Leah Gaffen on 15th anniversary of Puppets in Prague

Photo: official website of Puppets in Prague

Fifteen years ago, the Czech-American couple of Mirek Trejtnar and Leah Gaffen founded Puppets in Prague, offering workshops for international students on the design and production of Czech handmade puppets and marionettes. Since then, their workshops have become a staple of the local theatre scene. This weekend, you can see some of their puppets in performances around the city at Teatrotoc.

Photo: official website of Puppets in Prague
I discussed the two-day festival, as well as how Puppets in Prague began, with Leah Gaffen this week.

“Puppets in Prague sort of grew out of an experience we had in 1999 when we were invited to Macau. A friend of ours from Hong Kong, who was studying scene design at DAMU for three months on an international exchange, decided he wanted to have a festival and invite many of the people in Prague and also Holland where he also studied. He wanted us to bring our European work there, so my husband Mirek with his puppets and another friend of ours who also had her own but also antique puppets. So we travelled to Macao and stayed a month and held the workshop and at the end we held a show and it was fun and crazy. And we got the idea, that if we could do something like this in Macao, why not here.”

“Another important factor at the time, is that DAMU, for various bureaucratic or administrative reasons, was closing down an existing programme for foreign students, so they didn’t have that option. We thought, well, we have a big workshop space, so let’s try it.”

Was it the case, in the beginning, that things were more modest? That over the years, you have more students…

“If you see the puppets that the students make, they always have something about them which looks like the maker. There is always this kind of psychological bond.”

“It is true that many more people know about us now. As more people apply now, we are also a bit more picky about who can come. Initially, we just taught how to carve, how to make the wooden marionettes. But since, we have branched out a lot. We have a lot of friends and colleagues who used to work at Barrandov at the Jiří Trnka studio where my husband Mirek also used to work and they are wonderful and very skilled. Since then we have begun doing workshops on how to create puppets for animated film. We offer a workshop on how to make that specific armature of Jiří Trnka’s. We also offer workshops on non-traditional or specialised marionettes such as skeletons or acrobats or juggling marionettes or dragons.

“Every year we also prepare a bigger show, which over the last few years has been part of Letní letná. And we do our own festival, Teatrotoč.”

From what you are saying, it seems every marionette design depends on its purpose, how it will be used… is there a simple or basic design that students are introduced to, first?

“There is a standard technical drawing that we show the students. But they usually have lots of their own ideas which they want to put forward. Unfortunately, the approach is not more standardised because it can be a lot more work for the people who are teaching them. On the other hand, it is great for the students and it makes everything much more interesting.

Miroslav Trejtnar,  photo: official website of Puppets in Prague
“There are certain rules that they have to follow and they can choose whether they want to make a classic Czech marionette on a wire or a puppet hung only on strings. They also have to make choices about what kind of joints they want as well as what they want the puppet to do. If they want it to dance, walk backwards, and so on. So all those options are there.

“We do encourage them to keep things simple. We have often found that the more simple puppets that work better on stage. Keeping it simple is good. There is also another thing to take into account: every time you have something special that your puppet does, there is something else that it does worse. If you have a puppet that dances and can raise its leg really high, it is worse at something else, like walking. So every decision has a positive and a negative.”

I imagine that some of the people who take part in workshops already have some kind of technical skill or predisposition to working with wood. Is that the case or do you get some who are all thumbs?

“It varies. We don’t just take people who have had experience with wood, we also like to have students who have a background in puppetry. Quite often we get students who are puppeteers who haven’t got that much experience working with wood but we feel it is very valuable for them to learn how it is done. We also have students from DAMU who are studying puppet acting come in and make puppets with us. At DAMU, they really usually focus primarily on the acting skills, so for them to learn how to carve is valuable. Even if they never make another puppet again, I think they gain a better understanding of how it is made gives them a different appreciation. So, some students get more help if needed.”

“I love performing for children. You get this energy with them that you don’t get with older viewers. They are fascinated with the puppets and if they like the story… it is very rewarding.”

Is 15 years an important anniversary for you?

“I think so. We wanted to have a 15 anniversary party and festival and conference because we felt it was a good opportunity to bring people back to Prague as well as for us to try something new. For the first time we are doing a family puppet theatre workshop, making toy puppet theatres as they are called in North America. These are small puppet theatres with small puppets which allow students to design their own shows and we will be showing some of these around Prague this weekend.”

“One thing which I really like about the workshops is the community. One workshop can see 10 people teaching in one workshop. We have worked with a lot of people and the festival at the weekend will provide an opportunity for them to meet, catch up after a while and talk.”

How many students have gone through the workshop?

“We have taught about 600…”

That’s a lot. Do you know about success stories, those who went on to make a living or had other success?

“We stay in touch with many of our former students and a lot of them are performing and send us photos. Several of ours students work in animation, one lady who studied with us made one of the dogs in the Shaun the Sheep movie which recently came out. One of the most satisfying things is when one of our students returns home but continues to crave and continues to make puppets. We have one student who carved with us, a solider, who has stuck with it. We have a former student in England who is selling puppets he makes, so that is very satisfying and very exciting.”

Leah Gaffen,  photo: official website of Puppets in Prague
How many hours go into producing a single marionette?

“Many. Students come over for two weeks and spend about nine days on their marionette. Five days is the carving and the rest is painting it and designing the costume. At the end, they always create a show because it makes no sense for a puppet to gather dust on the shelf.”

Is it the case that you form a bond with the puppet you make? Does it become personal?

“Oh definitely. If you see the puppets that the students make, they always have something about them which looks like the maker. Particularly their first puppet; it is even a bit spooky. There is a psychological connection between the puppet and maker. Always.”

Hm. One of the discussions being held during the festival is provocatively titled ‘Is puppetry dead’? It doesn’t seem to be the case…

“But it is a question which comes up and is an important topic in the Czech Republic right now. Young artists in particular are beginning to pursue other forms, new circus, more physical theatre and at the theatre academy there is less emphasis on pure puppetry. So the question is should it still be taught as it was when my husband was studying the form up to 1990.

So it is a question which is raised and it is an issue which needs to be discussed.”

Let’s discuss a bit of the upcoming festival: Buchty a loutky are taking part…

“They are a very important troupe for us and they are friends; Mirek studied with them and after completion, they founded the theatre and he began making his own puppets and toys. From the beginning, some of the company members have taught for us. They are old friends.”

From what I read, I understand that you are in charge of managing the company and administration – do you cross over to the other side, ever, and make your own puppet?

“Making puppets is definitely more my husband’s department; however, I do perform, sometimes we perform together and I also perform on my own, for example, for children at schools.”

Photo: official website of Puppets in Prague
When you are performing for kids, is it special? I imagine it must be. I love experiencing the world through my children’s eyes and my guess is that this is a lot of fun.

“It is great. I love doing it. You get this energy with them that you don’t get with older viewers. They are fascinated with the puppets and if they like the story and it works, that’s great. Once they hit around six or seven, children can be more critical and harder to please, but when it works it is very satisfying.”

Be sure to look up more about Teatrotoc and Puppets in Prague online.