Survival through imagination. The tranformational power of figure theater

My original interest in perception came through working with contemporary music and listening. When performing contemporary music one frequently comes up agains a lot of resistance. In some people the resistance even seems to be there prior to acctually having heard the music; it´s simply triggered by the term «contemporary».

Listening to music is like any other sensory-based experience: it involves experiencing something through a personal lens of perception. Therefor I became interested in finding out if it was possible to affect this lens through the concert setting and thereby affect the listeners experience of the music. Hence concert lectures about listening as an art form.

Awareness of our own lenses of perception not only makes us able to have a richer experience of art, it also makes us less prone to personal bias or unconscious prejudice.

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

But what about those experiences which actually demands that we add to them something of our own in order for us to be able to experience their magic? This blog article goes into this through the personal angel of my own family history.

To each vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen, and bearing some likeness to it


This quote by the philosopher Plotinus was originally related to spiritual experiences, but could just as easily refer to the magical world of the figure theatre. How we experience puppet theatre or figure theatre is highly dependent on the lens of perception we choose to meet it with. Do you see wooden parts, strings and fabric? Or Pierrot hopefully chasing a butterfly, a symbol for his longing for Columbine?

Puppet theatre is about imbuing dead material with life; a small divine process of creation where the spark of life originates at the point where the imagination of the audience meets the craftmanship of the performer. An adjustable desk lamp becomes an old man, a tea kettle turns into a sad hen. The transformation happens in the mind of the audience and starts at the moment when we as spectators willingly relinquish knowledge in exchange for wonder and imagination.

The puppet Titten Tei.

My father Karel Hlavaty, nicknamed “The wizard in Norwegian Theatre”, introduced and established, to a large degree, the world of figure theatre in Norway. With a mix of black light theatre, marionettes , masks, shadow figures and pantomime he brought these elements of the tradition of puppet theatre from his homeland Czechoslovakia, to Norway. During his life he also created some of the most beloved signature puppets of Norwegian TV, the best known probably being the puppet Titten Tei.

My father came to Norway in 1968, 49 years old, together with many other expats who were fleeing Czechoslovakia and the Soviet take-over at the time. In one of his notebooks there is a quote by Anatole France which states: «To imagine is everything, to know is nothing at all»

Imagination is often seen as something belonging to the realm of children and childrens games, or to the act of daydreaming and irresponsible escapism from a reality.
But imagination can also be one of our strongest defenses in the ultimate fight for survival.

Czechoslovakia , today The Czech Republic, is a small country with a short history, which, never the less, has counted both a philosopher and a poet among its presidents.
It was never a safe place for politicians. What other country has a separate name for «death by being thrown out of a window» because it happend so often to politicians? The first «Defenestration» took place in 1618 and initiated the 30 year war of europe, and the tradition was continued well into the 20th century.

A woodcut of the defenestration of 1618 in Prague.

In Norway puppet theatre was (and for many people still is) assosiated with entertainment for children. But in Czechoslovakia puppet theatre has always been just as much a tool agains oppression and a weapon against censorship as it has been about entertainment. With puppets, pantomime and figurative storytelling you can express that which is not allowed to be expressed in words. It is a tool of resistance against oppressive regimes. A necessary tool when living under a regime who uses surveillance and informants to keep its citizens under control.

We all construct our own safety nets in life, either mentally or physical; things, thoughts or actions which are meant to shelter and support us if the situation demands it.
In our house in Norway my father kept a cupboard stuffed full of cigarettes. He stopped smoking when I was litle but the cigarettes remained in our house, they even accompanied us to our next apartment when we moved many years later. More of them later.

In theatre, as in life, the story is driven forward by choices – the choices made by the characters and not the least: the consequences of those choices, our own and others.
My fathers life was to a large degree influenced and critically affected by other peoples choices.

From left to right: Neville ChamberlainÉdouard DaladierAdolf Hitler, and Benito Mussolini pictured before signing the Munich Agreement.

At a meeting in Munchen in September 1938 Great Britain and France chose to support Hitlers claim for certain parts of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. The Czech population of the area were to be removed by force and the area to be secured for the German speaking population who made up over 50% of the inhabitants.

My fathers mother was Sudeten German, but her husband, my father‘s father was Czech and therefor also their three sons. Probably in order to avoid problems of deportation my grandfather chose to take German citizenship in order to support his wife.

Choices always have consequences, but it is often the consequences we cannot predict which becomes the origin of legends and myths along with all the great theatre dramas through history, from Oedipus via Hamlet to Game of Thrones.

by Miriam Hlavaty

The consequence of my grandfathers choice to take German citizenship, which he did not predict, was that his two older sons, both below the age of majority, were forced into German military service. With threats of reprisals and severe consequences for their family and friends unless they followed orders my uncle was sent to the eastern front as a soldier and my father was forced to work as a telegraphist for the German army.
At one point my father was taken prisoner and sent to a Russian military camp where he sat for 10 months until the war ended, when he, along with the others, were set on a transport back to Prague in 1946.

I know very little about the time he spent in the prison camp, but I presume that this was probably the reason for the cigarettes stored safely away all those years later in a little house in Bærum, Norway, – a Norway of peacetime with oil riches and labor party government who welcomed exile-artists with open arms.

The welcome which my father received in Norway was quite different from the one he got when he returned to Prague in 1946 as an ex-german soldier and an ex-Soviet prisoner, at a time when The Soviet Union, in the aftermath of the war, still were seen as the heroes of Europe.

The popularity of the Soviet Union ensured that the communist party of Czechoslovakia was highly popular among many czecks at the time. But in February 1948, in what was to become known as the Czechoslovakian coup d’état, the communist party, with strong support from Moscow, seized power. What followed was a time of political brutal persecutions, underground activity, staged demonstrations and mass arrests of non-communist politicians.

At the end only a handful of non-communist members of the government were left, among them foreign minister Jan Masaryk who in clear terms refused to bow to the demand of communist and soviet conformism. One day in march Masaryk was found dead below the window of a house,- an event which was concluded, by the government and the official investigation, as a suicide.
With Czechoslovakias long track record of politicians with strained relationships to windows it might be no surprise that the suicide-conclusion became the origin of a term of speech popular in the country at that time:

– “Jan Masaryk was a very tidy man. He was such a tidy man that he even closed the window after himself after jumping”.

Czech´s have always had a knack for subtle irony, in literature and theatre as well as in life. Czechoslovakia became The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, a republic that were to keep its iron grip over inhabitants, artists and puppeteers for more than 20 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

During the 20 years from 1948 until 1968 my father was employed at 9 different theatres. On the one hand a confirmation of the fact that he was a much sought-after artist, on the other hand a consequence of his past. The soviet-friendly government was not lenient with an ex-german soldier no matter how involuntary.

In a small magical video on YouTube by Phillipe Genty, puppeteer Paul Daniels performs a short tableau without words where a string puppet becomes aware of its own strings and the man maneuvering them. The puppet then, after a moment of grief and despair, commits suicide by cutting its own strings.

What does it do to a person to live with a sense that other people are constantly pulling the strings that governs your life? In my minds eye I see the 20-year old telegraphist and later marionette maker, theatre director and scenographer, crouching over the table and listening to the small taps from the telegraph lines spreading through Europe like a neural network. Lines connecting and controlling, and reaching all the way into Russia, – a young boy caught up in a life, a war and a net, where the person holding the string cross was forever hidden behind a wall of military brutality or the grey, closed faces of bureaucracy.

In 1968 the Soviet forces rolled into Prague with tanks and brute force, eager to crush the small hint of rebellion known as the Prague- spring and installing its own people in the government. If it had been difficult for my father to retain a job previously it now became more or less impossible and under the pretense of a work-visit he came to Norway and applied for asylum.

With experiences like these it is no wonder that fate, seen as an unbending and dominating force, often appears in the works of my father. In his notebooks there are several quotes from the Greek tragedies, historical plays where the fate of every person always seems to be set in stone. A fate which the characters always try to fight, outwit or avoid but to no avail.

From the rehersals to the play Moon above the minstrel wagon.

Måne over gjøglervogna or Moon above the minstrel wagon was the name of the theatre piece which made my fathers name famous in the theatre world in Norway. With a unique mix of puppets, actors, black light theatre and pantomime it tells the story of three traveling minstrels from the Commedia del Arte-tradition: Pierrot, Harlequin and Columbine.

While Harlequin is the archetypal Alfa male, self-assured, boastful and magnetic, Pierrot is the melancholic dreamer, sensitive, romantic and longing for Columbine with a platonic love. Columbine is the eternal female principle, and is torn between the two men.
The fourth character in the play is Fate/death, portrayed as a gigantic skull and a pair of white gloved hands floating in a black void, who, with great relish, toys with the despairing Pierrot by distorting reality around him, until he is on the brink of suicide.
At the end Fate produces a rope tied as a noose and waits eagerly for Pierrot to take the plunge.

What saves Pierrot in the end is however neither strength and defiance, nor courage or determination. When all seems lost two delicate, quivering butterflies appear, chase away the skull and brings the sad and broken man back to life.

Poetry and femininity, vulnerability and transformation is what keeps despair at bay and calls us back to life.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Everything depends on our willingness to let ourself be enchanted, – to choose wonder, hope and imagination over despair and desperation. In the theatre we choose to allow actors and puppeteers to build an alternate reality with our imagination as building blocks. We choose to let a puppet of wood and nylon threads become alive and mirror back to us our own emotions, our despair and our hope.

And it is my belief that this “reality” which we create together in the magical dark pocket of the theatre is just as “real” as the reality which we all create every day of our lives.

All our perceptions, thoughts and attitudes are based on equal parts of observation and illusion. Constructed perceptions of reality which can make us turn our backs on a boat full of desperate humans in need, or stuff a cupboard full of cigarettes, in anticipation of the catastrophe which we are carrying with us in our heart.
In the case of my father: a heart which broke in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin wall.

“To know is nothing. To use once imagination is everything” says the quote of Anatole France in my fathers notebook.
For someone who valued imagination and wonderment, war in all its gritted certainty and glorification of the Big truth must have been the ultimate nightmare. For even if it is said that truth is the first victim in every war, each side of the conflict will always claim to hold the Real and Only Truth.

So maybe we could say that the first victim of every war is our ability to open ourselves in wonder and curiosity to that which is unknown; to lay down and leave behind our steadfast certainty of what is real and true and to explore the ability to see that which we don’t know is there until we look for it; until we recognize that we share a similarity with it.

To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen, and bearing some likeness to it.

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