Buchty a Loutky – A minority among minorities in Czech puppet theatre

Photo: www.divadlo.cz/bal

There are various marionette theatres in the Czech Republic but few which enjoy as cutting edge a reputation as Buchty a Loutky (Cake & Puppets), a troupe founded in Prague in the early 1990s which took Czech theatre in new directions. The group’s name is a take on the famous Bread & Puppet Theatre based in the US since the 1960s, known for serving free bread to the audience as a means of creating community. One of the group’s founders, Marek Becka, explains naming his troupe Buchty a Loutky was a bit of a joke, not without a measure of irony.

“We felt Bread & Puppet were real children of the ‘60s: they made their own bread during the performances and then offered it to members of the audience like something ‘saintly’ or ‘sacred’. We made fun of this a bit, not because we thought the theatre was bad, certainly not. But that was the 1960s and we began in the late 1980s when such kind of atmosphere was long-gone. We developed the theatre in the early ‘90s, so we used this name as a bit of a joke. We didn’t make our own bread but bought really cheap buns, sweet buns or cakes with cream in the supermarket which we gave to members of the audience, including kids, and they liked it so much.”

Nina Malikova, the head of the bi-monthly Loutkar (Puppeteer) revue, says from the start the Buchty were onto something new and not afraid to show it.

“They were students from the same year at school and theirs was one of the first attempts - with a chance of succeeding – as an independent group, something that had not been legislatively possible earlier. In the early 1990s they were given a chance at the Cheb Theatre but the piece that really caught the public’s attention was a production, based on a story by Mark Twain. That was a real discovery at the Skupova Pilsen Festival. Compared to other puppet theatres which performed traditional productions, Cake & Puppets were accompanied by a rock band and their play had clear postmodern elements: an unusual use of marionettes and figures. Founder Marek Becka himself was something of a ‘frontman’ and the Buchty introduced a style which later became their trademark: one of playfulness. Theirs, is a ‘grand look back at childhood’.”

Says Malikova, early on Buchty a Loutky were unafraid to break the rules, using all kinds of objects – from traditional marionettes to dolls to stuffed animals – as characters, within layers of irony and black humor.

“They have incorporated historic marionettes from the First Republic but also used everything from teddy bears to plastic figures. Figures – from Lada’s Kocour Mikes in ‘The Magnificent Seven’ to Donald Duck – don’t appear as themselves, but as different characters, forming a postmodern mish-mash, with deeper threads of meaning. In the Twain production the performers walked around munching on apples and suddenly an apple core would become one of the characters! Munching on apples! It was immediately apparent new provocateurs had arrived!”

That doesn’t mean that the performers don’t have close ties to the objects they use – just the opposite. Asked what becomes of old puppets or marionettes after productions are shelved, Marek Becka admits there are some items which remain valued, characters that are not recycled or destroyed.

“Especially in the performances for adults we use old puppets or toys from antique shops. So I get something I’ve never seen and I can hang it on the wall and have it forever… well forever… but I can’t sell it! It’s similar to a violin player who must have his violin.”

Fellow group member Tomas Prochazka adds that any kind of material is potentially useful:

“We basically combine everything! Puppets which were especially done for the piece, old puppets or figures that we found or bought second-hand, and then just second-hand objects that we just found. In the end, it’s a mixture. We play with perspective and disproportion and don’t mind disproportion between the puppets and the objects in our plays.”

Planning for productions in the group – which consists of only a handful of core members – is unusually democratic says Becka. And, different members place different emphasis on what’s important: character, mood or overall plot.

“For me what’s most important is the story. I am really a storyteller, whereas my colleague Radek is not interested in story as much, he is interested in atmosphere and feeling. For him those are everything. There are some differences. For me it is character, for him it is atmosphere and images.”

Over the years the Buchty have consistently produced dynamic and well-received productions, full of black humor and double meanings for adults like in “Gilgamesh” or “Rocky IX” (based on the endless Rocky Balboa saga), as well as successful productions for children, including “Valentyn the Frog” or “The Three Little Pigs”; running a professional puppet theatre troupe inevitably means performing for both.

“You know, we are a minority within a minority! I mean, only four percent of all people regularly go to the theatre, and from this four percent even less go to see puppet shows for adults! Very often fathers come to the theatre and they’re very happy, thinking ‘Oh not, not something again’ thinking of the awful or silly film they saw last week or Disney production. I know, I have two kids myself! So we try to put something in for adults. The little children won’t notice but the older kids or parents get the jokes. That’s my goal and our vision and when it works, like when we perform at kindergarten like we did a week ago, the teachers come to us and tell us ‘Thank you very much, that was something that wasn’t only for kids but something we also enjoyed’. And I am happy for that.”

One of their more unusual productions one can now see at Svandovo Divadlo in Prague’s Smichov district, is “Tibet Through the Red Box”, based on a book by renowned children’s author Petr Sis. While the Loutkar revue’s Nina Malikova is not enamored with the play, she agrees it is an unusual Buchty performance: one that places greater stress on atmosphere and mood.

Using a tiny stage, performers present a space “between sky and earth” as a shiny mirror overlooking the characters.

The mirror is at times oppressive, at others, hypnotizing. Within the foreground the piece’s three performers shift marionettes and toys over stony gravel, their movements doubled in the sky/mirror overhead until they become almost abstract. Sis’ father, a filmmaker, documented the building of a great Chinese highway into mystical Tibet in the 1950s, and the Sis story is based on his diary, setting the ground for the Buchtys’ performance. Nina Malikova once again:

“Tibet Through the Red Box is unusual in their long string of productions. Twice they have worked with very strong artists who have added depth: one play was Gilgamesh, the other is Tibet. Here I think they have moved into a different genre.”

Even if Buchty a Loutky are now moving in different directions sixteen years after their inception, one thing - says member Tomas Prochazka - remains the same: a certain D-I-Y sensibility which forms a cornerstone of all their acts. That is something, even as the group’s core members hit their early 40s, which seems unlikely to change.

“Maybe it really is something of a different style: some have called it ‘punk puppetry’, but you could also call it ‘Do-it-yourself’. I think the latter is really strong in the creation of our performances.”