A show of hands

Alenka in Love. Three Fatties. The Flying Babies. If Alenka in Love. Three Fatties. The Flying Babies. If you think theseare merely the names of the latest pop rock groups, you’remissing out on one of the most magical aspects of traditional Czech culture: puppet shows.

During the warm months you can find the wobbly, tall, andsurprisingly small traditional puppet theatres – not much largerthan a card table – set up on the bumpy grass at country fairsor on the jagged cobblestones in castle courtyards. In winter,the art form heads into the warmth of standard auditoriumsin theatre buildings devoted strictly to puppetry. In many Czech homes, whole families (yes, including the grownups)get down on hands and knees and “play” the family’spuppet theatre together, crawling around the wooden or heavycardboard theatre sets. Even the most august fathers havebeen observed animating the puppets – often, those handeddown from at least grandma and grandpa’s generation – andeven squeaking the beloved traditional lines in the falsetto ofthe fairy princess.

“Mechanical figures” were recorded in the Czech landsas early as 1563, and by the end of the 16th century, Czech audiences enjoyed shows that used marionettes. The firstCzech puppet play was written in 1782, and around 1810 a favorite Czech puppet character, Kašpárek, made his first debut. And the tradition has continued ever since.

However, in the Iron Curtain days of the 1960s a new generation of Czech puppeteers began a movement, “Theatre of the Third Kind,” which tried to break traditional puppet theatre out of its familiar box. Bored with puppets manipulated by unseen human gods, this quietly rebellious group came out from behind the curtain to act and sing center stage, right along with the puppets, all of them interacting as the characters in the play.

This September, one of the best-known “Third Kind”puppet theatres, Drak (derived from “dragon”), will celebrateits 50th anniversary. The award-winning Hradec Králové based threatre company tours all over the Czech Republic, and indeed, the world. “Drak combines original puppets, anddrama, along with creative, musical, and movement theatres,”explains director Jana Dražd’áková. “Although Drak has areputation as a ‘children’s theatre,’ this term is not precise enough. Thanks to our principal director, Josef Kroft, his son,director Jakub Kroft, and composer/actor Jiří Výšohlíd, ourtheatre has been eliminating age boundaries for a long time. Children get their story and theatre magic, adults get the gagsand the humor.”

She says the appeal can best be seen when teenagers cometo a performance. “Most of them find themselves in a theatre for the first time – and ten minutes into the performance thecell phones stop blinking and they follow the actors and thestory.”

Puppet theatre is a challenging profession. In addition to theusual financial and other stresses common to the performingarts, “Puppet theatre is a ‘fiddly’ job – hard handwork,” saysDrak actor Václav Poul. “During one hour we have to say everything.”

You can get a sense of just how creative a typical Drakproduction is just by reading a plot synopsis [see box onnext page]. But the theatre is pushing beyond the boundsof entertainment and again is breaking out of the box, withits “Jump Out of Childhood” project, which speaks openlyand in straightforward language to talk to teenagers about serious topics, according to the Drak director. The company’s“Alenka in Love,” a street romance, uses hip-hop and rockmusic; a “train station” version of the Bizet opera “Carmen”is entitled “Carmen 20:07”; and the hugely popular “Secret Diary of Adrian Mole” features Abba music – and has already Diary of Adrian Mole” features Abba music – and has already had 120 runs.

In this old art form, the delicate, subtle, yet deep-rooted Czech creativity lives and thrives, still awaiting discovery by a louder audience – and proving that entertainment does not always require headphones. The Drak Theatre is traditionally on vacation during August and September, but performances start again in Hradec Kralové in October, every Saturday at 3 pm.

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