Long Range Planning: Puppets for Peace

A Tarumba - Teatro de Marioneta   from their production  This is not Gogol’s Nose . A Tarumba performed and taught toy theater workshops at pop-up puppets in stockholm, sweden.

A Tarumba - Teatro de Marioneta from their production This is not Gogol’s Nose. A Tarumba performed and taught toy theater workshops at pop-up puppets in stockholm, sweden.

by Kathy Foley

Geoffrey Cormier asked me to blog on Long Range Planning for UNIMA-USA.  I went for a walk in the meadow and thought, "Okay, what is the plan?"  And then I thought, "World Peace."  I thought about this especially because of the world we live in now. With the distance between manipulator and the manipulated on the Internet, we are seeing an increased space between crafter and the creation, which is sometimes ugly.

Of course non-puppet people think that is what puppetry is about—hiding behind and pulling strings. But anyone who has been above or under an actual puppet knows that what you can do with the figure is already implicit in its make-up. We are attached to our object and in it—one thing with it. One of the beauties of puppetry is that it can range from very small (think toy theatre) to very big (think King Kong on Broadway). What is great about UNIMA is it puts us, through festivals, commissions, and publications, in contact with others who understand that connection of made environment and self and, like us, use objects to explore important stories. We are puppet people.

We live in a world which needs more empathy and hearing across national and international divides. UNIMA-International next spring will hold its 90th anniversary with performances of stories of friendships through puppetry that crossed "enemy lines" in WWII. These are stories about peace with others and our world. 

I spent my summer seeing our common concerns first in Asia and then in Europe. I was invited to speak at first the International Conference on Islamic Thought and Culture in Perak, Malaysia. I reminded the speakers gathered from across the Muslim world as we talked about curbing terrorism, using religion as a force for good, and creating a just social order that puppetry is one of the deep historical arts of the Islamic world from Karagoz (created we are told by the dervish Seh Kusteri) to the Indonesian saint and puppet master Sunan Kalijaga. Object theatre is to share visions of goodness and justice.

Soon thereafter, I was speaking in Sweden for a seminar at Pop-up Puppets at the Marionetteatern's 60th anniversary in Stockholm where Punch, Pulchinella, Pochinelle, and Dom Gil performers had gathered from across Europe to perform alongside troupes that were creating new work to respond to the migrations and rise of xenophobia in Europe from the immigrations due to the crisis in the Middle East. I reminded the seminar that the comic clown associated with traditional European puppetry has iconography and that swazzle voice that may trace back to north India and the interrelationship of "gypsies" (i.e. migrating groups) and those puppet traditions can be pointed out historically. Most of our great puppet clowns are at least cousins. We may not have DNA kits for figures—but we can trace the path of first mentions (often in police records complaining of the puppeteer-acrobats-dancers-musicians-tooth pullers that pull into town).

Among the artists who were co-presenting were NY puppeteer Roman Paska who I had first met on a puppet stage one night in Indonesia. Also there was the head of UNIMA-International Dadi Pudumjee whose Ishara Puppet Trust welcomes puppeteers from all over the world to perform each spring. Dadi had studied in Sweden in the 1970s with  Michael Meschke who founded the Marionetteatern in 1958 (Meschke was himself a Jewish refugee from Nazi anti-semitism). Meschke long had collaboration with Asia and he helped popularize Bunraku style manipulation now so popular in the west. Meschke's early Ubu Roi which mixed puppets, body puppets, and avant-garde imagery was part of the display we saw in the newly opened performing arts museum—his reaction to the propaganda of WWII and the early Cold War. Meschke made peace with puppets--doing workshops in India, Thailand and beyond. He was one of the ones who put UNIMA back together again after WWII. Helena Nilsson, current head of the company, and Margareta Sorenson, who put together the seminar, were carrying on Meschke's vision: peace via puppets. Use art to talk about connections, to greet refugees, and to help solve misunderstandings.

When Jim Henson went for a walk on a British heath while brainstorming about an internationally syndication-potential TV show with puppets, he had a brainstorm: "World Peace," he suggested, should be the nub of the show. It became Fraggle Rock. Henson who was founding president of UNIMA-USA was also propelling us toward peace in founding our organization. We make puppets, not war.

We recently sent our greetings to UNIMA-Russia on their 60th year (see Kurt Hunter’s video of congratulations). We look forward to our Prague Spring in 2019 when UNIMA-International will toast its 90th year. We are an organization that crosses time-zones, borders, oceans. The marionettists and the Robotics nerds are friends. Our long-range plan is a just, equitable, and peaceful world where we and the material world—our puppets—are in sync. The puppeteer and the object must always be one for the show to go successfully on.