The film begins.
Lights up on water rushing over a small dam. Fade to building façade, ornate columns and balustrade. Pan down to proscenium opening, deep red curtains parted to reveal a landscape from classical antiquity, illuminated by actual gas footlights. The painted drop rises to reveal a beautiful woman in the woods flanked by several men–perhaps soldiers–not far from a castle. The castle backdrop is then raised to reveal the head of a real little boy. He is the director and animator of this pint-sized, paper theater. To the scene before him he adds a woman in a fancy red ball gown before abandoning his players to the open flames (we imagine there was a best boy grip just off camera, fire extinguisher in hand).
The film is Ingmar Bergmanʼs Fanny and Alexander and it is one of quite a number of celluloid masterpieces to use the toy theatre as a metaphor, motif or at the very least a compelling visual curio. Tea with Mussolini, Frida, and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus are a few others that feature beautiful examples of these Victorian-style paper theaters. One of the great uses of toy theatre in recent years was Dantéʼs Inferno, a short film made by Sean Meredith with Paul Zaloom and Sandow Birk. Part of this film, at least, is on the internet and it is well worth watching. The miniature nature of traditional toy theatre, well-suited to an audience of eight or
ten, is also one of its liabilities. The media of film easily leaps this limitation with close-up shots and large screens. Even large, though, the detailed sets of Inferno maintain some of the charm of the 19th century pastime, with its 2-D sets and stiff little actors.
We have dabbled in this genre as well, inspired by such contemporary artists as
Robert Poulter (page 8) and Great Small Works (page 20). Recently we worked on
the Underground Railway Theater production of Brechtʼs Galileo. I proposed a preshow toy theatre presentation of “The Life and Times of Galileo Galilei” as a way of orienting the audience to the age and culture in which Galileo first trained his telescope on the heavens—exactly 400 years before our 2009 premiere. With the help of muralist David Fichter, the material got a satiric and energetic “street theatre” performance by URT actress (and artistic director) Debra Wise and her young apprentice. This little diversion was very popular with audiences, and certainly contributed to our determination to devote an issue of Puppetry International to the history and recent resurgence of the form.
Other things fueled our enthusiasm as well—Michael and Valerie Nelsonʼs Little
Blue Moon Theatre opened us up to toy theatreʼs erotic/comic potential (page 26); the Toy Theatre Festival in Preetz, Germany has helped foster an international network
of practitioners (page 12) as has the biennial toy theatre festival in New York City presented by Great Small Works (page 20). We hope the numerous examples presented in these pages will both enlighten and inspire.
Do try this at home!
-Andrew C. Periale