The Lithuanian Performing Arts in Lockdown: Unique Solutions and a Good Occasion for Reflection: Puppet theatre

09 02 2022

Cipollino. Photo: D. Matvejev

Author: Ingrida Ragelskienė

The national UNIMA (International Puppetry Association) Centre in Lithuania has over 60 individual members, and also professional theatres, such as the Vilnius Lėlė Theatre, Klaipėda's Puppet Theatre, the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre, Panevėžys' Puppet Wagon Theatre, the Alytus Puppet Theatre Aitvaras, and the Table Theatre. Every other year, Materia Magica, one of the most prominent international theatre festivals in Lithuania, presents leading puppeteers at the initiative of the Klaipėda Puppet Theatre. In 2021, the Panevėžys theatre celebrated its 35th anniversary, while Aitvaras, the only professional puppet theatre in southern Lithuania, was partway into its 25th season.

One can only imagine the trepidation of Lithuanian puppeteers when waiting for the announcement of nominations for the annual Golden Cross of the Stage theatre awards: will puppet and object theatre be nominated separately, or will it be placed in the category of youth and children's theatre, as usual? This happened in 2021, when Klaipėda Puppet Theatre was awarded for its Big Bang production in the youth and children's theatre category. The performance Duck, Death and the Tulip by the Vilnius Lėlė Theatre, which won the award in 2020, was also featured in the same category. It is rare that puppeteers compete for the award outside the nomination category that features their colleagues who create productions for children in drama theatres. While reviewing the results of the past season in puppet and object theatre, we have to admit that the most relevant, strongest and most interesting productions were for adults and youth, and not for children.

I would like to single out my three favourite puppet productions of the season: Forest of the Gods directed by Agnė Sunklodaitė at the Kaunas State Puppet Theatre, The Nest by Motiejus Ivanauskas at the Vilnius Lėlė Theatre, and Archaeology of Goddesses directed by Saulė Degutytė at the Table Theatre. Although all three productions were inspired by radically different literary sources, ranging from the autobiography of Balys Sruoga to the fables of Ivan Krylov, and sutartinės, Lithuanian songs revealing female power, there is one common artistic denominator that unites all three productions. One might say that these works represent theatre that is unique in its artistic expression, is challenging, and is not looking for an easy or conventional means of communication with the audience. The directors of these three premières in 2021 dared to retain a high level of authenticity; in fact, each of them asked the key question: How can I, as an individual, contribute to the change of society and the improvement of the world? An obvious answer is by maintaining humaneness and affinity in individual creation.  

If Balys Sruoga, a classic of Lithuanian literature, was alive today, crowds of admirers of stand-up comedy would gather to listen to him. It would be uncharacteristic of him to avoid what is significant to society, taking the position of quiet intelligent swine. Sunklodaitė's production Forest of the Gods displays the sharp satire of the author: the biting grotesque is visualised through the black and white aesthetics of the set design, either reducing classic stick puppets to clones of the main characters with amazing micro-realism, or enlarging them as cripples that can only be managed by three actors, representing the skeletons of people condemned to death. The performance uses the heads of puppets in a striking way, transforming the bodies of the actors wearing them into formidable caricatures of degraded concentration camp supervisors enjoying cruelty. Puppets in contrasting sizes, actors operating them with great precision, capable of acting dramatic scenes simultaneously, all in a tight space transformed via precise visual means, leaves an indelible impression of the collapse of the world, divine order and harmony, at the same time as retaining hope for renewal and resurrection.

The creation of The Nest at the Vilnius Lėlė Theatre began in 2021, as part of the contemporary puppet and object theatre laboratory SurReality Check that took place at the theatre. In trying to manage complex reconstruction processes, the theatre is undergoing a true explosion in creativity; with currently only two auditoriums at its disposal, it presented an impressive number of premières for young audiences, including Cipollino directed by Šarūnas DatenisOh Lord, Lithuania directed by Ainis Storpirštis, and Clouds by Aušra Bagočiūnaitė Paukštienė. The theatre is successfully continuing its cooperation with the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek (Croatia), and Puppet Animation Scotland. This cooperation began in 2020, and has evolved into the international project Contemporary Puppetry Critical Platform. The educational and laboratory activities at the theatre are inseparable from the creative initiatives of the young director Žilvinas Vingelis. One recent première, Kafka Insomnia, presented at his own Kosmos Theatre, stands out as a unique interdisciplinary phenomenon, combining musical, visual, object, and (partially) puppet theatre.