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Posts Tagged ‘puppets’

Photo: Philip Cutler
Zuni Maud, Bessie Maud, and Yosl Cutler on a 1931-1932 tour to the Soviet Union. Puppets are (L-R) Mahatma Gandhi, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, French Prime Minister Léon Blum, Wall Street, and Herbert Hoover.

Sometimes there things that we don’t think we can say that instead we put in the mouths of stuffed animals, pets, or puppets. In the early 20th Century, that’s what left-leaning Yiddish puppet masters found themselves doing more and more as international audiences lapped it up.

Eddy Portnoy writes at Smithsonian about Yosl Cutler and Zuni Maud, who “created a Yiddish puppet theater that fused traditional Jewish folklore, modern politics, and a searing satiric left-wing sensibility.

“Both immigrants from Eastern Europe, Cutler and Maud met in the New York offices of a Yiddish humor magazine called Der groyser kundes (‘The Great Prankster’), where both worked as cartoonists and writers of often surreal short stories. They became fast friends and opened a small studio on Union Square, where they sold artworks and painted furniture. Both were tangentially involved in theater set decoration; when Maurice Schwartz, the founder and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, asked the two to create puppets for a scene in a play he was staging at the end of 1924, they jumped at the chance.

“Puppets weren’t a common form of entertainment in Jewish culture. … But in the mid-1920s, puppetry had become hot in American theater. … Schwartz, who had his finger on the pulse of New York’s theater world, saw an opportunity to put puppets in his production of the Yiddish classic Di kishefmakherin (‘The Sorceress’). It would be the first time puppets would speak Yiddish on a Yiddish theater stage.

“But it never happened. … Schwartz decided that the puppets Cutler and Maud had created were too small to see from the house, so he cut the scene. The two would-be puppeteers took their creations home. As a joke, they began taking the puppets with them to the literary cafés they frequented and performed shtick for their friends. Someone suggested they start a Yiddish puppet theater. …

“At the end of 1925, Cutler and Maud set up shop in a space in the Lower East Side in what had previously been a children’s clothing factory. They briefly hired an artist by the name of Jack Tworkov, who had been trained in the art of puppet making by Bufano. During shows, they would set fabric cutting tables and simple wooden benches in front of the stage for the audience: a somewhat ramshackle production with a proletarian feel. Initially performing comic scenes and a modernized version of the traditional Jewish Purim shpil (holiday play), which included a variety of characters from the Lower East Side, they quickly garnered good reviews in New York’s Yiddish newspapers.

“Under the moniker Modicut, a combination of their last names, word spread, and their shows began to sell out. Adding to their repertoire, they included comic playlets, often including parodies of popular Yiddish theater songs. …

“In addition to lauding Modicut’s plays, reviewers noted how finely their puppets were constructed. Although they were caricatures and grotesques, their costumes were deemed authentic, from the silk robes and prayer shawls of Jewish traditional figures to the work clothes worn by Lower East Side laborers. Some of their puppets included unique, culturally relevant innovations, such as the rotating thumb or wagging thumb of a sermonizing rabbi, or the wiggling ears of their emcee. The first time Yiddish-speaking audiences saw homegrown characters on a puppet stage, their reaction was one of sheer joy. …

“They went on tour in 1928, bringing their Yiddish puppets up and down the Eastern seaboard, to parts of the Midwest, and even to Cuba. As they wrote and performed new skits, they became more politicized, actively engaging with and satirizing the news of the day. …

“They traveled to Europe, playing in England, France, and Belgium before heading to Poland, the largest center of Yiddish culture. In Warsaw, they played 200 sold-out shows, followed by 75 sold-out shows in Vilna. Reviews in the Yiddish press were effusive, and journalists were amazed that two ‘Americans’ could present something that was so authentically Jewish. …

“On the back of their European success, Modicut was invited to perform in the Soviet Union during 1931 and 1932. They prepared by writing skits addressing themes such as the oppression of the working class, and featuring sweatshops, corrupt bosses, exploitation, imperialism, the depression, and war. All of this proved popular to audiences in the USSR. …

“They worked together until 1933, when a fight of unknown origins caused them to split up the act. … In May 1935, Cutler went on the road, allegedly to California in hopes of making a full-length Yiddish puppet film, performing in Jewish communities along the way. It was on the road to Denver that Cutler and his puppets met their demise [in a car crash]. …

“Maud was devastated by Cutler’s death. Having worked together so intensely and successfully, he felt awful on account of their earlier falling out. He nonetheless continued to produce art and work in puppetry for the remaining twenty years of his life. Notably, he worked with puppeteer Nat Norbert Buchholz, who later taught the craft to Shari Lewis, who debuted her famed Lamb Chop puppet on Captain Kangaroo in 1956.”

“Cap’n Aroo,” as a kid I know used to say! Though not as insightful as the later children’s TV star Fred Rogers (who also used puppets to speak for him), he nevertheless entertained kids for 29 years. So here’s to puppets on Captain Kangaroo!

Read more about the Yiddish puppeteers at Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: PjrTravel/Alamy
The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people.

Never underestimate the power of the arts to affect the course of nations. In this story, puppets kept the Czech language alive during a period of repression by German speakers.

Jacklyn Janeksela writes at the BBC, “It was thanks to the humble puppet that the Czech nation – and its language – was inadvertently saved.

“In the 17th Century, when the kingdom of Bohemia was under Habsburg rule, the Czech language almost disappeared. …

“When the Protestant court left Prague in the early 1600s, the city fell into decline for almost two centuries. The new ruler, Ferdinand II, did not tolerate non-Catholics, viewing Protestants as a threat to his faith. Czech locals, mostly peasants and working class people, were forced to speak the German language of their invaders. Soon after, intellectuals, who had initially resisted the German language, followed suit. Even Czech actors began to perform in German as an official mandate. Czech became a mere dialect, and would have slipped into oblivion had it not been for some unassuming pieces of wood.

“The act of building puppets has long been a form of protest for the Czech people. Seventeenth-Century wood-carvers, who were more versed in sculpting Baroque seats for churches than human facsimiles, started making puppets for the actors of Bohemia soon after Ferdinand II came to power, as puppets were the only remaining entities that had the right to speak Czech in public places. While the rest of the country and its people adhered to the newly imposed German language, wandering actors and puppet-masters spoke through the puppets in their native Slavic tongue.

“It might seem unlikely that a few hundred puppets and puppet-masters could safeguard a language, especially through a loophole, but the people’s last remaining legacy to their past was tied to the puppet’s strings.

“It’s easy to see why these marionettes have found a home in Czech hearts, and why the magic of puppets continues to permeate the city. …

“In the streets, puppeteers make magic happen. I watched a puppet show in a charming cobblestoned square, where the puppet-master wore the velvety cap of a pageboy, pierced by a single plume that swayed along with the puppet’s movements. He used his puppets to beckon bystanders. Melodic medieval music accompanied the dance of a peasant male and young princess, a Czech love story with a plot twist that favours the underdog, the peasant who wins the heart of a far-fetched royal love.” Read more at the BBC, here.

With minority languages threatened around the world today, it’s worth remembering that a culture and way of life can be preserved through arts like puppet-making. See also my blog post on the historically important role of shadow puppets in Armenia, here.

Photo: Carol J Saunders/Alamy
Puppets have a special place in the hearts of the Czech people. For one thing, they saved the language in the early 1600s when German-speaking rulers prevented everyone but puppets from speaking Czech in public.

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Photo: Narek Harutyunyan
Armenian shadow puppetry uses light and shadow to bring folklore to life. Going back to the 1300s, the art is being revived in a more child-oriented form today.

Throughout the centuries, people have used puppets to express ideas that would be hard to express directly. The oldest version of shadow puppetry in Armenia addressed religious and reproductive topics. In its revived form, shadow puppetry passes Armenian folklore to a new generation.

Allison Keyes reports at Smithsonian, “Behind a screen, puppets mounted on long, slim sticks dance and sway, twirling, backlit so that only their dark shadows appear, while puppeteers called Karagyoz players sing, provide sound effects and create voices for the characters. An interpreter translates, telling in English the Armenian stories like a libretto for an opera, so the audience will understand.

“The Armenian Shadow Puppet Theater, known as Karagyoz, was especially popular in the 18th century. But it has roots dating back to the 14th century, with shared sources in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

“ ‘They are oldest in Egypt and the countries of Maghrib, Greece and the Ottoman Empire,’ explains Levon Abrahamian, an anthropologist and a curator of the 2018 Armenia program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. ‘Armenians were doing this in the Ottoman Empire because part of Armenia, Western Armenia, is now in Turkey.’

“Now, a new version of the Armenian Shadow Puppet Theater, called Ayrogi, is touring Armenia, staging modern performances reviving the traditions of the past. Ayrogi performed at this year’s Folklife Festival. … Some of the players travel by horseback, stopping to perform horse shows, songs, folk dances and shadow puppet shows.

“[Director Armen Kirakosyan says], ‘In Armenian theater, the puppets were colored in black, so it is a principle of shadow. The light comes from behind them in such a way that you have only shadows.’ Black and white, he says, has a far greater impact on the imagination, and the characters develop a much more menacing or hilarious presence in the minds of the viewers. …

“The stories Ayrogi tells now are for a general audience, and many are adapted for children. Modern shadow puppetry, Abrahamian says, is based on traditional folktales such as ”The Cat of Martiros.’ Martiros is a popular Armenian name meaning ‘martyr,’ and the theater company performs a series of tales about him.

“One story begins with a man who is content and free of troubles, says Kirakosyan in Armenian as Abrahamian translates. He laughs because the man’s life is about to get complicated.

“ ‘The man is complaining about this mouse, saying it is eating his shoes. . . People came and said, “We will help you,” giving him a cat. The cat solved the problem but created other problems, meowing, and the man says he can’t sleep. So the people say, “it is hungry, thirsty—give him milk!” But where would he get the milk? So they give him a cow to solve the problem. He had to have a field to have something for the cow to eat some grass. Lots of problems come, so they give him a wife! Now he has a lot of children, and when he is dying, he calls his eldest son, and tells him, “You can do anything you want, but never let a cat come to your house!” ‘ ”

More here.

Photo: Narek Harutyunyan
Armen Kirakosyan, director of the Ayrudzi horseback riding club and Ayrogi puppet theater, poses with shadow puppets.

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At the NY Times, Sindya N. Bhanoo notes some cool research on young children’s sense of fairness.

“Children as young as age 3 will intervene on behalf of a victim, reacting as if victimized themselves, scientists have found.

“With toys, cookies and puppets, Keith Jensen, a psychologist at the University of Manchester in England, and his colleagues [Katrin Riedl, Josep Call, and Michael Tomasello] tried to judge how much concern 3- and 5-year-olds had for others, and whether they had a sense of so-called restorative justice.

“In one experiment, when one puppet took toys or cookies from another puppet, children responded by pulling a string that locked the objects in an inaccessible cave. When puppets took objects directly from the children themselves, they responded in the same way.

“ ‘The children treated these two violations equally,’ said Dr. Jensen, a co-author of the study published in the journal Current Biology.

“In another experiment, when an object was lost or stolen, children tried to right the wrong by returning the object to the puppet it belonged to.

“ ‘Their sense of justice is victim-focused rather than perpetrator focused,’ Dr. Jensen said.” More at the NY Times, here.

The abstract for “Restorative Justice in Children” is posted at Cell.com.

Photo: Keith Jensen
Two puppets used in a study that aimed to learn how much concern young children have for others. 

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We went to Honk! in Somerville today. A few uncomfortable-looking masons and many counterculture bands marched to Harvard Square. It was a hoot. So nice to see these offbeat ’60s types are still springing up. All is not lost! The name of one band may give you a sense of where they are coming from: The Extraordinary Rendition Band. The Institute for Infinitely Small Things joined forces with the Occupy Boston contingent.

Represented below are Nomad Rights (a Tibetan group), unions (including the Postal Service), Darfur activists, and the Puppeteers Co-operative.

  

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Barefoot Books, the children’s book publisher, opened its retail store in Concord this past spring.

In addition to selling books, the shop offers storytelling and pottery every day and numerous other activities, like music, dance, and yoga for children. There is a puppet theater play area, a kitchen for food events, and toys. Note the list of August activities in the photo.

The neighbors, by and large, loved the way the company decorated this long-empty building. And they especially loved the new landscaping.

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