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How did you get started in puppet theater, and why did you decide to work with marionettes instead of puppets?
That's just my background. It comes from the tradition of marionette theater in Czechoslovakia,. I played with a toy marionette theater when I was a child, and a lot of Czech children do, working with a little proscenium and these little characters, developing your own stories. I actually worked in my mother's marionette theater.
Why is it so common in your culture?
It just is, I don't really know. I think it comes from the tradition of the itinerant puppeteers would reach villages where theater was not economically feasible. So they'd bring these little shows and it would get passed down through the generations, the same puppeteer families traveling the country. For some reason the tradition survived in Czechoslovakia more than anywhere else. In the 50s there was a push against it, as the communist government refused to renew the licenses of many of these families and there was a big push to copy the Soviet style of rod puppets, to go back to this original style of puppet theater. In the 60s there was a bit of a renaissance as the rules were lightened a little bit and other styles were allowed to resume.
How did you decide what sorts of marionettes to work with—there are many options, right?
I chose to work with what I knew best, but there are many different kinds. There are the rod puppets, which are controlled only from below. And while that might seem less expressive, I've been surprised the more I've seen them used that they have their own sort of poetry. Then there are those with a rod below and strings on their arms and legs. A lot of performers in America now have marionettes that have movable jaws—and it would seem as if that gives you more to work with, but Iâ€™ve found that they are not nearly as expressive. It's surprising, to hear people after a show say they saw an expression change on one of our marionettes. Of course nothing changed, but this allows the imagination to spring to life.
Is this an annual puppet festival? How have the audiences changed over time? Are they more resistant to something like this? More interested in giving something new a try?
It's a bi-annual event, and we have to be with the festival every year. When I first proposed this idea to Ellen Stewart
she was kind of hesitant, wondering who was going to see puppet theater, but over the years she's gotten very much into it. She's even started using puppets in some of her own productions. I think there's a renaissance of puppetry in general because people are open to the artistic possibilities. You look at muppets who can open their mouths and even move their eyes and they seem more sophisticated, but with marionettes there is far more that's being left to the imagination, and sometimes you can do more with that as a result. We've even had shows where we used everyday objects as puppets—things like vacuum cleaners or suitcases, and you'd be surprised how much you can even do with that.
Is it hard for you to sit through a regular theater production now—with so much less being left to the imagination? Is it boring for you, to just see a few humans walking around a stage?
I can hardly imagine doing a play any more without puppets. There are exquisite plays out there that I love, but I've really gotten used to the possibilities of puppet theater and taking things to those difference levels that add layers to the text. And so yes, it feels like something's missing when all of that isn't there; I have a hard time imagining doing anything else for an audience.
(photo credit: Jonathan Slaff)