Can puppetry save the world?
I was recently gifted a book by an American author Johanna Smith, which deals with the use of puppets in education. The book is called Puppetry in Theatre and Arts Education and has a beautiful subtitle: Head, Hands and Heart. The most beautiful of all is her inscription: “Livija! Let's save the world through puppetry!” No, I don’t think that the woman lost her mind and sees herself as some sort of puppetry Jesus. She is just aware of the specific power of puppetry, which no other art or discipline has. Her students are lucky to learn and experience it from a young age.
Puppetry has existed since time immemorial. And for almost all of that time, puppeteers were at the bottom of the social ladder. Unappreciated, harassed by the great and powerful, but loved and happily experienced by their kindred masses. And always resourceful. They’ve been through a lot, they found ways to conjure dinner even when they ran out of money (maybe not always in a strictly legal way), they had to learn how to fight for their own language (“True, I speak German, but my puppets do not!”), they would marry into a puppetry family if that helped them become professional puppeteers, they would circumvent various laws to survive and continue to pursue their craft. They were brave, sharp-tongued and their puppets said all that real people were not allowed to say. They always showed great endurance and resourcefulness. The powerful wanted to silence them, so they were forbidden from using dialogue in their plays. They started performing monologue plays. When they were forbidden from speaking altogether, they wrote the text on posters. When they were forbidden from singing, they would sit among the crowd and sing the text from their seats, often accompanied by a pleased audience.
Over the last few minutes of our existence in this world, in the 20th century, everything changed. Puppetry became art. Theatres are being built, new forms are created, we are open to experimenting, serious critiques and serious theoretical papers are being written. In the 20th century, PIF was also different. And now it is … different. We manage, but it’s hard to have so much, only to lose it.
It seems that this introduction is, unusually, quite serious. It must be the times we’re living in.
Puppeteers and their plays continue to give hope, as seen at this year’s PIF. As long as there are puppeteers who do not pursue authority and power, but are willing to invest days, nights and months into their plays, to meticulously create the set and to hone every detail of animation and direction, to think and feel and to take on the problems of their time, puppetry will continue to flourish and the audience will think and feel and cry and laugh along with the show. It will live with it.
This PIF also gives an overview of contemporary puppetry, it shows that the classics continue to mesmerise, but that new forms also continue to emerge, accepted with open arms. The plays will entertain us, make us laugh, make us feel silly, even sadden us and make us think. Some of them will deal with timeless topics, such as the one about wasting time, or another also very poetic play that will ask a philosophical question in a child-friendly way: “What if I’m not there?” (As one hedgehog asked his best friend, his forever friend, the bear.) They will show us that we can be the heroes of our own puppetry story and that we can fight for it.
There is also hope with the new puppetry directors, just emerging from the Academy of Arts and Culture in Osijek.
As the old Latins would say: In spe.
Livija Kroflin, PhD, Associate Professor, the Editor of the official PIF program