Puppetry at AUK: A Place of Constant Search and Development of Puppetry Expression

15 03 2022

Photo: AUK / Kristijan Cimer

Author: Igor Tretinjak

The Study of Puppetry at the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek managed to create a solid foundation in the first 16 years and build a recognizable expression which is characterized by a high level of animation in a classical puppetry environment, on the one hand, and an original approach to animation in the broadest sense of the word, on the other. Thus, it fulfilled the most important task of art academies - it provides students and future actors-puppeteers with knowledge and a solid foundation for further improvement of basic techniques, and at the same time points to the still undiscovered possibilities of the art of animation.

Although Croatia does not have a rich puppetry tradition, such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia, since 1920 it has managed to create continuity with several permanent puppet theaters in which the puppet has established itself as an important factor in children’s cultural and artistic life. In parallel with the development, the desire of Croatian puppeteers to establish a studio where new generations of actors-animators will be educated grew, but the realization had to wait. Puppetry courses at the Academy in Zagreb, for many years the only acting academy in Croatia, were an elusive wish of many puppeteers, including Zlatko Bourek, who was not shaken by the failure in Zagreb. With Joško Juvančić and the influential Slovenian puppetry director and pedagogue Edi Majaron in the mid-1990s, he educated two generations of still active Split puppeteers as part of the Drama and Puppetry Studio, started by the director of GKL Split Ratko Glavina. After the closure of the Split studio, the focus shifted to Osijek, where actress Vlasta Ramljak and director Tomislav Radić tried to start a second acting academy in Croatia in the late 1990s. They turned to the longtime director of the Children’s Theater Branko Mihaljević in Osijek, Jasminka Mesarić for help and cooperation, who set one condition – that in addition to the study of acting, the Study of Puppetry has to be launched. It is precisely this condition that has become the main trump card when starting the study and a special feature that sets the Osijek Academy apart in Croatia and the region.

Several years passed from the idea to the realization, in which Tomislav Radić withdrew from the team and Zlatko Sviben joined. The study finally began in the academic year 2004/2005 as a two-subject study of acting and puppetry in equal scope, and Edi Majaron was invited to carry out the puppetry part. This initial phase of puppetry at the Osijek Academy is characterized by youthful creativity and energy of students, but also by puppetry artists who supported the launch of the first puppetry study in this area with guest appearances and lectures. Namely, along with Majaron, who taught most of the courses, and the excellent Slovenian animator Brane Vižintin, who arrived as Majaron’s assistant, a large number of foreign puppetry experts gave students short lecture blocks, pointing to the richness and inexhaustible possibilities of the puppet, puppetry and animation. Such an approach has proved successful and has created a large number of today’s established puppeteers and actors who carry the ensembles in which they work.

After the first phase, which lasted several academic seasons, the systematization phase arrived, in which the first permanent assistants Maja Lučić Vuković and Hrvoje Seršić, students from Bratislava, were employed. A few years later, they will be joined by Osijek students Nenad Pavlović and Katarina Arbanas, as well as first-generation student Tamara Kučinović, who continued her education in St. Petersburg and became the first graduate puppet director in Croatia. In this phase, Lučić Vuković, Seršić, Pavlović, Arbanas and Kučinović will take up professorial and assistant positions in practical subjects, and together with the head of puppetry Livija Kroflin, who took over historical and theoretical courses from Antonija Bogner-Šaban, will form the core of the team responsible for establishing and strengthening the study position in Croatian puppetry and theater.

The Cloak. Photo: AUKThe second phase prepared the ground for a large performance and reception take off in the third phase, which opens in 2013 with the play The Cloak, and is characterized by several large performances-projects with which the Academy has hosted and won awards at student and professional festivals. Also, in this phase, in 2014, the Osijek Academy launched the study of Theater Design (today Design for Stage and Screen), which consists of scenography, costume design and for the first time in Croatian higher education, puppet design and puppetry technology. The launch of this study is an important step in bringing together all aspects of the puppetry act in one place.

The current phase in the development of puppetry at the Osijek Academy begins in 2019/2020. That year, Puppet Animation became independent at the graduate level (until then, undergraduate and graduate students studied the two-subject Study of Acting and Puppetry) and the Graduate Study of Puppetry Directing was launched. With the independence of animation, the number of students in classes decreases, thus ending the phase of large graduate performances-projects, but it opens the space for deeper and more thorough research of animation and its possibilities. At the same time, the Study of Puppetry Directing at the graduate level enables the further development of Croatian puppetry, whose biggest problem in recent years is the lack of directors who know puppetry and think in puppetry terms. When it comes to the weaknesses of national puppetry, after starting this study, another open wound remains – the lack of puppet dramaturges and playwrights, which we hope will be the topic of the next text. If the new Graduate Study of Puppet Animation and Puppetry Directing joins the existing study of Design for Stage and Screen and the newly started Graduate Study of Non-verbal Theater, the Osijek Academy has gathered almost all aspects of puppetry, from the artistic and technological design of the stage and puppet through directing to a performance that strives for total expression. Therefore, it can be said that puppetry at the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek has far surpassed the dreams of former puppet dreamers.

Apart from the formal point of view, the Study of Puppetry has justified its existence many times in these 16 years in terms of quality. Osijek students have rejuvenated and strengthened the ensembles of all the city’s puppet theaters in which they have very notable, often leading roles. As there is no place for everyone in the city theaters, nor absolute artistic freedom, some turned to independent waters, companies and projects in which they are not constrained by imposed ideas, but are limited and non-existent budgets. Regardless of the forms of wing cutting, the professional work of Osijek students shows understanding and excellent knowledge of puppetry and animation with an emphasis on “puppetry hyperrealism”[1] and a desire to explore, move and erase performance boundaries. Such a broad approach is an excellent basis for further development and establishment of Croatian puppetry and animation.

Although the Osijek Academy is primarily a pedagogical institution, it is also a place for the creation of theater performances and projects of high artistic level, which is confirmed by guest appearances and winning awards at important student and professional festivals. This aspect of the paper can be divided into final exams of smaller groups of students created in the third year of undergraduate study and graduate exams of entire classes in the second year of graduate study.

The final exams are a summary of materials from the first three years of study in which the emphasis is on getting to know and mastering basic animation techniques, from body parts and objects through marionettes to Guignols, Wayang and animation in threes, as well as in the partner co-play of the actor-animator and theThe Star. Photo: AUK puppet. In the series of excellent works, several stood out, whose quality of performance, freshness of idea and charm of the whole ensured the festival and (or) repertoire life even after the Academy. The precise and poetic play (with) the little Sicilian was designed by the student from the first phase Jadran Grubišić in his final play The Little Flutist (2008) in which the puppet became a musical instrument and stage partner. Subtle and layered penetration into the most important relationship of contemporary puppetry – the one between the actor and his puppet, was made by Matko Knešaurek in the long-running play It’s Easier in Two (2009) and Irena Bausović in the award-winning play The Star (2009), in which the unfinished mouth puppet suddenly came to life in the hands of the animator and turned into a stage partner, and in some places the demiurge of her own initiator. The play Best Friends (2011) gathered a number of national and international guest appearances and still lives on the repertoire of the Karlovac theater Zorin dom. It is a warm and witty play about friendship, which the authors and performers Peđa Gvozdić and Giulio Settimo shaped with balloons. Author and performer Katarina Arbanas confronted the underwater and terrestrial world with Settimo in the poetic non-verbal play The Little Mermaid (2011), replacing the elegance of underwater movement with painful stiffness beyond. After the Academy, the play was on the repertoire of the Mala Scena Theater in Zagreb, and is currently on the repertoire of the Varaždin Gllugl. The final exam of Vanja Jovanović and Ivan Pokupić, played by Marijana Matoković and Goran Vučko, is still alive and awarded, and the original music is performed by Ervin Lustig. It is about a furious and witty Guignol play named In Search of a Diamond Tear (2014), which perfectly recognizes the character of fast and wiggly Guignol puppets.

Unlike the aforementioned plays that found their post-academic life in the repertoires of city theaters, Godmother Death (2015) is a great project that ended prematurely. In it, Antonio Jakupčević, Krešimir Jelić, Hana Kunić and Ivana Vukićević shaped the fairy tale of the Brothers Grimm with table puppets, excellent animation and an accentuated atmosphere of sadness, darkness and gloom, into which humor occasionally penetrated. The greatest departure from the classical expression was made by Marijan Josipović and Lino Brozić in the performance experiment Who Are You? (2017) in which they explored the possibilities and Hell on Earth. Photo: AUKeloquence of shadows, lasers and fog. The research, which turned into a great stage play, has been seen and can still be seen in one of the most successful final exams, the award-winning play Hell on Earth (2013), which is on Gllugl’s repertoire. In it, Nino Pavleković, Nikša and Filip Eldan verbally opened the space for a rich and layered puppetry game in which they used numerous techniques and approaches to puppetry – from animation of body parts (palms, feet, face and abdomen) to animation of material (paper) to theater shadow and dramaturgically independent light. Although the whole originated from the words, the performers silenced their power in many ways – on the one hand by materializing through the utterance of stage directions, on the other by animating the sound layer and on the third by rich, ingenious and witty visual reading, inscribing and adding the text. Thus shaped, the play pointed to the endless possibilities and power of animation in all its forms.

An interesting project The Storm (2015), created as a co-production of the Osijek and Bratislava academies, stands somewhat separately. In it, students from these two academies created a dialogue between the two languages ​​and the table puppet and the actor, inscribing an extra puppet layer in Shakespeare’s most puppetry play. Along with great Slovak pedagogues and puppetry directors Andrej Pachinger and Pavel Uher, the concept and direction from the Osijek side are signed by Hrvoje Seršić and Nenad Pavlović, who are responsible for a number of excellent exam productions of other students in which they examine the possibilities of Wayangs in mutual play, but also in layered play with the actor as his own demiurge and partner (e.g. No One Like Me, 2015).

The graduate exams, directed by Tamara Kučinović and mentored by Maja Lučić Vuković, were created as experiments and research in a heterogeneous environment. In them, students created and developed performative worlds by animating bodies, puppets, objects and materials, sound and light. The series of “big” plays was opened by The Cloak (2013),[2] followed by The Rainbow (2015),[3] Fragile (2017),[4] Knit, My Soul, a Love Song (2018)[5] and Death or about Life (2019).[6] In The Cloak (2013), based on Gogol's novel,The Rainbow. Photo: AUK the focus was on the animation of materials and own bodies that became puppets and machine parts, and the animation of sound and words whose meaning was almost completely replaced by the rhythmic function of the game and play. So far, the most awarded play The Rainbow (2015) is based on the novel of the same name by Dinko Šimunović. Its focus was on material emerging from the author’s region, the Dalmatian Hinterland, inscribed in the novel at all levels, from atmosphere to character and their decisions. This material - dry, rough, hard and sharp stone whose “stubbornness” and backwardness lead to cracking – creates the atmosphere of the play and shapes its characters whose encounters turn into rough and noisy conflicts. The opposite is represented by clay as a soft, smooth and moist material prone to change, which appears as a silent hope for a better tomorrow, ahead or behind the rainbow. The play has won a number of awards at student and professional puppetry festivals, including several important awards at our largest international puppetry festival, PIF. The focus of the next project, Fragile (2017), created as part of the Creative Europe’s project All Strings Attached project, was the meta-theme of the puppet’s death by taking away not only the movement, but also stage light by literally locking it in a suitcase. The death of the puppet is represented by the animation of puppets and objects, which combines puppetry tradition and modernity on a performative plan. This was followed by the play Knit, My Soul, a Love Song (2018) formed from etudes initiated by Sevdah music, i.e., music that opens space for ideas and games, animation of materials and objects with threads in the foreground, so that in Death or about Life (2019) in the performative body of the play, in addition to objects and materials such as feathers, a kettle was included. Each object shaped its own life story into death – feathers with its flight and restlessness near the flames, kettles with heating the water until its death in the steam. The mentioned performances were a kind of novelty, both in the context of puppetry at the Academy and Croatian puppetry, and focused the attention of the profession and the professional public mostly on the performance possibilities of the Osijek Academy. At the same time, they opened the door to professional festivals where they were welcomed and followed with special attention.

Fragile. Photo: AUKBased on what has been written, it can be concluded that the Study of Puppetry at the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek in its first 16 years managed to create a solid foundation and build a recognizable expression, which is characterized by a high level of animation in a classical puppetry environment, on the one hand, and an original approach to animation in the broadest sense of the word, on the other. In this way, it fulfilled the most important task of art academies – it provides students and future actors-puppeteers with knowledge and a solid foundation for further improvement of basic techniques, and at the same time points to the strong, still undiscovered possibilities of animation. All this is done by encouraging students to create independent and group art etudes, projects and performances whose quality approach and originality stand out in Croatian puppetry and inscribe in it, build it and elevate it to new professional levels and performative spaces.

[1] Puppetry hyperrealism refers to animation in which special attention is paid to everyday movements and unconscious reactions and gestures that pass almost imperceptibly in the real world, while in the world of puppets and objects they act like a magnifying glass. There is a seemingly unexpected paradox – instead of being enriched by the elements of reality, the puppet and other inanimate stage characters further materialize reality, thus building a world of “hyperrealistic illusion”.

[2]Director Tamara Kučinović, mentor Maja Lučić Vuković, assistant Katarina Arbanas, art design Alena Pavlović, students: Matea Grabić, Ivana Gudelj, Lidija Kraljić, Selma Mehić, Martina Stjepanović, Tvrtko Štajcer, Justina Vojaković Fingler and Dina Vojnović.

[3]Author Dinko Šimunović, director Tamara Kučinović, mentor Maja Lučić, scenography and puppets Tamara Kučinović, Maja Lučić and performers, lighting design Tamara Kučinović, performers Nikša Eldan, Filip Eldan, Kristina Fančović, Nino Pavleković, Luka Bjelica, Petra Šarac / Sara Lustig.

[4]Director Tamara Kučinović and ensemble of the play: Ivana Vukićević, Antonio Jakupčević, Ines Zmazek, Krešimir Jelić, Anamarija Jurišić, Hana Kunić, Maja Lučić Vuković, Hrvoje Seršić, Nenad Pavlović and Katarina Arbanas. Art design Alena Pavlović.

[5]Director Tamara Kučinović, mentor Maja Lučić Vuković, course associate Katarina Arbanas, performers: Matea Bublić, Matko Buvač, Andro Damiš, Anna Jurković, Maja Lučić Vuković, Tena Milić-Ljubić, Gordan Marijanović, Luka Stilinović.

[6]Director Tamara Kučinović, mentor Maja Lučić Vuković, ensamble: Stipe Gugić, Antonia Mrkonjić, Josipa Oršolić, Gabrijel Perić and Katarina Šestić.

Remark: The text is originally published in magazine “Književna revija”, 2-3, 2020.