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Questions of Training - Penny Francis looks at some International options

Puppetry Training - the current state of play

Is this worldwide thirst for puppeteer training some passing fashion? From on-the-spot observation, the demand is gathering a momentum undreamed of forty years ago, when almost the only schools for puppetry were in the Communist Soviet bloc. Within the last months I've visited Australia, France, Spain, Poland and Korea to take part in seminars, conferences and
festivals dedicated (wholly or in part) to the pursuit of an ideal education for the would-be professional.

In Australia, a new Master's course started at the Melbourne College of Arts this academic year; France has a well-established School in Charleville-MéziPres, but changes are afoot with the appointment of the new director, Lucile Bodson, and Head of Studies, Jean-Louis Heckel; Spain's Institute of Theatre in Barcelona is regenerating an already respected course by pairing it with a physical/visual programme; Poland's two schools in Bialystok and Wroclaw are now quite elderly but have much experience to bequeath the newer institutions, and South Korea, my last port of call, is planning a school in Chuncheon, where there is a magnificent centre for the puppetry arts.

In addition, I've met tutors from too many other countries to list, ready to share experience and method and, best of all, to ask questions of themselves and others.

The Gathering

The meeting held in Charleville last May proved unusually interesting and potentially the most productive. It was the only one of all the meetings I attended organised that concentrated tightly on the needs of a school from the point of view of the tutors. For two of the three days a representative of the Minister of Culture attended, which gave the whole event a certain cachet, even if it was an intimate, round-table affair. Just six schools in Higher Education fielded one or two tutors each to manifest their ethos and programme of training, under the guidance of two French men, experts in the training of teachers in the arts. Those present were asked to talk about their schools and their work, and from our presentations one of the French moderators, Jean-Claude Lallias, extrapolated a summary that revealed our main concerns.

All honour to our hosts, the École Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM), part of the Institut de la Marionnette, Charleville-MéziPres, which had gathered together the Polish A. Zelwerowicz State Theatre Academy of Warsaw, with its puppetry arts department located in Bialystok; the Escuela Taller de Titiriteros del Teatro San Martín, Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Turku Arts Academy, Finland; the Ernst Busch Higher School, Berlin, Germany, and the Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

Béatrice Picon-Vallin, a respected researcher of the scenic arts, gave an inspirational opening talk. The first question: Is a schooling necessary? was quickly answered in the affirmative and dismissed. She quoted Vsevolod Meyerhold: Puppetry is one of the great arts of performance.... forget about talent, even if it is key. As a student, learning precise technique gives the means to master one's art.

What is the aim of a school? To encourage creativity. To open pathways to other theatre disciplines, since theatre in its essence is multi-disciplinary and international. To ensure employability.

What should be taught? Physicality, voice, dance, music, singing, acting, clowning, commedia dell arte, design, craft, new technologies, theory and history, dramaturgy, poetry in all its forms, the ways of the great practitioners of the past, etc., etc. Time must be allowed for research, breathing space, writing, rehearsal.

Inter-disciplinarity is today's most important word, at least for non-classicists: combinations of acting, opera, dance, circus, projections, new technologies and puppetry are stimulating a new era in theatre which is pleasing young audiences more than any single-artform show, or any of the classical modes of theatre. Even painters and sculptors are excited by the bringing-to-life of their works in performance. Student puppeteers must therefore be familiar with all of these disciplines, and understand how puppetry can contribute to productions using other media, and of course other media to puppet theatre. Training in a single discipline now feels old-fashioned, except possibly in music, and even music conservatoires should open the students to a range of performance possibilities for their music. Especially in puppetry!

How can you get all this into one school programme? You can't of course, unless you make it last five years or more (most of the Eastern European courses are four for an actor-puppeteer and five for a specialist director). All you can do is show the student how to fill his or her personal toolbox and keep on filling it, all her working life.

And the teachers? Where and who are they? Up to now there is no course for them, though Charleville may well schedule one next year. Most of those present at the seminar in France were not practising puppeteers, and those who were confessed to learning on the job how to transmit their knowledge.

'We learn from the students and from each other' declared Mdme Picon-Vallin. 'Artistic learning is based on exchange, on a dialectic of student and teacher - which is which? As in love, the gift is a two-way thing.'

The old concept of the master as sole teacher is disappearing. Students need to be opened up to a wider world of aesthetic possibilities, not a single vision. Nowadays the schools are more like laboratories, where the teachers are treated as equals and are asked to do little more than validate, motivate, communicate and encourage, whilst confronting the students with a range of the best practitioners in the field. Shaping a course so that it makes sense to the student, laying the foundations for his or her professional future - that's probably the most difficult part of the job.

Quotes from the tutors present:

Stephen Rotenberg of ESNAM: We want to train artists still growing into themselves, seeing themselves as part of the flow of history. School is not an end in itself, but must be transcended by the need to continually work on oneself. The students must be taught to question constantly the material, the mode and the meaning of their work.

Hans Wochen Menzel of Berlin: there are 185 students in three faculties: Drama, Directing and Puppetry. Closer connections between the faculties is bringing dividends. We are working on a new production involving all three.

The traditional and the innovative are given equal importance. Each student ends the four years with his or her own show to sell, plus a lot of professional contacts. Marek Waszkiel of Bialystok: We hold regular exams. There is an exam commission with discussion on the work and the marks of each student.

Things are changing. Once the schools were there to feed the 25 State puppet theatres; now small private groups are being born and their needs are different. The School sometimes gives help in kind to the ex-students founding such groups.

Tito Orifice of the Teatro San Martín: The school functions within the principal theatre of Buenos Aires, where there is a strong and popular tradition of glove puppetry, although all techniques including object play are included in the training. The Theatre contains a dance school too, and there is collaboration with actors and dancers in the productions. The students don't touch a puppet in the first year of the three-year course, getting to understand the language before trying out techniques in the second year. They must make their own puppets, if only to understand what they need from a builder. They must direct a show, to understand the puppet phenomenon. We guarantee to form professionals, but not artists. There is to be a puppet department in the National University in the Faculty of Humanities, where the Dean is a poet and a philosopher, open to the potential of puppetry. Philosophy and anthropology will be part of that four-year course. As 190 people applied last year to the San Martín course, Tito Lorifice does not think that two courses in the same city will have to fight for students!

Anna Ivanova of Turku: the curriculum is very open, and the students autonomous. They go on long placements, most of them with companies abroad. Finland has only 5,000,000 inhabitants and three professional puppet companies, but the interest in puppetry is widespread, often for use in education. The course languages are Finnish, English and Swedish.

Information Technology is an obligatory part of the training. The course is only three years old. Last year 11 graduated, and over 50% are working in the performing arts or have formed their own groups.

Jessica Bowles and I spoke with such passion about our work at the Central
School of Speech and Drama that I forgot to take notes. However Lallias beamed on us and commended the apparent 'creativity' of our methodology, distinguished from the other schools by the integration of the puppetry students with students of other scenic disciplines. 'Inter-disciplinarity' certainly flourishes at Central.

Perhaps the most impressive news about the growing importance of puppeteer training comes from the U.S.A., where the courses at undergraduate and graduate level run by the redoubtable Bart J. Roccoberton Jr. have been awarded a whole new building, handsomely equipped, on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Not only that, but there is the prospect of an entirely new complex for the Fine and Performing Arts Faculty - with the puppetry facility at its hub. The architect is none other than Frank Gehry, who has picked up on the fact that puppetry is linked to every one of the fine and scenic arts. How's that for recognition?

A Summary

Given the variety of methodologies of the six schools present, it was clever of the clearheaded Jean-Claude Lallias to come up with his final list of conclusions about our common concerns. This is a selective summary of what he said he had learned from us:
What's the aim of training? It is to make interpretative practitioners of theatre and at best to professionalise the artist. To take the puppet into the wider world of performance. Not to make continuously creative artists who renew theatre all the time, but also to make craftspeople and regenerate tradition and existing forms.

And the end game? To turn out students who believe in life-long learning!
The teachers try to give them an idea of the realities of professional life, while affirming the student's individual identity to carry them on.

They need ideals, but with an understanding of compromises to be made between the ideal and hard reality. The honest artisan is one aspect of a professional reality, but the artist will go beyond craft and what already exists, breaking with present practice. However the opposition between the artisan (the craftsman) and the artist is a false one. Of course we wish to train professionals. A pro is conscientious, knowledgeable about techniques, who accepts the constraints, can even take pleasure in them. These are verifiable professional attitudes. But any artist is first and foremost a pro, motivated by a special singularity, never satisfied, off-limits, with a hunger to push forward his/her practice.

The teacher is not someone on the battlefield, says Ariane Mnouchkine. It's someone who is a sort of midwife, who gives keys to open doors, who lets the student go.
What of the content of their shows? Someone said 'You say nothing of yourself unless you have said something about the world you live in'. Anna Ivanova said the students seemed not to have anything to say about wider issues. In fact, there was little time to talk about dramaturgy. We need another seminar for that!

And what of audiences? How do the students transmit the meaning of what they produce? For whom are they speaking? To say what? To show they are artists? That they have an original way of seeing the world?

Questions of evaluation, marking, criteria - they were recurring themes and are important but only as means to an end. So far they are the only concrete method we have to assess a student's process and give feedback on their progress. Every school has to be based on this articulation.
Finally there is the question of the art form's roots, its history and how you instil an interest in these. Ritual is fundamental: it's an acte de
dédoublement, a splitting in two. It's magic. In its original context puppetry was about religion, the invisible world, belief, destiny. Now it is largely an art without the belief but which uses the means. Nowadays it's about theatricality, metaphor, symbol, poeticisation, invisible energy. As for history, no student can understand his or her work unless puppetry's history has been absorbed into the skin.

And Next?

When I entered the acting profession, about the same proportion of actors were school-trained as today's puppeteers. Perhaps 15%, as a European average. Now, in 2004, most actors have had formal training, many at university AND drama school. Their status in the performing arts family is strong. More and more puppeteers will start their career by going to a school, I predict. And they will go on asking questions about the best kinds of teaching and learning, and the teachers will have to keep a step ahead of them, as guides and partners.

If the recognition has been long in coming, it seems now that puppetry is being universally integrated into the family of the professional performing arts. There's still a way to go in terms of the status of the puppeteers in that family, and one question that occurs to many is: How are the schools to ensure the puppeteer's equal status in the professional world? I have already written in previous editions of Animations Online about the many productions where there is puppetry but no puppeteers; or where there is puppetry operated by puppeteers who are acknowledged neither at the curtain-call nor in the credits. Can the training institutions change this insupportable situation?

Many questions. Any answers? Responses and comment to:

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