A Journey Into European Puppetry

Spejbl & Hurvinek

A Brief History Of Puppetry

Laurel & Hardy Puppets

Puppets of comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy join the marionettes at the Spejbl and Hurvinek Theatre in Prague, March 2016.

March 2016 while in Huémoz Switzerland I had a chance to give a lecture with slides called A Brief History of Puppetry at L’Abri. Now I have met people involved with puppetry who know an awful lot about the subject. This lecture isn’t really for them, though I suspect they’d appreciate it. This is for the multitudes who only have a glimmer of an idea about puppetry. A couple of years ago I uploaded my Puppetry As Antidote Art, which was essentially my personal apologia for puppetry to be considered as a serious art form. And I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have watched it and in some manner contacted  me as a result. And so I present to you a more detailed follow-up. Not a particularly scholarly history but nevertheless more involved and detailed than anything else to be found in video at this moment.

(It’s over an hour and a half long. The best way to watch it might be to download it and spend some time with it. I’ve added much more visual material than when I gave it live so that should help.)

If you find it worthwhile let me know. And if you want to correct my dates and facts also get in touch. Leave comments below or on the YouTube page.

And remember I must get back to Europe this year to continue and hopefully get closer to wrapping the interviews for Gravity From Above, our documentary on European puppetry. We do need financial help if you want to donate to the cause use the “Make A Donation” button above. It’s simple, painless, direct and absolutely needed. Plus I will put your name on the final film.

Stay tuned, more will be developing as we go. And thanks to all those who have already helped out or followed our progress in some manner.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

April 9th 2017

 

 


Trip Plans, Puppet Classes and a Plea

 

Puppet Class 3

Students at Reckoning Motions puppet classes in  Haines Alaska.

Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.

Middle Eastern Puppets

A Puppet Bazaar at the museum in Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Puppetry Institute.

So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.

In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)

IMG_0467

A couple of Jaunty Puppets from the Spejbl and Hurvinek Museum and Theatre in Prague.

A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.

(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)

 

Puppet Class 1

A few of my puppetry students learning about marionettes.

Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.

Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)

I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

3/27/2017

 


2005 Journey into European Puppetry #7

154-buchty-urbild-mermaid

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


A Small Feast For The Eyes

Well while I’ve been sidelined on Gravity From Above I haven’t been idle. Now I just have to get to where I’m going by a new route. I’ve exhausted the crowdfunding route. I just don’t have the name recognition, a big enough pool of acquaintances or friends with deep enough pockets to be able to go through that again in the near future. But still it was good to know that I could raise the funds, twice(!), to help me get this far.

But here’s what I have been doing… Someone did get in touch with me about an idea. It didn’t quite work out but it was a good connection. I’ve also been going through documentaries from the last 20 or so years that I have appreciated to see if there’s a producer who might be worth contacting. I did come up with about 10 solid names.

czech-puppet-dancers

A brace of dancing Czech Marionettes in the puppet museum in Plzen.

I realized that I need to make a new trailer to give this producer and new backers an idea of what exactly I’m up to. And so I spent about 50 hours working on a this small feast for your eyes.. This trailer is not meant to announce the film. But it does serve to show how much work I’ve done so far. Some of the images are from animated and live puppet films that I wish to use in the documentary, but will need to obtain the rights in the future. There are many images from interviews which I’ve already conducted. What’s missing is great footage from a few puppet shows to bring the whole project home. But consider this a taste of what’s to come. This is somewhat the mood of the forthcoming film. More poetic than didactic. But let me know what you think of it? I’d appreciate your thoughts.

And here is where I could really use help. Who do you know who can help get Gravity From Above made? Do you know a hungry producer? Do you know someone who’d love to donate and get involved? (We can even work it out to make it a nonprofit contribution if that’s an issue.) Do you have or know someone with ideas? Think with me on this. I need to get back out there as soon as possible. And one of you might have the key.

budrugana-gagra-poster

Here’s a poster for the unique hand shadow puppet theatre in Tbilisi Georgia called Budrugana Gagra.

In the meantime enjoy the new trailer!

Byrne Power

Haines,Alaska

10/30/2016

Thanks to those who have contributed by using the PayPal ‘Donate’ button up above.


Czech Puppets and a Song

Damsel in Glass
A Damsel in Glass at the Plzen Puppet Museum

My last few days in Prague were spent battling a fever and it’s various symptoms. On a day when I still felt I had a bit of strength left I went on a morning walk up Hradčany hill with Wang Jue. Our stated goal was to look for Jan Švankmajer’s Gambra gallery/home beyond the castle complex. Sadly it seemed shuttered. Closed for ‘technical reasons’ read some internet search engine. I hope Mr. Švankmajer is in good health. We ended up exploring the rooms of the Strahov Monastery, with books made of wood and a dried baby dodo bird. (Described elsewhere.) And ended up with some authentic Shanghai style food in a little hole in the wall. But soon my sickness made it clear I needed to rest and so I bid adieu to Jue and went to the hotel to rest.

Gambra Gallery
Svankmajer’s Shuttered Gambra Gallery on the Prague Castle Hill

There were people I wanted to see still, but the fever raged on for the rest of the day producing a sleepless night. All of Saturday was given to recovery. I wanted to be in good shape for my final trip to Georgia. I had to get out once though to find food and exchange a bit of my dwindling currency to pay off my bills before I left the city. Sunday morning I stayed in late as well. Finally that afternoon I felt almost good enough to go out, scrounge up some food and go to the David Cronenberg exhibition called Evolution in the Old Town Square at the Prague City Gallery – House at the Stone Bell (Galerie hlavního města Prahy – Dům U Kamenného zvonu). I’ve followed Cronenberg’s work ever since stumbling into the climatic scene from The Brood in a 42nd Street grindhouse in New York City in the very early 80’s and having my eyelids peeled back by the experience. This show contained many of the strange props from his films including some prosthetic beings that could only be called puppets.

Cronenberg Puppet
One of the Puppets used in David Cronenberg’s films.

Finally it was time to leave the Green Lobster and to get myself to the train to Plzeň to visit my friend Silvie Morasten a Czech artist and singer, the same friend who had helped me interview Švankmajer back in 2012. After the hour and a half ride Silvie greeted me at the train station. She had hoped to have some sort of small concert while I was visiting, since I’d never really heard her sing. European train stations had recently start leaving pianos without casters and seat chained to them so that anyone could play the piano and no one would steal it. As we walked off of the platform she said let me play you a song. Before I could even get out my good camera or recording equipment she began to play. I managed to get out my feeble little camera and set it up on the piano to capture the song. Even with the sound rattling because I had forgotten about the piano vibrations the video gives a flavor of the moment. And what a moment it was. She began to sing a haunting tune, accompanying herself with chromatic minor chords that filled the train station, turning it briefly into something far beyond the mundane. Silvie has an unusual voice low in register yet sharp and clear, with sad emotion in her words. People walked by at first not really paying attention. But a few slowly realized what was going on. They stopped. And I stood there realizing that this was one of the defining moments of my journey as the mournful words of a Slovenian poet drifted through the echoing hall with Silvie’s own music illustrating the mood, changing the dreary station into an epic denouement on the journey thus far.

The next day I went into Plzeň (Pilsen birthplace of Pilsner beer) to the Muzeum loutek (Puppet Museum). And I was actually very much impressed since it was the home of many famous Czech puppeteers including Josef Skupa, Gustav Novák and Jiří Trnka. And in recent years Plzeň has been home to the Theatre Alfa. All these were presented well by the museum. The stand out display was the automatic puppet theatre of Karel Novák, which featured a parade of puppet automata marching out in a line and performing.

Automated Jester
Automated Jester Juggling

Finally after much good discussion my time with Silvie was up and after a final morning concert at the station she let me go. I just couldn’t depart while she was singing this eerily beautiful music. The train was late, but it didn’t really effect my departure time. After a couple of hours I made it to Prague only to discover that my month long metro pass didn’t cover the train’s bus to the airport. But I immediately hopped aboard the metro and jumped off at the appropriate stop to catch the city’s bus to airport, which my pass did cover. And there I met Eti, the English puppet student from the workshop, who was on her way home. We had a vivid discussion about puppets, meaning and indeed the use of these homely little things to perhaps aid the people of our age to touch reality again. And with that the Czech Republic disappeared behind me, new friends made, old friends met, puppets seen, and puppeteers primed for the future filming of Gravity From Above. And after my Lot jet deposited me for an eight hour stopover in the Warsaw Airport I finally boarded a plane mostly full of Poles to arrive at 5 in the morning in Tbilisi, Georgia.

Trnka Puppet
Slender Jiri Trnka Puppet at the Plzen Museum

But THAT is a completely different story

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

4/4/2012


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