Miroslav Trejtnar on teaching the Czech art of puppetry to international students

For the tenth year in a row, a small workshop in the Prague neighbourhood of Vršovice is hosting a group of students from the US, India, Australia and other countries who come to learn how to make traditional Czech marionettes. The man who runs the courses and who teaches his international students everything they need to know about puppets is Miroslav Trejtnar, our guest in this edition of One on One. When I visited his workshops, the course was halfway trough and the students had just begun carving their puppets, which as Mr Trejtnar says it’s one of the most exiting stages of the programme.

Miroslav TrejtnarMiroslav Trejtnar “Carving is usually the most popular part of the workshop. We spend three, four or five days carving, and it’s always the most interesting part when students create the puppet’s character; they create the design they dreamt of before they came.

“When this is finished and the puppet is carved, they paint them and make costumes for them with our teachers. Then we put strings on the puppets and we make the controllers, and their puppets become alive. So that’s also a very exciting time when the students first manipulate them. We have teachers, professional puppeteers who teach them how to manipulate them, how to walk and sit and move the puppets. And at the end of the workshop, the students make a short show, about 20 or 30 minutes long, with their newly made puppets. So it’s really a complex process.”

Do all the puppets match the final show? What happens when they all the characters are different – from different eras, cultures and environment? How do you work with them?

“That’s actually a very exciting moment. We have students from all over the world – the US, Japan, Australia, Ireland, Italy, Iran, Iraq, and so on, and during the workshop, they work on a story. The teacher of manipulation, who is in charge in that part of the programme, puts the story together with the students which has to be adapted so that all the characters are able to take part. So we have a soldier, a princess, a king, and they are all in the story. When it’s all ready, everybody is in it enjoying themselves. Usually it’s a lot of fun.”

Who comes to your workshop? Are they just interested in puppets or are they professional or aspiring puppeteers?

Puppetry Students of Miroslav Trejtnar (2007)Puppetry Students of Miroslav Trejtnar (2007) “It’s a mix of people. We usually have young university and theatre school students or designers but we also have professional puppeteers who want to improve; they work with hand puppets or a different technology but they don’t know how to build these European-style marionettes we teach here. So these people come because they want to use these puppets in a show they plan, and they come with a typical character they want to make and they later make more at home. And then we also have people who never did anything like it but they simply interested. They might be in a period of life they want to change or try something new and different. So it’s a mix.”

The Czech puppet tradition is very old and rich. What role does puppeteering play in the contemporary Czech theatre?

“Two hundred years ago, it was important to revive the language and to build the nation, so theatre had that kind of role. We don’t need to do that today but we have kept the traditions – schoolchildren regularly – twice a year or so – go see puppet shows to a professional puppet theatre, in Prague at the Minor Theatre and smaller groups or single puppeteers come to schools and kindergartens. And everybody accepts this; teachers and directors invite these groups, they have budgets for them, so it works like this. There are also professional groups for adults, so it’s not only for children. Today, puppeteering is very open for any style. You can these days perform with objects, with video projections, with anything really.”

Is this specific for the Czech Republic or does it happen elsewhere, too?

“I can say that central Europe has these kinds of puppet traditions; it’s probably less true for America and Australia and other continents where puppets have not traditionally been built and used to perform so much. But central Europe – the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany – as well as the Netherlands, Belgium, France, they have really rich puppet traditions. When I go to puppet festivals, I can still see experimental theatre productions with objects, puppets, masks, pantomime, music, all of it mixed together. What is specifically Czech is that it’s really part of education; that we really send children to puppet theatres and people accept it as a normal part of culture.”

How have the characters developed over the centuries? There is this iconic marionette character – Kasperle or Joker – is he still around?

“Not so often, definitely not in experimental theatre. But he’s still featured in some typical plays for children, and you still find him sometimes. But he has changed since 100 years ago. He used be like Mister Punch; an adult man with a beard, making dirty jokes throughout the show. That does not happen any more; today, he’s more like a child. I mean he’s carved as a child and he also performs as a child; he’s much younger and his jokes are not as dirty any longer; now he’s more engaging for children. So he’s changed – over the last century, he’s grown younger, not older.”

You also run workshops where you teach people to design puppets for animation in film. What are the perspectives of this particular field, given the rise of computer animation?

“The Czech Republic has rich puppet traditions but also those of animation. Jiří Trnka is well-known around the world as a film director and animator, and this tradition is still here. We didn’t have computers here because it was too expensive – and it still too expensive to make films with computer technology here. No one will be able to finance this because the market is too small and they would never get their investment back.

“So we still keep the less expensive technology of armatures – the special puppets for animation. Thanks to this, we have become nearly the last country where this is still alive. Today, we have a lot of students coming from abroad who are actually fed up with the 3D computer animation. They want to build their puppets, use them and touch them with their own hands, so these people are interested in learning the traditional technology. For this workshop, we have mostly students of computer animation or designers who want to try something different. It’s very successful.”

You and your wife have been organizing a festival called Teatrotoč which brought puppeteers and street performers to Prague. The festival was to be held for the tenth year this year, but it’s not on. What happened?

“The original idea was to bring theatre to the streets of Prague and offer it for free as entertainment in the summer because that’s when most theatres close down. Visitors to Praue from the Czech Republic and abroad have no chance to see puppetry or other kinds of theatre. So we wanted to make the centre of Prague more alive, just like in Vienna, Paris or London – there are street performers everywhere, people watch them and everybody’s happy.

“Our idea was, we do all the legal procedures, we arrange the space and do the paperwork, and we invite people. We asked the city of Prague to help with the budget but it never happened, we never got enough money for it. We organized a three-day festival for free; we had some 10,000 people coming to see the shows – but it was all on us, my wife and me, and our family budget, and it was not possible to continue any more. So we are very sorry but we had to stop.”