Puppet master Mirek talks about Czech marionettes

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From my childhood I can remember seeing a number of different puppet shows. From freakish horror movie mannequins that talk to local children’s productions in my primary school, there has never been a puppet that lacks intrigue for me. I even owned a cheap marionette for a few years. The Czech Republic has a long and rich tradition of puppets and Mirek and his carefully crafted creations have been a big part of it. The chance to sit down in the centre of Mirek’s workshop surrounded by puppets and torsos of all walks of life was certainly a memorable experience. Read the interview below for an inside look at a puppet master and his craft, and the fascinating past, present and future of this industry in the Czech Republic and Central Europe.

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Where are you from originally Mirek?

I moved to Prague at the age of 15 to study wood carving and art and craft. But I’m originally from Hradec Králové.

A nice city, and how did you get into the puppet industry?

With puppets I started at the age of 6. I was a visitor of a very good puppet theatre called Drak or Dragon in English. That was a big influence. In high school we did a lot of carving but I didn’t think about puppets until later when I studied at a theatre academy for puppet design. Now I also teach design at our workshops. I make them both for theatres and for shows. About 15 years ago, my wife Leah started to do workshops where people could learn the rich tradition of Czech puppetry. Then about ten years ago we started to work with the Hafan puppet film studio and have since developed quite unique and original animators for film animation, not to mention the professionals that we have also worked with there. The studio is now very well known and we teach a lot of foreign students the tradition of film puppet making in our workshops. These days, it’s mainly about a combination of theatre and film puppets.

How many teachers are in this field of puppets?

For marionette making workshops we have about 10 or 12 people working with us. 4 or 5 of them are wood carvers. We also have some people teaching manipulation – professional puppeteers. And we have professional painters and professional costume designers like Dana here (pictured). We also have puppet or theatre directors who make short shows with our students. Altogether the process involves drawing, cutting wood, carving, painting, stringing and manipulation.

There certainly are a lot of people involved. It seems like a big industry. Is there always something going on?

In some segments it’s easier. With film animation, if you have a budget you can have a job for two or three years, then one year without…. or 5 years without. You need to find other things to survive. With puppets and theatre, you can try to sell a show to them or perform with them. Yes, it’s hard but they must do what they can. It’s not an easy field right now sure. Probably a lawyer would be a better option! (laughs)

But without the creativity and the fun! Do you just make the puppets or are you also a puppeteer?

I’m not trained as a puppeteer. I studied puppet design. I also perform with Leah; we have made several shows but we don’t want to take jobs from professional puppeteers. Leah is performing with young kids in kindergartens or special workshops. We also organise small puppet festivals like Teatro Toch festival which is always on the last day of the summer holidays in Kampa.

How much does it cost to make an average sized puppet?

It can be around 8000-16000Kč. It depends on how carefully detailed it is carved and painted. And it also depends on costumes.

Do you have one that you think is your favourite?

Hmmm well right now we have some puppets here for the Snow White show. I like this bad queen a lot! She is special and has character.

And how does the Czech Republic compare to other countries?

Of course, we are the best! (laughs)

It wouldn’t surprise me, I’ve seen puppets everywhere here in Prague.

It is a central European tradition – especially the marionettes. Because of history when there was the nationalist movement in the 19th century, puppet theatre became very popular. It was the only cultural theatre performed in Czech.

The only one?

Yes, there was a movement of amateur puppet theatres and family theatres. At the beginning of the 20th century, every family had a puppet theatre in their home, but that was killed by TV.

I think a lot of people say similar things about TV. And where would you say this culture is heading for the future?

Jiří Trnka – he merged puppets in film using animation and that is going well. There are some professional film studios in Prague that have survived. Both film and advertising use puppets from time to time too.

And how did you meet your wife Leah? Did you meet through your work?

Yes, about 20 years ago. She moved just after the revolution to teach English but eventually moved to theatre because she worked in and studied literature and theatre in America. She combined education with theatre and puppets.

Which puppet would you make real if you could?

I think an angel.. That would be nice, no? Not a skeleton.

So your next workshop is specifically focused on skeleton puppets?

Yes, this Spring workshop is smaller than the big ones that we do in summer and focuses on acrobatic puppets used centuries ago, they are very special. It’s mainly for specialists. A lot of mechanisms and unique characters. For shows, the Wizard of Oz will be the next big one and the premiere will be on the 5th of April, around the same time that we’re doing the skeleton workshops. Then on the 1st of May we will have a film animation workshop.

What films or shows inspire you? How can someone get a good idea of the Czech puppet industry?

I think no one will make a mistake if they watch a Jiří Trnka film, these would be the best here. Hand won a lot of prizes, it was actually forbidden here in the Czech Republic.

It was forbidden? Why?

Because it was criticising Stalin’s dictatorship, but they let it be shown abroad and it did very well. And the Mechanical Grandmother also – very futuristic and very modern short film only 10 or 15 minutes long. You can find it online.

How would you describe Prague?

Puppets, puppets, puppets! (laughs) Also beer. A lot of interesting theatres, you just have to find them – they are a little bit hidden.

If you could go back in time and see anything, what would you choose to see?

It would be wonderful to see Prague and how it looked in the past. My son would enjoy a short trip to see the dinosaurs and I would definitely join him for that. So that’s only about 170,000,000 years ago.

Not very far back at all! What is your favourite thing to do in Prague on a Sunday?

Take a bike and ride somewhere. Maybe the river.

What are your plans for summer?

That’s our working season – three big workshops and the last one will be a theatre performance in a big festival. We will be working most of the time, but we might visit some friends in Ireland too.

Have you spent any time in the USA with Leah?

We usually go there once every two years to visit relatives and just stay there. We are in touch with a lot of puppeteers there and we also advertise our workshops in a magazine. A big part of our students come from the United states. We know the community quite well; it’s big and alive. They also have the Muppets.

Perhaps the most famous of all puppets! Mirek, thank you so much for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.

For more information on the upcoming workshops, visit the Puppets in Prague Facebook page or their website.

Written and transcribed by Ryan Keating. Photography by Petr Kurečka.

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