Ishmael Falke and Sandrina Lindgren

Puppet appeal 

Finland's professional puppet theatre sector is diverse and thriving with bags of international appeal.

New Finnish puppet theatre appeals to adult audiences both in Finland and abroad. Some 130,000 tickets were sold during the 2018–2019 season, while the puppet show Invisible Lands (in the picture above) was the most frequently performed Finnish production abroad in 2019. What is the secret behind the rise of the puppets? We posed the question to Ishmael Falke and Anni Sundbacka.   

Ishmael Falke, as one of the members of the Livsmedlet duo behind the highly successful Invisible Lands performance, how would you explain the recent rise of interest in Finnish puppet theatre?  

It's true that the Finnish puppet theatre scene has developed greatly during the last few years. Puppet theatre has gone from being a marginal artform that people deem to be of interest only for children, to something that is now also made for adults, is of interest to large institutions and for which great resources are allocated. Regardless, it is still a marginal form of course.  
I would say that the single most important factor in this development has been the Turku University of Applied Sciences and the puppet theatre program they used to offer, as well as all the international teachers that the program attracted. Over 100 puppeteers received their degree from the university, and this in turn created a community of puppeteers in the city of Turku, which made Turku – a relatively small town in Western Finland – the liveliest puppet theatre capital between St Petersburg and Berlin. No other city in the Nordic countries has as many puppeteers as Turku.  
The degree programme – which they no longer offer – is behind the most successful arts exports from Finland in recent years. The Turku puppet scene is now known not only in Finland but abroad as well.  

Anni Sundbacka, as the executive director of the Aura of Puppets network, do you think it would it be right to describe the Finnish puppet theatre scene as a bit of a cultural phenomenon? 

I definitively think we can. We're not as bound by hundreds of years of tradition, as the case is in France for example. This means we have developed a culture of experimentation, and a growing focus on adult audiences. Although puppet theatre is by no means part of the mainstream yet, it is possible to discern a new kind of interest in puppet theatre.  
We have worked diligently in both Turku and Helsinki in order to find and develop new audiences, and in recognition of this work, institutional theatres have utilised both puppeteers and puppet technologies in order to present works on their larger stages. One of the current trends in puppet theatre is to make the stories we depict more socially conscious and relevant for contemporary audiences.  
It's possible to depict sexual violence on stage using paper dolls rather than actors, as paper dolls can be utilised in ways actors cannot. 
I think there's a greater awareness now of the ways in which puppet theatre can enable such stories to be told. For example, It's possible to depict sexual violence on stage using paper dolls rather than actors, as paper dolls can be utilised in ways actors cannot. But I would also add that the major force behind this phenomenon is the community of independent puppeteers, and the collegiality that exists between us. This is what has kept our network going, as together we can produce more. I think the culture of supporting and celebrating each other is quite rare within the arts in general. Within our community we understand that the success of someone else promotes the whole field.  
Ishmael, your performance Invisible Lands, which premiered at the height of the 2015 refugee crisis, was the most frequently performed Finnish production abroad last year. How did that come about? 
Sandrina Lindgren and I were able to develop the technique – how to use our bare bodies and skin as landscapes into which we place the tiniest of figurines – for a whole year. Still, when we conceived of the premise of the production, we imagined the topic would be relevant for a year, unfortunately the theme of refugees is as topical now as it was back then. There's a need for productions especially in Central Europe dealing with the refugee crisis, productions that can handle and discuss the topic.  
Finland is a great place to develop experimental performances, but the audiences for these performances is too small.
We started off by performing at puppet festivals, but soon found ourselves at festivals on visual theatre, and then later at larger theatre festivals. The imagery that we use is what everyone is familiar with, everyone has seen the same images on TV and in newspapers. Our production shows the world we live in and recognize but offers a way in which to experience it in a different manner, physically.  
Finland is a great place to develop experimental performances, but the audiences for these performances is too small. We are dependent on international audiences for our productions.  

… how did you manage to get such a wide array of countries and festivals to showcase your performance in?  

I would say that we have facilitated half of the guest performances ourselves, and the rest have been facilitated by our agent in Paris, who we were fortunate to sign to in connection with a TIP Fest in Turku a few years ago. There's a great benefit to having an agent who knows the French and German markets, as they have their own touring platforms and production traditions. 

Anni, Ishmael mentioned TIP Fest as a great platform for showcasing Finnish puppet theatre. The next TIP festival is coming up in November. As Aura of Puppets is the festival convener, how are your plans progressing?  

We are still monitoring the situation but progressing with our plans. Our strategic goals are focused on international exchange and export, which is challenging during a pandemic, but our artists are motivated. We will stream the Belgian performance Dimanche for a live audience during the festival.  
The scale of this performance is so large we would not have been able to get it to Finland for years, but the pandemic has changed our thinking. Even though live performances are still the highlight, we are focused on creating a light festival in terms of the carbon footprint, where discussions and workshops can be facilitated through digital means.  

… and what can we expect to see in November?  

We are offering a wide variety of works for different audiences, something light and happy, something to bring us together. A strong communal bond typical of all TIP Fests.  

And Ishmael, when can we see you next?  

I'm currently working on a production with the Grus Grus Theater called Väistämätön (The Unavoidable). It will be an object theatre production par excellence with objects as the main characters about our tendency to turn the most random acts into one coherent narrative. It's about our history, our way to experience history and how everything is just a long chain of events. It will premiere on November 5the during the next TIP Fest in Turku.  
TINFO / Linnea Stara, Sep 21, 2020 

The full Turku International Puppet Festival (TIP Fest) programme on 4 – 8 November 2020 will be made public in the beginning of October.  

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