One of the great joys of the post-COVID constraint era is the ability to settle down in a comfy auditorium seat to enjoy the performing arts in their rightful milieu, happening there right before your eyes. However, in the case of puppet theater, that is a more layered artist and spectator affair, as it has been for some time.
Scrolling through the lineup of this year’s International Jerusalem Puppet Festival, the 31st edition of which takes place at Liberty Bell Park August 14-18, under the auspices of the Train Theater company, it is clear that the discipline is taking on an ever-expanding range of performative means of expression and disciplines.
To paraphrase a number from iconic multi-Grammy Award winning musical movie The Sound of Music, we’ll start from the very beginning, with the opening act. If the festival organizers were looking to kick off with a bang, judging by Sunday’s program they stand an excellent chance of achieving just that.
The alfresco curtain-raiser takes place in Liberty Bell Park, which is home to the new expansive and well-appointed Train Theater premises.
A feast for the eyes and ears at the Jerusalem Puppet Festival
The show offers a feast for the eyes and the ears, with a cast of skateboard hotshots doing their pyrotechnical thing in the dedicated park facilities as they whiz by every which way for an audience that, no doubt, will be all agog. That will be complemented by live music and a bunch of dancers and, eventually, a compelling slot by Argentinean puppeteer and virtuoso musician Santiago Moreno.
It sounds highly adventurous and seems like a complex undertaking in which, if things are not judiciously supervised, anything might happen at any given moment.
Guy Biran says he is fully aware of the minefield he and his siblings in entertaining arms are about to enter. He is well and truly up for the leap into the unknown.
“It is so gratifying to do something which you have no idea how it will work out in practice,” he says with a laugh.
“It is so gratifying to do something which you have no idea how it will work out in practice.”Guy Biran
AS ARTISTIC director of the opener, which, as a wordless work, neatly sidesteps any language or cultural dividers, Biran says he is looking forward to catching how the public reacts to what they see and hear in the park.
The family-oriented extravaganza, which is supported by the Mendel Institute, appeals to all ages and people from all walks of life and cultural leanings. Basically, Biran feels, it is an invitation to let one’s imagination run riot and a classic example of opting to being in the right place at the right time.
“The first great thing is that they chose to do this in the skate park,” he observes. “That already makes it really cool. It’s a onetime production, although they will put the show on twice in the same evening,” he notes.
“When I visited the location, it all came together. I suddenly had the feeling that it comes from a different planet. I suddenly had this sense of a bunch of guys joining [billionaire owner of a spaceflight operating company] Elon Musk and flying off to some planet for a party,” Biran chuckles.
If that is the order of the opening day, we are all in for one phantasmagoric time.
It also suggests that puppet theater and next week’s festival are moving ever deeper into the realms of hi-tech and nonhuman ways of presenting the fruits of the artists’ works.
So, how does that sit with patrons who, say, may be old enough to remember sitting on a beach as a kid and catching a Punch-and-Judy puppet show?
The latter, today, would be considered overtly non-PC, but in terms of production sophistication, still clearly sits snugly toward the more elemental end of the timeline of puppet artistry.
TRAIN THEATER artistic director Shahar Marom is keenly aware of the march of time, and how advances in computer-assisted manipulation are making ever-increasing inroads into the way we ingest and digest what we get from all areas of artistic endeavor. He says that professionals in his line of work who try to go head-to-head with the entertainment industry captains are engaged in a losing battle.
“Today the majority of [puppet] theaters operate all sorts of open manifest mechanisms. That’s part and parcel of the whole thing,” he states. “Today’s spectators are intelligent, and you can’t compete with the TV medium. The whole field of animation movies, with [companies like] Pixar and Walt Disney and movies on Netflix, they are so advanced.”
The puppet theater mindset appears to be something along the lines of, if you can’t beat them, circumnavigate them. “You can’t vie with those giants, so theater people take the opposite approach. They say, ‘Let’s have everything open, and we’ll put the person who operates the puppets in the spotlight.’”
That means we get to see how the magic works. There is no attempt whatsoever to try to dupe the audience, of any age, into believing, say, that a character in a production can really fly. The hand that lifts a puppet up above the stage base is clearly visible, and we can see exactly how the puppet gets from A to B.
Paradoxically, and delightfully, that does not seem to impinge on the enjoyment factor.
“The fact is that it is precisely because we are able to witness the person behind the art, and what they are doing, and see the simplicity of it all, that is the charm of the [puppet] theater,” says Marom. “The theater cannot compete with technology.”
Then again, there are ways and means of embracing that and incorporating it in a largely traditional art form, without getting into a baby and bathwater scenario.
“We have a project called Hibuk Mishpahti (Family Hug), whereby a family comes to play with cubes, against a backdrop, and with an actor. Then, when they leave, the family members discover they have been part of an animation creation in a fantasy world.
“We, in puppet theater, are trying to get closer to technology, but we always address the role of the person, the actor, and the human encounter. If we don’t do that, puppet theater will lose its place in the world.”
THAT WOULD be a veritable travesty, but Marom and his cohorts are meeting the technology-human interface head-on. The theme of this year’s festival is the future. The program features shows and special projects that consider the path ahead, the meaning of space, technology and the constant search for the human element in the digital age.
All told, there are some 35 productions for children and adults, with three shows from overseas. The opening event, like last year, also takes in multidisciplinary interactive fare, and the public can watch an augmented reality (AR)-assisted digital tour of the theater complex screened on one of the outside walls.
Other notable slots in next week’s agenda include a theatrical photography station with live animation, guided theatrical tours of the streets of the neighboring German Colony, circus and clown items, an illustration workshop and a cabaret show.
ONE OF THE overseas productions, “Choo.Choo. Whistle. Woof,” comes – and pardon the canine-leaning pun – with significant pedigree. The show will be performed by Naive Theater Liberec from the northern reaches of the Czech Republic. The Czechs have illustrious credentials when it comes to puppet theater and similar areas of creative pursuit, including rudimentarily operated animation.
The company name sets out the mindset stall from the outset. “[The word ‘naive’] expresses the mission and aspiration of the theater, to preserve a pure, child-friendly view of the world and to convey it in its work to its child audience,” explains Stanislav Doubrava, former artistic director of the Czech theater, current head of its international relations and a richly experienced puppeteer. It is in the latter capacity that he will participate in next week’s entertainment proceedings at Liberty Bell Park.
On his third working visit to Jerusalem, Doubrava brings his own seasoned artistry, as well as some pertinent genetic baggage, to the fray. Notwithstanding his long years of service, Doubrava is a firm believer in going with the progress flow.
“The theater must of course respond to social developments, which have been extremely rapid, especially in the last 30 years. In its current modern form, it uses all available artistic, technical and technological means, according to the needs of the creators. The spectrum of expressive means is extremely wide, and it would take us a long time to describe it.
“The important thing is that it is dominated by puppets,” he stresses, “but, at the same time, it is not just a ‘pimp’ theater, serving as a means of short-term entertainment for children.”
In “Choo.Choo. Whistle. Woof,” there is no attempt to pull the wool over the junior spectators’ eyes. What you see is what you palpably get. For Doubrava and his colleagues, showing the whole production kit and caboodle, warts and all, is a fundamental element of the way they go about their artistic business.
“It is normal that children are curious about how and what is technically happening in the performance, how the puppet works, and how it moves,” he states.
There are rewards to be had for the professionals, too. “The possibility of enchanting an audience with the magic of puppetry is always more appealing to the creator than contemplating familiarity with technique and technology. They [audience members] can learn this after the end of each performance, when we regularly invite them to visit backstage.”
Doubrava says he and the rest of the Czech crew are willing and able to take on new forms of expression, including technologically facilitated ones. “Theater must naturally respond to the changes around us and not get stuck in the past. We at the Naive Theater are lucky because we work with our own writers and with directors who have already grown up in new conditions and are not burdened by the old world. They are attracted to modern ways of performing puppet theater and often forge a new path for other puppeteers.”
Naturally, when your principal clientele is on the younger side, the issue of information transfer veers powerfully into play. Doubrava is alert to that.
“Every production should convey a certain message. It depends, of course, on the ability to perceive, on the age of the audience. In the case of the youngest ones, it is a positive emotional experience.”
That is relevant for the current production. “[For smaller children] in the case of “Choo.Choo” it is about friendship and overcoming fear and with the desire to find a lost friend. In the case of the older ones, perhaps a modern take on the theme of good and evil.”
The Czech may be keen to put out more than just quality entertainment, but he says he prefers the softly-softly approach, despite the more aggressive money-spinning fare out there.
“It is always an attempt to lead children to knowledge through artistic means, not pedagogical ones. This, in my opinion, belongs to the school and the family.
“Above all, our task is to create a performance capable of cultivating children’s taste, which is threatened by commercial pressures from all sides. In short, to help them a little, so that in the future they can distinguish between kitsch and commerce and a work of art, not only in the theater.” Amen to that.
Other shows to look out for include Renana Raz’s risibly titled “The Most Boring Show in the World,” “My Grandmother’s Showcase,” by Liat Shabtai, for the younger crowd, the Jerusalem premiere of “Jonathan, the Effective Detective,” by Maayan Resnick, based on the eponymous book by David Grossman, and Train Theater original “Louisa,” by Iris Domany. The latter is a story about the exceptional, and acceptance of the other, which combines live video, animation, puppet manipulation, acting and live music. ❖
For tickets and more information: *4524 and traintheater.co.il