Entertainment for dummies

The staff, students and craftspeople at the Israel Puppet Center are driven by an almost missionary zeal to advance the art of puppetry and to spread it to every nook, cranny and corner of the country

Dummy521 (photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
(photo credit: CARL HOFFMAN)
In a letter to his wife in 1780, at the height of the American Revolutionary War, John Adams wrote, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”
Among the many things that make our embattled State of Israel so remarkable and unique is the fact that while we too must study politics and war, we simultaneously have people also studying painting, poetry, music, porcelain and... puppetry.
Not only do we have three full-time schools of puppetry in Israel – along with several other places that provide both adults and children with instruction in the art – but also a world-renowned center for puppetry, consisting of a puppetry school, a puppet museum, a 160-seat puppet theater, and an annual international puppet festival. This center, one of the few of its kind in the world, is located not in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa, but in the ever-surprising city of Holon, which also hosts a world-class museum of design, one of the few cartoon museums on Earth, and annually runs what must be the largest Purim parade anywhere on this planet.
The Israel Puppet Center occupies a small compound of buildings tucked away on an otherwise unremarkable street in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. The compound, called “The Domain” by the center’s nine fulltime office and maintenance staff, 12 puppeteers in the museum and 25 teachers in the puppetry school, was formerly a high school.
“It was abandoned and stood empty for four years,” says Ilan Savir, the center’s artistic director and general CEO. “It became a sort of center for drug addicts and thieves. And then the Holon municipality wanted to do something with this place, which was standing in the middle of a neighborhood. That’s how we puppeteers got hold of it. So we now have what we might call the ‘the Vatican’ of puppetry in Israel.”
Savir, a puppeteer since childhood, is not an easily recognized celebrity, but his work has been known to television audiences in Israel since 1993. He was a key member of Hahartzufim, Israel’s popular political satire TV puppet show, and has logged in thousands of hours in children’s programs and TV commercials, as performer, coach and consultant.
On the day of our visit to the Center, several groups of kindergarten children are in the midst of conducted tours and workshops, led by museum puppeteers.
Today’s theme is puppetry and music.
Says Savir, “We call this our ‘Puppetour Program,’ and the people who run it are graduates from our school. They must be puppeteers. They must have puppeteering skills. It can’t be just anyone who graduated from art studies. They have to know how to manipulate puppets.
“Like ballet, puppet manipulation is a kind of language. And each year we challenge our puppeteers to learn different techniques, like Indian marionettes, which are manipulated with bare hands, with the strings attached to the fingers.
This type of thing is not that common in the western world, and our puppeteers learn it. We teach them how to manipulate mouth puppets, like those used in television. They need to be able to do this with both hands, which is very complicated.
But that’s the main thing about being a puppeteer here at the center.”
We watch puppeteer Liora Shukron entertain a kindergarten class with a large furry red puppet, to accompanying dramatic music. A graduate of the center’s school, and a puppeteer at the museum, Shukrun performed her first solo show last July at the center’s annual puppet festival, staging her own version of Little Red Riding Hood, and now gives puppet shows all over Israel. Now 35, Shukron looks at least 10 years younger.
“All puppeteers look young,” Savir informs me, tongue in cheek. Shukron laughs and adds, “That’s why I went into this profession.”
LATER IN the day, we will be privileged to watch Shukron demonstrating the art of shadow puppetry to another kindergarten class in a darkened corner of the museum that functions as a shadow-puppet minitheater, and then putting an exquisitely made Indian marionette through its paces on a portable stage in the main museum gallery.
“Once they graduate the school, nothing is waiting for these puppeteers out there in Israel,” says Savir. “There are no big groups they can audition for. Either they form their own one- or two-person troupe, or they simply do something else.
We keep the best students here. We can offer them employment, and they can continue to develop.”
The chosen puppeteers are then showcased at the center’s annual festival in July, and are then “given to the world,” Savir says, as they go out to perform around the country and the world.
As the children watch, clearly enraptured by Shukron’s performance, Savir informs us that the story will be abruptly paused, allowing the children to proceed to a “dirty classroom,” where they will engage in a puppet-making workshop.
They will then complete the story themselves back in the museum, performing their own puppet play with their own newly-made puppets.
We wander into one of these “dirty classrooms,” where puppetry teacher Shelly Friedland has some 20 kindergarten children engaged in a puppetmaking workshop. The children are arranged around a long table covered with everything from large scraps of colored paper to little plastic bottles of white glue. As Friedland explains how to hold a puppet and make it move and talk, it is impossible to determine who is more excited and having a better time, she or the children.
“I have been here 10 years,” she informs us, smiling broadly. “This is my second home.”
Everyone we meet at the center seems to be driven by an almost missionary zeal to advance the art of puppetry and to spread it to every nook, cranny and corner of the country. This is particularly evident among people involved with the center’s puppetry school, which exists primarily to train puppeteers. This, according to Savir, is not as easy as it seems.
“We try to first teach traditional puppetry.
You can’t be innovative if you don’t know the roots. And you must first specialize in the roots, otherwise you’re working in an empty space. You believe that you’ve developed something, but it was developed years ago. And also, being a puppeteer and a puppet coach in television, I get to meet a lot of puppeteers.
And my observation is that today’s puppeteers do not know how to manipulate puppets.
“They know how to do visual theater and work with images and have novel ideas. But if they need to take a puppet and do things with it that will get an audience excited, or make an audience cry, then there’s a big problem there. Their approach is more intellectual, ours is more emotional.”
This point is underscored as we enter a small theater dedicated to the teaching of acting, while a class is in progress.
This is not stage acting we are seeing, but specifically acting for puppetry.
Teacher Yevgeny Kushnir has two people performing in front of the class, trying to get them into the heads and hearts of puppet characters, encouraging them to think and feel like the puppets they are learning to manipulate.
“A puppeteer is an actor,” Savir whispers as we watch the two students emote. “It doesn’t matter that he does it through his hand. He must have acting qualities to project emotions through the medium of a puppet.”
The center’s school also teaches puppetry as an educational tool, and has a division known as Studio 5, which offers students a two-year program in puppetry for use in therapy. The students learn and do various projects, like going out into hospitals and prisons.
One student recently conducted a project with divorced fathers and their children, helping them bond more effectively by getting the fathers and children to speak to each other through puppets.
“You can apply therapeutic puppetry toward many, many things,” says Savir.
“Puppetry is good for anyone, because once you speak through a pupªpet, it’s not you speaking. It’s the puppet.”
The center is particularly proud of Studio 5 students whose projects have involved the elderly. These students have brought the art of puppetry into several geriatric day-care centers, with notable success.
“For older people it’s a way of living a dream again,” Savir says. “There was one elderly Holocaust survivor who told for the first time about a Nazi officer who had helped her escape. It was the very first time she had told this story. She made a puppet with his face.
She held it and told the story. Later on she said, ‘Now I can tell this to my family.’ Puppetry can be a very powerful tool for healing.”
Reflecting its location in Holon, the city that annually hosts Israel’s oldest and largest Purim parade, the school also teaches “the art of the carnival.”
Students learn to design, construct and move large parade puppets.
THE CENTER’S museum is a delight to anyone interested in puppets. The gallery is a virtual riot of puppets from all over the world, with everything from European Punch and Judy figures to marionettes from India and Nepal, Bunraku puppets from Japan, as well as wooden Wayan Golek puppets and leather Wayang Kulit shadow puppets from Indonesia.
The museum’s purpose is not only to display puppets – many of which were donated by puppeteers from their private collections – but also to research the art of puppetry. Temporary exhibitions focus on various aspects of this fascinating subject. The museum’s current exhibition focuses on what might be called the “puppet aliya,” detailing the arrival of puppeteers and their puppets to prestate Israel from Central and Eastern Europe.
Museum founder and director Miri Peeri is presently working on what will be the first book ever published on the history of puppetry in this country.
Considering the oddness of the profession, the scarcity of employment opportunities and resultant paucity of income, one might well ask why anyone in his or her right mind would want to be a puppeteer. Savir, a puppeteer since early childhood, provides some insight.
“I was doomed at birth. And I’ve been doing this professionally since I was 12. And by professionally, I mean I got money, performing in front of others, at birthday parties and things like that. I did this until I was 18 and joined the army. And once I was out, I started to perform again.”
Asked why he is so driven by puppetry, Savir answers, “I don’t know.
It’s an itch. I will donate my mind to the Weizmann Institute, and they will search and try to find the answer. I think it’s a way of communicating with the world, but a safer way. I don’t have to look the audience in the eye. I’m hiding behind something.”
Is the ability to ‘hide behind something’ what makes someone want to be a puppeteer? Savir thinks a moment and replies, “In a way. But that’s not what it’s really about. A pianist does not hide behind the piano. A film director is not hiding, even though he is not on camera.
A puppet is a medium, a tool, for expression. But I don’t look at it too deeply. I think that once the mystery is gone, part of the creativity will be gone too.”
As we prepare to leave, we ask Savir one final question: what would he do with his life if puppetry was no longer an option? He is silent for a very long moment before replying, “I really don’t know.”
The Israel Puppet Center is at 13 David Remez Street, Holon. For information about visits, opening hours, the school, museum and all programs, call (03) 651- 6848 or visit www.puppetcenter.co.il.