A Journey Into European Puppetry

Nino Namitcheishvili,

Tojina Checkmate

Long Face Big Eyes

A tojina on World Puppetry Day

While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.

 

I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.

I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.

Little Prince Boy & Puppet

The Little Prince at the Majanishvili Theatre

Little Prince Snake B&W
The Snake Puppet

The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.

Head in Hand

Head or hand? Unusual design in a doll.

Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.

 

And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.

 

Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)

But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.

Laughing Crying Clown

Clown Tojina

Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)

Fishy Puppets

Dolls with a story to tell.

I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.

Jewel Doll

Tojinebi Show on World Puppetry Day

I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’

Nini S

Nini Sanadiradze asking an important question.

I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…

Lika And friend

Faces that look like people I met in Tbilisi

Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.

I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.

Sofiko Chiaureli Doll

A doll of Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli from her role in The Wishing Tree

More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.

Byrne Power
Haines, Alaska
5/3/2018

 

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Butterflies and Burning Sandcastles

Bunraku Baby

One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.

Click on these for larger images.

I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.

Ana Holds Puppet

Ana Sanaia Shows Me An Unfinished Puppet

I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.

The song Suliko ends with these lines:

Ah, life has meaning once more now!

Night and day, I have hope

And I have not lost you, my Suliko

I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.

Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.

I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.

A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.

Vudi Aleni Puppet

ვუდი ალენი (Vudi Aleni) also know as Woody Allen.

Niko

Niko watches practice intently.

I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.

Hopper Palette

Like an Edward Hopper scene, Woody Allen looks on as puppeteers await practice.

TSPT takes a Bow

The Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre Takes a Bow

So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.

Come back soon!

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

4/28/2018


Puppets, Theatre and Farewells

Sister Puppets

Georgian Puppets at the Marjanishvili Theatre

Kote Marjanishvili was a famous Georgian theatre director from both the late Imperial period through the early Revolutionary Era in Georgia, Russia and the Soviet Union. I was visiting a theatre named after him on the eastern bank of the Mtkvari River in Tbilisi on the appropriately named Kote Marjanishvili Street. I was there to see Nino Namitcheishvili, a name I’m still wrestling with. Tinatin Gurchiani had come through again finding the theatre’s puppet mistress who was glad to invite me up to her office in the stately building.

Nino Namitcheishvili
With Nino Namitcheishvili at the Marjanishvilli Theatre

Nino was a friendly curly black haired woman, a bit quirky (as puppeteers often are) and dedicated to her craft. As I set up my camera for an interview I couldn’t help noticing the bird in a cage behind her next to a couple of similarly sized puppets. Somehow it seemed fitting. Once you start seeing things through the eyes of puppetry everything begins to have connections with the art. On the wall was a piece of colorful fabric that had once been used for the backdrop of a puppet show. Behind me rested a community of puppets that all looked like they had been prepared for a barbecue, with skewers sticking out of their backs, as they laid face down a table.

Puppet Office

Puppets and Bird

We spoke about her connection to puppetry.We spoke about her connection to puppetry. She had discovered it almost by accident as many others had having already embarked upon a theatrical career. But had been enchanted by world of puppets. We spoke of Georgian theatre, Obraztsov, rod puppets, and the Georgian reaction to puppet performances.

Background Marjanishvili
Backdrop for a puppet show

After the interview she showed me the puppets individually all of which had somewhat blank faces yet with plenty of features to make them possible to be read in many different ways during a performance. There were many parts of a Georgian village present. Men, women, a priest. And obviously these were not hastily made creatures. Georgia was indeed connected to the traditions of Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet world in terms of puppetry. One of my prized possessions gathered on my scrounges through Georgian used bookstores was a large photographic book in Russian on the great puppeteer Sergei Obraztsov. And clearly his effect had been felt from Poland to Georgia. As I thanked Nino and prepared to leave she told be that she could get me into the theatre’s play the next evening, which was to be my last day in Georgia. And the play was being done without words, so how fortunate for me. And so why not? The day was already busy but why not make it a day to remember.

Puppet Pile

Puppet Shish-kabobs ready for action

My last day in Tbilisi was indeed full. At ten in the morning I met Tinatin Gurchiani for breakfast. Our words drifted from subject to subject as she checked in on my progress in an almost proprietorial and concerned way. She apologized for not connecting me with the busy puppeteer Rezo Gabriadze. And it pleased her to know that she had been of service to me. And I felt honored to have had made another good Georgian friend. She spoke of her current documentary project. Her earlier film, The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear, had had as its theme the dreams and confusions of youth. Her new documentary focused on the longings and reflections of the aged. I told her more of Alaska and my observations on Georgia. Eventually it was time to go. We bid farewell as though old friends. (And I didn’t remember to take even one photo of Tinatin!)

Priest Puppet
Orthodox Puppet Priest

I then moved over a few blocks to the Sukhishvili dance troupe where I had my interview with Nino Sukhishvili and had my second chance to watch the dancers practice. (See my last entry.) A bit later in the afternoon after my last Georgian meal I arrived at Budrugana Gagra to say farewell. Again another fond farewell by Gela Kandelaki, with ‘Medium Elene’ translating for me. After he left I stayed a little later to show Elene some of my other creative work. And then it was time to go to the theatre.

Marjanishvili Theatre

The Set of Begalut at the Marjanishvili Theatre

The Marjanishvili Theatre was a classic Soviet style building similar to what I seen in Poland and the Czech Republic: gray, columns, stately. I was seated in a spare seat. And watched the play, which had been based on the same Sholom Aleichem source material as Fiddler On The Roof. It was called Begalut (In Exile) and developed fragments from Shalom Aleichem’s and Georgian writer Guram Batiashvili’s novels. At first it seemed like a comedy. But by the end after a brutal pogrom it indeed proved to be utterly tragic. Told in a somewhat abstract wordless style the play ends very differently than Fiddler On The Roof, which has notes of hope in a voyage to America, with the final image of a grandmother holding the last surviving baby in her arms among the dead villagers. It wasn’t a stretch to feel that the Russian villains in the piece had a special meaning in Georgia of today, a country with fresh memories of the Five Day War in 2008. I left the theatre walking back home along Marjanishvili Street with many, many thoughts of my time in Tbilisi. Returning to the city was foremost on my mind. It had been stimulating for me in the best possible way. Not as a touristic frantic search for experiences. But in the way seeing new possibilities, sparking new ideas, even challenging my American notions of order.

 (The following 25 minute video is my reflection on my time in Tbilisi. Enjoy it at your leisure.)

I was awoken early at four in the morning. Shako purposely came home to say goodbye to me. I had said fond farewells for my host Tamar to Shako’s girlfriend Aneta and especially to my Georgian teacher, the seven year old Mariam. The silent man, whose name I never did get, though I know he is Tamar’s husband but not Shako’s father, drove me through the dark nighttime streets again. This time the music was slightly louder. I looked out at Tbilisi thinking about all that had happened since I arrived. There is much I haven’t even mentioned: Meeting photographer Mariam Sitchinava and her husband Kote, time spent in museums, meeting American expat Steve Johnson and his wife Tamara who own Prospero’s Books, many serious food experiences, time spent scavenging Georgian music on the Dry Bridge flea market and art bazaar and so much more. Finally my silent driver drove me up to the Tbilisi Airport, I took my luggage, now bursting with Georgian artifacts in a new travel bag purchased at the endless Georgian bazaar by the train station, and said to my driver “Didi madloba.” which means ‘big thanks’, whereupon he suddenly smiled for the first time and responded something in Georgian I didn’t understand. And that made the trip complete.

ICTHYS Tbilisi

Tbilisi Awaits My Return

It was time to get back to Paris to finish up this journey. I had puppeteers waiting for me and memories to share.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

6/27/2016

And when you have the time go back and read all of my Georgia adventures…