Puppet Power: look who’s pulling the strings

By Victoria Khroundina | May 12, 2013

There is a common misconception that puppetry is merely a form of entertainment intended for children – a fun and educational way to explain complex concepts or stories. Puppetry was important throughout the Ottoman Empire in the form of ‘shadow play’, which involved flat, cut-out figures held between a light source and a translucent screen, with a single puppet-master voicing all the characters representing the major ethnic and social groups. Two of the most popular characters were Karagöz and Hacivat: Karagöz stood for the common man (uneducated but direct and honest), whereas Hacivat represented the educated class and spoke Ottoman languages, often with a poetic flair. They told stories of good and evil, of honour and betrayal, of sensibility and impulsiveness, and yes, their audiences were mostly juvenile.

But, as with any art form, puppetry has changed tremendously over the years, globally and in Turkey. At the turn of the 20th century puppet theatre started making a move away from its folk roots and suitable-for-all-ages storytelling and evolving into something that could speak to adult audiences and reinvigorate the high-art tradition of theatre. The conventional marionettes, glove puppets and shadow puppets gave way to contemporary forms of puppetry, using not only puppets but aspects of the actors themselves.

The 16th International Puppetry Festival (May 8–19, 2013) encapsulates these, reflecting the dilution of the outdated conception of puppetry as entertainment for children using dolls hanging from strings, and challenging popular perceptions of the meaning of traditional puppetry. The question the festival poses – of the puppeteers themselves as much as their audiences – is ‘Are you into puppetry?’

At this year’s festival I have so far seen two very different performances, which seemed to me to mirror the ying-yang of puppetry theatre: one highlighted puppetry and its many possible forms; the other used puppets simply as extensions of the actors. The one thing they had in common was that neither performance hid the actors but rather used them as part of the narrative.

The first performance I saw was Dark Cabaret, by Turkey’s Ahşap Çerçeve Puppet Theatre. This show combines various techniques in a very pleasing adult cabaret. A trio of actors dressed all in black use their own bodies – the show opens with them attaching red noses to their knees to construct three disagreeable musicians – as well as table puppets, life-size puppets, and a spot of shadow play to present a fusion of music, colours and rhythm.

Ahşap Çerçeve Puppet Theatre’s Dark Cabaret

Without words – just a few decorations and creative use of ultra-violet light – the show is a mish-mash of international musical numbers (from Italian classics to Swan Lake to tango to gypsy sounds and hints of a didgeridoo) performed in a flamboyant and sometimes comedic style. There were also interesting examples of the bankaru technique, a traditional Japanese theatre form calling for at least three actors to manipulate each puppet and in which the manipulators appear openly, in full view of the audience. As one actor made a puppet with his hand, the other two put costumes on it or added body parts. The use of this technique elevated the show from a mere feast for the eyes and ears into a testament to the power of movement and teamwork.

The second performance, Hôtel de Rive, was a collaboration between Germany’s Figüren Theater Tübingen, France’s Bagages de Sable, and Switzerland’s Theater Stadelhofen. This show, which could not have been more different in flavour from Dark Cabaret, was based on four texts by Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss Surrealist painter and sculptor. The production, inspired by Giacometti’s writings, sculptures and drawings, presents a hypnotic landscape, in which an actor taking centre stage portrays Giacometti, with the puppets as a secondary feature.

Hôtel de Rive: 'Giacometti’ in his hotel room in Geneva

The stories are centred around the artist’s stay at the Hôtel de Rive in Geneva during the Second World War, where his room was also his studio space. Using tall, skinny miniature puppets, reminiscent of Giacometti’s sculptures (which were heavily influenced by Etruscan art) as reflections of the artist’s alter ego, the audience is transported into his subconscious. An empty jacket depicting Giacometti’s visions of Siberia, giant pipes, a spider attacking his face, a life-size flower dancing at the Le Sphinx club in Paris, goggle-eyed metal figurines reminiscent of Alex’s nightmarish experiences in A Clockwork Orange, and the concluding skeleton-like puppets dancing around Giacometti covered in a white sheet are perhaps figurative representations of his conceptual thoughts, feelings and desires.

Other performances that I will be seeing at the festival include the Austrian Christoph Bochdansky’s All About the World (May 14), in which the universe itself explains why the world was made; Kaplan, by the theatre company Banyan, a Mexican interpretation of Turkish shadow theatre (May 16, 17 and 18); and Turkey’s own Kadro Pa’s debut, Macbeth in the Kitchen (May 15), a unique take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth played out using kitchen objects.

Christoph Bochdansky’s All About the World

There are plenty of shows geared to children as well, including a number of performances from the İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediyesi City Theatre (IBB City Theatre) and Hayalbaz Oyun Atölyesi’s The Town Musicians of Bremen. And I am looking forward to an exhibition, to be displayed all around İstiklal Caddesi, from the Italian photographer Mauro Foli, who has been travelling with his mobile studio for more than 25 years, taking black-and-white photos of puppet artists around the world. A workshop introducing the visual theatrical language of Philippe Genty, a French pioneer of contemporary puppet theatre performances, also looks fascinating.

Performances are on until May 19 and tickets can be purchased directly from the e-ticket section on the festival’s website. The festival is being held in venues both sides of the Bosphorus. The easiest way to navigate the website is to visit PERFORMANCES in the menu bar first, then PROGRAMME. For the exhibition and workshop, see EVENTS. You can also download the programme. For further information: +90 212 267 5444, info@biletinial.com

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