All images by Ctibor Bachratý

STORIES OF WALLS

Bratislava Puppet Theatre, Bratislava, SLOVAKIA

Direction, adaptation: Katarína Aulitisová
Concept:  Katarína Aulitisová a Markéta Plachá 
The production was based on stories from anthology Stories of Walls by Michael Reynolds
Authors: Michael Reynolds, Andrea Camillieri, Olga Tokarczuk, Heinrich Böll, Didier  Daeninckx
Dramaturgy: Peter Galdík
Set design, puppets, costumes: Markéta Plachá
Music: Fero Király 
Cast: Anna Čonková, Jaroslava Hupková, Ľubomír Piktor, Lukáš Tandara, Peter Pavlík

What I Saw

 

The Bratislava Puppet Theatre’s Stories of Walls draws from Michael Reynold’s anthology of the same name. In five separate stories characters deal with fear, anxiety, loneliness, and isolation in the form of walls, both visible and hidden. Linking the stories is an eight year old boy, represented by a marionette, who has isolated himself in his room, hiding from his parents. Reinforcements, or maybe aliens, are deployed to ferret him out. By the end we learn that the walls in his house were built by his parents who have emotionally separated and have therefore alienated their son. 

The stories all have folksy, fable-like qualities and are at turns playful, sad, and even gruesome. They include an old man named Mr. K who is so afraid of people that he builds literal walls around himself, growing more enclosed until he suffocates in a coffin of his own making. He becomes a ghost who is now afraid of other ghosts – the irony being that ghosts can walk through walls. A dog loves his job working for a border guard who in turn finds his work miserable – until he allows a group of refugees to pass. A frail, sensitive boy grows up to become a king determined to protect his country. He studies other “famous walls” including the DMZ separating North and South Korea, Guantanamo, and “the wall dividing the United States and Mexico.”  He builds his own (unwanted by his subjects) wall, but ultimately dies from a blood clot. His downfall was always inside, and no wall could protect him. 

With production and puppet design by Markéta Plachá, each story generally included only one puppet in the ensemble, and that puppet often portrayed the marginalized and isolated figure. Watching this tiny marionette surrounded by adult humans not only drew focus to the puppet, but emphasized its vulnerability and fragility, fostering in me a keen rush of protectiveness. I left with the sense that though walls may bar us from others, only human touch and connection will save us. 

The initial inspiration for Stories of Walls came from the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Poland. The company’s goal was to create a piece that would be accessible to their target audience of pre-teens, but to tell the story in metaphor, not realism or documentary. This impulse led to the theme of freedom, which post-Communism, is still a very resonant question for Slovakia. The company contemplated not only personal freedom but its impact in a community. Working with Reynolds’ Stories of Walls, they decided on the pieces “The Man who Feared People” by Andrea Camillieri, “The Man who Hated his Job” by Olga Tokarczuk, “Children are Civilians Too” by Heinrich Boll, “Christmas Wall” by Didier Daeninckx, and “1969, 1989, 2009” by Michael Reynolds because their themes of manipulation and dictatorship were not anchored to a specific event and felt timeless and universal. 

To create the piece they invited actors to read only the short story that they were in and tell it to their fellow ensemble members from a character whom they created – a servant, a dog, a mother. This method brought a new, fresh perspective to the work, by utilizing the performers' creative input.

Stories of Walls has been performed mostly in schools where the children, according to Bratislava Puppet Theatre, are less burdened by a need for structure and a moral than adults are. Children are also happy to add their own interpretation to the material, as opposed to adults, who seek explanations from the artists. 

Slovak program curator Júlia Rázusová was drawn to the piece not only for its direct thematic connection to the festival, but the sophisticated thoughts and ideas it provoked in the children at the performance she attended, who personalized it by analyzing their own positions within their classrooms. Describing the piece as “playful but not naive,” she added, “In the Slovak tradition, it’s a brave act, because theatre for kids tends to be simple. We forget that they’re very smart and intuitive.” 

Stories of Walls director Katarína Aulitsová conceived the piece with designer Plachá. Aulitsová is in her second year as Bratislava Puppet Theatre’s Artistic Director, and in her thirty years as a director in the private theatre she has sought out themes that resonate with the public, tackling not only politics, but love and relationships. In her time at Bratislava Puppet Theatre, which was founded in 1957, the company has challenged their audience by focusing on more serious and complex themes, including death and divorce, though in the past they have produced simpler – and more popular – work, such as fairy tales. 

As they engage in these complicated themes and present work that steers more towards metaphor than didacticism, Bratislava Puppet Theatre faces the additional challenge of overcoming preconceived notions of what puppet theatre is and can be – that it is only for children and therefore must be simpler and less sophisticated and professional than other forms of theatre. This stings Bratislava Puppet Theatre dramaturg Peter Galdík, who says that they create theatre of great value, in addition to the education and outreach they perform.

At the post-show discussion between Rázusová, Aulitsová, and Galdík, an audience member observed that puppeteers have been struggling with this stigma since the fall of communism, when puppetry was used for didactic purposes and puppets were viewed as toys. 

About the Artist

Katarína Aulitisová (1964)
graduated in puppet theatre at the Theatre Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. She has had many directorial engagements, mostly in theatres in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but also in Germany, Belgium and Slovenia, for instance in DRAK Theatre in Hradec Králové, in the State Puppet Theatre in Bratislava, in Aréna Theatre in Bratislava and at the Milan Sládek Pantomimentheater in Cologne. In 1990, she co-founded the independent Theatre PIKI with Ľubomír Piktor, and was involved in many interactive projects and festivals (Puppeteering Bystrica, Puppeteer’s Chrudim). In 1990 – 2009, she co-wrote the children’s TV show Elá hop, where she also performed.

Since 2012, she is a lecturer at the Puppeteering Department of the Academy of Performing Arts in Bratislava. She authored theatrical adaptations, plays and television screenplays, and also collaborates with the magazine Slovenka on stories about children’s rights.

For her activities at Theatre PIKI, she has earned over forty awards in acting, playwrighting, directing, creative achievement or most humane message. She represented Slovakia at the Slovak Culture Days in Canada and at Eurokids Festival in Washington, D.C.

© 2020 by CITD.