An Increasingly International Flavour: Some Highlights from the Puppets Up! International Puppetry Festival 2007

This article was originally published on the Puppets Up! website (30 July 2008). It no longer appears to be accessible via that site. I have corrected a few minor errors. 

As Puppets Up! 2008 rapidly approaches, it is already clear that the festival is continuing its tradition of not only supporting Canadian puppet theatre artists but also inviting some of the most exciting puppet theatre companies from around the world. This has transformed Almonte into a site of promising cross-pollination, as puppet theatre artists from many different locations are coming here to learn from one another. As audience members, we can broaden our own theatrical horizons by coming to see what these imaginative artists are offering and by keeping our hearts and minds open.

Especially for those who are new to the festival, establishing some kind of context would undoubtedly be useful. Since I have attended all three of the Puppets Up! festivals that have been held thus far, I would like in this first article to share with you some of my thoughts on how Puppets Up! has grown as a specifically international festival.

Although Puppets Up! has been an “international” festival since its inception, in the sense that companies from outside of Canada travelled to Almonte in order to perform, only two such companies performed at the first festival in August 2005, and both of these were from the United States. Both of these companies, Crabgrass Puppet Theatre from Vermont and Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers from Maine, certainly provided audiences with engaging performances and creatively designed puppets. The fact that both companies were invited back for the 2006 incarnation of Puppets Up!, while Crabgrass was also invited back for the 2007 festival and Frogtown for this year’s festival, testifies to the talent and popularity of these two companies.

Still, the festival became “international” in a fuller sense beginning in 2006, when the Costa Rican company Teatro y Títeres Cucaramácara and the particularly international Foreign Landscapes, which is comprised of members from Canada, France, and Brazil, respectively, arrived in Almonte to perform. While putting together a programme that reflects every puppetry tradition and development throughout the world is, of course, impossible, last year, Puppets Up! maintained its commitment to presenting a bill of fare that included at least some of the most enduring and some of the most innovative forms of puppetry that can be found in the world today.

Indeed, some of the more popular companies and performers at last year’s festival combined both of these trends. Docela Velké Divadlo (Czech for “Quite a Great Theatre”), based in Litvínov in the Czech Republic, chose to employ a form of puppetry that more and more puppet artists are finding appealing because of its strong movement potential: direct manipulation puppets. With their roots in the Bunraku tradition of Japan, with its very large, often nearly life-sized puppets, complex control systems, and team-based manipulation for the principal characters, these puppets, like their Japanese cousins, are usually manipulated in full view of the audience. In the West, where puppeteers traditionally hid themselves when performing, sharing the stage with one’s puppets was once seen as revolutionary. However, beginning with American cabaret puppeteer Frank Paris in the late 1930s, this performance style was soon embraced by a number of puppeteers, because it freed more of the stage space, so that it could be used by the puppeteer and his creations, removed the perceived need to spend time and money on sometimes very elaborate methods of hiding the puppeteers (such as bridges over the stage), and allowed the puppeteer to establish a close connection with his puppet, which in turn enabled him to more easily channel emotion and movement through his puppet; in addition, the puppeteer could now interact with his puppet more convincingly.

In their adaptation of Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, Docela Velké Divadlo added their own twist to this type of puppetry, however, as, when they were manipulating their puppets, the performers were hidden behind a large puppet theatre stage, leaving only their hands visible for most of the puppet sequences. This was an interesting compromise between the strong and versatile movement vocabulary offered by the direct manipulation technique—which is made possible by the proximity of the puppeteer to the puppet, which allows him to have a significant degree of control over the body of the puppet with a relatively minimal amount of technology—and the greater focus on the puppet that a puppet theatre stage that conceals the puppeteers, even if only partially, can provide. Perhaps in an effort to enter the world of the puppets more effectively and to mitigate the potential incongruity between the live body of the actor and the inanimate body of the puppet, with the exception of the introductory scenes before the puppet characters were introduced, whenever the performers did reveal themselves, they wore half-masks reminiscent of the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition. For most of the performance, the live actors, or at least some of them, either alternated with the puppets as the onstage performers or played in front of the puppet theatre stage. Thus, although the world of the puppet characters and that of the characters presented by the human actors were clearly closely related (several of the characters played by human actors had puppet doubles, for example), these worlds were kept separate from one another until close to the end of the play, when, in a simple but surprising coup de théâtre, the top of the central section of the puppet theatre stage, which was a kind of apron stage that projected out from the rest of the structure, swung down on its pivot to reveal the heads, necks, arms, and shoulders of two of the performers manipulating their figures in that area at the time. Thus, the audience was able to see the Carmen puppet and her human double (Lenka Lavicková), as well as Don José puppet and his human double (Petr Erlitz), all at the same time. The visual echo that this effect produced was, as theatre theorist and practitioner Bertolt Brecht would have said, “alienating,” as the illusion that the audience was watching living characters instead of puppets was suddenly broken when the sources of their movement and speech (but not their singing, as this, along with the music, was all prerecorded, save for the singing in the scene in which the gypsies are dancing by the bonfire) were revealed.

Another international performer who played with established conventions was “Professor” Richard Coombs, who came all the way from the county of Staffordshire in England with his Punch and Judy show. Punch and Judy performers have used the title of professor since at least the 1870s and 1880s (203), and “[t]he title was adopted also by acrobats, and probably by other initiated exponents of hidden mysteries” (304n25), George Speaight, perhaps the most respected authority on English puppet theatre, tells us in The History of the English Puppet Theatre. Coombs is certainly justified in declaring, as he did during the workshop on the Punch and Judy show that he taught on the Thursday just before the festival began and again during an interview with this author, that there is no such thing as a truly “traditional” Punch and Judy show, however, as “it’s always been now, it’s always been modern, it’s always been topical.” It is in perpetual evolution, for, “like a glacier, it grows and changes very slowly, but it’s still here, and it’s still recognizable from fifty years ago, and in fifty years time, it will still be recognizable,” as Coombs emphasized. There is no doubt that, also like a glacier, the Punch and Judy show has been around for a long time. Its roots can be traced all the way “back to the first stirrings” (Speaight, Punch & Judy: A History 7) of Western theatre, namely the ancient Greek mimes and the Atellan farces of Rome, and it has existed in the form that we recognize today since at least the late eighteenth century, Punch having been a marionette before then, first appearing, as far as we know, in 1662, when Samuel Pepys recorded seeing our friend in his diary (Speaight, Punch & Judy: A History 39). As Coombs acknowledges, however, Punchmen have always made an effort to keep the show as modern and as fresh as possible while still respecting the chief conventions that make the show recognizable. One of the most effective methods of updating the show without changing any of the essential components has been introducing “a new hero or a new villain, and the list stretches from Nelson to Winston Churchill, from Paul Pry to Hitler” (Speaight, Punch & Judy: A History 91). Coombs proved to be as innovative a showmen as any of his predecessors, as he added three minor characters to the opening of his show: a monkey (which was used to maintain the audience’s interest before the show proper began); Queen Elizabeth II, whose neck could stretch out beyond the top of the stage, to great comic effect (this is itself a very old puppet trick, as Piccini, an Italian Punchman active in London at the turn of the nineteenth century, “had a Courtier or a ‘Nobody’ who could take his hat off with his hand and whose neck stretched up to the top of the stage” [Speaight, Punch & Judy: A History 92], and the “Grand Turk” marionette of the nineteenth-century English puppet variety show could perform a similar feat, as John Bell observes in Strings, Hands, Shadows: A Modern Puppet History [18]), and Tony Blair, who balanced spinning plates on sticks like a Chinese acrobat while never letting his ridiculous grin drop from his face. Despite Coombs’s innovations, however, his version of the Punch and Judy show remained a “traditional” one, in the sense that, as Judy herself exclaimed at one point during the performance, it was not “politically correct.” Thankfully, all of the “slapstick” violence—which in fact is named after the mock sword or club first used by Arlecchino or Harlequin in commedia performances and then by Punch, which was constructed out of two flat pieces of wood joined at one end, so that it would produce a tremendous noise but inconsequential damage when used correctly—was retained, much to the delight of both the children and the adults in the audience. Indeed, Coombs claims that audience members and potential clients are relieved as soon as they hear this, as the Punch and Judy show seems to fall flat without this necessary ingredient.

Even some of the productions that were presented by North American puppet theatre companies at Puppets Up! last year had clearly been inspired, at least in part, by international sources. Father Goose’s Tales, performed by Jim Napolitano, the man behind Nappy’s Puppets of North Haven, Connecticut, comprised a series of short shadow puppet pieces, one of which was a very humorous adaptation of the famous fairy tale concerning a certain Gingerbread Man. The puppets representing the Gingerbread Man’s “parents” were patterned after traditional Indonesian shadow puppets, while the other characters that Napolitano’s version of the Gingerbread Man encounters were represented by more Westernized figures. Napolitano even incorporated what is most like the most emblematic of the objects in the Indonesian shadow puppet theatre—namely the leaf-like figure that “represents both the tree of life (kayon) and the sacred mountain (gunungan), the abode of the gods” (65), as René T. A. Lysloff notes in his article “A Wrinkle in Time: The Shadow Puppet Theatre of Banyumas (West Central Java)”—into his adaptation of this story. This “leaf-shaped shadow,” which also “may be symbolic of the heart,” is a very important scenic figure in the Indonesian shadow theatre (or wayang kulit) and “has many functions,” including opening and closing “each act when placed slantwise in the middle of the screen” and creating “a mood, suggesting by its movement or position a storm, danger, fire, sickness, mountain, or ocean” (58), as Bil Baird (no relation to Baird Auto, as far as this author knows) writes in The Art of the Puppet, perhaps the most famous book on puppetry ever published in the English language. While Napolitano opted to use a more traditional method—in the West, at least—of marking scene transitions (namely the blackout), the “tree of life” or “sacred mountain” was still employed as a scenic element as frequently as possible. It was in fact used to represent both the birth and death of his version of the Gingerbread Man, as near the beginning of the piece, it signified the oven in which the creature was created, while near the end, it became the Man himself as he dissolved, having fallen into a river. Traditional Indonesian gamelan music also lent an international flavour to Napolitano’s performance. The title character of another of Napolitano’s entertaining and rather irreverent adaptations, Little Jack Horner, was based on the principal character of the traditional Turkish and Greek shadow theatres, Karagöz (as he is known in Turkey, where this character originated) or Karagiozis (as he is known in Greece). As Baird remarks, while there is “no direct line” between Punch and Karagöz, “the similarities are certainly there,” as “[l]ike Punch he is a roisterer and a rogue [. . .][,] a libertine, impetuous, vain, violent, with no respect for authority and determined to have his own way” (78). Such a character would seem to have little in common with the admittedly rather smug Jack Horner, or even his historical counterpart, Thomas Horner, who may have stolen one of the twelve deeds to manorial estates hidden in a pie by Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, who sent his steward, Horner, to Henry VIII with the pie in an effort to save the Abbey. It was the movement possibilities offered by this venerable puppet character, who is jointed in his knees, waist, and often in one of his arms, that inspired Napolitano, as he indicated in an interview with this author.

Canadian author Tim Wynne-Jones was also clearly inspired by visual motifs from another culture when he wrote Zoom at Sea; consequently, Orléans-based Rag & Bone Puppet Theatre, which consists of wife and husband Kathy MacLellan and John Nolan, who often collaborate with musician Russell Levia, also drew upon this imagery as they developed their puppet theatre adaptation of Wynne-Jones’s story. More specifically, the imagery surrounding the ancient Egyptian cat goddess Bastet (or Bast) and the cat mummies, some of which have survived to this day, associated with her informed Wynne-Jones’s and thus Rag & Bone’s vision of how Egypt was to be represented in the “catcentric” world created by Wynne-Jones.

The Crabgrass Puppet Theatre production Anansi, Spiderman of Africa, however, was undoubtedly the one most conspicuously influenced by international sources, in terms of both its content and form; interestingly, it also proved to be one of the most popular productions, and this author had to stand against the rear wall of the Old Town Hall for most of the performance, as all the seats were taken, in order to be able to cover the show in this article! The show consisted of a series of traditional stories concerning Anansi, the spider trickster who is a central figure in West African folk tales. While most of the tales about Anansi that we are familiar with today in the West were collected from the Ashanti or Asante people, who are still a significant ethnic group in modern Ghana, the rod puppets that Jamie Keithline and Bonny Hall, the two halves of Crabgrass, used to represent Anansi and the rest of the characters in the story were based on traditional puppets from Mali, a West African nation that is very close to Ghana, particularly those employed by the Somona, Bosa, and Bamana or Bambara peoples. The puppet theatre stage used by Hall and Keithline, however, was divided into two levels. The upper level looked like an oversized hand puppet booth, but it was behind the playboard of this part of puppet stage that the hidden puppeteers manipulated the Malian-inspired rod puppets from below. The lower level, on the other hand, was a tabletop stage, and since Keithline and Hall knew of no West African tabletop puppetry tradition, they had to turn to another tradition as a source of inspiration, however distant, namely the Bunraku tradition that also informed the style of puppetry practiced by the Czech company, Docela Velké Divadlo. Still, the design elements of the Crabgrass tabletop puppets, which were doubles of the rod puppet characters, remained distinctly West African in derivation.

What truly set the Crabgrass performance apart, however, was their inclusion of a brief but instructive address to the audience, during which they explained how their puppets worked, what the sources for the design of their puppets were, and why they selected those particular sources. Audience members were then invited to come up to the stage to examine the puppets and ask the performers any questions that they might have. Although such an explanatory session would be a helpful addition to any performance, in the context of a performance for which elements of an outside culture or a group of outside cultures have been adopted, it is especially appropriate. Due to the absence of any distinctively “North American” homegrown puppetry traditions, with the exception of the Muppet-style of puppetry developed by Jim Henson and his creative associates, North American puppet artists have often had to look beyond the confines of their own continent for sources of inspiration, and the performances by North American artists discussed above are evidence of this; it is an interesting side note that these same artists have long ignored the puppetry traditions native to this continent, namely those of some of the First Nations, such as the Kwakiutl of the West Coast and the Inuit. This has led to some companies and artists being accused of cultural appropriation, but if a company or artist were to identify their sources openly and discuss exactly how they were used, as Crabgrass began to (after all, they could only provide a short explanation, given the time pressures inherent in a festival schedule), such a charge could be avoided. The company or artist in question could even go one step further and actually involve members of the community or communities whose cultural material is being referenced as consultants and even participants in the creation process, as Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia has done in the past when developing productions based on the cultural material of the Mi’kmaq or the Inuit.

Thus, while I certainly would not want you to overlook the talented Canadian puppet theatre artists performing at the festival (including this author, who will be appearing at the Puppet Jam, an evening of short puppet theatre pieces intended solely for adults), I hope you will make time to see at least some of the performers who have come from elsewhere. You can bet that I, at least, will not miss the rare chance to see a performance by an artist from, for example, Central Europe, an area so steeped in puppet theatre history but still also known for innovative contemporary work, as Docela Velké Divadlo demonstrated last year, namely Bence Sarkadi from Budapest, Hungary.

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