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Muestra Internacional de Artes
Fantasticas de Santander
25–27 September 2009

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A reflection on a new festival in Spain by participating artist
Edward Taylor of Whalley Range All Stars

This first ever Santander festival was put together as part of a programme to add weight to Santander’s bid to become European City of Culture in 2016. As such, it was put together very quickly and it’s to the organisers’ credit that they managed to find 17 groups to programme throughout the streets and indoor venues of the city.

MAF is predominantly a puppet-theatre festival though not exclusively. Nakupelle (Joe Dieffenbacher from the US in solo guise – the company, resident in the UK, are usually a duo) presented two different street clowning shows which demonstrated his easy rapport with a crowd and had them (literally at times) eating out of his hand. La Badulfa are a Spanish street theatre company who drive a small Zeppelin on wheels through the streets accompanied by Phileas Fogg-style characters. It’s big, loud and impossible to miss as the Zeppelin careers through the pedestrianised part of the city. From time to time they stop and enact a strange opening ceremony, picking audience members out to be the civic dignitaries necessary for such a task. Not really my cup of tea, but the energy and impact are undeniable and a world apart from sedate UK walkabout acts. 

Teatro de Automatas were there too with their sideshow of beautifully realised, satirical automata poking fun at the genteel drawing rooms of the well-heeled – taste isn’t much in evidence here. The automata date from the late 19th century and when you’ve watched each scene unfold you can peer underneath each tableau and marvel at the turning flywheels and fan belts which bring the figures to life. 

Karromato (a company based in Prague that comprises Czech, Spanish and Hungarian artists) presented Circo de Madera, a marionette circus played out in front of a painted backdrop depicting the inside of a big top. As strongmen flung their assistants about and a woman rode a show-pony, the skill displayed by the two puppeteers was immense. So many different strings to control even before  you get round to animating each intricately made figure… I was fascinated by the neck of the horse – such nice wooden joints and such an easy movement to it!  However for me it suffered the same fate as the real circus it aimed to replicate. Each act is on then off which is fine up until the fourth act, and then the pace and the format start to work against the skills on show. It was 50 minutes long and for me could have been half that length – in fact there was enough material of a high quality for two different circus shows.

Vita Marcik are a puppet company from the Czech Republic and they presented their version of Snow White for this festival. It comes in a lovely little portable set which uses counter-weighted fabric screens and a box that turns round and opens up to offer a nice variety of locations for scenes. The two puppeteers are more interested in story-telling than in exquisite manipulation, so the puppets tend to be handled rather than animated. This one suffered from the amount of people who showed up to see it. From where I was standing it really was difficult to see the Seven Dwarves! 

The highlight of the festival was Opera Barroca by the Forman Brothers (sons of Czech film director Milos Forman). This was an indoor show and its title suggested some puppet version of high art. High art was certainly involved but there was nothing stuffy or precious about it at all. The overall look was refined and appropriately classical – the puppets were traditional in appearance and beautifully made, the colours of the backdrops were sombre, the lighting suggested gas-lamps, and the set appeared to sit in the sound-box of a harpsichord. The harpsichordist sat in front of the stage like the orchestra in a pit and accompanied the action.

And action there was. The basic premise was of a composer in a house writing music and we saw what was going on in the various storeys of the house. The action even travelled up to the roof where a character sang from a chimney pot that swayed in the wind. The heads of the puppeteers were visible above the booth and from time to time you could see their hands in the booth as they manipulated the puppets. Like the scenes in the house, the performance was also multi-levelled – the puppeteer’s hands became characters in their own right, moving a character in a chair forward or back if he wasn’t quite in the right position. Sometimes the puppets got fed up with this behaviour and attacked a hand as it fiddled with a bit of the scenery. At one point two of the puppeteers had a dispute about how fast the scene should be played so presented a slow-motion version of a scene previously deemed to have been performed too quickly. At another point a puppeteer accidentally drops a banana-skin onto the stage with inevitable consequences.

But best and funniest of all were three tiny little puppet children who caused chaos at all times and who inflicted high levels of violence on each other and on the larger adult puppets. At times they swarmed all over a prostrate figure like hunting dogs tearing at their prey, at one point they became stage-hands given the task of bringing the curtain down, and at other times an adult thwacked them off the stage with a broom and a real cartoon sound effect. You had the impression that in devising the show the company considered every permutation of violence between three children and two adults, and managed to fit all of them into the narrative. Genuinely hilarious.

As well as its violence the show had lyrical and poetic scenes with one of the adults flying over the rooftops on a swan and the chimney flue dissolving before our eyes to reveal a world within. The puppeteers donned masks (larger versions of the carved puppet heads) and came out into the audience to further alter the scale and staging of the show. If this company has not been to the UK before (and even if they have) I strongly urge some enterprising promoter to bring them over.

Most festivals in the UK talk in terms of building up an audience over the years. In Santander it was more a case of fighting them off – obviously the indoor shows had seating capacities which determined how many could see each show but for the outdoor work 500 - 600 people showed up for every event. For our show, Brain Wave, the rope semi-circle on the floor which usually has the power to halt people in their tracks kept creeping ever closer to the front of the set as more people piled in to watch.  Proof if need be of the hunger the Spanish public have to watch puppet theatre.

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See www.mafsantander.com or you can find the MAF Santander fan page on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/MAF-SANTANDER-Muestra-Internacional-de-Artes-Fantasticas/150677267066

Image credits top to bottom:
Whalley Range All Stars, Brain Wave; Karromato, Circo de Madera;
Teatro de Automata;

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