Face to face with a puppet

28 08 2023

Belova-Iacobelli (Belgium/Chile) company’s Chayka

Ilze Kļaviņa

Theatre critic


In May 2023, the Festival Tallinn Treff [i] brought together viewers and theatre enthusiasts who are interested in this hard-to-define field full of possibilities known as the art of visual theatre. 

We speak of visuality as a powerful instrument not only because of active movement in performance art, contemporary dance and chamber style forms. Impressive productions in large spaces, such as the Dailes Theatre in Riga (Very Good Minutes), Latvian National Theatre (Ferdinand and Louise) and Riga Circus (Malleus Maleficarum. The New Pact) invite us to experience first and foremost the visually enjoyable events. Estonians have been looking in that direction for some time – six years ago the Treff festival took on its present format, and the festival artistic director Leino Rei is successfully cooperating with other festivals of the genre in Europe.

When I visited the festival in 2019, the organisational side and the wide representation of theatres from abroad left me with an impression of determined energy. Simultaneously with performances, there were masterclasses, a seminar and workshops for the audience. This year, it was also possible to visit several, even four or five events a day. The intensive festival programme was spread among several venues – not only the theatre, but also Kumu Art Museum, Kanuti Guild Hall in the old town, Telliskivi Creative City. The ever-visible highest peaks of the towers of Tallinn were landmarks that gave direction, helped navigate and not get lost in the labyrinths of streets and smaller alleys. Highlighting the essential that the peaks show the way – this is a parallel that applies to the festival content as well, as the organizers pick the best of the best, proving once again Estonians’ principal aspiration to excellence to avoid lingering on the periphery of provinciality.

From Europe’s largest puppet theatres’festival in Charleville[ii], this year Treff welcomed the powerful production Chayka (Belova-Iacobelli Company, Belgium/Chile). One of the most famous physical theatre companies in the United Kingdom – Gecko (UK) – gave a masterclass as part of the contemporary performance master’s programme in the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre, introducing its unique method, including the average duration of creating a production (four years). Some of the Treff performers this year, representing thirteen theatre companies from Germany, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Israel, England and Slovenia, are also known to Latvian audiences after the guest performances they gave in Riga. Among them, for example, Paolo Nani Theatre with another witty clownery called Little Miracles of Life (director Frede Gulbrandsen) and Duda Paiva Company with the human/puppet double portrait Bruce Marie (concept by Paiva, director Neville Tranter, dramaturgy Kim Kooiman, large creative team).

Little Miracles of Life

Another speaker at the Academy was Žilvinas Vingelis, the founder and director of Lithuanian independent theatre company Kosmos and lecturer at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre. His lecture/discussion “Visual theatre and the pictorial turn: pictures that started to think” in a way continued the theoretic seminar of Treff 2019. This time Vingelis emphasized the idea of replacing textual message with other components – he believes that their interaction opens new possibilities of expression and crosses the borders known so far. Between theoretic points and practical examples, Vingelis referred to current trends and the Baltoscandal festival in Estonia, where the participants last year included Rimini Protokoll theatre with Stefan Kaegi’s project Uncanny Valley. Estonian theatre researcher Madli Pesti, on the other hand, defined the term“visual theatre”[iii] as a “melting pot” of various means of expression that brings together theatre (speech, play, dance, puppets), visual art (drawing, sculpture, interior design, lighting design, object art, architecture), technology (video, animation, projection) and physicality (language of gestures, movement of all kind, choreography, mime).

 “The relationships between puppet/object and human, transforming things, regarding an object as a living partner – these are some of the wide possibilities of visual theatre that resonate with the speed and metaphor-like multilayered meaning of present visual perception, and also correspond with the intensive “right now” form of information dictated by today’s digital environment.”

 Partnership with a thinking puppet 

Describing the general trends of Tallinn Treff 2023 after the nine performances that I saw is difficult – they are all different in terms of form and do not stay in the frames of the genre. The individual approach that characterises author’s theatre gives each performance a unique, non-replicable nature. It is telling that the productions in Treff repertory included almost no video projections; what was predominant was the performers’ emotional interaction in the audience’s presence, which made every event special.

The most impressive works seemed to be those which combined in an original way content, form and performer’s personality. Standing out among the performances that demonstrated great artistry of technique were the ones that reflected complex social and psychological issues. Among the Treff highlights, I would like to bring out Duda Paiva’s production Bruce Marie for its complex but still easy-to-grasp joint play of puppet and human. The trademark of Paiva’s[iv] visually powerful productions is, of course, the use of grotesque foam sculptures and special choreography. This time, the production addresses the topic of artificial intelligence – what if there was a chip transplanted in the head that enabled humans to transcend all physical limitations of the body? A plot borrowed from science fiction centres the performance around a multigender split personality – the two-named Bruce/Marie, who works as a janitor in a laboratory dealing with artificial intelligence and chips. In one of the cages lives a monkey called Muffin, who is involved in animal testing and who gradually becomes the protagonist’s best friend. Contrary to the split personality, the monkey (the expression on the puppet’s “face” is extraordinary) with all its contradictions, doubts and insecurities displays more self-respect and wisdom than the human. The actor plays the characters of both Bruce and Marie as well as the monkey – the puppet.  The creatures are technically joined to each other and the puppet in the actor’s hands seems to be alive. The performance had an indescribable emotional impact and in the final scene, most of the viewers answered the call to come on stage and personally “greet” the puppet that was sitting like child on the actor’s lap. Conceptually the play also warns against the possible dangers of transhumanism, calling on viewers to hold on to living feelings.

Transformations and games 

Video projections with images that had no people in them were demonstrated by Steve Salembier in his project Babel. These show the dehumanised world of the 21st century with industrial scale models of its metropolitan architecture, constituting endless concrete and glass constructions, which the author sets spinning on special wheels in front of video cameras. Accompanied by ZONDERWERK’s dreamlike soundscapes. Actor, director and architect Salembier’s performance was the only work on screens that stood out with its rational approach to opening an idea.


One of the few performances for children was Slovenian Maribor Puppet Theatre’s adaptation of the well-known story Pinocchio. It stood out with its precise concept of chamber theatre format and minimalist means of expression, performed by actor Miha Bezeljak. Right before the viewers’ eyes, his hands literally crafted a wooden puppet with materials and tools found in two drawers. The suggested idea of a creative activity as a way of each of us “building” ourselves came across alive and convincing – the emphasis was on Pinocchio’s mistakes and his journey of putting them right.

 Taming the puppet 

 The performance that corresponded the most to drama genre was Belova-Iacobelli (Belgium/Chile) company’s Chayka – puppet and object theatre production based on Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The performance was performed by Chilean actress Tita Iacobelli. There were two plots unfolding simultaneously – parallel to the relationships between Chekhov’s characters Arkadina and her son Kostya, writer Trigorin and young actress Nina Zarechnaya, there was another story unravelling – a story of an aging actress and her servant, where one encourages the other to play the last role of her life. Excellent dialogue between the life-size puppet and the actress along with switching from one plot level to the next was convincingly performed. Each second of the play was directed with amazing precision. Paradoxically, it was easy to understand the seemingly complicated content of the play, which opened the idea of an artist’s sensitive creative spirit that does not age. Since 2018, the production has been internationally acclaimed at festivals in Chile (Círculo de Críticos de Arte de Chile), Belgium (Maeterlinck Prize of the Critics of Belgium) and Poland (International Festival of Bielsko Biala).

The festival Tallinn Treff is worth keeping an eye on, as it broadens the understanding of the possibilities of puppets as objects in theatre. This year, the programme did not include Latvian or Lithuanian performances; still, there were many theatre enthusiasts from Latvia among festival guests and visitors. The festival in Tallinn passed the torch to the Baltic Visual Theatre Showcase[v] taking place next year in Lithuania; this festival programme will comprise productions with lesser textual predominance from the Baltic countries. Proposals for cooperation are made to foreign producers. Visual theatre that is easier to understand for global audiences is a peculiar import-export bridge between theatres of the Baltic countries and international audiences.

[i] It was already the 13th international festival in Tallinn, which is organized by Estonian Theatre for Young Audiences, formerly Estonian Puppet Theatre: The Tallinn festival has its roots in the Festival of Puppet Theatres of the Baltic Sea States in 1992 – thematically transforming and growing.

[ii] Charleville Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes, see:

[iv]Brazilian-born Duda Paiva founded his own theatre company in the Netherlands in 2004. His current repertoire includes seven productions that he travels with around the world. In 2017, Paiva staged the Golden Horse in Latvian Puppet Theatre.