Unleashing the (Czech) Puppetmaster within


Puppet theatre has been an integral part of Czech culture for centuries, and few tourists leave Prague without taking in a performance of Don Giovanni or the Marriage of Figaro, or at least bringing home a marionette, be it a devil or angel, king or court jester. Children here grow up on characters like Spejbl and Hurvinek; the Academy of Performing Arts (DAMU) even offers a masters degree in "alternative and puppet theatre direction." So little wonder that enthusiasts from around the world journey to Prague to take workshops under master Czech puppet-makers like Miroslav Trejtnar. We caught up with Mirek and some of his students this week.

"I'm a wood carver - I studied wood carving in high school then in a puppet film studio, animated puppet film studio - the Jiri Trnka film studio in Barrandov; which is still there, but is closing. And then I studied puppet design and theatre technology. So, slowly, I was moving from wood carving -- furniture -- to carving puppets. That was a long process, like ten years."

Miroslav Trejtnar began making marionettes for performers, theatres and individual productions in 1990 and has taught puppet-making and scene design at the Academy of Performing Arts. For six years now, he and his wife, American Leah Gaffen, have been holding the Puppets in Prague workshops in the summer and autumn.

The students, most of whom have a background in theatre arts, come from all over.

"My name is Jenny, I'm from Sydney, Australia ... I've got no Czech connection, other than my interest in puppetry and the Czech Republic is the centre for so much marionette making and wood carving, so I came here to study. I'm making a puppet based on a Hmong woman I met in Vietnam - from the hill tribes of Vietnam."

"My name is Carrie, I'm from Colorado, in the United States and I'm making a young woman marionette that miraculously has started to look like me [laughs]."

RP: I was going to say, she bears more than just a passing resemblance.

"Yes. I didn't mean for that to happen, but I've been travelling Europe this summer and just drawing puppets on trains, while I was riding from Greece to Rome or wherever, and... "

RP: All the time knowing that you were on your way here to Prague?

"Yes, yes. This is a workshop I've wanted to come to for a number of years and they've only had it during my classes - I'm in graduate school for my MFA in Scenography [theatre set design]. So I'm here... playing!"

The daily schedule is intensive: students work eight hours, with morning sessions consisting of short lectures and afternoons for practical work. Today's guest lecturer is a Spaniard named Kiko, who along with his Czech wife, runs a small theatre company called Karromato.

"Let's begin with scene presentation. One thing you really have to consider is when you perform with the puppets - I will say 'puppet' but I mean 'marionette' - is how the audience will see this puppet. And it depends on whether you will play for a small crowd, or you want to stage it in a theatre, for, let's say, 150 to 200 persons..."

Students learn the techniques of designing puppets, making technical drawings, woodcarving, painting, and puppet costume design. The course - which is taught in English - also includes lectures on Czech puppet history, and lessons on how to manipulate the marionettes, often within the context of a performance.

Kiko, in action, as Hilda: "Oh, poor Gunther! Come to my arms, my love."

I've come on the second day of the 11-day course on puppet construction. The students have completed their technical drawings and only just begun carving away at the blocks of wood they will soon bring to life.

"My name is Millie, I'm from Philadelphia. I'm a freelance costume designer and educator and I've been interested in marionettes my entire life. I received a fellowship to attend a marionette workshop and I chose this one."

RP: And what are you making?

"I'm actually making a very specific character - I'm making Mephistopheles from Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe. I love the characters in that story and that's why I chose Mephistopheles."

RP: The Prince of Darkness - to his friends.

"Yes, yes. [laughs] For my inspiration I looked to some paintings by the Delacroix, the French artist Eugène Delacroix. This is a sketch - and I do costume sketches, so this is more stylised, and then I did a detail of his head. I really wanted to capture the details of his face to create a more evil, sinister look."

RP: He's looking a bit like Johnny Depp.

"Maybe that was my inspiration [laughs] - I don't know."

RP: Don't sell your soul for Johnny Depp. It's not worth it.

"I live in California. I'm an art teacher and I wanted to learn this skill and, if it's not too complicated, show my students how to do it too. And I'm making a devil."

RP: That's a very classic, Czech-looking devil, I would say.

"It's kind of inspired by [Czech animator Jan] Svankmajer's 'Faust'. I've seen that a couple times and I really love that film. So, I want to make a devil like one of those - which, I think, are also based on classic Czech puppets."

RP: Have you had a long-term interest in puppetry?

"I guess I've always been interested in it. I was in Prague about 10 years ago and bought a couple in an antique store, and I have puppets from Indonesia and ... I also collect little heads from all over the world."

RP: Do the authorities know about that?

"Oh! The authorities!"

Another workshop participant, Simon, lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He performs as a mime and a clown.

"I teach circus [arts] to special needs groups and individuals. I play with objects as puppets but I've never made a marionette and I've always wanted to. I've had a go at home but never really succeeded."

RP: So what do you have in mind? What's your marionette going to look like?

"Well he's going to be a bit of a clown, but not a traditional clown. I'm not a traditional clown, so... I want him to come to hospitals with me - because I work in hospitals as a clown - and I like the idea of him and me having a partnership of some kind."

Hila is from Israel, of mixed Czech and Yemeni heritage. She is now studying performance in Amsterdam and is going to use her puppet in a scene within a special project.

RP: So far, you've got the head - and that's a pretty raw piece of wood, still. What's the process between your sketches and getting that into wood? How are they helping you with that here?

"We made a technical sketch, on a one-to-one scale, and then I figure out which part of the body is going to be from wood, which part is going to be from fabric, so that it won't be too heavy."

"My puppet, she's 80 years old, she's quite fat, she's a hard worker; basically, she's my grandma. She's going to be naked, because part of the performance is her taking a shower. So part of it is going to be made of leather, with just the legs and hands and head are made out of wood. All the rest - the breasts and backside - is from leather."

RP: How do you think your grandmother would feel about that?

"I think if she could know, she would very much be angry with me. But I think my mother will be very happy."