Eugenijus Slavinskas: “I did not choose the puppet; the puppet chose me”.

03 02 2023

E. Slavinskas. Photo: M. Fujimoto

Author: Gabrielė Pelakauskaitė

Translated by Laima Bezginaitė

On October 17-21, a bunraku puppet workshop organized by the Vilnius theatre “Lėlė” and led by a member of the “Blind Summit” troupe Eugenijus Slavinskas, took place. During the workshop, the puppeteer shared his experience and knowledge acquired in Lithuania and abroad and invited the participants to try controlling a puppet. E. Slavinskas shared his opinion on what is so special about this technique, how the participants of the workshop progressed and how he managed to join the world-famous puppet theater troupe.

During the workshop, the participants learn how to control a bunraku puppet. What makes it different from other puppets?

The bunraku puppet and its technique originated in Japan. This puppet is controlled by three people, therefore it is particularly important for everyone involved to absolutely feel others, to trust them and to give them space for movement. On stage, the story is told not only by the puppet’s head, all its body parts and their language are also important. It’s like three people playing a single guitar: one makes a pause, another plays a solo, or everybody plays together in sync. There are many different variations of movements, but the most important thing is to find harmony. Teamwork allows to focus more on the precise details of movement which are important for creating an evocative emotion, a colorful character, or an engaging plot.

What rules do bunraku puppeteers have to follow?

I graduated from LMTA (Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre) with a BA degree in Acting and Contemporary Dance. I believe that analyzing movements and knowing the anatomy helps to understand this technique better, because the puppet offers the possibilities of precise movements. As I mentioned before, teamwork and the ability to feel one’s partners while on stage is particularly important. In fact, anyone can learn this technique, but it takes a lot of time and effort to be able do it really well. Although the techniques and methods of a drama actor and a puppeteer differ, they are all equally necessary. It is important for every creator to understand by themselves what fits best and where they feel best.

Why did you choose to work specifically with the bunraku puppet? What makes it special for you?

I never dreamed of becoming a puppeteer and never thought it could be interesting for me. That is why I believe that I did not choose the puppet, but rather the puppet chose me. During my studies, I had an opportunity to participate in the crowd scenes of director Anthony Minghella’s performance “Madam Butterfly” (Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, 2006), where some of the puppets were created by members of “Blind Summit” Mark Down and Nick Barnes. This troupe employs the principles of traditional Japanese style bunraku puppet theatre in its work. It happened so that Mark Down could not continue to act in the performance due to an injury, so they had to find a replacement. I passed the audition, was accepted into the team, and that was how my friendship with the bunraku technique began. I am still working in that performance. I perform the same role at ENO (English National Opera) and Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna Opera). Now I also get to try out other techniques, for example, I was introduced to glove puppets in director Robert Magro’s performance “Visions”.

During my studies, I didn’t feel strong neither in acting nor in dancing. I used to constantly criticize myself and could not relax whenever I had to perform tasks on stage. Everything changed when I put my hands on a puppet. I was far better at transferring all the unnecessary criticism onto the puppet, at hiding behind it and thus feeling safe and able to concentrate on work and improve.

Photo: U. Naudžius

How did you become a member of the “Blind Summit” troupe?

Following a successful debut in “Madam Butterfly”, National Opera and Ballet Theatre sent me to an internship with the “Blind Summit” troupe in London. At first, I was only an observer of the creative process or would hold only one hand of a puppet, but later I started suggesting my own ideas, movements, and choreographic solutions, which would remain in the final result. Since I managed to become part of the process in such a short time and, moreover, our views coincided, I was offered to join the troupe. Soon after that I received my first roles, because the director Mark Down gave me some of his roles, for example, in the performance “Low Life”. This period was a bit more difficult as there was a lack of creative freedom. I faced challenges where I had to accurately reproduce already created movements and emotions, because small details are particularly important in this technique. Maybe it even cannot be done completely, therefore I ended up adding my own details to the performance, which, I am sure, did not damage the performance in any way. Since then I have been working in this troupe. 

How did the workshop process go? Did the participants do well? 

I am the happiest about the fact that improvement was very obvious. Every attempt and minute spent learning how to control the puppet can affect the movements performed. Even though the person controlling it is the same, the puppet changes, becomes more alive, breathing and more emotive. Naturally, at first there were some difficulties with the technical aspects of controlling the puppet, its joints tended to go in opposite directions, but later these problems dwindled. As I was preparing for the workshop, I planned that we would try doing only the technical aspects, but after seeing how well and quickly the participants grasped everything, I included the creation of more emotive and role-playing situations. I am glad that the tasks went well for all the participants, even those who tried controlling the puppet for the first time. 

What encouraged you to start conducting workshops and teaching others?

This workshop was my first teaching experience. After it ended, I can firmly say that I feel great and that I would like to continue this activity. I had already thought about who else I could offer similar workshops to. It is a good feeling to be useful to someone, to be interesting to them and to share information I have accumulated over many years of work. I used to think that if I teach someone, I will reveal all my “tricks”, that someone will steal and implement my ideas. I no longer have that fear. Now I don’t want to keep everything to myself, and even if someone does implement those ideas of mine, it is important to me that they do it well.

Before the workshop started, I was worried that I would not be able to make contact with the participants. Some of them have more experience on stage, so I didn't really know how to suggest them ideas and management methods. However, from the very first moments we found a common language, built trust in each other and I am sure that even during this short time we managed to learn something from each other that.

You get to travel to theatres of different countries. In your opinion, what place does puppet theatre occupy on the Lithuanian stage? 

In Lithuania I am working on several projects and have not seen many performances, however, I have an impression that puppet theatre is the most attractive to parents, because they can take their children there. Of course, puppet theater is close to children, but it is important that it would be to adults as well. In Lithuania, a stereotype still prevails that puppet theatre is intended for children, which I find very strange, because I have never heard it abroad. 

This publication is written in the context of the project "European Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform"