Puppetry In Iceland – An Interview with Bernd Ogrodnik

berndportBernd Ogrodnik has been a prominent figure in the world of puppetry since 1986. He is the Artistic Director and Co-founder of the Icelandic Center for Puppetry Arts, and serves as the Master Puppeteer for the National Theater of Iceland. He has toured all over Europe, Canada, USA and Asia as a performer, director, teacher and lecturer at numerous international puppet theatre festivals, universities and conferences. 

We dropped him a line to find out a little more about his history and what makes Iceland the perfect location for his work.

(Photo credit top right: Ragnheiður Arngrímsdóttir)



You have worked in the puppetry arts for a considerable time.  How did you become involved in puppetry?

I got first hooked on puppetry as a small boy growing up in Germany, watching the famed TV marionette productions of the Augsburger Puppenkiste. I was absolutely entranced by the magical sets and the endearing strength of the wooden characters brought to life by strings. It immediately triggered a longing to try it myself. If they could create oceans by manipulating large clear plastic tarps, I could do the same.  Soon I found myself building marionettes and sets in the attic of our small apartment and putting up plays for my neighbourhood and church.  I was probably no more than six or seven years old when the adventure started, and this passion has never left me.

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On the workbench… [Credit: Bernd Ogrodnik]

But the Wanderlust and many other interests soon took over!  I studied music, martial arts (Karate and Tai Chi), massage, acupressure, woodworking, carpentry and children’s book illustration – and did I already mention gardening?  It wasn’t until I was 25 and had travelled around half the globe that I decided to put all these interests under one umbrella and become a professional puppeteer.

Now I work 24/7 as an artist/puppeteer. Whatever I study, learn and experience strengthens, nurtures and inspires my work. The rhythm and timing of music, the balance and focus of Karate, the awareness of energy in the healing arts, are all wonderful foundations for a puppeteer.  As life unfolds with all its riches, joys and pains the inspirations for new characters and plays are never-ending.

 

You were born in Germany, and lived in the US and Canada for ten years before returning to Iceland.  What does Iceland have that is supportive of your work?

I left Germany as soon as I finished high school, travelling extensively where ever I felt the calling. I was heading for Alaska at the time, dreaming of a self-sufficient life in the wilderness when I stumbled upon a book about Icelandic horses. Imagine an island with only 250,000 people and 80,000 horses… I was spellbound and decided to take a little detour. That is when my love affair with “the magical island” started. I did make it to Alaska eventually and many other places in the world have captured my heart, but Iceland has become my sacred home.

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From a test shoot for another movie project, building on the techniques developed for “Strings” and filming puppets outside in Iceland´s magnificent nature. [Credit: Bernd Ogrodnik]

 

Now almost 40 years later, the whole world seems to have discovered our Island. Our population is only 330,000 inhabitants but 2.5 million tourists swamp this fragile paradise each year. I cannot blame them. Icelanders love theatre and hold the world record for going to watch plays per capita.  I live in a beautiful secluded valley in Hvalfjörður (Whalefjord), a 45 minute drive from the National Theater of Iceland where our studios and theatre are located.

My wife and partner Hildur Jónsdóttir and I founded and operated a wonderful Center for Puppetry Arts, complete with a restaurant, interactive museum, theatre and an International Festival located in old heritage buildings, which we renovated from scratch at a magnificent oceanfront setting.  It ran successfully until the recession some years ago brought it to an untimely end as we lost our entire financial support system.

But as one door closes another opens…  We’d already been cooperating with the National Theater for sometime and when news spread of us closing our Center, we were gracefully offered a space in this honourable Institution. It has proven to be a fruitful and very supportive environment, for which I am very grateful. We create our productions in cooperation with the National Theater, and perform them in our theatre, which has a capacity of approx. 90 and was specially designed to our specifications in the “attic” of the main building of the National Theater.

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Top left: From the production ‘Metamorphosis’.  Bottom right: From the production ‘Aladdin’. Credits: EDDI

 

To be part of such a vibrant theatre community and constantly surrounded by so much professional talent while witnessing all kinds of productions in process is of course a tremendous gift and inspiration. It also gives the necessary pull for a guy like me to actually leave his hidden valley.   Besides performing in our theatre and taking part in other main stage productions of the house, we tour extensively around the Island as it has always been our mission to bring theatre to the rural areas.  I find Iceland is conveniently located between Europe and N-America and thus in easy reach of the rest of the world. We spend an average 3 months a year touring internationally, performing, teaching, directing and have visited nearly 50 countries in the last few years. As beautiful and inspirational I find my travels, it is always good though to come home to my “sacred island”.

 

What are you currently working on? 

 The play we are now working on is called “The Puppet Master of Reykjavik” – a semi-autobiographical story about a German immigrant and puppeteer living in Reykjavik in a state of “Hikikomori” (as a recluse, living in voluntary seclusion from the public and society.) It is my response to the alarming political and social developments in the world, while reflecting on the heavy “German backpack” I inherited from my parents’ generation.

It is the most personal and challenging play I have written in the sense that I will be completely exposing myself emotionally and will be stepping out of my comfort zone of being secondary to the puppets. I will be the main actor, and the puppets are my story-telling devices. Fortunately we have assembled a fantastic artistic team to help me with this process.   We made the decision a long time ago to only work with colleagues that we respect for their warm and passionate hearts, as much as for their talents.  To create a play is a sacred journey, an opportunity given and a responsibility not to be taken lightly! Whilst the premiere deadline is looming, not unlike Mount Everest, above the artists’ sensitive souls, great teamwork is vital for our mental and physical health and a positive outcome for the production.

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From “Old Man and the Sea” Credit: Thorkell Thorkelsson

 

What are you interested in exploring next? 

Before talking about the future, please allow me to stop for a moment and state that I am experiencing the best time of my life right now. Not that I find my earlier life in any way boring or terrible, but it is wonderful to harvest from years of trial and error. The more balanced life that often comes with ageing allows one to reflect deeper and make very decisive plans for the future.  I’ve experience of over 7,000 live performances and special projects, such as working on the movie ‘Strings’ (2005) and our most recent production ‘Jungle Book’ at “Arlekin” Theater in Poland.

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Still from the movie “Strings” for which Bernd designed the technical aspect of the puppets and served as the lead Puppeteer. Credit: Steen Donsby

So what I see for my future is devoting more time to sharing what I have learned over the decades. We often have students and interns from all corners of the world participating in the creation of new works.  We conduct workshops in amazing places like Indonesia, Iran, Egypt, Hawaii, Taiwan and … Great Britain! I also spend some time every day answering questions on our Facebook page about the pictures we post of control mechanisms, puppet joints, etc. for our latest work.  To share what we have learned and experienced makes the world go round more smoothly.

I am still in love with the art of puppetry, but I reflect on it differently now. I have the highest hopes, expectations and also concerns for our art form and like to nurture it in any way possible. My concern does not arise from being judgmental about a certain style or way, but from having experienced the difference good manipulation and construction will make in communicating what we want to present on stage. When we step in front of an audience we bear a tremendous opportunity and responsibility, which does not afford any sloppy movement or carelessness. Knowing how powerful, influential and life-changing theater performance can be, I expect from professional puppeteers the same dedication that I expect from my dentist. I want them to be fully focused and knowledgeable of the best techniques and tools available. In my workshops I share my personal approach to being a puppeteer, which I like to call the  “ABC” for the performing artist: “A” standing for Awareness, “B” for Breathing and “C” for Communication. The Alphabet goes on of course and I have chosen one word for every letter to reflect upon. I am also working on a printed version of these contemplations.

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From an advanced marionette building and manipulating workshop in Taiwan. Credit: The Lize Puppet Art Colony.

There are so many great ways and approaches to puppetry, and I keep trying and experimenting with all kinds of styles and materials, but my main focus is always the puppet itself. This counterbalances a popular trend in puppetry, which has pushed the puppet to the sidelines. I believe this often happens because many puppetry schools seem to be afraid of the puppet and thus we have created a kingdom of very ineffective reinventing. If we compare our art form to classical music, we could ask the question “where is the ‘Stradivarius’ of the different puppet styles?”. What we still lack in puppetry is an encyclopedia that lists all the great techniques and controls that have been invented by various innovative artists and compares them. So if students want to build a show they could make more educated decisions in choosing a style or technique for their specific project. For example, if a rod puppet only features a simple up and down and left to right movement of the head, I want this to be a conscious choice, not one based on a lack of experience or knowledge.

We are a rather small puppetry community here in Iceland, but nevertheless vibrant at times with some wonderful artists performing puppet shows as well as incorporating puppetry in various artistic fields. Our UNIMA undergoes cycles of being active and then rather dormant, according often to new blood joins our community. I believe it is so important to seek international exchange, to travel abroad and get knocked out of our own routines and comfort zones. I think what applies to our little island applies to all countries. Even the big United States of America can get isolated if they build walls and Brexit will not make it easier for Great Britain’s puppeteers to mingle with the rest of the world.

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Puppets created for an International project raising awareness about Downs Syndrome. Credit: L´Arche Foundation, Poland

 

The world seems to experience an escalating and scary reoccurring trend of national pride, fascism and the need for new borders and common enemies. The eminent thread of global warming can no longer be ignored.  But the future is bright dear fellow puppeteers, we have a mighty weapon at our disposal. Let’s keep those puppets stirring the hearts and souls of our respected audiences and let’s keep supporting each other in nurturing this magnificent yet fragile planet.

 

With love and respect from Iceland to the UK,

 

Bernd Ogrodnik

 


To find out more about Bernd’s work and ‘Worlds of Puppets’ at The National Theater of Iceland, visit the website: http://worldsofpuppets.com and join the Facebook page

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