Puppetry's challenges in the new visual theatre paradigm. Interview with Marek Waszkiel
Author: Leino Rei
Leino Rei (LR): The art of puppetry is strongly in the winds of change. It is difficult to predict whether this is the irreversible process where one important period, when puppet theatre was established as an independent type of theatre, is being replaced by a new era of visual theatre. However, what is the nature of both puppetry and the visual theatre, what are their strengths and weaknesses, for how long a period has visual theatre come, and what kind of mark will be left on the puppet theatre in the long run? We discuss these and other questions with Professor Marek Waszkiel, a Polish teacher, director, puppeteer, and theatre researcher.
Marek Waszkiel (MW): There is no doubt that contemporary puppetry is very different from traditional puppetry, although we puppeteers are in the fortunate situation that indeed we can still watch live various forms of the art of puppet theatre: those developed over the centuries and those created today. Visuality is to some extent a permanent feature of puppetry: a puppet must always be created, given a shape, form; it does not exist as an element of reality. But I understand that when using the term “visual theatre”, we are talking more about the theatre of artistic narrative, based not on dramatic text but on visual images, composed of various theatrical means: space, objects, movement, voice and sound, also from contemporary media. Such theatre has been in existence for more or less one hundred years, since the era modernism, the great theatre reform (although its progenitors can be found much earlier, e.g. in the activities of Philip de Louterbourg1 in England in the 18th century). I think that its origins in the puppet theatre date back to modernism, and of course the abandonment of the screen dividing the world of the puppet creation and the audience space, which happened more than fifty years ago, accelerated this process.
LR: In your excellent article "University-level Puppetry Training"2, you disassemble the problems of modern puppetry art. You note that the cause and effect are not all that one-to-one, but in the big picture there are still some clearer trends that can be distinguished. A lot of it could be summed up as the aftermath of the collapse of the centralized Soviet-era cultural policy. But, as you note, not everything is so easy to explain, which is why to let’s try to broaden this topic a little bit more.
One of the most important points you refer to is the convergence of informational and cultural space. The borders are open, information and people are moving lightning-fast. There has been a rapid growth of multiculturalism and of course traditional puppet theatre hasn’t been left untouched by it.
MW: The Soviet system was extremely friendly to puppetry for various reasons. First, by building a state network of great puppet theatre institutions, it essentially raised the prestige of the art. Secondly, it defined the audience of puppet shows (a child) and built a huge network of relations between the puppet theatre and children's audiences. Thirdly, and finally, it took care of the extensive infrastructure necessary to develop the genre: including puppetry education and repertoire for theatres, festival and conference life, and magazines. Of course, it was different from one country to the other in Central and Eastern Europe.
The same Soviet system that professionalized puppetry led them to narrowly specialized professions and, as a consequence, unfortunately cut them off at the same time from the centuries-old traditions of this art. The puppeteer-puppet relationship has been broken. I remember a Russian conference where my friends talked about the existence of 100 registered professions in the puppet theatre today. And this cut off the East of Europe from the West, where being a puppeteer is primarily the awareness of practicing this profession, regardless of whether my learnt preference is related to dance, circus, fine arts, theatre, multimedia or puppetry. The puppeteer is most often an independent creator: the author of an idea, concept, often a puppet maker or performer of a performance. Of course, the puppeteer uses the skills of many partners, because theatre is team work. But it is his consciousness and imagination that determine the shape of the performance.
In our part of Europe, we have only been closing this half-century gap for the last two or three decades (in the Soviet Union / Russia it lasted almost 100 years). Fortunately, we also have a lot to offer, because the Soviet system provided us with other puppetry advantages. And for some time, now that there are no boundaries anymore, we can exchange fairly freely, use each other's possibilities, skills and experiences. All this makes the European puppet theatre more and more dynamic. We use the same means that we process individually, we look for a common language to communicate better and, consequently, we aim at visual theatre, because it is the closest to the universal viewer, the most modern, not based solely on words, drama and literary texts.
LR: Since the changes in puppet theatre are happening all around the world, it’s worth looking for these common, universal influences that have given impulses regardless of the established social order or the countries’ cultural policies.
One important influence has been the rapid development of technology over the last couple of decades. In a sense, the situation is comparable to the late 19th and early 20th century, when electricity, telephones, airplanes and trains were all invented in a short period of time. It was so much at once it also left its mark on art. After all, different art movements like the avantgarde, Surrealism, Dadaism, Futurism etc. were created around that time. At the beginning of the current century, none of us could imagine that in 20 years everyone would, figuratively speaking, be carrying the world in their pockets. The development of the internet and smartphones has altered our ways of information exchange and language of communication to be a lot more image-centric. Long texts can be summed up with a creative meme or emoticon etc.
MW: It is just a change of the means we use. But this is an important change because it affects the methods of social communication, and consequently the way of communicating with the audience. We are more and more dependent on images. But the accelerating pace of life also means that we limit complex text statements. The characters' dialogues are getting shorter and shorter, we give up stories in favour of emotions, associations and various provocations, and consequently we build such an associative structure of the performances. Its reception always depends on our (viewers’) own experiences and thoughts.
LR: Of course theatre, as a mirror of society, can’t look past the language in which people communicate, the informational space in which they move. How the cultural space is designed is also becoming increasingly important. It is therefore inevitable that different visual approaches are making their way into theatre. Completely unexpected and new contacts are being forged between different types of theatre. Sure, puppet theatre has always been looking for a common area with object, material and mask theatre. But now, multimedia and digital theatre have strongly made their way on to the scene. Physical theatre is also looking for contact with the aforementioned types of theatre. Figuratively speaking, it’s like lots of faucets with different contents that have been arranged around the same pool, which allows theatre makers to mix a combination of the most different types of theatre.
MW: Oh yes. From the very beginning, puppet theatre had many performative elements in it. The Soviet structure limited this performativity by enclosing the puppet shows in the box of the stage, but in general the bond between the puppet and its viewer, child and adult, existed and still exists. Especially today, in the era of the decline of the Anthropocene, our interest in objects, materials and forms is growing. The issue of giving and bringing life to a puppet or an object takes on new meanings. When I look at Hoichi Okamoto's3 performances, I mainly see the use of the achievements of Japanese traditional art and its philosophy, butoh, but recent years' performances draw more and more boldly from what contemporary art has brought, including multimedia and the digital world. And it is equally fascinating, it broadens the means of puppetry art. Yes, I totally agree that contemporary theatre employs the means of various genres of art. And I think that this unification is natural, although it does not stop us from distinguishing actor's theatre from dancer's theatre, puppet theatre, circus art or art performance.
LR: As an example of a positive trend, you also mention in your article that in Poland, a new wave of hope has appeared out of thin air for puppet theatre –a new generation of playwrights who see theatre with fresh eyes. It’s possible that the key to the future of puppet theatre’s development lies in these new and unanticipated combinations.
MW: Indeed, Polish puppet dramaturgy experienced an incredible boom at the beginning of the 21st century. There was a galaxy of great young authors who entered theatres in a broad wave. They introduced new themes to the repertoire of theatres, they noticed the modern child, especially its problems. I think that at times, live theatre did not keep up with their ideas. They are still there, but it seems to me that the relationship between the author and the theatre has changed a bit. Today, the authors are probably often the dramatists, co-authors of plays (next to directors, set designers...) rather than the playwrights. This is a very important shift. They still write texts, but working much closer to the theatre, they know it better and participate more sensitively in the creative process on stage. Sometimes they build scripts, or even the dramaturgy of the performance.
LR: Do you see the change of puppet theatre’s position as a tragedy or do you look at it more as the natural flow of things? If the current situation is such that old puppetry countries with long traditions such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, etc. struggle not to disappear into the overall theatrical picture; not to mention that the Nordic and Baltic countries with shorter traditions no longer have any university-level courses specialized in training puppeteers, does it tell you more about the inadequacy and lack of interest of the current generation or is it an organic process – theatre has always been changing and young people have to be given a chance to go their own way? If the whole cultural and informational space around us is centred around images, is it inevitable that its impacts make their way into theatre and we just have to accept that we’re no longer talking about puppet theatre specifically, but in broader terms about visual theatre, which, in addition to puppet theatre, unites object, material, mask, as well as physical, multimedia and digital theatre?
MW: We absolutely do not experience any tragedy. Changes, also in puppet theatre, are completely natural. In countries where puppetry traditions are strong and the puppeteer education system has existed for decades, today we observe a great variety of puppetry. It is true that the popularity and audience demand for this genre of art mean that we often encounter children's theatre rather than puppet theatre in the strict sense. The puppet is present in it, but not always dominant. Anyway, it was so before, at least for several decades. But at the same time, and surprisingly now, during the pandemic, there are plenty of genuine puppetry initiatives. Puppetry is a really difficult art, it requires craftsmanship, patience, technological background, and the artist's conviction that it is thanks to this form of theatre that he can express himself more fully, more interestingly, or differently. In countries with rich puppetry traditions, there is something to refer to and to draw from. In countries with slightly more modest traditions, especially if there are no puppet schools there, the puppetry facilities are smaller and you can count on the happy cases of creators who discovered the puppets themselves. But if we look at today's leaders in the world of puppetry, it will turn out that many of them discovered puppets a little by accident and on their own, to name the aforementioned Hoichi Okamoto, Duda Paiva4, Nicole Mossoux5. It is contemporary theatre, mixing conventions and meanings, that allows for such discoveries, including discoveries in puppetry.
LR: Speaking of the puppetry training of Nordic and Baltic countries, it has never been taught in Estonia (except for one exceptional master's course) and our puppeteers mostly have a dramatic stage actor background and received puppetry training during an internship or was outside Estonia. The other Baltic countries have been a little more consistent in this respect, and at least occasionally, in certain years, specialized puppet acting courses have been accepted at the theatre school. In the Nordic countries, the historical background and cultural policy have been different, and the continuity of puppet theatre schools has been somewhat more stable. But none of them remain today! At the same time it can’t be said that those schools were just abolished or closed down without warning. Yes, the university-level training specializing in puppetry has disappeared, but we can spot a tendency of puppetry training to be merged with other disciplines – it has become part of a classical theatre actor’s training or integrated with physical, multimedia, digital theatre training etc. You have dealt with this subject a lot, having been a professor for decades, and just a year ago you started a joint master’s programme in puppetry6 for four countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland), what are your feelings about that?
MW: To be blunt, university puppetry education is the best form of puppetry education and care for the future of puppet theatre. It also guarantees the specific prestige of this profession from the very beginning. In the post-Soviet countries, puppetry education has existed for 50- 70 years and has gone through various periods. Education is a really long process. I have been associated with the Warsaw Theatre Academy for 45 years. And I can see how puppeteer education has changed, how it is still changing. The programmes are revised almost every year, because the theatre, lecturers, students and the time when it all happens are also changing. But I think that in countries that do not have such a rich tradition of puppetry, starting your education with undergraduate studies, or even regular, systematic courses in well-organized theatres is a path that can lead you in the right direction. It is all about sensitizing yourself to the puppet, noticing its possibilities and falling in love with it. The rest is talent, work and luck.
When it comes to international studies, initiated by Kata Csato, a young Hungarian puppeteer, and four Central European university puppet colleges (Budapest, Prague, Bratislava, Bialystok), it is difficult to say how and whether this wonderful project will develop. The programme was approved by the European Union and large funds were allocated. Entrance examinations were carried out and a dozen or so candidates from different continents were admitted to the international puppet master's studies. And then a pandemic broke out that prevented the beginning of studies from starting last fall. When approval was obtained to postpone everything for a year, the situation in Hungary became complicated. The changes at the local Theatre University, which is the leader of the project, turned out to be so painful that the more senior students in their puppetry faculties will probably graduate from various art academies in different European countries. Misfortunes alone, I can only hope, will not sink this excellent initiative.
LR: I am generally a bit sceptical about shaping so-called universal actors who can do anything – when we try to give the future actors as many different techniques as possible, but none of them in depth, we end up with an actor with no clear identity of their own. But at the same time, I’ve seen that it’s possible. Ruslan Kudashov, the artistic director of the St. Petersburg Bolshoi Puppet Theatre, who is an excellent, even seminal director, also runs the directors’ course of the puppet theatre. I’ve seen some of their work throughout the years and I can see that these young people assemble in them all of the qualities which I appreciate in a modern puppeteer – they are great drama actors, have figurative thinking thanks to working with materials and objects, are able to realize their ideas with their own hands, to be anything if necessary, be it a puppet master, an actor (regardless of the type of theatre), a director, a playwright.
MW: I do not share your scepticism. No university is a vocational school. Years ago, I visited a Chinese high school that taught a game with a hand puppet. The boys (because they were children), after four years of study, went out with the knowledge of the technique for animation of hand puppets. From our point of view, their skills were stunning. But they got to know one performance deeply. European puppeteer education is different. In the past, puppeteers were trained for large ensembles of existing theatres, who were aware of different puppet techniques and playing styles (acting and puppet). For some time now, puppet schools have focused much more strongly on the artist's individuality, their predispositions and awareness, thanks to which they will be able to make choices, also in terms of the means that they will use if he decides to pursue the profession of a puppeteer.
The case of Ruslan Kudashov is slightly different, but also extremely interesting. Earlier, before the opening of the directing course, he taught a course for actor-puppeteers. And the effects of his work were amazing. But these are the courses of Kudashov, the master, moreover, who runs his own state-owned puppet theatre. In contrast, in most puppetry colleges there are many masters building a common curriculum for students to follow. And someday they will choose their path, or they will give in to chance.
LR: Without knowing exactly how their curriculum has been built, I can see that the most central part in shaping them into universal creators is played by their teacher, who masters all of those different types of theatre himself. But unfortunately, as you highlight in your article, it’s rare to find these charismatic leaders who know their field down to the smallest detail and at the same time have not changed their attitude towards puppet theatre to be museum-like, but are instead able to translate it into a modern theatre language, a language which ignites and excites a modern young person.
MW: Exactly. Since there are not too many such charismatic artist teachers, and moreover, the European education system imposes many restrictions, for example related to the necessity for artists to obtain academic titles, there is usually quite a large number of hired professors. This makes the teaching broader-based, and the choices of students are more individual. Such universities offer freedom with regard to teaching and learning. It is a community where students also have a voice.
LR: Which is why it’s inevitable that puppetry training integrates with different fields depending on the interest, experience and, in a good way, how mad, how creatively wild and uninhibited a specific school and specific teachers. We simply don’t have masters as universal as Kudashov, but if a school finds that they have know-how in puppetry and digital theatre, we have to be happy that the new synergies created by the symbiosis of those two types of theatre are being sought on a school level. This direction will probably fragment the former puppetry field even more, but at the same time creates possibilities for new findings.
In and of itself, this searching mindset is welcome, but it begs the question, are these current changes merely a modern trend and if, for example, in ten years’ time there’s a wish to return to traditional puppetry, will some kind of consistency have been irreversibly disconnected? How do you perceive the aforementioned fears and possibilities and what is your positive programme for puppetry?
MW: Yes, I also think that a certain variety of education, resulting from the coexistence of various genres of art, which make up contemporary theatre, and from our individual skills, is desirable. But it's also good that there are schools that are a bit more centred around a master, focused on their leader. With today's communication possibilities, this only increases the offering targeted at young, potential puppeteers. I would also not rule out the inclusion of digital puppetry in programmes. Today, at most, short workshops are organized at universities, because this is a field that is just developing, in an experimental phase, although it is becoming bolder, and you can learn recognized and proven phenomena. And it is needed.
Puppetry is changing and when we think about education, we must draw conclusions from this observation. Probably in our latitude it would not make sense to teach classical ningyo-joruri7, because you have to start in childhood and it is untranslatable. I would also not encourage you to teach the Polish nativity play (szopka), since it has disappeared despite several centuries of enduring. But we should remember such forms and university studies offer such a chance. Fortunately, the present day puppetry allows for the coexistence of really different styles, very old and modern forms, and the majority of the audience enjoys communing with them. Therefore, I would not be afraid of either turning away from traditional puppetry or forgetting about it. On the example of Albrecht Roser and Frank Soehnle's string puppets, you can see what path we are going. Soehnle is the first apprentice of Roser, a marionette virtuoso. He fundamentally transformed a classic marionette and also achieved a master level. This is what happens in the art of puppetry. But we know dozens of outstanding puppeteers still working with the classic puppet and I am sure that there will never be a shortage of them. Kudashov and his students in the performance We reached for classic rod puppets (Javanese style) and also made a breakthrough. He staged an extremely modern performance.
I don't think it is new technologies or materials that will change puppetry. Artists are changing them. Time changes them.
1 A French-born British painter who became known for his large naval works, his elaborate set designs for London theatres, and his invention of a mechanical theatre called the "Eidophusikon".
2 Marek Waszkiel's article: https://www.revistas.udesc.br/index.php/moin/article/view/1059652595034702142015219/78 09
3 Japanese solo-puppeteer (1947-2011) who studied puppetry, mask, gesture, and dance, and fused these art forms in his performances. For more information: https://wepa.unima.org/en/dondoro/
4 Duda Paiva has studied dance and acting in Brazil, India and Japan; He has lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1996 where he founded the Duda Paiva Company (2004) which creates performances with dance and puppets. Associative, narrative performances – sometimes without text –are performed in theatres, at festivals, indoor and outdoor locations, in the Netherlands and internationally. For more information: https://dudapaiva.com/en/ and https://www.marekwaszkiel.pl/2021/05/08/duda-paiva/)
5 Nicole Mossoux is a Belgian dancer and choreographer born in Brussels on 3 January 1956. After studying at the Mudra school of Maurice Béjart, she created several solo pieces in 1978, became interested in psychoanalysis. Later, after meeting the playwright and director Patrick Bonté, the two artists founded the Company Mossoux-Bonté, which never ceased to melt dance and theatre in a single language, exploring the troubled areas of sensibility and the unconscious, in a strange familiarity to meet the spectator's imagination. For more information: https://www.mossoux-bonte.be/en/
6 For more information: https://ma-puppetry.eu/programme/
7 Bunraku, also known as Ningyo Joruri, is one of Japan’s representative traditional performing arts. Bunraku is a rare form of puppet show in the world in which Tayu recites lines to the accompaniment of shamisen and puppeteer manipulates a puppet to enact a story. For more information: https://media.fitspot.jp/topic/560
This article was initially published by Móin-Móin Magazine volume 2, number 25, in the year 2021 and can be accessed on: https://www.periodicos.udesc.br/index.php/moin/article/view/20808/13831
Translated from Estonian into English by Kristopher Rikken.
Note: this interview is an appendix of the previous publication
Read the first part of this article here