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Berne’s tiny puppet theatre reveals a world of dreams

A new season of puppet theatre is underway in Berne with "Traumbaum" ("Dream Tree") opening up the fantasy world of dreams.

Created by Monika Demenga and Hans Wirth, the play at the tiny Berne Puppet Theatre is about a boy who sets off to find the sandman to complain to him about his nightmares. Eventually, the boy learns to accept and understand all his dreams.

“We started with a lullaby about a mother shaking her child’s dreams down from a tree,” explained Wirth, “and we built our play around that image. Like any fairy tale, the play tells a story and also communicates on a symbolic level – which is why it has something to say to children and adults.”

Directed with the assistance of Jiri Ruzicka, “Traumbaum” marks the start of the theatre’s eighth season. But it is Demanga’s 32nd as a puppeteer. Since Wirth joined her, the two have been creating puppets, writing plays and giving performances together for almost 25 years.

Demenga’s large figures, manipulated into strikingly lifelike movement by the actors on stage, belie the usual notion of puppets. The puppets’ faces, sculpted by Demenga and then cast in rubber, are highly individual and expressive.

“The idea of puppet shows as children’s entertainment is new,” Demenga told swissinfo. “For centuries puppets were like medieval jesters; they had the licence to say what no one else could get away with.”

Demenga explains that through traditional puppet characters like Kasper and Hanswurst in German-speaking countries, Polichinelle and Guignol in France, and Pulcinella in Italy, puppeteers were able to criticise powerful authorities with impunity. Holland’s Jan Klaasen, England’s Punch, Russia’s Petrushka, and Turkey’s Kargöz were similarly outspoken.

During the upcoming season, Demenga and Wirth will stage over 150 performances. Besides “Traumbaum”, they will offer a Christmas story and “Die Glaskugel” (“The Glass Ball”) from their repertoire.

As they do every year, they will also hire guest puppeteers to round off the season with a variety of new presentations. In addition, they will do a play for adults: Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince”.

“We’re delighted that parents and grandparents usually stay to see our plays instead of dropping children off,” says Wirth. “But getting them to come to evening performances for adults is much harder.”

Zurich, Geneva, St Gallen, Lausanne, Chur, and Winterthur also have puppet theatres, but only Basel’s has a strong adult following.

“It opened in 1943 for adults, not kids,” says Marianne Marx, who runs the Basel theatre with Wolfgang Burn, “and adults have stayed interested all these years.”

Unlike Demenga and Wirth, who use hand-, stick-, and shadow puppets, the Basel troupe works with puppets on strings. Every year Marx and Burn teach a course in puppeteering and then ask a few students to help with performances. “We pay them a little,” says Marx, “but they do it for fun.”

Young people interested in puppeteering as a career are, however, rare. “Young actors want to stand on the stage themselves, not act through puppets,” comments Ursula Pfister of the Zürich Puppet Theatre.

Susanne Brunner of Lausanne’s “Théâtre de marionettes” is concerned about the money needed to attract younger talent: “Without generous grants, a person can’t live on what puppeteering pays.”

Puppet theatres aren’t self-supporting because audiences have to be small: an audience of 150 is too many. “Otherwise you can’t see the puppets,” Demenga explains. “Plus you lose the quiet, intimate, dreamy feeling that we work to create.”

by Kim Hays

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR