kašpárek character from Rakvickarna. It’s about to happen, he says give him some time.

The Original Puppet from Kasparek or Punch from Rakvickarna (The Coffin Factory or Punch and Judy)

Then Silvie comes back crestfallen. Gwifn, remember him, didn’t mention to him that that this was a documentary interview! Švankmajer simply thought this puppeteer from Alaska had come to meet him. As a matter of fact Silvie said when she told him he let loose a few choice Czech curse words. She was pretty nervous actually. But she just stood there, pretty and forlorn. He smiled and said that he couldn’t do it today. I’d have to come back tomorrow.

No problem.

I grab the train to Hradec Králové. Get there in two hours. Get to sleep. And, oh yeah, I’ve got another interview with Jakub’s father the legendary Josef Krofta. This is the man who essentially changed Czech puppetry in the 70’s. Krofta was a crucial figure. I dropped into his office at the Magistraat where he had become a cultural figure in local politics. He drove me over to the DRAK theatre building, which I had visited back in 2005, where I bumped into Milan and Filip, who had been there then. Mr. Krofta, had busted a blood vessel in his eye, giving him a sort of wounded quality. He like Švankmajer was an aging lion. Our interview was all I could hope for. And again another place I wished I’d scheduled for a day or two longer.

    Josef Krofta, the highly influential puppeteer and theatre director from DRAK in Hradec Králové.

Josef Krofta, the highly influential puppeteer and theatre director from DRAK in Hradec Králové.

But now I really had to leave. Josef drove me to the station where I hopped back on the two hour train to Prague, meeting Silvie and a new interpreter, Nina, at 2:30. We entered the building… with a bit of anticipation. I was fully ready to cancel the Vienna portion of my trip to come back if I had to. By this point I wasn’t surprised by anything. Maybe I was becoming somewhat Czech. But Švankmajer smiled when he saw us and the interview was on.

Jan Svankmajer Interviewed October 23 2012 in Prague as he sets up his exhibition at Dům U kamenného zvonu (House of the Stone Bell)

And, with Nina providing thorough translation needs, the interview was a complete success. He even gave me what might be the final lines of the film. For my part I felt like all of that time reading puppet history and watching his films had finally paid off. I looked over at Silvie, she was beaming. It was a huge moment for her as well. This retrospective on Švankmajer was a serious artistic triumph for the man. Both Silvie and Nina felt a certain awe at being in the presence of such a national artistic figure. I was walking back through the exhibition once last time to get a few photos when I saw Švankmajer. He smiled at me in a friendly way and then continued walking ahead of me and turned the corner. I kept going to the end of the hall but he was gone. And that was the last I saw of him. I won’t spoil the contents of the interview for you. But I will say this, the ride back to my tiny room in Hradec Králové was very peaceful, even satisfying. The documentary now had a center. I felt a deep gratitude.

With Jan Svankmajer and Silvie at Dům U kamenného zvonu in the Center of Prague

Now it was back to Poland once again… this time to interview perhaps a more formidable figure… puppet historian and philosopher Henryk Jurkowski.

Byrne Power

Warsaw, Poland

24/10/2012

(All photography ©2012 Byrne Power)


Having My Cake and Puppets Too!

A Pair of Puppet Thugs just Hanging Around the Buchty a Loutky Studios

I arrived on a Wednesday morning at Celetná 17, an address conveniently close to the Old Town Square in Prague. I was hunting down Loutkář Magazine in a building I had remembered from my 2005 journey. And I was here to see the same person I had seen then, though at that point as a complete stranger. But Nina Malíková made it immediately clear that I was no stranger this time around. After all, she said, how could I forget the only visitor to Loutkář from Alaska.

Nina Malikova makes a point in our interview

Nina generously gave me about two hours of her time for my interview. She discussed many things in the filmed discussion including the fascinating relationship between Josef Skupa and Jiří Trnka, two famed Czech puppeteers and in Trnka’s case, a puppet filmmaker, which we both agreed was movie material. Nina’s father, Jan Malik, was a central figure in Czech puppetry himself, and as a child she could remember people, like the seminal Russian puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov, in her house. Finally we ended up in a local café where we sipped on beers and spoke of more personal things. All in all an excellent reunion, with promises to meet again next time I’m in Prague.

As I finished up that interview it was time to hop a tram and head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (theatre). I was now coming to meet the members of Buchty a Loutky (Cakes and Puppets) and to watch the first of four separate shows down in the Švandovo’s brick basement. I mentioned Marek Bečka’s name to the rather prim and dusty woman at the window of the employee’s entrance. Marek had graciously allowed me to come see the shows for free, saving me some precious coin, which certainly got sucked up by other incidental expenses.

Looking for the Holy Grail in Buchty a Loutky’s version of the King Arthur tale.

I had briefly encountered Marek before but never really met. The only member whom I had spoken to in 2005 was Tomáš Procházka and he certainly remembered me. Naturally I stood back and let them set up for the evening’s show, Artuš neboli Artuš ( which translates into Arthur or Arthur…) a parody on the King Arthur saga complete with Knights of the Round Table, a Guinevere who reads a kind of fairy tale which comes alive as she reads it, tributes to Monty Python and a Holy Grail that occasionally comes into view before resolving the whole story with a hint of a spiritual conclusion. This was to be their last performance of this particular piece and the small place was stuffed full with appreciative Czechs.

This Old Woman will be doing some Cutting in the future show of Buchty a Loutky’s Hansel and Gretel

I was invited to drop in the next day to talk with Tomáš and possibly Marek. I arrived at 15:00, again being let in by the rather cautious woman at the gate. I climbed up to the third floor to the rather jumbled and chaotic studios of Buchty a Loutky. The walls were filled with strange marionette figures from the last 20 years of performances. (Though they do occasionally auction off certain pieces from shows that have finished there run as they did with Artuš neboli Artuš the night before.) I was immediately confronted by a rather evil looking old woman from a future production of their version of Hansel and Gretel. I was also accosted by found folk carved versions of Spejbl and Hurvinek, gold spray painted Barbies, bug eyed homunculi, slit faced creatures, and scores of skeletal puppets in a variety of styles and shapes.

Tomas Prochazka discussing the puppetry process in our interview

I spent a while filming an interview with Tomáš Procházka discussing puppetry and the 21st Century followed by a shorter interview with Marek, who is often in the middle of three things at once, discussing the purpose and style of Buchty a Loutky. I was glad to have both of them on record. Meanwhile Marek had to get downstairs to start setting up for the evening’s truly bizarre flight into imagination entitled Psycho Reloaded, which indeed was a cracked version of the film Psycho complete with live string players in granny dresses, an extremely sinister looking Norman Bates and a ‘Mother’ who was an actual dead stuffed weasel! And the whole point of the performance… nothing actually happens. You’d have to be there.

Norman, His Dead Stuffed ‘Mother’ and a couple of Hitchcockian Blondes from Psycho Reloaded

The Buchtys have done several film adaptations over the years including their perennial Rocky IX, Jaws and coming up, something I can’t even begin to imagine, a piece simply called Lynch… obviously a tribute (?) to American director David Lynch. Well if any puppet troupe can pull that off this is the one.

Radek Beran, the Narrator and Myself (with Weasel ‘Mother’) after Psycho Reloaded

One of the spearheads behind the film adaptations is Radek Beran, whom I had more of a chance to get to know this time around. He added a sardonically funny narrator as a ventriloquist puppet who would pop into the scene every now and then and conclude all of his little speeches with a suspicious ‘Heh!’ before diving back into the scenery.

The next night, barely squeaking by the stuffy woman this time who didn’t give me even a hint of recognition, I was present for a very different sort of show, another adaptation, but this time from a book by Martin Ryšavý supposedly called Journey to Siberia based on a journey in the early 90’s into a bizarre Siberian landscape of shamans and vodka hallucinations. Again more Buchty imagination gone wild with lab animals portrayed by plush critters and reindeer that glowed bloody under a black light.

The Buchty’s take a Bow after The Journey into Siberia

My final journey into the zone of Cakes and Puppets, after finding a new password for the lady who guards the door while raising a smile from her, was actually a children’s show the next day, Saturday, Žabák Valentýn (or the Frog Valentine) a simple tale of the animosity between storks and frogs being overcome when Valentine, our accidentally heroic frog, adopts a baby stork, who then grows up to be his protector not his predator. This was the Buchtys in a different sort of zone, not playing with the sometimes edgy imagery they can pull out of their hat, but rather just playing for the other kids. Vítek Brukner and his wife Zuzana Bruknerová along with Radek were particularly good at this. In fact there is an element of just playing with toys to all of Buchty a Loutky’s performances.

The Set for the Frog Valentine

And there is also the fact that what they do is almost pure imagination without much money for production. They reuse sets, rehabilitate puppets, come up with truly memorable effects (a tiny Excalibur sticking out a loaf of bread, pulling the frog mobile around the stage with a circle of string, playing a frog soccer match with little wooden carved frogs on pegs, or later a frog dance on an old record turntable) all for next to nothing. Basically they just make their plays out of junk, and in doing so reconfigure the notion of the grammar of puppetry. It was that aspect that I originally saw back in 2005, which inspired me to give puppetry a try back in Alaska… And it worked!

And I told them all that in a number of ways. The time I spent watching them this time around will certainly be one of the highlights of this odyssey. I had a good talk with Zuzana and more good conversation with Radek. I had already said my farewells to Tomáš and Marek. And I realized that I’ll miss these skilled and zany puppet people. And will look forward to meeting them again someday.

Boukty a Loutky with the Author (two are missing)

And so this trip to Prague was winding down. But one big thing was missing. Radek, Marek and Tomáš had mentioned their indebtedness to Jan Švankmajer. And for me a crucial part of this undertaking was to interview Švankmajer. It was now Saturday afternoon. I was leaving Monday morning. My friend Silvie was frantically trying to figure out whether it was going to happen or not.

(To be continued)

Byrne Power

Prague, Czech Republic

21/10/2012


From Jet Lag to Disappointment to Recovery

The Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo Da Vinci as Street Entertainment

So let’s briefly start in Krakow…

Krakow, Poland, turned out to be a fine place to begin the process of getting over jet lag. On Thursday the 4th I wandered into the local train station/slash/Galeria Krakowska mall with over 270 spanking new stores. I was trying to get my practical issues out of the way. I had to get my Eastern Europe rail pass validated, get Polish money for the rest of my Polish adventures and buy some food for my spartan hotel room and the trip ahead of me to Berlin the next day. I was also defeated by the maze of krakovian streets from getting to a children’s puppet show on time at the Teatr Groteska.

The Ghosts of the New Krakow

I was again mightily reminded that Krakow, ounce for ounce, or should I say gram for gram, has more street entertainment than any other city in Europe. Paris surely has more, but not in such concentration. In the afternoon I passed a couple of living statues, including a charming silver version of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady With an Ermine painting, which is actually housed in Krakow, wandering brass bands, classic Polish accordion players and a guy who had probably been juggling a little soccer ball since 2005 when I last saw him in the old town square. But at night it was even more of a talent competition with fire twirlers, a Polish jazz band, amplified flamenco guitar and a guy named Arne Schmitt who played under a blue seductive glow in the dark at his baby grand piano. And last but not least I wandered into a street festival featuring copious quantities of kielbasa, mushrooms and potatoes.

Sleep came but so did 4:30AM very clearly. The next day I grabbed a stuffed ‘reservation only’ train on the way back to Warsaw. I didn’t have a reservation, which caused no end of consternation to the lady conductor who finally charged me a penalty for the errors of my ways. As I sat on the worst seat in the train with a paper thin cushion. I pointed that out, which was probably the wrong thing to do. A Polish woman sitting across from talked to me for a moment trying to understand my dilemma, which she translated for the conductor. It didn’t matter. And charged me four times the cost of a reservation back at the station. From Warsaw I switched to another reservation only train going to Poznan, then Berlin. No one else was peeved at my transgression or charged me anything and a good conversation was had with a Pole named Tomas.

In Berlin my friend Jeff picked me up at the station and took me over to his apartment where he and his wife, and also my good friend, Millay lived. I spent the weekend there in good company. My real point in visiting Berlin had originally been mostly to drop in on them and to catch up with our friendship. I had also had hoped to go to Die Schaubude to see a puppet show. That was what I originally thought. But something else came up that focused the whole Berlin visit upon the technical aspects of the film.

The Old Communist Television Tower – a Symbol of the New Berlin too

Originally I had tried to get a grant for more money than I eventually received. Some of those who took part in the fundraising drive may remember that. Well the amount I didn’t get was to cover the cost of camera equipment, etc. And so though I had a shoestring budget for traveling what I would do to record my interview was, to say the least, up in the air. Christos in Switzerland, who was interested in possibly producing the film had said he could help. After many attempts to locate a camera stateside this seemed like a real relief. But many obstacles supervened. Getting the camera to Berlin proved to be a logistics nightmare. Also the camera I was hoping to get was unavailable. So he was sending another model. Eventually he sent his wife by plane with the camera as carry on luggage. Jeff took me to meet Deena his wife whom I’d met back in California several years ago. I was now relieved and the main issue was getting up to speed on the technical side. Then I looked at the camera. It was top of the line… back in 2002. But prosumer then had become cellphone quality now. This would never work. It would end up making the film look like a home video on antique tools. I had actually had access to better equipment back in Haines.

This was truly a depressing thought. I had received confirmations from so many truly interesting people to be interviewed, including most recently Buchty a Loutky. (I would be jumping up and down about this… but I was in serious condition.) That damned money and tech stuff was defeating me. The way it was, I had also forked over expensive euro cash for a cellphone to use for contingencies and emergencies, a digital voice recorder for back up sound, or in the case of the Brothers Quay most likely the entire interview (but that’s another story). I’d also studied my bank account online. After several withdrawals of euros, zlotys and soon Czechs karunas to build up a reserve to get around the paranoia of current debit card conditions (don’t even get me started on this insanity) I could feel the skin through my pockets.

But Christos came to the rescue! He told Deena to buy me a new camera down at the massive Media Markt tech palace. I met her in a whirlwind and though I was prepared to kick in some more precious euros, Deena basically paid for the whole thing minus a few shekels for spending cash. I was impressed. And also felt much more certain about their commitment to the project. (I’m due to meet Christos later in Lucerne to discuss the project.)

And that had been the last minute! I had delayed my train travel to Wrocław and had been hurriedly climbing up and down U-Bahn / S-Bahn stairs to make my connections. Finally Millay took a break from her translating work (she’d recently translated a short piece by Robert Walser into English that I was hoping to present to the Brothers Quay) to make her traditional accompaniment to the train station with me. I couldn’t have done it without help from Millay and especially Jeff, who drove me all over Berlin to help get things done. And I couldn’t have done it without Christos and Deena. And now on to Wrocław and the documentary begins.

From Uta Gebert’s ANUBIS at Die Schaubude October 6th 2012

Oh yes… I forgot one thing. I did indeed go to Die Schaubude where Millay and I watched two puppet shows by Uta Gebert, both on the subject of death. Stylistically and technically they were fantastic. Serious thought went into the dark look of the pieces. The use of black space, the floating figure of Anubis in a boat in the middle of the air in the middle of the stage, the sound effects, the realism of the other figure who struggled against the man at the door in Limen, all quite well done. But, and it’s a big but, they seemed to be puppetry lite. After a deep dark introduction to the first piece ANUBIS suddenly this strange unearthly figure is dancing to lightweight prerecorded background music. Limen was inspired by a short piece by Kafka, but it contained little of his paranoia and doubts and ended on an optimistic note. Kafka on an optimistic note? Nevertheless my first puppet shows had been finally seen and new thoughts with them.

Limen by Uta Gebert – Based on a piece by Franz Kafka

Byrne Power

Wrocław, Poland

9 / 10 / 2012


A Strong Foundation for the Documentary

The Brothers Quay from the early Eighties when they were shooting Street of Crocodiles

Very good news. I received an email last night in response to a request to meet and do an interview. The first words in the letter said “By all means…” and it was signed the Brothers Quay. They were certainly on board now and I would be visiting them in London in late November. Then I heard from my friend Aurelia Ivan today saying that she would be glad to see me again in Paris in mid-November. Those two confirmations gave me a much needed boost of personal satisfaction.

Folks have been asking me lately “Are you excited to be traveling?” “Well yeah of course.” I would reply knowing how much I had to accomplish on this journey. I still have to receive the camera in Berlin. I still have to get up to speed on it before my first interview. I still have to negotiate the financial shoals ahead. This isn’t going to be as carefree as my 2005 puppet exploration, where I had no idea what I would find. But after receiving today’s news I feel I can truly say “Now I’m excited!”

So a short list of people I am more or less guaranteed to talk with: Jan Švankmajer (puppet filmmaker), Nina Malíková (puppet magazine editor), Henryk Jurkowski (puppet historian and philosopher), Josef and Jakub Krofta (puppet theatre directors), Pascal Pruvost (guignoliste), Lenka Pavlickova (puppet carver), Aurelia Ivan and by extension probably Francois Lazaro (puppet theatre directors) Stephen and Timothy Quay (puppet filmmakers).

Aurelia Ivan’s Android from her recent production of Homo Urbanicus by her Compagnie TSARA

By the way if you are anywhere near the New York City area go see the Brothers Quay’s exhibition at MOMA. It’s there until January 7th and they are giving lectures in October and November.

I’m still waiting for a response from Buchty a Loutky in Prague. And there are a several other candidates. But right now I know that I’ve got a very strong foundation to this whole project.

But keep following me. Many surprises must come. Departure October 1st at 11:45 PM by ferry.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

September 26th 2012


An Introduction to Gravity From Above

Well the Sisyphean task of begging and conjuring up enough money to get myself back to Europe is finished. (I still do have to send out the promised map of European puppet theatres to those who earned it.) But in the last month and a half I’ve been concentrating on planning this monumental journey. The plane and train tickets are now in my possession. I have mostly booked the hotels and I am reconnecting with friends in other locales. There are still many things to prepare. Lists to go over. Things to buy. More research. But essentially the main fact is this: I will be traveling again in Europe between October 3rd and December 6th 2012. And thanks to all of you who have helped support Gravity From Above one way or another.

The ever present Czech skeleton. (Here seen in on my 2005 journey at the puppet museum in Chrudim.)

So here’s what I know I’m doing so far… My Czech contacts tell me that Jan Švankmajer will be interviewed. I haven’t actually contacted Mr. Š. myself, as I don’t speak Czech and he doesn’t speak English. But I trust that during my two week sojourn in Prague I will get to interview him. (I do have a translator!) Next comes  Nina Malíková, the editor of Loutkář (Puppeteer) magazine, at 100 years the oldest puppetry magazine in the world. Nina basically holds the keys to Czech puppetry. I’ve already had an interview with her in 2005 and can attest that she has a razor sharp mind and a vast knowledge of the subject. Then there’s Joseph Krofta, the director of DRAK one of the crucial puppet theatres and troupes to emerge from the Communist Era. Krofta is a singularly important figure. Not to forget Jakub Krofta, his son and a formidable director in his own right, who will meet me in Wrocław, Poland, where he is beginning work on a new theatrical project. And speaking of Poland, in Warsaw I will be interviewing Henryk Jurkowski, the foremost living authority on puppetry in Europe. He is old enough to have participated in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a teen, which raises the question how does one get from a time when hundreds of thousand of people and an entire city were falling down around you to puppetry. I can’t wait!

The Theatre of the Classic Czech puppets Spejbl & Hurvinek created by Joseph Skupa. I missed their performances in 2005… I won’t this time!

And there are will be many more. I have just tracked down Leona Beatrice Starewitch-Martin, who has been curating her grandfather’s (Ladislaw Starewicz) memory and I’m trying to get her in this film. And I will certainly talk to the member’s of the Czech troupe Buchty a Loutky who have invented a post-Švankmajer puppetry style. Also I will certainly interview Pascal Pruvost, a guignoliste in Paris. And speaking of Paris I’m still trying to reconnect with Aurelia Ivan, a graduate of l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) and Francois Lazaro of the Clastic Theatre. And there will be much more. My biggest goal at the moment will be to get the Brother’s Quay lined up. My feeling is that the documentary will be incomplete without them.

As far as problems go, the only real issue is what I will be using to record the interviews. There will be one or two of us doing the actual filming. And at this point we will only be getting the interviews. In a year or so I plan to go back with a crew to get the performances. I will need some serious money by then.

Anyway this is just an introduction to the journey. Stick around. There will be bulletins along the way. And news before I get going. My departure date is October 1st near midnight by ferry from Haines, Alaska.

If you stumbled upon this and have some kind of curiosity about the project please follow this link and watch the video and read the description. If you wish to help out, (I can’t tell you how much of a shoestring this is all being dangled from.) I will provide PayPal information soon. But this has to be done. If you are reading this then come along for the ride. And if you wish to contact me personally? Write to reckoningmotions (at) y a h o o (dot) c o m

Meanwhile there is work to do here in Alaska!

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

9/8/12

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