Shanghai International Studies University (SISU) – July 10, 2015

How the Czech Tradition of Puppetry Perseveres

By Elaine Chen Xiaoyang

PRAGUE — In a sunny and peaceful afternoon, a 10-year-old Czech girl, Frantiska Nekvasilova, watched a puppet movie in TV and immediately told her mother that she wanted to be a puppeteer. The girl was so creative that she used potatoes and papers to make puppets, which all depended on her own design. Now 52-year-old Frantiska has been a puppeteer of a puppet shop, Truhlar Marionety. Her passion about hand-made puppets never fades away, even though the machine-made mode brings more and more overwhelming challenges to the traditional crafts.

“If you stroll on the streets of Prague, you’ll see various puppets which are even more than tourists in Prague. Puppets belong to traditional crafts in the Czech Republic and are very precious to us,” Frantiska continues sewing a dress for her new-made marionette and says.

More than half of the residents in Prague are enthusiastic about puppet, according to Nekvasilova. But as time goes by, everything keeps changing. Since increasing tourists visit puppet shops and take their favorite puppets away everyday, more and more Czechs begin to make puppets for money. The quality of puppets just goes down. Frantiska walks up to a 40-centimeter-high clown puppet, holding its hand and says, “Once people made the clown’s hands only by hand, but today, more and more people tend to use machines to copy puppets, because the cost of machine-made mode may be tenth of that of hade-made way. They want to make more money and just lose their original hearts.”

The shop is 22 years old now, which was founded by Frantiska’s boss, Pavel Truhlar. “I really appreciate my boss,” Frantiska said. “He is a very nice man who fights to protect our traditions. He establishes puppet workshop to teach adults and children to make as well as perform puppets. We hope that the traditional and pure puppet craft would be handed down forever. ”

Frantiska and her boss are just two of thousands of Czechs working to fight against the negative impact of technology and keep their traditional crafts.

Ivan Steiger, a filmmaker and cartoonist, established a toy museum ten years ago to display his family collections of old European toys, of which more than half of the toys are handmade. The museum is in the tower of the Old Town Hall in Munich and enjoys great popularity. A staff of the museum, Anezke, explains that most of toys are nearly 150 years old. “They are reconstructed down to the smallest detail and show the strong power of traditional crafts to people nowadays,” she walks to a group of bear puppets and says, “for example, every bear here has different face and clothes. Only the hand-made crafts can produce such vivid and unique puppets. I think we should well understand this advantage of traditional crafts.”

The 20-year-old Galerie Michael was another puppet shop in Prague. The puppets here are made of wood and plastic and different in size, color, and prize. “They are made by different families,” a staff, Denisa Bartosova, said. “There’s cooperation even in the same family. Someone cut the woods and someone else makes the clothes, altogether they may finish a simple puppet in several days, and the bigger and more elaborate ones need more time to produce.” When more and more factories are constructed in many cities around world, Prague still remains many family workshops that stick to hand-made mode of production and send products to shops only once a month. “The time and energy that puppeteers spend making puppets are far more valuable than the materials,” Denisa says.

In addition to wooden and plastic puppets, some puppeteers in Prague also make cotton puppets. Leto Plne Hvezd is another 20-year-old shop that sells hundreds of kinds of cotton puppets. Tereza, a staff of this shop, said, “Compared with plastic and wooden puppets, cotton puppets bring different texture and appearances, which makes puppets more vivid and interesting.” Apart from tourists, local residents also come to buy their puppets. “What may surprise you a lot is that all the products are made by only three women. Although they have to spend more than eight hours per day producing enough puppets, they never give in to machines,” Tereza smiles proudly and says, “I know that they always feel warm and peace when they are making their dear puppets.”

Those old puppet shops and enthusiastic puppeteers are common in Prague. But why Czechs have such passions in puppets? Actually, puppets are not only toys for Czechs, according to Frantiska. She introduced that in 16th and 17thcenturies, because of foreign invasions, Czechs could speak Czech only during puppet shows. As mediums to ensure that Czech would never die out, puppets became more and more popular and almost every family play puppets for children. Even nowadays, doctors and teachers use puppets to communicate better with children. Frantiska holds a clown marionette and plays an offhand show with a big smile and vivid conversations. “There are always puppet shows in Prague, and we hold puppet art festival every year. I’m really satisfied that puppet has become one of the great symbols of Prague,” she said.

But as being discussed, everything keeps changing. Under the pressure of factories, the traditional crafts have risks of recession because of its inefficiency and imperfect. “I’m afraid that in the future, puppets would only appear in the Prague museums,” Frantiska said with tears in her eyes. “The king of many people’s lives is money. They make products by machine, which is without deep emotion and not satisfying.”

Until now, hand-made puppet shops are more than luxury and machine-made souvenir stores in Prague. But no one knows exactly what will happen after a few years. Mozart, who composed the famous puppet show Don Giovanni, said, “You will understand the spirit of Prague puppet if you think with your heart.” And Frantiska also said that hand-made puppet has been a kind of art form. Special schools and workshops teach children and adults to make as well as perform puppets. “I help my boss to operate our shops as well as the puppet workshop. We will expand them and search for more puppeteers to fight together. Anyway, my passion about protecting our traditional crafts will never fade away,” she said.