Tossed on the seas of Visual Theatre: challenges to Puppetry’s survival as an independent discipline. Part I
Author: Leino Rei
At a seminar held at the International Puppet Theatre Festival in Finland a few years ago, attended by puppeteers, directors and festival organizers from various European countries, it suddenly emerged during conversation that puppetry was no longer taught at the university level in the Nordic or Baltic countries. In most of these countries, schools specializing in the discipline had once operated, and some were still operating not that long ago. Puppet theatres continue to operate and international festivals are regularly organized. Of course, there are fewer and fewer productions and festivals that focus exclusively on puppet theatre; to an increasing extent, visual theatre productions and festivals set the tone, and puppet theatre is just one element. Inevitably, the question arises: can puppet theatre be sustainable as an independent discipline if the rising generation lacks formal training?
It is clear that puppet theatre has been experiencing great change for some time, so it is important to map the current situation and discuss the future of the field. The aim of this study is to survey the current state of puppet theatre in the region and invite discussion about how practitioners in the field can seize the reins themselves to guide the future of puppetry. The following overview focuses on analysis of puppet theatre in the context of visual theatre and also examines visual theatre from the perspective of puppet theatre.
To get an overview of the situation in the Nordic and Baltic countries, I asked representatives of the puppet theatre community from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to answer questions about the puppet theatre history and education in these countries, as well as the current situation and future prospects. The respondents were selected from practitioners, most of whom have been involved in the field for decades and who are still currently active. The interviewees are Merja Pöyhönen, a Finnish director, lecturer and member of the board of UNIMA Finland; Helena Nilsson, artistic director of the Stockholm Puppet Theatre in Sweden and the Pop-Up Puppets International Puppet Theatre Festival; Anne Helgesen, Norwegian lecturer, doctoral fellow in theatre studies and artistic director of the puppet theatre festival Figurfesttspilllene i Tønsberg; Ģirts Šolis, Latvian director, actor and lecturer; Vilmantas Juškėnas, artistic director of Lėlė Puppet Theatre in Vilnius; and Taavi Tõnisson, director and actor with Estonia’s Noorsooteater (Youth Theatre).
To map puppet theatre-related topics in this region, I asked all of the interviewees eight topics/questions about the theatre field in their home country:
- Please give a brief overview of the history and current situation faced by puppet theatres.
- Please give a brief overview of the history of puppetry education.
- Please describe the current situation of puppetry education at the university level.
- Why are puppetry schools disappearing in the Nordic and Baltic countries?
- Do you think there is still a need for specially trained puppeteers at the university level today?
- Please state who is a modern puppeteer?
- Are the changes in the puppet theatre field a tragedy or an organic development in the theatre?
- What do you envision as the position of puppet theatre in the theatre field twenty years from now?
We will now move on to a discussion of the above topics, examining the responses and comparing the situation in different countries.
History of puppet theatre
The roots of puppet theatre in the Nordic-Baltic region would certainly deserve a separate overview. The traditions are connected with folk and religious beliefs, as well as the marionette theatre becoming widespread in Western Europe at the beginning of the 17th century. Touring puppeteers who used glove puppets, shadow puppets and mechanical figures in the 19th century should also be mentioned as influencing the later development of the discipline in Scandinavia and the Baltics. However, we will limit our overview to the professional puppet theatre and related education.
Based on the answers given by the interviewees about the history of the puppet theatre in their home country, we will map the most important events and place them in chronological order.
Although the two regions were separated by the Iron Curtain from the 1940s to the 1990s, oddly enough the puppet theatre seemed to be on parallel wavelengths during this time and thus very many innovations and transformations took place at the same time, regardless of the regime or form of government.
Of the Scandinavian countries we looked at, Norway has the longest tradition of professional puppet theatre, with professional activity beginning there in 1918. The wide range and continuity of puppet theatre in Norway give rise to a pattern: almost every decade in the first half of the 20th century is characterized by a different theatre whose activities included puppet theatre:
*1908–1918 – the literary cabaret Chat Noir in Kristiania (Oslo), Puppet theatre performances were an important part of the cabaret program;
* 1927–1936 Lillehammer Artists' Youth Theatre; from 1937 to 1942, a library theatre performed at the Grünerløkka Library in Oslo;
* 1948 to 1954, the author Agnar Mykle and his wife, the visual artist Jane Mykle, operated the private Norwegian Puppet Theatre they founded.
Latvia was the first of the Baltic states to have a professional puppet theatre. The beginning of puppet theatre in Latvia is associated with the 1920s.One of the best-known names in this field is the puppeteer Ivan Rudenkov, who moved to Latvia and started performing there after the First World War. He is mainly known for his use of marionette puppets in productions for adults and children.
The 1930s and 1940s were a very intense period throughout the Baltics, a time when puppet theatre was discovered by professional, semi-professional and amateur theatres.
In Estonia, interest arose in professional puppet theatre in the early 1930s, when in a couple of semi-professional puppet theatres made forays into the medium. A significant event took place in 1935, when the legendary Czech theatre professor Josef Škupa and his marionette theatre gave performances in major Estonian cities. Škupa was a true legend of his time, and served as the president of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette – the International Puppetry Association) from 1933 to 1957. The first troupe operating at a professional theatre, the puppet troupe of the Estonian Drama Theatre (1936-1944), was inspired by Škupa's stints as a guest artist.
At the same time, an upswing in puppetry in Latvia could also be noted: Puppet theatre director Herberts Līkums directed children's performances at the Daile Theatre over the span of one year (1935-1936).
Important developments also began to unfold in Lithuania: Professional Lithuanian-language puppet theatre began in 1936, when the renowned Lithuanian artist Stasys Ušinskas opened the Puppet Theatre in Kaunas. Ušinskas also made the first puppet film, The Dream of the Fat Man (1938) and wrote the first book about the puppet theatre, Puppet and Mask Theatre.
Several other puppet theatres operated in Vilnius during this period: 1933–1941 Vilnius Jewish Puppet Theatre Maidim; 1937–1941 Bajka and Vilnius Puppet Theatre (Wilenski Teatr Lątek); and the professional puppet theatre in Lithuania was further developed by Mykolė Krinickaitė, who headed up the puppet theatre troupe at the Vaidila Theatre in Vilnius in 1941–1944.
One can only wonder how the development and popularity of puppet theatre would have been affected if the boom of that era had coincided with a more politically stable period. But as it was, puppetry, while still taking its first steps in Estonia, found itself in a political tempest.
Several of the same actors and directors who had an interest in puppetry migrated to different theatres, to which the puppet theatre happened to be routed in the course of continuous reorganization – in 1944, the puppet theatre was incorporated into Puppet Theatre of the National Youth Theatre; in 1948, the puppetry troupe moved back to the Estonian Drama Theatre, operating there until 1951; Viljandi's Ugala Theatre (1948–1951) and the Kuressaare Theatre (1949-1951) also developed a capability for puppetry for a short period.
In the light of these events occurring over a short space of time, it is interesting to observe the pattern of national puppet theatres in the Baltics consolidating almost the entire country's professional puppetry discipline under one respective roof, becoming landmarks for this type of theatre both at home and abroad and serving as the largest theatres in the field, right up to the present day.
In Latvia, a professional puppet theatre (Latvian Puppet Theatre) was established in 1944 with state support, and until 1989 it was the only theatre of its kind in the country. A similar theatre was established in Estonia in 1952, when the Estonian National Puppet Theatre (now the Estonian Youth Theatre – Noorsooteater) was opened, led by actor, dancer and puppeteer Ferdinand Veike. The Kaunas State Puppet Theatre and the Vilnius Puppet Theatre (now the Lėlė Theatre), were opened in Lithuania in 1958.
At the same time, developments occurred on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and in Scandinavia as well, the 1950s were a period that marked the inception of several longstanding theatres. As a result of social democratic cultural policy, a national touring theatre was established in Norway. At the end of the decade, there was a crisis in Oslo's theatres, which led to the merger of the Folketeatret with Det Nye Theatre, creating the Oslo Nye Theatre. The puppet theatre was then renamed the Oslo Nye puppet theatre. It still exists today.
The Norwegians' steps probably had an influence on their neighbours in Scandinavia, and it is possible it rippled to the Baltics. In any case, the oldest puppet theatre in Sweden, Marionetteatern, was founded in 1958 (the same year as Kaunas State Puppet Theatre and Vilnius Puppet Theatre!). Its founder was a legendary theatre figure, Michael Meschke, who introduced contemporary puppet theatre. Several puppet theatres have evolved out of Marionetteatern, and for years it was the only venue that provided puppetry training. Meschke's activities had a very significant impact on the field both in Sweden and in Finland, where in the 1990s he managed to teach the country's first puppet theatre courses at the university level.
The 1970s were a very important period. The independent theatre movement reached Norway, and puppet theatres were well represented among them.
Riksteatret founded a puppetry school in 1975 and a troupe immediately started touring. The theatre and its troupe existed until 2010 and, with support from freelance artists, continues to perform now and then.
In the 1970s, a professional theatre was also established in Finland. During that decade, a state support system was established there and five state puppet theatres were opened. Two of them were closed in the 1990s, but three continue to operate as small state theatres: Nukketeatteri Sampo, Helsinki, founded in 1977; Teatteri Hevosenkenkä, Espoo, 1972; and Teatteri Mukamas, Tampere, 1979.
Sweden also enjoyed a golden age of puppetry in the 1970s: “It is very difficult to get the finances to start a new theatre these days. It looked completely different in the 1970s when the theatres that have now closed were started.” (Nilsson, 2021)
In the last decade of the 20th century, new winds were blowing, which had already picked up speed in the late 1980s. The Panevėžys Puppet Wagon Theatre was founded in 1986 (initially as an amateur theatre, it later became a semi-professional and today operates as a municipal theatre); The Klaipėda Puppet Theatre (started in 1991–1992 at Klaipėda University, became a theatre in 2000); Vilnius Table Theatre (independent object theatre, 2004).
The end of the Soviet occupation and the opening of borders exerted a stimulus effect on puppet theatres. Several private theatres were founded in newly independent Latvia: Liepāja Puppet Theatre (a municipal institution) was founded in 1989; Liepāja Travelling Puppet Theatre (private theatre) – 1994; Umka.lv (independent group) – 2004; in addition to these, there are also private puppet and puppet theatre groups, but they are generally not professionally trained.
“The 1990s were a heyday for Norwegian puppetry. The recognition was high, and it led to the authorities being generous with funding for puppet theatre activities. These funds were given preferentially to established institutions.”(Helgesen, 2021)
Current state of puppet theatres
If we look at the current situation in the Scandinavian countries, the number of independent puppet theatre groups in Norway was about 30 in the 1980s, and this number remained stable until the 2000s, but now it has an even more substantial footprint.
“There are currently60 small private theatres performing puppetry productions in Norway. At the same time, many of the theatre institutions that received money to invest in puppet theatre have closed down this ‘line of business’ (Riksteatret, Agder Teater and Hordaland theatre).”(Helgesen 2021)
The current state of the Finnish theatre landscape is dominated by the private sector. About 100 professional puppeteers work as freelancers, and there are 10-20 private theatres.
Freelancers move between different theatre projects, and many productions were created in collaboration with drama theatres.
“The independent scene has been burgeoning in the theatre landscape because the state support system isn’t taking in any new theatres. Formally trained puppeteers very rarely have long-term job opportunities and positions in Finland. Most educated artists have therefore ended up working as freelance artists and forming their own companies that are mostly unregistered groups. In the 2010s the independent scene started to get more organized under professional networks/production frameworks, the biggest being Aura of Puppets (about 70 members).”(Pöyhönen, 2021)
Twenty-five puppet theatres are registered with the Swedish UNIMA. Some of them are in a dormant phase; some are amateur and semi-professional groups. About 12 of them are active and operate at a professional level year-round. These troupes are distributed throughout the country and vary in size from 1–2 members to 4–5.
Freelancers move between different theatres with different assignments. A permanent posting is increasingly unusual. Sweden lacks a system of private and state puppet theatres. “Established theatres receive state and/or municipal grants on a regular basis. Grants can also be awarded to a group or constellation for a specific project. The number of puppet theatre groups in the country has decreased dramatically over the past 10 years. This is mainly due to the fact that those who have operated the individual theatres have grown older and given up their business due to age. It is very difficult to get the finances to start a new theatre these days. It looked completely different in the 1970s when the theatres that have now closed were started.”(Nilsson, 2021)
In Estonia, today's Estonian Youth Theatre is the only professional puppet theatre that receives state support.
“Today we focus on a combination of elements of different theatre forms. A lot of our performances use elements of drama theatre, visual theatre, puppetry, physical theatre and multimedia theatre.” (Tõnisson, 2021)
There are also some small amateur puppet theatres in Estonia that operate as private theatres, and in rare cases professional puppet theatre productions, and productions in which puppets are used in other Estonian theatres as well.
There are currently more than 10 puppet theatres operating in Lithuania. “Over the last ten years the number of professional puppet theatres did not change. There were some new interesting developments in conventional theatrical companies, where puppetry elements were used in performances, but this did not develop into a general trend.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
Although recent developments point up trying times for puppet theatre’s position, the patterns recurring over history give the impression that everything comes in waves, and ups alternate with downs. As the focus in the current phase is on higher education in the field of puppetry, it is worth remembering that professional activities are always connected to education and vice versa.
History of puppetry education
The history of university-level puppetry education in the Baltic and Nordic region is not long. It is immediately apparent that compared to countries with a long puppetry tradition (Russia, France, Poland, Czech Republic, etc.), where both puppetry and puppet theatre schools have deep roots in the local culture, the history of puppetry education in the Baltic and Nordic countries is much shorter and may thus have been more vulnerable to interruptions.
The country with the most extensive university-level puppetry education traditions in this region is Latvia, which has trained five classes of puppeteers over five decades.
“Starting in 1971, the Jāzeps Vītols conservatory-trained two classes of future puppet theatre actors (they graduated in 1975 and 1984). In 1990, the Latvian Academy of Culture was founded, which takes over these functions. The puppeteer classes graduated in 1996 (third graduating class), 2005 (fourth graduating class) and 2019 (fifth graduating class. Latvia has never trained puppet theatre directors specifically, this only takes place abroad (Russia, Poland, Germany and France).” (Šolis, 2021)
In addition to Latvia, Norway also stands out in this region as having longer traditions in this field.
“The National Touring Theatre has opened a school for puppetry education twice (offering three-year programmes – L.R.), first in 1975 and then in 1990. The school had a practical orientation and was aimed at the theatre institution's own needs.
The Academy of Puppetry, which opened in 1991, was a university college. At the Academy of Puppetry, there were two areas of specialization; one for actors and one for set designers/puppet makers. The school's principal was Mona Wiig. The teaching was largely project-oriented with guest teachers from the international puppet theatre community.” (Helgesen, 2021)
Lithuanian puppetry education is likewise eclectic. There is no consistent tradition of educating puppeteers, but nevertheless two classes of puppeteers were trained in Vilnius: “The Lithuanian Music and Theatre Academy in Vilnius, which is the main school for theatre professionals (it trains theatre and cinema actors, directors, playwrights and theatre scholars), trained dramatic actors and puppeteers a few times, but only two classes of actors and puppeteers were successful and joined the professional puppetry field in 1979 and 2010). Mostly they were trained as dramatic actors, but with some kind of ‘puppet theatre’ specialization.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
Interestingly, in the 1990s, the issue of vocational education came up in several countries. Latvia felt the need to make changes in the educational landscape after 20 years of operation. In a broader context, it was also symbolic that Norway had by that time reached a situation that is currently also very salient as regards the puppet theatre– in effect, the visual theatre had swallowed puppet theatre.
Anne Helgesen: “In 1998 there was a coup at the school. A new principal was hired, who defined puppet theatre/(figureteater) as visual theatre, where the actors were considered the figures. The students were told that this was the new and modern form of puppetry. The established puppet theatre people were branded as old-fashioned. This led to a deep rift between the students and the established Norwegian puppeteers. The school has changed its name and content and is now called the Academy of Performing Arts.” (Helgesen 2021)
While Latvia and Norway restructured their existing schools and former schools became a part of new top-level organizations, their very first puppetry programmes at the higher education level were opened in Finland and Sweden. Finland succeeded in creating a systematic educational program that was kept alive and developed continuously for 20 years.
“The Turku University of Applied Sciences had a four year BA programme from 1999-2018. About 10-15 students were admitted every two years, and all of them received the same overall education consisting of manipulation, directing, puppet building etc. Over the years, a total of about 100 students have graduated from the BA programme. Before the Turku school was founded, there were some shorter classes and vocational training in the 1990s, even one three-year course led by Michael Meschke from Marionetteatern Stockholm (1994- 1997 in Turku School of Art and Communication.” (Pöyhönen, 2021)
The momentum in Sweden did not last as long, but they still managed to leave a legacy in term of training highly educated puppeteers. In the 1990s, the Drama Institute produced two graduating classes in puppet theatre education. “A total of eight students graduated from this course before it was discontinued due to financial problems. Before that, various variants of education – in the form of traditional school and apprenticeships – had been provided over the years at Marionetteatern.” (Nilsson, 2021)
While recently there has been much talk about how contemporary puppeteers should be universal actors who are familiar with different types of theatre, the University of Klaipėda in Lithuania explored this avenue years ago. “Ten years ago, there was a hope that some kind of new puppetry training school could develop in Klaipėda University as there were (starting from 1991) some attempts to train puppeteers as multifunctional artists – actors, directors and designers. Two classes of puppeteers successfully joined Klaipėda Puppet Theatre (in 2000 and around 2012-2014), but a few years ago university reforms put an end to the training of puppeteers in Klaipėda.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
Estonia is distinguished by the fact that opportunities to acquire education at the university level have been almost non-existent, which is why many have gone abroad. They also have availed themselves of studio training at the puppet theatres and dramatic actor training in the course of practical training.
“Unfortunately Estonia lacks consistent and regular university-level training in the field of puppetry. The first artistic director of the Estonian National Puppet Theatre, Ferdinand Veike, founded a studio for young people interested in puppet theatre. A few of the graduates later became actors in this theatre.” (Tõnisson, 2021)
During the Soviet era, opportunities were of course limited, and only a few puppet theatre“ patriots” interested in obtaining a higher education studied in St. Petersburg at that time.
After Estonia regained independence, and especially at the beginning of this century, the spectrum of education became broader.
“There was one master`s degree level course of puppetry in the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre about 15 years ago, and some of our actors studied there. Most professional puppeteers and puppet directors in Estonia studied abroad (Finland, UK, Russia, Czech Republic, etc.)”(Tõnisson, 2021)
When four puppeteers trained at the Russian State Institute of Theatrical Arts joined the theatre in the second half of the 2000s, it was a breath of fresh air.
The same can be said in 2009 when a group of Estonian students were sent to Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, several of whom later started working at today's Estonian Youth Theatre.
In summary, university-level puppetry education has generally been quite eclectic in the Baltic and Nordic countries, and the overall educational background of puppeteers and directors is a mixture of special education, conventional dramatic training, studio training, short-term courses and skills acquired on the job.
Current situation as regards educational opportunities
As can be seen from the above, all specialties offering university-level puppet theatre education in the region have now closed down. However, it is important to note that schools have not always ceased all activities, but have sought ways to integrate puppetry with other disciplines.
Finland: “Theatre students at Turku University of Applied Sciences still have some courses in puppet theatre. Otherwise, though, professional education doesn't really exist at the moment, even though there is high interest in puppet theatre education and courses from theatre students. The programme was shut down about the same time as the new educated generation of puppeteers were just starting to break through and make puppetry known as an interesting contemporary form of art.” (Pöyhönen, 2021)
Norway: “Norway no longer has any puppet theatre education at the university level. The theatre education at Nord University is Lecoq-inspired and gives random courses in puppet theatre. Oslo-Met offers six-month courses in puppet theatre as part of its teacher education in aesthetic subjects. The latter is not art education, but still, new Norwegian puppet players are currently recruited from this course. Of course this is far too little!” (Helgesen, 2021)
On the other hand, the general wide range of theatre education opportunities is also a very good indicator of the growing popularity of puppet theatre. “Traditionally, the number of students studying acting at the Norwegian Theatre Academy has been regulated depending on the needs of institutional theatres. But now there are six official theatre programmes in Norway. In addition, many study abroad. This has led to an explosion of independent theatrical groups – also in puppet theatre.” (Helgesen 2021)
Sweden: “At a polytechnic school with a focus on crafts, it is possible for those who find an apprenticeship to train as puppet makers during a year of study. Other than that, there is currently no permanent puppetry training programmes in Sweden.
There is no training at all in puppetry at the established theatre, mime, dance or circus schools in the country.
Despite this, it is not uncommon for students at these schools, such as degree projects, to choose projects that include puppet theatre, and that they then notice a lack of knowledge and instruments and thus turn to, for example, Marionetteatern for advice and guidance.” (Nilsson, 2021)
The Swedish example is also a good example of the current period: if schools do not provide such education, continuity and the transfer of knowledge to existing practitioners will decline. An important trend to highlight is the integration of puppetry courses into the general training of drama actors. This is also a logical step, considering that for some time now, classical spoken-word theatre has been rapidly converging with visual theatre, including elements of puppet, object and material theatre. Puppet theatre as a theatre that uses pictures to tell stories did not have to take such a big step to become a visual theatre, because it has always been a theatre of form. Thus, the theatres may not necessarily differ that much from each other, as obviously dramatic actors can learn skills that were not previously in his toolbox from puppeteers.
Head of the last puppet theatre course of study in Latvia, Ģirts Šolis: “As for the special school and education system, I have had several discussions about including at least one year of basic puppet theatre training in the curriculum for drama actors. And the Latvian Academy of Culture has shown an interest in it. The current acting class at Liepāja Pedagogical Academy was recruited especially for the Liepāja Theatre. To my surprise, it offers puppet and (general) object theatre studies, which are completed in one year.” (Šolis, 2021)
The same trend can be noticed in Estonia as well: “The current class of drama actors studying at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre had an annual puppet theatre study, led by the artistic director of the Estonian Youth Theatre Mirko Rajas. A few years ago, in collaboration with our theatre and the Russian Drama Theatre, there was an acting course at the Viljandi Culture Academy of the University of Tartu, where part of the teaching focused on puppetry. During the four-year study, some guest lecturers and practitioners from different parts of the world participated in the course.” (Tõnisson, 2021)
However, also characteristic of the era is the integration of different disciplines, with young students able to familiarize themselves with the puppet theatre. The Lithuanian example: “The Vilnius Academy of Fine Arts trains scenographers and for several decades, young students have been introduced to puppet theatre as a discipline. Perhaps this is also the reason why Lithuanian puppet theatre is considered very strong in visual aesthetics.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
Estonia has a similar initiative. The scenography department of the Estonian Academy of Arts is headed by the artist, scenographer and director Ene-Liis Semper. Her students' first public works demonstrate bold experimentation with different visual disciplines. Future scenographers will not position themselves as theatre artists with an established image, but will also be performers themselves, performing artists who combine different types of visual theatre in their searches from puppet and object theatre to multimedia and physical theatre. Their creative forays show that they are thinking intuitively and symbolically, incorporating the full palette of the visual theatre.
And another interesting phenomenon in the current theatre education landscape in Estonia is the International Master's Degree in Contemporary Performing Arts of the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre (CPPM), initiated and led by Jüri Nael, who was a physical theatre teacher in London for many years. This programme is not limited to physical theatre, either, but intensively seeks contacts with different types of theatre on a visual theatre scale.
Current movements can be compared to avant-garde searches that also explore puppetry from a new angle. If there is anything to worry about at all in this light, perhaps it should be considered whether the addition of traditional puppetry to these curricula could be more of an inspiring added value that allows the new to be integrated with the old so that one supports the other?
After the emergence of the first schools offering specialized programmes in the 1970s, the next wave crested in the 1990s. Now we can note that this cycle, too, lasted about twenty years and has now been replaced by a new period – the visual theatre period. Looking at this whole busy educational landscape, one might think that perhaps the current closure of all specific schools in this speciality is only a coincidence and a temporary state? With the exception of Finland, puppet theatre classes have been enrolled in other countries for a longer period of time, so it is possible that maybe Norway will get around to training a new class of puppetry students by around 2025, Latvia in 2030, Lithuania in 2035, and so on. So why is the educational landscape of puppet theatre so disjointed? What does this depend on?
Disappearing puppetry education
It may be difficult to say unequivocally whether the establishment and operation of puppetry schools is a purely cultural and educational policy decision in each country or whether it is determined by general trends in the theatre field. Still, it is clear that countries with longer puppet theatre traditions have managed to maintain their schools and seek out contact with contemporary theatre, but the countries covered by our study have not succeeded at doing so.
“In many places in Europe, the puppet theatre became the theatre of the working class and eventually also a national affair. These countries developed strong and independent puppet theatre institutions and thus also strong, traditional and independent educational institutions. In Norway, puppet theatre has always been placed under institutions that have other main functions besides puppet theatre. It has succeeded well as long as these have had leaders who have been genuinely interested in puppet theatre. But as soon as a leader who was not interested showed up, the puppet theatre business was shut down.” (Helgesen, 2021)
The observation that the vitality of puppetry at the level of both education and professional theatre depends to a large extent on a charismatic and mission-oriented leader has a major grain of truth to it.
However, what is the probability that a charismatic puppet theatre leader will continue to do good work if the field is not a national cultural policy priority and a large part of their energy must be directed to finding resources and constantly proving oneself?
“We are seeing a new flourishing of Norwegian puppet theatre art now. They live by virtue of the artists' and the audience's fascination with animation. If the puppeteers do not get to strengthen their professional support and get a unifying leader, I am afraid history will repeat itself.”(Helgesen, 2021)
The Swedish experience suggests that the power of individual colourful “patriots” tends to be the exception, not the rule, and may not be sufficient to prove the necessity of the whole field. “Training programmes are closed and due to financial reasons, new ones are never started up. Also because those in decision-making positions do not understand that puppetry is an art form in its own right and that specific knowledge is required to understand and exploit its full potential.” (Nilsson, 2021)
However, the lack of a clear cultural and educational policy plan will, in the long run, eat away at both the stakeholders and the state's own resources. Even if resources for producing one graduating class of puppeteers have been found as a short-term goal, the benefits will be, to put it mildly, meager unless there is sustainability. The Latvians have years of experience in puppet theatre education, and are thus well poised to identify bottlenecks.
“First of all, what we need in Latvia is more professional puppet, visual theatre and non-traditional format theatres or at least a reason or will on the part of the government to have them. Meanwhile, state puppet theatre has been stagnating for 30+ years and this is a huge problem. Only 40% of actors working there are professionally educated in puppetry. Mostly they are recruited from different dramatic acting graduates between the years in which specific puppetry classes are admitted. The irony is that the theatre could never accept (or wasn’t interested in recruiting) in its troupe more than four actors from each course of puppetry class! Many actors with specialized puppetry training work in different drama theatres, independent theatres and (puppet and drama) groups or don’t work in their profession at all.” (Šolis, 2021)
It is clear that the movement of actors between different theatres, as well as the change of interest in different types of theatre, is an organic part of the process, but the prerequisite for launching any new theatre course is that the need for actors has been mapped in advance.
Based on this, the theatre can count on the arrival of new troupe members both in terms of job creation and repertoire planning, as of it has been coordinated in advance with the financing source – i.e., the state. It is a complex and systematic whole, which requires communication between all parties (student, theatre, school, state) so that the needs and expectations of some parties can be assigned as responsibilities to others.
“In Finland it seems to be part of a larger phenomenon where much of the art education established about 20 years ago is now being downsized. It has especially hit the smaller forms of (performing) arts: many courses in, for example, physical theatre, music theatre and performance art ended up in the same rubbish bin.” (Pöyhönen, 2021)
The fact that the Finns are not merely concerned about old-school puppet theatre “patriots” becoming embittered is evidenced by the fact that they had indeed reached the crest of the wave – including on an international scale. At one of the world's largest and certainly most prestigious puppet theatre festivals in Charleville-Meziere, France, Finland was represented in 2019 with its own programme, which is a great recognition given the calibre of the festival. It is therefore worth seriously discussing why there was a need to close a programme that had become a national trademark.
“The problem might also have been the fact that puppetry education existed under the University of Applied Sciences (professional higher education)system, which appeared to be too rigid for this kind of marginal art education. For example, to get money for the department, the group sizes needed to be bigger than would actually have been reasonable. In Finland the university system – also in the context of art education – is divided into two categories: universities (such as Arts University in Helsinki) and more practice-based colleges (such as Turku University of Applied Sciences).” (Pöyhönen, 2021)
As a small country, Estonia knows very well how difficult it is to create a school for a theatre discipline that has only niche significance in the bigger picture. There are not enough resources to go around, and this is probably the main reason that such a systematic and consistent programme has never emerged in Estonia.
Taavi Tõnisson: “I think the problem is that contemporary theatre is a combination of different disciplines and a mixture of genres. It doesn’t make sense and is too expensive to create a full-scale course in puppetry studies for universities, because puppetry seems to be too specific and a narrow discipline. Also, puppetry doesn’t have a strong tradition in this region. For example, there is only one professional theatre in Estonia that focuses partly on puppet and visual theatre productions, so the demand for puppet theatre education is not so great.” (Tõnisson, 2021)
While only 25 years ago, this might have been only a problem faced by small and re- emerging countries such as Estonia, now there is not a single country in the region that is wealthy enough or culturally and educationally motivated to open a curriculum specializing in puppetry. Looking at the problem of puppet theatre education in the Baltic and Nordic countries as a whole, it is clear that it is no longer possible for everyone to get by if they just “hoe their own row”. We need cooperation. The demand for new puppet theatres varies from country to country, but it is certain that no country currently can find a use for an entire graduating class of puppeteers every two years. It is therefore logical to consider establishing a joint puppetry academy in one of the countries under consideration, as an international curriculum that would supply all visual and puppet theatres in our partner countries with puppeteers, directors, artists and puppet masters. Making this idea a reality will require recognition of common interests, needs and readiness for cooperation. It will then require everyone to take preliminary steps in their respective home countries as far as lobbying educational and cultural policy planners about the need for a joint institution that will help to keep university-level puppetry alive in all Baltic and Nordic countries at the same time, while optimizing overall costs.
But let us put this idea aside for now and investigate the subject in greater depth and see whether we really do need puppeteers who have completed university-level education in their speciality.
University-educated specially trained puppeteers – are they essential?
Of course we already know the right answer –naturally, they are essential! However, if we look at how eclectic and haphazard education in the field of puppet theatre has been in the Nordic and Baltic countries, we can also approach the topic from another angle and ask how the puppet theatre has managed to survive and pass on the traditions in spite of it all?
Vilmantas Juškėnas points out that compared to countries like England, Russia, France or the Czech Republic, Lithuania has never had a strong tradition of puppet theatre, and all the best examples of artistic achievements in puppet theatre history were a labour of love wrought by talented and motivated artists. “The school tradition has never been a stimulus for puppetry in Lithuania; the stimulus has always come from gifted and talented people.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
But Juškenas also notes that such schools are necessary for the development of the area. “Despite this, the general situation regarding lack of a puppetry school does not give reason for optimism and is not helping us to move forward. When we have no school tradition in general and when even the few last possibilities have disappeared (in Klaipėda), we feel bad about this and it is making it even harder to find new motivated talented local artists.” (Juškėnas, 2021)
We can also say that so far the skills passed down from generation to generation–from master to master – have helped to close the gap in academic education, but is it still sustainable today? Young people today are spoilt for choice in terms of choosing from a dazzling array of specialities. This has also led to a paradigm shift – fewer and fewer people see themselves committing to one narrow area. More and more people want to get to know each other, take part in something and try different areas themselves. On the one hand, it is gratifying that they have such a high interest in discovering the world, but on the other hand, areas that require a longer-term commitment, such as puppet theatre, are suffering. It isn't certain that they always have to suffer – if a young person's focus is on theatre and their interest in theatre includes getting to know the most different types of theatre, mixing and developing these types, then it can also be an impulse for change and evolution in the current established notions of puppet theatre.
Opinions probably differ here – the advocates for traditional puppet theatre would not completely agree, but the more change-oriented visual theatre supporters view it with more equanimity. We try to avoid and analyse polarization – what is the most essential part of puppet theatre and why is it necessary to teach it at the university level?
“To ensure the long-term future and development of the art form. The development will slow down massively if, instead of young people learning and discovering this art form together, they receive their ‘education’ individually, taught and brainwashed by older artists :)
- To evaluate the special skills and to give time to learn them (if it's clear that you need to spend years of practice with musical instruments, how come it wouldn't be the same with us?). School is a great place to learn the skills and tools for making art, and later on they can be used for each ones' own purposes.
- To give the future artist time to deepen their understanding, be braver, make mistakes and create their own puppet theatre language (without the pressure of yet selling the shows or even succeed every time.” (Pöyhönen, 2021)
In the context of visual theatre, however, the strengths of puppet theatre are cast in a different light. It is difficult to assess whether these specific values are always given their proper due and applied. But it is definitely helpful to start by highlighting values – we could call them “universal” values – that could be transposed to visual theatre.
“Puppetry as a discipline gives a much wider perspective and teaches actors also to see and think on a more symbolic level. Contemporary puppet theatre is not based so much on traditional puppet manipulation techniques, as on use of elements of puppetry in combination with dance, physical, object and drama theatre, so I don`t know if full-term academic and traditional puppetry studies are needed. But what is needed is a course of study where different disciplines are combined: dramatic acting training, puppetry training, circus and physical training, vocal training.” (Tõnisson, 2021)
Thus, the systemic foundation provided by the university is like a toolbox that teaches the future artist figurative thinking and the opportunity to find their own path, while drawing on traditions.
The image of puppet theatre in context of the general theatrical arts is also a separate topic. Puppet theatre is often associated with children's theatre, with the notion that it is a naïve form of theatre lacking a deeper dimension, with limitations that make it a better choice for depicting, say, the lives of animals and does not address deeper issues that provide both food for thought and emotional experience to audiences of all ages and educational levels. The current fusion of different types of theatre tends to help change this image, because we increasingly encounter different types of visual theatre, for example, in spoken-word theatre productions, which help to enrich the figurative language of the productions. Ardent puppet theatre professionals themselves have never had any doubt that puppet theatre can be just as serious and deep a form as any other theatre, it would certainly help to get it across to others if there were educational programmes in this discipline.
“Education at the university level is of great importance for puppetry, not only to teach knowledge, but also for the prestige it adds to the art form. The existence of education means acknowledging that there is knowledge specific to this particular art form.” (Nilsson, 2021)
As a characteristic trend of the time, it can be pointed out that more and more people working in the field of visual theatre seek professional assistance from master puppet theatre practitioners, and do not try to reinvent the wheel themselves.
Helena Nilsson: “As an artistic director and director of a puppet theatre who uses a lot of puppet theatre in their productions, I am often contacted by performing arts professionals who are interested in using puppet theatre elements in their work but who realize that they do not have the necessary tools. They want to know more, they want to understand more.”(Nilsson, 2021)
Here, following the example of Sweden, it is good to encourage performing artists whose output is visual theatre to seek more contact with puppet theatre professionals (whose toolbox also includes object, material and mask theatre). Puppet theatres could also be more active in creating opportunities for training visual theatre artists in puppet theatre-related genres. In Sweden, visual theatre artists appear to have realized this need: “When my company offers professionals in the field of performing arts courses in puppet theatre, they are quickly fully booked by directors, actors, set designers, other staff. I experience a great curiosity at the puppet theatre and a great desire for knowledge and tools.” (Nilsson, 2021)
To sum up this section, continued formal training of actors, directors, puppet masters, etc. is vital from puppet theatre’s perspective.
“I believe that strong classical training is always the best foundation for postmodernist and contemporary theatre. To be a great improviser and to break/transgress all the rules, an artist must know the rules he is breaking and transgressing.” (Tõnisson, 2021)