Waiting for a train among puppets


Masarykovo nadrazi train station in Prague is not exactly the most poetic of places. You hardly raise your eyes to admire the beauty of the grand Empire-style building from the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. You rather watch your step and try to get on your train or out of the station as quickly as possible in order to escape the noise of the slot machines from the bars, loud pop music from the cheap eateries and the looks of the people who usually hang around railway stations in big cities. But for a couple of days in July, the central hall put on a more friendly face and filled with sounds other than the usual noise of a railway station, the screeching of metal against metal as the trains brake to a stop, announcements on the public address system and people rushing by.

"This is a theatre project which is called Teatro-Toc and we are doing it for the second year in a row, we did this last summer as well. We have a group of twelve students, four Czech students and eight international students. And they have been working together for the last about two and half weeks making wooden marionettes with professional Czech marionette makers. At the end of the project they put a performance together, a small fairy tale. It is in the form of a street-theatre performance and we are going to be performing it here in Masarykovo nadrazi train station. So we are in the train station right now, and basically, we grab the people who are running to the train and from the train and some people who have come specifically for the show and people who are just walking by or people who are having a beer in the buffet across the hall. So it's kind of an interesting audience but we were here yesterday and I think people have been enjoying it."

Leah Gaffen is one of the people behind the Teatro-Toc project which for the second year in a row puts together artists, actors and puppeteers from around the world to study the Czech puppet tradition, create their own puppets and finally stage a performance together.

"The leader of the workshop itself was Mirek Trejtnar who is a puppet maker and a puppet designer. He is really an expert in wood-carving. So he was leading the whole workshop which started with how to design a puppet, technical dryings, carving, putting the pieces together, strings, creating a controller, putting the whole puppet together. So that was maybe even the main part, or one of the main parts of the projects. And the second part was led by Marek Becka from the puppet company "Buchty a loutky" and he directed the play with two students from DAMU (Czech Academy of Drama) who helped out, and they created the performance with these newly-born puppets.

It's one story, it's one fairy tale. It's a very simple fairy tale that we made up, mostly based on the twelve puppets that emerged from the workshop. We had a vague idea of how it would be structured before the workshop started. We wanted it to be reminiscent of Czech medieval tales about lost love, so the basic story is about a main hero who loses his girl because an evil witch steals her away and he has to find her. On the way he confronts all of these strange characters, like a dragon and a snake, other fairy tale characters and a Japanese tourist, and everybody helps him or doesn't help him to find his lost love. So it's a little bit of a performance that was put together based on who we had to put in the play.

They speak all languages. Mostly the main story is told in Czech because the audience is mostly a Czech audience and we wanted to make sure that the kids understood what was going on. But he devil speaks German because his maker was from Austria. So everyone is performing also with their own puppet that they made with their own hands. We have a Serbian-speaking witch, a Japanese-speaking tourist; we have several English-speaking characters. So it's a real mix of languages.

We also did it on Kampa and we are performing at Krivoklat Castle and the Zbecno crafts fair which is near Krivoklat. And those are more traditional places, outdoor areas where lots of people go, tourists, people with kids. But we also wanted to do something that was a little bit different and was maybe confronting people who wouldn't necessarily go to the theatre, and something that would maybe change the atmosphere in Prague a little bit. And so we decided to try the train station. We also knew that if it rained all week, it would be OK because we had the alternative of the train station to perform in, so it was a little bit of a practical decision, but more to try to make this space come alive. It is a beautiful place and I think doing things like this really makes a difference.

We put a hat out at the end but it's free of charge for the people. And especially here at the train station, people are really catching it by chance. On Kampa, it was true too, but it was mostly tourists and so they were sort of used to running into performances. But here, I think, it really surprises people and maybe they stay for five minutes or maybe they stay for the whole show, which is about thirty minutes. It's exciting because I think it really challenges their expectations of what they are going to confront at the train station. Yesterday we had a lot of people walk by and they came in and some of them were really in an ugly, bad mood. It was raining outside and then suddenly they saw the puppet show and you could really see some people's moods completely changed. I hope it made their day better, and who knows, maybe their lives better."