Inspirations from Puppet Theatre Zwickau
by Marek Waszkiel
The blog entry was originally written in Polish and translated by us. You can get to the original by clicking the button below.
Almost exactly a year ago, I went to the Puppentheater Zwickau to watch the virtual performance "Der Erlkönig", a short Goethe ballad prepared by an international team of artists led by Monika Gerboc. I was very impressed by this peculiar spectacle, which I described on this blog (see: https://www.marekwaszkiel.pl/2022/02/03/wirtualne-lalkarstwo-vr-360%cb%9a/). Recently, I repeated my trip to Zwickau, this time in connection with two events: Emanuel Geibel's virtual "The Gold Diggers" - another performance from the "German Ballads" series in VR 360° and the premiere of "Big Boys Don't Cry", directed by the co-creator of the already famous Spanish group Zero en Conducta, José Antonio Puchades Martinez (Putxa).
First, a few words about virtual puppetry. Little has changed in our geographic space over the past year. In fact, no one seems to have become interested in this technique, I haven't heard of any other performance, or even puppetry experiments. It seems that for repertory theaters the preparation of such performances is too laborious, and perhaps not very attractive, especially when their exploitation disrupts routine institutional habits; for young and upcoming creators - it's simply too expensive. Therefore, anyone who cares about discovering new puppetry spaces must go to Zwickau or count on the appearance of the German theater at one of the festivals (and it has already been present at several of them!).
The second experience of the puppeteers from Zwickau with VR 360° is different. Viewers use the same elements: headphones with stereo sound, VR goggles and a swivel chair to watch the events happening around us. Of course, the show itself is different. This time, the creators were inspired by "The Gold Diggers", a ballad by Emanuel Geibel, a 19th-century German author, about the journey of three friends in search of a better life, who are transformed by found gold. So again, as in the whole series, the meeting of classical literature and the means of modern puppetry. The theme of the ballad provided a pretext to build a spectacle that tells a broader and deeper story about human nature. The puppetry techniques that is used in the show, made it possible to visualize the emotional states of the characters, their hidden thoughts and the whole internal drama that usually develops in the imagination, in invisible and usually tangled thoughts. The art of puppetry allows you to see them. And this is an added value that cannot be overestimated.
Viewers who encounter VR 360° for the first time will be truly stunned. The play opens with a scene in a small boat sailing on the water. We are in its central part; in front of us, on the bow and at arm's length, we see two masked figures. One sits on the bottom of the boat, clinging to the sides, the other stands behind him with a lantern held high, lighting the way. The players are in bright, tight leotards, and the character they play is given by huge, caricatured, sharply carved, brutal masks with disheveled hair and exaggerated elements of physiognomy. One (Hanna Daniszewska) has gigantic, protruding ears, a large round nose and chubby cheeks, huge feet with spread toes, similar hands on her hands, rounded and protruding buttocks fastened at the hips; the angular head of the second (Agata Słowik), with a grotesquely elongated occiput, is supported by a body placed on the actress's torso, with clearly marked ribs and a kind of collar-hump on the back.
After a while, we hear a sound like an oar hitting the side of the boat from the back. We turn around and we see the third character (Calum MacAskill), wearing an equally large angular mask on his head, a huge, muscular torso and arms enlarging the actor's body monstrously. In his hand he holds not an oar, but a spade, with which he marks the movement of the boat. One can really be frightened by this company of "friends", although we are incognito among these wild human figures.
In the next scenes we move to the top of the hill. We watch our characters climbing a steep slope from above, we watch the wonderful view, we admire the landscape of the sea and islands, and at the same time the struggle of three explorers, sitting comfortably and safely in the summit crater. And in this space, further scenes take place. Here, among the stones, the wanderers find gold, perform many different activities - breaking stones, bringing wood for a bonfire, striking fire, sometimes the VR 360° technology is used, although it does not seem necessary. Its capabilities are revealed by the scene of euphoria after finding gold, demonstrating the joy of all prospectors, multiplied and processed in the virtual space around the viewer. The visual expression of these images enters the aesthetics of show business, and although I am a bit repulsed by this convention, I understand its use.
After all, this is where the part that seems to me to be the most interesting element of the performance begins, especially in the theatrical production. Stunned by the treasure they find, the characters quickly come to the conclusion that they could become the owners of more of it if they didn't have to share it. Envy, vanity, selfishness and greed begin to sprout in each of them. And they are theatrical! The ego of one presses so hard on the muscular torso, eats it up inside so much that the character has to cut out a piece of his own belly, revealing a growing intruder that feeds on the flesh and blood of its owner. The aggressive thoughts of another lucky man, unable to fit in his head, bursts it and a small figure emerges through a small window in the back of the head, which will take over his criminal desires. The third seeker will give birth to his demon like a child, cradle it in his hand, and then let it grow and take over himself. All these creatures are animancers. Children's heads grow on the snake's body and connect to six handles. They are human and inhuman at the same time. They are brilliantly put into action and build a magically visible world of metaphor. At times you can see the hands of the animators dressed in black, and that's even good, because after all we are watching a theatrical performance, not the effect of computer and technological tricks.
Human greed leads to a catastrophe, but it can be shown so magically and naturally in the theater, in the theater of animate matter, because this genre is used in the Zwickau puppeteer show, inspired by Emanuel Geibel's ballad, with dramaturgy by Dominique Suhr, directed by Monika Gerboc. The scenography was designed by Agnieszka Wielewska, the music was written by Daniel Špiner, and the construction of the puppets was done by Alina Domin and Calum MacAskill.
In a few months, Zwickau will host the third and last ballad in the 360° VR version - "Melusine" by Georg Trakl, staged by Monika Gerboc and Bulgarian scenographer Marieta Golomehova. Then it will probably be possible to more precisely comment on the practice and future of 360° virtual puppetry.
The puppeteers from Zwickau also showed the premiere version of the new show entitled "Big boys don't cry", an original proposal by the Spanish artist, Putxa, the author of the screenplay and director at the same time. His theatrical achievements culminated in the exciting performance Eh Man Hé. The mechanics of the soul (see https://www.marekwaszkiel.pl/2021/07/16/eh-man-he-lalkarskie-arcydzielo/) have been fascinating for several years. The actor's movement, dance and animation of puppets meet in Putxa's realizations with a masterful performance. It was therefore difficult to give up participation in the artist's latest premiere, especially since it was the first time he had worked with an institutional theatre.
An intimate performance was created, with small table puppets by Ángel Navarro and music by Jorge Da Rocha, performed by three actors from Puppentheater Zwickau: Hanna Daniszewska - a graduate of the Białystok Theater Academy, Kateryna Bondarenko - until recently a student of the Theater University in Kharkov, today almost a graduate of the Białystok School, and Scottish actor Calum MacAskill. And although for people who do not know German well, the literary layer is a serious impediment to the full reception of the performance, I am convinced that no one works with a puppet like Putxa
"Big Boys Don't Cry" tells the story of eight-year-old Pablo, who cannot cope with his own emotions. Brought up in a stereotypical society, he got used to the idea, instilled in him by his father, that boys do not show feelings, weakness, do not cry. His never-shown tears, which he is unable to show, accumulate in a darkening cloud hanging over the boy's head (a beautiful theatrical metaphor very realistically shown on stage). This cloud must eventually overflow, cause a storm. Pablo sets off on a journey and thanks to the characters he meets along the way and the experiences he has gathered (e.g. a visit to the cemetery, meeting with Death), he finally discovers that all feelings are important, including those uncomfortable, filled with fear or pain, and when finally a tear appears on his cheek, he can go home.
The delicate matter of this spectacle manifests itself in the certainly attractive dialogues to which the audience reacts vividly, but the work of the actors and their actions with the puppets is just as much fun. Sometimes it's hard to believe that the great design of the puppet and its excellent animation can amaze. Pablo, interpreted by Hanna Daniszewska, is often supported by the other two actors in terms of animation. And although the light mainly brings out the puppet, we see all the animators changing their positions around the figures, depending on his actions. The plasticity of the movement of the puppet and animators is unique. One can really ask oneself whether it is Pablo's movements that transfer his energy to the animators' bodies, or whether their movements are taken over by the puppet. An association comes to mind with animation in Japanese ningyō-jōruri, i.e. with total perfection, but in bunraku the animators' bodies remain motionless, it is about the common rhythm of breathing, in Putxa’s performance - about the common rhythm of breathing and the same flexibility of bodies: living and animate. It is truly fascinating to watch the various variations of this human-puppet ballet. It's a method we admired in Zero en Conducta's "Mechanics of the Soul", but I'd never seen it in an actor with a table puppet before.
Of course, there are more such animation attractions, starting with the excellent interpretation of the role of Gracita, a basketball champion, performed by Calum MacAskill. Kateryna Bondarenko's action with a basketball mounted on a rigid rod, which is like a "living" figure, is a masterpiece. This is a textbook example of working with an animant, the essence of contemporary puppetry. A great, though completely different, animation principle is used by MacAskill and Bondarenko in the animation of the lame Death leaning on a staff. The actors, moreover, go to great lengths on stage, and as needed and situational possibilities, they participate in the animation of all stage characters.
The language barrier and the complexity of the literary structure of the performance prevented me from fully receiving it, which I regret, but the German audience will surely enjoy this latest work from Puppentheater Zwickau. Well, and once again I am confirmed in the otherwise sad reflection that you have to leave the borders of Poland to meet puppetry (of course there are exceptions). On the way to Zwickau, I saw some of our latest projects in the so-called puppet theaters. Of course it was worth it. I will keep in my memory a few beautiful roles, many images, a handful of emotions, especially from nice meetings with colleagues I have not seen for a long time, but for my puppetry interests I have not obtained new materials. Pity!