Efforts to establish puppetry as an artistic and cultural medium in Eastern Africa beginning from Kenya are at an advanced stage. Finland and Israel, writes OGOVA ONDEGO, are set to assist the region in introducing puppetry in the school curriculum and in healthcare.
Critics are however adopting a wait-and-see attitude as conventional arts like music, dance and drama are excluded from Kenya’s school curriculum. The country has also joined the International Union of Puppet Theatre Practitioners (UNIMA) and seeks to establish several professional puppet theatre companies. This was unveiled during the second International Puppetry Festival in Nairobi in February 2004. Dubbed Edupuppets 2004, this is the only “pure puppetry” festival in sub-Saharan Africa combining performances with skills-development workshops. Unlike Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania have neither tradition of puppetry nor any professional puppet theatre company.
Edupuppets 2004 coordinator, Lawrence Keboga, said Kenyans had helped train artists from Tanzania, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia in puppet theatre and was hopeful the genre would take root in the region. However, despite the benefits Kenya stands to gain from puppet theatre (the art of narration in which the story unfolds through the use of images, sound and movement), the organisers lamented that the Nairobi City Council had denied them permits for mounting publicity banners around the city that would have invited participants to the event. Keboga said, “Puppet theatre may not be African, strictly speaking. But its visual value integrates the oral nature of all Africans.”
Taking issue with the mass media for being apathetic to the genre, Keboga said, “They haven’t understood the nature and dynamics of puppet theatre due to the newness of the genre here.” Kenyan corporate sector, too, failed to support the festival though having been approached 12 months in advance, said festival producer Marina Bocic-Stanicic. But what is puppetry? “It is an art of communication in which the puppeteer blows breath of life into an ‘inanimate’ object and makes it ‘come alive’,” said Bocic-Stanicic. “Though the puppet is a visual metaphor representing ‘real life’, it is one step removed from the real world.” A puppet is a model of a person, animal or object that can be moved by the pulling of strings or wires attached to them.
Bojan Baric of Puppet Theatre Sampo of Finland said humans can create a positive vision of the world using puppet theatre. “By using theatre puppets we can learn to accept and respect cultural differences,” he said. Puppeteer Baric writes in his book, Haltioitumisen hetkia (Moments of Inspiration), “I create puppet theatre that is both poetic and musical; a form of expression which through symbols reaches deep into the audience’s emotions and sub-conscience.” He contends that the language of puppet theatre is universal and that it can be understood all over the world.
“The door of a puppet theatre is a gate into the garden of arts in which the use of words, music, visual arts and theatre blossom in perfect harmony.” Marking 25 years of Puppet Theatre Sampo, Haltioitumisen hetkia defines puppetry, says how puppets are made and from what material, and how they should be used. Besides defining the various kinds of puppets-hand, rod, shadow, marionettes-the book says a puppet’s role and use define both its shape and structure. While rod puppets are limbless and hand puppets are guided from the back and the head, marionettes are full-bodied and can sit on chairs, crawl into bed, climb trees and swing from branches. Shadow puppets, on the other hand, are thin, moving figures between a screen and a light source and are controlled by rods from the back or below.
“Puppetry is one of the best means of communication as it enables people to pass across messages they otherwise would not communicate due to cultural inappropriateness, taboos or embarrassment,” said the Singapore-based Bocic-Stanisic. Some of the messages puppetry is being used to cause awareness of in Kenya by the 750 puppeteers spread across the country include AIDS, malaria, prostitution, reproductive health, civic education, environmental conservation, and corruption. But adoption of puppetry in the 140 million people Eastern African region is not going to be easy as it is perceived to be only suitable for children.
This means puppeteers must work extremely hard in cultivating an audience for this genre of the performing arts that began in 14th Century Europe. Edupuppets 2004 sought to showcase new works in puppet and object theatre as well as featured puppet art skills and development workshops to enhance the skills of Kenyan puppeteers and puppetry appreciation by the public in entertainment, education and therapy. The theme of the festival was “Puppetry: Art, aesthetics, education, cultural integration and international cooperation.” Since 1993 when Family Programmes Promotions Services (FPPS) introduced puppetry in Kenya as a communication medium for development, more than 400 puppeteers have been trained and up to 40 community-based troupes are performing in vernacular throughout Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Performers act as conversation starters or catalysts promoting discussions, seeking solutions and acting on problems
Edupuppetry 2004 Coordinator Lawrence Keboga and producer Marina Bocic-Stanicic
Puppeteers came from Austria, Germany, Finland, the United States, the Netherlands, France, and Israel to perform and conduct workshops. Although Kenyan puppeteers performed, it was clear that they are still a long way from catching up with their counterparts from, say, Finland, Germany or Singapore. Workshops emphasising the use of puppetry in education were imparted on teachers to enhance learning.
Some of the groups that performed included hosts CHAPS who presented “Puppet Mania”, a multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural performance that deviates from the conventional theatrical presentations while incorporating existing theatrical genres and other art elements such as objects, figures, architecture and installations in the performance. However, this is-like abstract art-a performance without a story and a theme. Spectators are expected to figure out what is going on on their own. Puppet Mania demonstrated the relationship between puppets, objects and images created to mirror living things and life in general.
Local groups-Mercy for the Youth, Pioneer Players, Mazingira Community Group, Krystall Puppeteers, Kakuyuni Puppeteers, Nyawita Safari Troupe-also participated. Puppet Theatre Sampo of Finland and Finger Players of Singapore proved quite popular at the festival. Most enjoyable was the former’s “Visit of the Marionettes” show that relied heavily on music performance by marionettes. Puppeteer Baric observed that puppet theatre-that cuts across socio-cultural barriers -has been in existence over the past four centuries. Sampo, which means a magic mill that brings joy and happiness to people, combines glove puppets, marionettes, rod puppets and silhouettes to great effect. A musician, composer, director, and author specialising in marionettes, Baric said puppet theatre has the power to open doors into a world of beauty.
“With the help of puppets we create a positive vision of the world. Theatre puppets can teach us to accept and respect differences,” he observed. “Puppet theatre dispels all cultural boundaries and makes everyone watching it the same age. The language of puppet theatre is universal and can be understood all over the world. Puppet theatre is a mode of narration in which the story unfolds through the use of images, sound and movement. The door of puppet theatre is a gate into the garden of art in which the use of words, music, visual arts and theatre blossom in harmony.”
The audience see the puppet as a living, breathing, thinking and feeling being. The figure of the puppet, Baric said, should be believable, and should communicate with the audience. While music deepens the puppet’s emotional world, the audience’s power of imagination makes the puppet whole.
The Finger Players enacted “The Story of Redhill,” a folktale in which a little boy, Nadim, befriends the young Sultan of Singapura. When Nadim learns of a plot to overthrow the Sultan, he exchanges attire with the latter and lures the assassin to himself providing the Sultan an opportunity to get help. Nadim loses his life in this courageous act and his blood tints the hill red thus earning it the name “Redhill”. The Finger Players’ productions are derived or adapted from stories, myths, and legends of the Asia Pacific region. It seeks to inculcate in children lessons in life besides encouraging audiences to accept and respect diverse cultures.
Using puppets and mask, T’Magische Theatre of the Netherlands presented “Panta Rhei II”, an imaginative form of puppetry without lyrics. La Fabrique des Arts d’a cote (Four Hands Circus) of France explored the art of story-telling and miming through gestures; it was much like contemporary dance. Warner and Consorten of the Netherlands, a group of sculptors, musicians, dancers and actors, performed “Living Things II” with CHAPS of Kenya.
While German Peter Ketturkat of Objeckt Theatre presented XYLOBOING, a play without words with objects of wood, leather and metal, Austrian Karin Schafer’s Figuren Theatre presented ‘Once upon a time’. One had to know the storyline to follow the former’s presentation as opposed to the latter’s that could easily be followed through narration and manipulation of the puppets. Among workshop facilitators was Judith O’Hare of the United States and Dina Kaplan, Rachel Dangour Berkman and Alina Ashbell of Israel. O’Hare, a performer and educator, has been in puppetry for more than 41 years. Also doubling as Artistic Director and puppetry teacher for ‘PUPPETS: Education Magic’, a conference for educators in puppetry in education, offered in partnership with the Boston Area Guild of Puppetry education.
Kaplan, Berkman and Ashbell presented “The Train Theatre” workshop, a multi-style performance that runs the gamut of object theatre, glove puppets, stick puppets, shadow puppets, and live actors complete with traditional and experimental puppetry.