Set up in 1927, Kyiv’s Academic Puppet Theatre is the oldest of its kind in Ukraine. Winner of the Druzhba (Friendship) international prize in 1995 and member of UNIMA (UNI0N Internationale de la Marionnette in French), the theatre is as its title suggests – its professional team stages plays in a classical, or “academic”, fashion. With a 27-year-tenure as art director, Chernihiv-born Mykola Petrenko himself is an authority. “A puppet theatre is the first theatre a child ever attends,” he says. “Our first and foremost goal is to generate the sense of beauty and wonder for children from a very young age.”
Thus, the Theatre does not produce avant-garde or experimental performances with “strange-looking” puppets, Petrenko says. “Our puppet fox looks like a real fox, our puppet squirrel looks like a real squirrel.” And fair enough, since children, living in the concrete jungles of big cities, are deprived of the chance to interact with nature. “They do not know what animals look like in reality. And we don’t want to distort their imagination right from the start. It is like teaching children the basic skills of reading and writing – in a classical way.” To top it off, Petrenko thinks that puppet theatres must be free of charge like secondary schools, because culture, together with healthcare and education, is fundamental in a prosperous country.
For One And All
Currently, the theatre’s repertoire spans more than 30 plays, including world-famous stories such as Cinderella, Thumbelina, Peter Pan, as well as Slavonic folk tales Ivasyk-Telesyk, Hen Ryaba, and others. For those aged 16-plus, the theatre has “spicier” options like Decameron, Forest Song, and The Divine Comedy.
Of course, the main attraction of each show is the puppets, Petrenko says. “Our rod, wire, and jigging puppets are something special; they cannot be bought in a supermarket like Barbie dolls. We boast our own atelier creating puppets, settings, stage props, and all relevant items. This is a multi-stage process – from drawing a sketch of a puppet-to-be to putting finishing touches to its garments.” Each puppet is crafted for a certain play, and cannot be used elsewhere. It takes one to two months to manufacture a set of 10 -12 puppets, each about 70 centimetres tall, for one performance. The material they are made of is also classic – papier-mâché.
Puppeteers are adults who cannot say goodbye to childhood. First of all, they are hugely talented individuals whose powerful presence is rather felt than seen. On-stage drama actors are able to see audiences, build a rapport with them, and have the ability to react immediately if something goes wrong. Yet, hidden behind a 1.75 metre screen, puppeteers can have an impact on audiences only through their technique and voice. Intuition, a sixth sense is key. Invisible to the kids watching, the wirepullers have to grab their attention at once and keep them enthralled until the end of a play. Besides plenty of skills, it requires a natural knack. “Puppets have no soul – they get gifted a soul by puppet masters, like a human being by God, thus becoming two halves of a single entity,” Petrenko says.
Protecting Magic Land
Children enter a fairytale as soon as they see the theatre building – an awesome castle decorated with towers and two grand clocks chiming every 15 minutes. It has its own grounds with a mini-park featuring the light-and-music Thumbelina fountain and other statues of funny characters. Petrenko says the castle was purpose-built to house the theatre in 2005. Previously, they performed in different places, including the House of Actors, the National Philharmonic and the Jewish Synagogue. Furthermore the Theatre is set on a hill where, according to legend, Andrew the Apostle used to wander. Petrenko is sure, “He protects us”.
Well, that may be so. Due to the EuroMaidan protests, the theatre cancelled all its plays in February. But it will reopen its doors in March with a renewed repertoire including the premier of the puppet play Little Straw Bull.
In puppet shows, good always conquers evil. Not unlike the events that transpired in the theatre’s own neighbourhood.
by Anna Azarova