Not just child's play

For 25 years, the Train Theater has produced sophisticated, artistic, whimsical and poetic puppet shows for children and adults.

puppets 88 (photo credit: )
puppets 88
(photo credit: )
Most people think of Punch and Judy shows or Sesame Street. Or even home-made sock puppets. They imagine presentations with simplistic plots and crude artistry - cute, designed only for very young audiences with short attention spans. The Train Theater in Jerusalem is determined to defy this stereotype. And this week, as part of the Israel Festival, a special exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater, "The Puppets' Bow," will celebrate 25 years of creative puppetry produced and performed by the Train Theater. Says Noga Arad-Ayalon, curator at the Jerusalem Theater, "This is a very appropriate venue for such an exhibition because the Jerusalem Theater is the largest and most popular performance space in Jerusalem. We want to give the Train Theater a place of honor and we are proud to have them." The Train Theater was first conceived in 1981 when Michael Schuster, one of the original four founders, saw an advertisement for an old boxcar in the newspaper. Inspired to purchase it, but not sure what to do with it after acquisition, he thought vaguely that he would put it on a mountain in the Galilee. When he mentioned the half-baked idea to an artist friend, Alina Ashbel, she suggested that they bring it to Jerusalem and turn it into a puppet theater. The two approached their friends Hadas Ophrat and Mario Kotliar, who were already involved in art and theater, about the project, and the four split the price of the boxcar and obtained permission to erect it in Liberty Bell Park. Their first performance was - admittedly - a Punch and Judy show, performed through the windows of the wagon. Since those early days, the Train Theater has expanded its themes, methods and venues. Today, the Train Theater no longer performs in the now aged and rickety boxcar, although it still holds many of its performances on the north side of Liberty Bell Garden. "When we began," explains Ophrat, one of the original founders, "everyone thought puppetry and hand puppets were for children and not adults. We have explored serious subjects, pushed the boundaries, and entered new realms including therapy and education. Now people know differently." Although originally self-financed, the founders of the Train Theater thought big, worked hard, gained popularity and soon received myriad attention from benefactors. Early on, the Jerusalem Foundation became their first supporters. Later, the group received funding from the Culture Ministry. It is now also funded by the Jerusalem Municipality, a number of private foundations and, of course, ticket sales from its more than 1,000 performances each year. Performance topics have ranged from classic fairy-tales, told by a life-size grandmother puppet, to the life of Braille, performed entirely with black and white paper, to the Holocaust, which is treated in an animated diary account. Shows deal with serious concepts which have educational importance for children such as fear, love and death. In one show, the female puppeteer floats above the stage and her enormous skirt parts to form the curtains; in another, set and puppets are made entirely of origami. For another, the puppets are constructed exclusively from bathroom appliances; for yet another, Renaissance-era foot-operated puppets allow the puppeteer to play a flute and operate the puppets simultaneously. In one performance, the puppets are the hands of the puppeteer himself, painted for each performance. They have performed in Hebrew, English, Arabic and French throughout the world, including an African village, the pediatric oncology ward of Hadassah Hospital, Tent City during the Black Panther demonstrations in 1990 and a bus that roamed the country during the Gulf War. What makes puppetry such a versatile, expressive art form? Ophrat explains, "A puppet is a model of a human being. It can be tiny, like finger puppets, or enormous. Because it is a model, it is a metaphor. The distance between the real and the unreal is what makes it interesting. The dynamics change with the subject matter and the media. And there's the puppeteer, who is the real, unseen drama of the stage." Consider, for example, the story of Yosef, performed many times by the Train Theater. Yosef knows he's a puppet, and he is resentful of being manipulated, sometimes refusing to be operated, other times angered when his operator removes her hand and he can't move. He continually tries to seize control of his own fate. Or another performance, in which a puppet chats with the puppeteer's pregnant belly, the animated object given voice juxtaposed with the human being who does not yet have one. What makes a good puppeteer? It is not that one has to be a skilled actor, affirms Ophrat, but it is imperative to have a strong sensitivity to rhythm and movement - to handle the puppets well. In the last century, especially, he explains, it has become popular for the puppeteer to become part of the show. Often, the puppeteer is a second character, alongside his puppet. He must be able to play both roles simultaneously. Although this physical coordination requires a great deal of practice - common wisdom holds that it takes 30 years of training and practice to become a master puppeteer - it is important to be born with the talent. "Just by watching you in the kitchen, I can tell within five minutes whether or not you are a puppeteer," claims Ophrat. Physical manipulation is not the only prerequisite for a talented puppeteer, however. A certain personality is also required. Ophrat explains, "The right personality is one in which you do not stress your own ego in front of that of the puppet; you allow the puppet to come forward and do not overwhelm him. If you put your ego too far forward, you are an actor and not a puppeteer. If you have the ability to remain behind the puppet, then you can infuse it with your own energy." The relationship between puppet and puppeteer is complex. Especially since it is more common today for the puppeteer to be visibly and not just audibly part of the performance, as an independent character, relates Ophrat, the dynamic between the puppet and puppeteer is often the subtext of the puppet show. This dynamic is different for every show, and it is what gives each show its unique flavor. The puppeteer-puppet dynamic is alluded to in the title of the current exhibition at the Jerusalem Theater. "The Puppets' Bow" to thank and show deference to their operators. For the exhibition, several platforms have been sculpted as hands, ears and other parts of the body; on each of these, the curators have arranged almost 60 puppets and artifacts. Along the walls, 25 photographs depict "stations" on the 25-year journey of the Train Theater. Finally, a video documentary features interviews with the puppeteers, many of whom were in their 20s or 30s when the theater was founded and are now clearly middle-aged. "This is not a typical exhibition," notes producer Yael Maimoni. "It is exceptionally human and intelligently conceived. We are hoping to communicate feelings of warmth and love." The sculpted cupped palm, for example, will cradle Sleeping Beauty, supine against branches with blossoming roses. As whimsical and warm as the exhibition promises to be, it will also be tinged with a note of sadness. Many of the puppets on display have already been retired from service and will probably be discarded after the exhibition. One of the "downsides" of the Train Theater's success, now that it boasts more than 1,000 performances a year, is that it now has more puppets and sets than it can possibly store. This exhibition is a farewell performance, of sorts, for some of those beloved creations. Two additional events will mark the quarter-centennial of the Train Theater. In their well-known spirit of treating children as serious, thoughtful individuals, the Train Theater is producing and publishing a professional book for children about all aspects of puppetry. In addition, as part of the International Festival of Puppetry to be held this August in Jerusalem, they will sponsor a seminar on problems of memory and archival in puppetry. As much as the puppeteers take on serious topics, they don't shy away from humor. They love kids, and being zany with them, Ophrat explains, "We're all crazy, that's what's nice about us." "The Puppets' Bow" will be on display until June 15 at the Jerusalem Theater. Admission is free.