The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre

Vít Hořejš

Vít Hořejš established the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre in 1990 after coming into possession of old puppets that had been gathering dust for decades in the attic of an old Czech church. The group’s performances – often based on classic Czech tales – feature both puppets and live actors. When I visited its studio in Brooklyn, Vít, a Czech who’s been living in New York for decades, told me all about the origins and activities of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theatre.

Jan Hus Church
“I did a show at Jan Hus Church on East 74th Street…the church is still there…even then it had mostly American members, maybe five old ladies were Czech, but they value their Czech heritage…

“Anyway, I did my little show, storytelling with three marionettes in the church and they said, we used to have a puppet theatre here. I kept asking them what happened to the puppets, until they let me go up to the attic, where in an old chest there were 24 large puppets and around 45 smaller puppets from a typical family theatre.”

Did you then begin using those puppets in your own theatre group?

“I didn’t start right away. I was at the time with Ta Fantastika Black Light Theatre. It took me a while before I quit Ta Fantastika (laughs), and then I started reviving the old puppets.

“Our first production of course had to be Faust, because that’s the biggest…hit of the old itinerant puppeteers. So that’s what we started with in 1990.”

What condition were the puppets you found in the church in? And how old were they?

“They were in pretty bad condition as far as clothes go. They had no controls and no strings on them. We had to fix some of the costumes, some of the puppets as well. A skeleton – a typical folk marionette – had a broken jaw. We had a wonderful man in Czechoslovakia make a new jaw for him.

“As far as their age goes, they are – except for the toy puppets that were from the 1920s or ‘30s, no-one knows that for sure either – the larger marionettes, the wooden ones, were about 100 years old.

“We took some of them to Prague, to the National Museum for identification. And the lady there, Dr Patková, told us, I can tell you the maker of this puppet here, this king, I can tell you approximately that this was made in the workshop a man who had several different carvers working for him. But I cannot tell you about these folk puppets here.

“We’d already thought that they might have been made here in the United States and she confirmed this. She said she had never seen anything like that. And later on we found some more proof that they were made in the US by some folk carver. And those are perhaps – yet again we don’t know for sure – perhaps as old as 180 years.”

Tell us about your repertoire. You’ve already mentioned Faust – what other plays do you do, or have you done?

“We started with Faust, which is a traditional puppet play, and that’s what we stuck with for a little while. After that we did The White Doe, Jenovefa as it’s called in Czech.

“These were done more or less in a traditional way with movable backdrops and with invisible puppeteers on a bridge. But my goal all along was to start mixing live people with marionettes, and that’s what we did.

“Eventually we went on to do productions like Golem, which was really one big dance with puppets and people dancing.”

Is it the case that you’ve also incorporated Czech fairytales into your repertoire over the years?

“Some of our smaller productions are based on my story-telling. A little show like Káča and the Devil, which I’ve now been doing for over 20 years, has a Czech folk tale as its basis.

“Other stories like Salt over Gold, Sůl nad zlato, or about Vodník, the water spirit, are all part of our work. Then eventually they also became the basis for some of the larger productions, like Twelve Iron Sandals – a production like that we did at the Bohemian National Hall [Czech centre on Upper East Side, reopening this autumn] when it was still a wreck, way before the renovations started.”

Have you ever gone on tour, so to speak, to the Czech Republic or Slovakia?

“We twice went to the Czech Republic, but never to Slovakia. The first one was the Skupova festival in Plzeň –we went there with our production of Rusalka, the Little River Maid, which is based on Dvořák’s opera, but as if it was produced by Dvořák’s students.

“Dvořák taught in the US and the students that he said would be the future American composers were black. He really thought they’d be composing symphonies and operas. They did become American composers, but in a totally different idiom than he had imagined.

“So we followed that train of thought and had three arias from the opera Rusalka and then some jazz music and rock music, to show where Dvořák’s students would go with the play.

“Then in 2004 we went to the Prague Shakespeare Festival, where we performed at Prague Castle, at the Lord Chamberlain’s Palace courtyard. Which was really wonderful – to be performing in front of a 14th century wall for a set was just an unforgettable experience.”