Crossing Borders for Festivals
by Steve Abrams
The major focus of this article came from trying to create a definitive list of all the international performances at Puppeteers of America National Festivals. At 58 national festivals since 1936 there is a distinguished record of presenting 220 performances by visiting puppet companies. This includes 70 from Canada and 150 performances by companies from 33 other countries. Puppeteers of America accomplished this without full-time staff, without significant grant support, and with very tight festival budgets, solely for the purpose of building a greater worldwide view of puppetry. American puppeteers have been inspired at festival performances by Albrecht Roser, Richard Bradshaw, Sergei Obrazstov, Drak and many others. Their artistry has indelibly changed puppetry in USA.
The first visiting festival performer to have such an impact was Walter Wilkinson of Great Britain. Wilkinson performed at the second American Puppetry Festival, Cincinnati 1937. At that time puppetry in the USA was almost entirely marionettes. Wilkinson’s show was the first time that many American puppeteers had the opportunity to see a high quality hand puppet show, and the excellence of his work inspired greater exploration of hand puppetry. In 1939 Walter and Winifred Wilkinson returned to the USA and stayed until 1946 when they performed at the first post-war festival, Waterford, CT. Another much loved visitor to the USA was Roberto Lago of Mexico who performed at 4 festivals starting in 1948.
For the Puppeteers of America, significant Canadian participation began with the National Festival in 1954 at Dartmouth College, directed by Russian born, Basil Milovsoroff. There were performances by George Merten, John Conway and Leo and Dora Velleman. Merten came to Canada from Britain in 1950. Basil Milovsoroff performed at 5 PofA festivals. Leo and Dora Velleman performed at 7 PofA festivals and received an UNIMA Citation for Excellence in 1977. In 2007 Ronnie Burkett dazzled the festival audience with his remarkable keynote address. The special relationship with Canadian performers continues with many return engagements by Coad Canada and The Puppetmongers Powell, and both companies are scheduled to perform for the 2009 National Puppetry Festival in Atlanta.
In the early 1950s international puppetry festivals did not yet exist but there was great interest in the puppetry of Europe. The tensions of the “cold war” made it nearly impossible to see the state-sponsored companies of Eastern Europe. Artists from Western Europe did visit the USA and Puppetry Journal eagerly reported on them. The Salzburg Marionettes of Austria did the first of many American tours in 1951-53. Yves Joly played a New York night club in 1951. His lyrical hand ballets were a huge artistic success, influencing Burr Tillstrom and others. Both the Joly and Salzburg companies also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. French puppeteers George Lafaye and Andre Tahon also had successful night club engagements in the 1950s. In those years PofA was a small organization with very limited budget. Most festivals were in the middle of America. It was not possible to present the more elaborate American shows by Bil Baird or the Yale Puppeteers, let alone visitors from abroad.
In 1958 the USA and USSR signed a formal agreement for “scientific and cultural exchange,” which could be called a “thaw” in the cold war. Other events in 1958 included the first Worlds Fair since 1939 and the beginning of regularly scheduled trans-Atlantic jet travel. In May of 1958, Romain Proctor, President of Puppeteers of America, and Marjorie Batchelder McPharlin both traveled to Bucharest, Rumania for the first significant international puppetry festival. “More than 300 delegates from twenty-seven countries attended, and saw a cross section of world puppetry in the forty shows presented.” The interest in UNIMA VI in Bucharest was so great that Puppetry Journal ran a 4 part series by Marjorie McPharlin devoted to reporting on the festival.
During the early 1960s the tension between the USA and USSR ebbed and flowed. The Berlin Wall was built in 1962. Several ballet stars defected from Russia while their companies were on tour. Protests against USA troops in Vietnam began in 1963, evolving into huge public anti-war rallies. John and Jacqueline Kennedy helped to bring more attention to the arts and Americans watched as they were cheered in their travels around the world. In 1964, under leadership from President Johnson, the projected theatre complex in Washington was named the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In 1965 the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were both created. Federal grant money for the arts became available, and private foundations followed the example. A new era in arts funding began.
In the world of puppetry 1963 marks the year that the isolation imposed by the international politics truly began to melt away. Under the same “cultural exchange” program that brought the Bolshoi Ballet to the USA in 1959, a trade was announced. The Bil Baird Marionettes would visit the USSR and the Sergei Obraztsov Company would visit the U.S. Americans had been reading about Obraztsov’s innovative work for 30 years, and for the first time they could actually attend a performance. While the Obraztsov Company was playing on Broadway they were also seen by a national audience when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Also in 1963 the United Kingdom has its first international puppetry festival. George Latshaw and Daniel Llords became 2 of the first performers from the USA to be invited to perform at a festival abroad. In the U.S. Puppeteers of America President, and Festival Director, Jim Henson, invited Mane Bernardo from Argentina to perform at the national festival in Hurleyville NY, as well as inviting two Italian-American Sicilian marionette companies. Peter Schumann, recently arrived from Germany, attended that festival and he has written that the Sicilian marionettes had a huge impact on his work.
Bucharest held its third International Festival in 1965. For the first time a significant group of about 20 North Americans attended. Lewis Mahlmann, Luman Coad and Mollie Falkenstein gave short performances. In 1965 Obraztsov returned to the USA for a cross country tour of his solo concert. He met Margot Lovelace who had a puppet theatre in Pittsburgh, and he invited her to study in Moscow. In a recent interview with Margot Lovelace, she said that when she returned to the USA there were whisperings that she was a “Commie sympathizer.”
Mollie Falkenstein attended UNIMA IX Munich 1966, as the USA delegate. Current research indicates the Daniel Llords was the first USA performer to be featured at a UNIMA festival. About 65 people from USA attended the Munich festival as part of an organized tour. Just a month after the Congress in Munich, UNIMA-USA was founded at the Puppeteers of America Festival in San Diego in 1966. At the San Diego festival, the West Coast ties with Asia were evident with 2 Asian artists presenting work.
In 1967 another border was crossed. The Puppeteers of America held its National Festival in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. On the program were performances and talks from Eastern Europeans (a first for the PofA). Hurvinek and Spejbl Theatre of Czechoslovakia performed. Lena Shpet and Viktor Afanasiev of the USSR and Henryk Jurkowski of Poland participated.
In August 1968, 2,000 tanks entered Prague to suppress the political liberalization that was called, the “Prague Spring.” UNIMA X had already been set for 1969 and the festival was held in the occupied city. Don and Ruth Gilpin, two well-known television puppeteers from Atlanta were tour leaders of a group of 40 puppeteers who journey to Prague. In 1968 Bread and Puppet Theatre made its first tour to Europe. In 1969 Sesame Street went on the air. Jim Henson and Peter Schumann became the first puppeteers from the USA to have a profound international impact.
Exchanges with Asia also began in the 1960s which have continued to have a major impact on American artists. The Bunraku Theatre of Japan gave its first ever performance in the West at the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962. In 1969 a dalang from Indonesia performed at the national festival. At the 1980 festival Asian puppetry was very well represented. In 1991 festival audiences were dazzled by the Chinese hand puppets of Yang Feng.
From 1970-1979 Puppeteers of America featured 56 foreign companies. The 1971 festival in Nashville was another breakthrough. Ten visiting performers were on the program including the first USA performance by Albrecht Roser. Eight members of UNIMA international’s Executive Committee attended the festival, including General Secretary Jan Malik of Czechoslovakia, and UNIMA President, Sergei Obraztsov of the USSR. Obrazstov’s name does not appear on the pre-festival publicity or even in the festival program. The festival organizers were honored that Obraztsov had agreed to attend in his role as President of UNIMA. Apparently they were too shy and hesitant to ask the great artist to perform thinking that such a request might be an imposition. Early in the festival Nancy Staub was sitting next to Obraztsov and asked him why he wasn’t performing. He said, “No one asked me. I have my puppets with me.” A performance of the famous “Solo Concert” was quickly added to the festival schedule providing a sensational surprise for everyone.
The Oakland festival 1972 featured 6 foreign visitors including Richard Bradshaw of Australia whose masterful shadow show influenced many Americans. Other highlights in the 70s included festival workshops by shadow film legend Lotte Reiniger and in 1978 the first U.S performance by Drak of Czechoslovakia. In 1972 at the UNIMA Congress XI and Festival in Charleville, France, there was finally strong representation of American puppetry. Jim Henson attended as the President of UNIMA-USA and Dick Myers, Lovelace Marionettes, The Vellemans and Coad Canada all performed.
The crescendo of international exchange seems to have reached its peak in 1980 with The World Puppet Festival and UNIMA Congress XIII in Washington, DC. Puppeteers of America sponsored the event in cooperation with UNIMA-USA. For this landmark event in American puppetry, Executive Director of PofA, Nancy Staub assembled over 50 shows: 28 from USA including Puerto Rico, 8 from Canada, 3 from Mexico, and 18 from other nations. In the 1980s and 1990s the PofA continued to present an average of 5 or 6 international programs at each festival. The San Francisco Festival in 1993 had 16 foreign companies.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the crossing of borders has been more difficult. The three national festivals featured a total of 12 foreign puppet companies. Recent UNIMA festivals had almost no American representation. The facts show that border crossings have declined to the level of the 1950s and 1960s. Why? It is impossible to know with certainty, but I suspect the answer is more complicated than the travel restrictions imposed after 9/11.
At one time governments wanted to showcase their artists, as traveling ambassadors, but current government funding for international exchanges has declined. In the 1980s and 1990s many other international festivals developed. Perhaps the very openness of many borders, so long sought for, has taken some of the curiosity and mystery away from international festivals. We can now sample performances from around the globe sitting at home at our desks. Whatever the reasons for the decline, personally I hope that border crossings for festivals increase rather than decrease. The 2009 PofA festival in Atlanta will have international performances organized by UNIMA-USA as both organizations continue their tradition of cooperation to encourage international exchange.
Shows by international companies-decade by decade:
3 visiting companies (10 festivals)
16 visiting companies-15 from Canada (10 festivals)
20 visiting companies (10 festivals)
56 visiting companies (10 festivals)
33 visiting companies
40 visiting companies (8 festivals)
43 visiting companies (6 festivals)
12 visiting companies (3 festivals)
*UNIMA Festival Performers from USA and Canada
*UNIMA international does not present or produce festivals.The UNIMA Congress is invited to hold its Congress at a particular festival, but UNIMA itself has no role in the process of selecting performers. In some cases international festival directors invited Americans to perform, but as often happens, funding for travel was too large of a financial obstacle. Over the years, the USA has always had a member on the international Executive Committee. Mollie Falkenstein, Allelu Kurten, Nancy Staub, Vince Anthony and Bart Roccoberton each traveled thousands of miles abroad and worked to familiarize the global puppetry community with artists in the USA. The friendships and contacts they established helped to facilitate international artists performing in the USA and USA artists performing abroad.
34 countries were represented by performances at Puppeteers of America National Festivals, listed chronologically from first to most recent:
United Kingdom, Mexico, Canada, Argentina, France, Korea, Japan, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Netherlands, India, Indonesia, Sweden, West Germany, USSR/Russia, Australia, Belgium, Spain, Colombia, Israel, Yugoslavia, (additional counties represented at UNIMA/PofA 1980 Festival: Brazil, Cuba, Egypt, Hungary) Switzerland, Italy, Bulgaria, South Africa, East Germany, Norway, Peru, Bosnia, Georgia, Slovenia, Mali, China, Iceland
1957 Prague V (Not a festival)
1958 Bucharest VI
1960 Bochum & Braunschweig VII
1962 Warsaw VIII Micheline Legendre, Montreal Canada
1966 Munich IX Daniel Llords
1969 Prague X- Daniel Llords
1972 Charleville XI -Dick Myers, Lovelace Marionettes,
Canada-The Vellemans and Coad Canada
(At Cabaret-David Malhoyt, and Theatre X)
1976 Moscow XII-Dick Myers
1980 Washington XIII 28 from USA including Puerto Rico, 8 from Canada, 3 from Mexico
1984 Dresden XIV Paul Zaloom, Janie Geiser, Eric Bass, Roman Paska,
Canada-Lampoon, Coad, Theatre San Fil
1988 Nagoya/ Tokyo XV Jim Gamble, Roman Paska
1992 Ljubljana, Slovenia XVI No USA performers (seminar by Roman Paska)
1996 Budapest XVII Sandglass Theatre-Eric Bass, Roman Paska, Tears of Joy
No Canadian performers
2000 Magdeburg XVIII Kathy Rose
2004 Rijeka/Opatija, Croatia XVIX No USA performers
2008 Perth XX No USA performers (Keynote Address Eileen Blumenthal)
Canada-SOMA International, Montreal