Interview with Rok Bozovičar: "Puppets are clearly not at the forefront of my selection"

14 09 2021

Rok Bozovičar. Photo: Boštjan Lah

Author: Brina Jenček

The 11th Biennial of Puppetry Artists of Slovenia was held in Maribor between 8 and 11 September with a selection of the best pieces of animated theatre produced in Slovenia over the last two seasons. Its curator Rok Bozovičar, a theatre critic, dramaturge, and theatre scholar, selected 12 productions for the programme without making the traditional distinction between the ‘In Competition’ and ‘Out of Competition sections. His selection creates a space for reflection on contemporary puppetry and a broader understanding of its definition and potential.

You curated the 11th Biennial of Puppetry Artists in a year of navigating the Covid-19 pandemic. How did the situation affect the selection process and its output? How was your experience of watching stage shows online?

I served as the curator of the Biennial of Puppetry Artists for 12 months. As it was not until the summer of 2020 that I was asked to take up this position, I also had to see the shows from the previous season and make a selection from two seasons in one year. Luckily, there was not much catching up to do as I'd seen many of them before. I worked under particular circumstances where, for six months, no new productions were brought to the stage or they had moved online or to internal showings. The total number of productions kept changing throughout the year. At one point, more than 40 shows had been submitted, but some were subsequently delayed until next year and the next selection process as their opening nights were rescheduled or canceled.

I saw 35 productions that had been submitted and I had chosen 7 myself that I felt were eligible. This means a total of 42 productions, which I think is a good number considering the circumstances in these two seasons. Although lower than in previous years, it is still a representative number that allows for a valid, relevant, and legitimate selection. The ways of watching varied quite considerably. I saw most of the productions live, in a theatre, some of them with an audience before the lockdown, some without in internal showings during the lockdown, while 9 out of the 42 were online live streams or recordings. The form itself made me reflect on my selection and impacted my decisions. First and foremost, it was why I chose not to make the distinction between the competition and out-of-competition sections.

The decision to merge the competition and out-of-competition programmes may be one of your most radical moves. Was this, to some extent, a result of the previous selection, which only showcased institutional productions in the competition program? What is the current ratio between institutional and independent puppet theatre?

As I said earlier, one of the reasons to merge the two programmes into a single selection was the circumstances in that I felt institutional theatres were privileged for having internal opening nights, room for rehearsals, and the technical capacity for online streaming and recording. In contrast, many non-institutionalised producers have had to improvise, search for new locations, and had no capacity to move online. This is why I felt that I somehow needed to create a level playing field. Also, given that there had been biennial editions before with all the shows combined into a single program, this wasn’t such a radical move. The second reason was, of course, the hierarchical division between the competition and out-of-competition sections in previous years. I personally could not see a boundary in terms of quality or aesthetics, nor am I a fan of balancing the selection thematically or by genre. In addition, many shows are co-productions between institutional and independent producers; hence, it seemed logical to merge the two. I’d created alternative scenarios with separate out-of-competition and competition programmes, but after giving it some thought, I realised that both were missing something. They were missing either variety or the consistency of performance that I wanted to maintain in both sections. Finally, and most importantly, I see this decision as a constructive community gesture that gives all productions the same visibility at the festival, especially now that so many things have been restricted or produced under challenging circumstances or in bubbles. I wanted this to be an inclusive biennial, one that brings together as much of the scene as possible, a point where all diversities intersect.

The role of curator both enables and requires complete knowledge of animated theatre production in Slovenia over the last two years. Have you detected any strong trends or common denominators in the shows that you saw?

This is one of the standard questions that I can never prepare for. Although I have followed theatre seasons for years, and I know this question will come up, I've never been able to identify a common thread, in any season, let alone in the Covid-19 season. Theatres do their programming the way they do and unlike a selection process, which tries to find outstanding works, general evaluations call for opinions about averages. While each theatre may have a common thread running through a season, occasionally throughout the artistic director’s term in office, this can hardly be said for the entire theatre landscape, where public institutions and independent producers function in very diverse and specific ways, and creatives often migrate between them. Each producer has their own audience, their own subjects of interest, as well as their own approach. If anything, one could perhaps say that some theatre-makers have their typical approaches or set ways of making theatre. However, most of them make theatre out of a genuine interest in the subject matter that they are putting on stage, which I wanted to acknowledge in my selection as something positive. All in all, my primary angle when approaching puppet theatre production was theatre rather than puppetry.

Have you noticed any growing trends in terms of the topics productions tackle? Is there anything puppet shows talk about too little or too much; do you find any representations detrimental, conservative, or perhaps too traditional?

I think environmental issues were a pretty common topic, or perhaps one that I was susceptible to. They are discussed by several shows that were selected for the biennial, as well as some that hadn’t been. What I find most conservative and, in a way, opportunistic is relying too much on the prominence of the author of the book that a show is based on, typically a popular children’s book, rather than having what is unique about the book in terms of its subject matter and art inform a reflection of the artistic aspects of on-stage animation. In short, the form often bears no relation to the content because the author's name is all the content that there is. Therefore, the puppet medium is often just on-stage mimesis of the literary fictional world, which is not always adapted for a dramatic presentation. Fortunately, this fictional world could be parallel to reality but has nothing to do with the animated form. This is standard practice and it should be given more thought.

Is this also a matter of the so-called drama direction and the deeply rooted approach that requires and always relies on a plot, a chronological story with linear narration?

Yes, it is undoubtedly about a fixation on drama, about formalism in direction, which there’s no justification for in either the subject matter or the animation. Hybrid animation techniques are quite common, yet their potential is all too often subordinate to the animator’s narrative, while the puppets are there to illustrate or create an alternative dramaturgical world. This approach to animation is based on an evident hierarchy of who manipulates the puppets and speaks, and who is manipulated and supports the speaking or the dramatic action. Therefore, I can say I was excited about the productions that managed to avoid or recognize this. It is quite clear that puppets are not at the forefront of my selection. In fact, the selection features very few puppet shows. This will likely cause some dissatisfaction or provoke critical reactions, but any comments are welcome since they open up the debate about the definitions and boundaries of puppetry and animation. My selection process was based on my perception of the use of animated forms in theatre. Instead of limiting myself to the use of puppets, I explored the presence of various animation materials, surfaces, light, sound, bodies, space, etc.

What dramaturgical approaches do the selected productions use to rise above this?

Most of the productions still use children’s books, or children’s classics, as a typical and most common basis of dramatic presentation. Compared to these, I found original approaches to creating new material to put on stage very telling and meaningful. What drives theatre-makers in the latter case is a sheer technical enthusiasm for the animated form or specific subject matter. Their ability to balance both dramaturgical levels, the animation, and the content – although the composite may not be very clearly defined – was essential for me. With more traditional puppet shows, it was the ability to explore or question the relationship between the object and the subject, recognize the shifting boundaries between the two, the elusiveness of objectness, the subjective position of the animator and the animated, human v. non-human, animate v. inanimate, how these identities keep shifting within performance and how they speak of our human experience. The line-up features examples of musical dramaturgy; a show that plays with lighting effects to the extent that light dictates the entire dramatic composition; the dramatic treatment of space or everyday objects; physical theatre; object theatre; dance choreography. The desire to examine the full breadth of puppetry resulted in a diverse, varied selection.

The selection also stands out in that nearly half of the productions are for adults. In the 9th edition of the biennial four years ago, there were none.

This was not a deliberate decision; it was a result of my perception of the state of things, a certain susceptibility. I focused on various aspects of staging a play. With puppet shows for children, I found many lacking in some important way, especially in how they engage with the audience or make it part of the event. This aspect often lacks reflection on how to get spectators involved and how to communicate and engage with them. The productions in the competition stand out by using strategies of deliberate engagement, not through interaction or direct targeting, but by exploring various ways of watching, including by making their animation techniques transparent. Rather than merely delivering fiction, they are able to deconstruct this fiction and make it part of the staging process without degrading its effect. These are powerful, effective, affecting productions that refuse to hide behind the illusion of fiction. I think this dimension was perhaps not strong enough in the children’s puppet shows. Children are assumed to be a less demanding audience than adults.

Before the Biennial of Puppetry Artists, you were the curator of the Maribor Theatre Festival. How did the former role differ from the latter, and in what ways were they similar?

The shift from one role to the other was a funny coincidence. I had been asked to have the selection for the Maribor Theatre Festival ready by 1 July 2020. On the day of the press conference when the program was unveiled, I signed the contract to become the curator for the Biennial of Puppetry Artists. It all happened virtually on the same day. As the Maribor Theatre Festival was rescheduled from September 2020 to the summer of 2021, it seems as if I made both selections simultaneously, although this was not the case. After the two terms of service as a curator, I can now better understand why these should be two-year terms. You spend the first year exploring, building your criteria and ways of watching, and becoming accustomed to the organization and pace of watching productions. With time, it becomes easier to categorize, to detect contextual and staging tendencies that can deceive or surprise you in the first year but become easier to decipher through better insight in the second year. It was invaluable to be able to continue as a curator instead of finding myself in a post-curator void. I was much more confident the second time and much less concerned about festival awards, more at peace with the selection.  

You also work as a theatre critic. In Slovenia, puppet shows receive very few reviews. Why do you think this is the case? Is it because of the lack of critics?

I didn't even pay attention to reviews when making the selection since they are sporadic rather than systematic. There are journalists and media outlets that still engage in puppet theatre criticism, but they do it almost by coincidence rather than for systemic reasons, because of the theatre-maker or the topic in question, or some external factor of interest. This cannot be a solid base to work from. The ‘Zlata paličicaPhoto: Boštjan Lahplatform, as the main point of reference, does loosely filter out high-quality productions, especially in terms of the recommended age for the subject matter they discuss and the artistic tools they employ. This is what makes the EU Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform very valuable. I hope the initiative also works on training young critics, although I have no doubt there are enough competent critics out there, including young ones, since the School of Criticism (‘Mala šola kritike’) has existed for years. It has a steady team of attendees who pursue relevant and informed puppet theatre criticism. The state of the media is a more significant issue, along with the status of the critics. There are currently no professional puppet theatre critics. Thanks to the ECPCP, there is, at least, a specialised media outlet, but it cannot solve the underlying issues of precarious work and the financial and symbolic deficit. Something similar could be said for theatre criticism. There are very few professional critics and their stints are limited to a few years, after which they burn themselves out, unable to carry on in this stressful and precarious position. They continue their careers as editors or journalists or start making theatre themselves.

Where do you see the potential of this year’s Biennial of Puppetry Artists of Slovenia? What do you expect of it, and where do you think it will go from here?

I don’t know if I dare expect anything at all; right now, any festival feels like science-fiction for even existing. Nevertheless, what I feel in this edition of the biennial is an energy and a desire to move forward, as can be seen, for instance, in its decision to hold a panel on cross-sector collaboration in theatre. I feel that the younger generations have taken the initiative. Not only can they articulate their vision of puppetry, but they also have several levers to start changing things in practice. This makes me look forward to future theatre seasons. That said, I don't know what this means in terms of productions. Most young theatre-makers are involved in creative processes and have opportunities to work, so I don't think this is the main issue. What needs to be addressed is the artistic policies of the theatres and the working conditions in theatre production, not only in puppet theatre but theatre as a whole. An ambitious vision for socially responsible creative direction should be articulated. This field still has many steps to take.