The link between puppetry and puppet animation in undeniable – none more so than in Central Europe, where a rich tradition in stage and screen puppetry exists. In this, the first in a series of articles in which we’ll be looking at the puppetry scene around the world, Puppet Place’s Marika Aakala sat down with Tereza Porybná, director of the Czech Centre in London, and Adriana Prodeus, author and curator of the ’70th year anniversary of Polish animation’ festival, to find out why puppetry and puppet animation are so deeply rooted in Czech and Polish cultural heritage.
What cultural significance do puppetry and puppet animation have in your respective countries and how would you explain its popularity?
Tereza Porybná – Czech Republic
Puppetry and puppet animation are one of the key pillars of Czech cultural heritage. From popular mainstream children’s shows such as ‘Hurvínek’, to elaborate artistic endeavors in films of Jan Švankmajer or Jiří Trnka, there is no way you can avoid this phenomenon while living in the Czech Republic. The ongoing quality work in this genre has been also recognized in 2016 by UNESCO who added Czech and Slovak puppetry to its list of world cultural heritage.
The variety of Czech puppetry is as immense as the collection of actual puppets stored in multiple museums around the country. The wonderful wood carving skills of Czech puppeteers are complemented by a unique artistic vision, combining humor, beauty and often a certain type of poetic melancholy typical for the modern work.
The tradition of puppetry has two main lines – folk art or amateur performance and professional performances taking place in the theatre and alternative art spaces. The puppet performances, as we can still know them today, were on the rise during medieval times when they were part of public amusement at fairs and markets. During the 19th century, Czech puppetry also had socio-political importance because it played an important part of the Czech national and cultural regeneration. The bohemian Kingdom was for many centuries part of the Austrian Monarchy and theatre performances were held predominantly in German. However, since the latter part of the 18th century, Czech puppeteers began using the Czech language while wandering with their marionettes through towns and villages of the Czech countryside. The most famous puppeteer, and a symbolic representative of the travelling Czech puppeteer family tradition, was Matěj Kopecky, whose ancestors still continue the tradition through the famous Prague based Cirk La Putyka.
In the first half of the 20th century, the puppetry scene had its established institutions all over the country including its own department at the Prague art school. Visiting puppet shows were, and still are, a common family pastime. Puppet animation films have drawn on this existing popularity and moved it to another level. To compound this further, during the socialist regime, there were limited opportunities to see “Western” films, therefore domestic production became an even stronger part of our culture and entertainment media.
Adriana Prodeus – Poland
As for the pioneer of puppet animation, the puppetry of Władysław Starewicz is one of the oldest animation techniques and still holds a place of high importance in Poland. Of course, Lodz in Poland is home to Se-Ma-For Studio, where the famous Oscar and BAFTA-winning stop-motion animation ‘Peter and the Wolf’ (2006), directed by Suzie Templeton, was skillfully crafted and animated by local artists. This was later followed by the Quay Brothers’ beautiful animation ‘Maska’ (2010), based on a short story by Stanisław Lem and with music by the composer Krzysztof Penderecki.
Puppetry is enduring in Poland. Is this because of the surrealism that puppets bring? Or because of frame-by-frame photography that releases illusory movements and powerful transformations? Not an easy answer. Nevertheless, stop-motion embraces the whole spectrum of cinematic imaginary. From the very beginning of Polish animation, there have been puppets. Puppetry was first used in 1912 by Starewicz and post WWII by Zenon Wasilewski in 1947. And in the last seventy years of Polish animation, several dozen animated shorts were produced. Both popular children’s shows with characters such as Bolek, Lolek, and Reksio and also dark, grotesque shorts de auteur, like Marek Skrobecki’s ‘DIM’ (1992), ‘Ichtys’ (2005) and ‘Danny Boy’ (2010).
Shortly after WWII, there was the whole movement to open as many theatre venues for children as possible all around Poland. This was a therapeutic initiative to address the traumas that children had faced and any malpractice toward them. For example, performances designed for orphans aimed to tell stories that would communicate artistically with the young audiences to remind them what joy and play mean. Theatre experimented with puppetry engaging children and actors who animated marionettes while being visible on stage. One visionary director, Jan Dorman, made the puppet a symbol instead of simply a character and started to use ordinary objects animated in highly musical rhythm.
There are no ‘typical’ puppets in Poland – no Punch, no Petushka nor Guignol. Many Polish puppets are a simple doll with a geometrical shape. Polish puppet artists have been mostly interested in folklore. Notably, the legendary puppeteer, costume and stage designer Adam Kilian considered Polish Christmas Cribs (Nativities) to be a symbol of Polish theatre as a whole – its monumental ambition, the tradition of mysticism, mixture of genres, combination of reality with imagination and ordinary with miraculous. It is fascinating how much of folk tradition was incorporated into Polish contemporary art via puppetry, for example in the works of Tadeusz Kantor, Józef Szajna, and Jan Berdyszak.
We live in a digital world, which provides us several technical and visual advantages for puppetry and puppet animation. Should we be worried about the survival of these incredibly beautiful and tactile art forms? How strong are puppetry and puppet animation scenes in your country these days?
Several of the older theatres are still active – the famous Spejbl and Hurvínek Theatre often has sold out shows, as does the Alfa theatre in Pilsner or the Naive Theatre in Liberec. Drak Theatre in Hradec Králové has created some beautiful contemporary work critically acclaimed abroad. While tourists wait in line for the world famous Don Giovanni at the Prague National Marionette Theatre, the independent scene is also alive and well with companies like Forman Brothers or Theatre Continuo combining puppetry with live performance and fantastic stage design. Buchty a Loutky (Cakes and Puppets) work more in the tradition of humoristic short plays often using hand puppets.
Puppet film aren’t so numerous, but there are some extraordinary examples, such as ‘Fimfarum’ inspired by Jan Werich´s storytelling or the award-winning ‘Kooky Comes Home’ by Jan Svěrák whose main character is a musty old stuffed bear puppet named Kooky who is struggling to find his way back after being thrown in the dump.
The popularity of puppetry is probably due to a state-sponsored system of puppet theatre institutions for children, which were common across the whole post-soviet region, and was the means by which many artists got secure living conditions. However, as a result there is no tradition of solo puppetry in Poland and only a few independent puppet companies in the whole country today, notably: Grupa Coincidentia, Teatr Wiczy, Teatr Wierszalin, Nieformalna Grupa Avis and Teatr Malabar Hotel. The latter recently produced performances for adults based on classic literature as e.g. Madame Tutli Putli by Witkacy and The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (cooperation with Białystok-based Teatr Banialuka) as now there is a trend toward reaching adult audiences via adaptations of Polish literature. Poland definitely lacks puppet theatre and animation for adults at the moment – children’s puppetry still dominates almost all production. In fact, we are trying to find a new term for it as puppet theatre (‘teatr lalek’ in Polish) still means ‘made for children’ and we need to encourage the adult audience to be open to more difficult content brought on stage and on screen by puppetry.
I would not worry about puppetry fighting digital tools but rather using them wisely in an artistic aim as for example, the Quay Brothers do. In young Polish puppet animation, we have highly talented artists and they prove that puppetry art can be done manually with only a little help from digital techniques.
A very interesting emerging Polish puppetry artist is Bristol-based Magdalena Osinska; a director, designer and animator, whose films have won numerous awards. Her short films include: Joyets (2008), Zbigniev’s Cupboard (2010) and Spirits of the Piano (2012) in which she used a unique combination of traditional puppet animation shot in 3D stereoscopic technique with Chopin’s Etudes. In addition to her work for Aardman Animations, Osinska is independently developing two feature puppet animations: ‘Jasia’ about a Jewish girl orphan surviving the war with her imagination and ‘A Pelican’, a family movie about an unusual friendship between a bird and a boy.
The experimental animated docu-dramas by Anca Damian; ‘Crulic’ (2011) and ‘Magic Mountain’ (2015) encouraged other artists in Poland to think about long-feature animation and to do it in co-production. This year has seen the release of the highly successful ‘Loving Vincent’ by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welshman, but there is a need for a feature puppet animation to be produced for the adult audience in Poland.
Further, the female tradition of Polish puppetry is still largely undiscovered. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that women became involved with puppetry by founding puppet theatres for children in Poland, for example, Zofia Jarema in Cracov (Teatr Groteska), Irena Sowicka in Warsaw (Teatr Guliwer), and Halina Lubicz in Poznan (Teatr „Marcinek”, which exists today as Teatr Animacji). These practitioners and their successors, notably; Leokadia Serafinowicz, Natalia Golebska, Monika Snarska and many others, created their original artistic voices in puppetry. Nowadays we have several younger artists, such as Agata Biziuk, but there is room for more.
Puppet animation by female artists is often highly acclaimed. For example, Berlin-based and graduate from Lodz Film School Izabela Plucinska has won many awards already for her clay-animation shorts (including the ‘Silver Bear for Jam Session 2005’ at the Berlinale). Thanks to Izabela and women artists like her, the female stories are brought to life in film. Sadly for us, some of our most talented female puppet artists live and work abroad, but that does mean that the Polish tradition of puppet animation is spreading all over Europe. However, Polish puppet animation is always recognisable as it engages the audience emotionally and creates exceptional realities.
Interview by Marika Aakala