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Posted: March 20, 2013
Renowned puppeteer Nori Sawa will host a series of workshops in Prague where attendees will become familiar with the creation and handling of Bunraku puppets.
With more than 1,000 years of history, Japanese Bunraku puppet theater is as culturally rich as it is mechanically difficult. In it, traditional philosophical tales, often with depressing and hopeless endings, are expressed through the fluid movements of larger-than-life puppets. Each puppet requires three people to manipulate it, and productions are exclusively for adult audiences. However, when merged with modern European figure theater, Bunraku reaches a unique middle ground - one that is appropriate for all ages and involves puppeteers and actors alike.
Beginning March 25, Japanese puppeteer Nori Sawa invites artists, designers and those who are simply curious to attend a series of workshops that will not only teach participants about the overlap between traditional Bunraku and contemporary European puppetry, but that will also include hands-on crafting. The series of workshops, titled "The Art of Being Invisible" and held at MeetFactory, will be divided into two segments focusing on design and the manipulation of puppets respectively.
Each installment of the workshop will become more selective, as the difficulty increases from building a prototype to expanding the process. It culminates with manipulation and a full-scale production. Wishful participants must apply to take part in the series of workshops with Sawa.
"They can learn, they can make, they can act," Sawa says, "but more importantly, I need someone good, honest and humble."
Japanese Bunraku puppets
When: March 25-30, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Tickets: 1,800 Kč
The Art of Being Invisible
When: April 2-21
Tickets: 3,200 Kč
Sawa never received formal Bunraku training, which requires at least 25 years of dedicated apprenticeship to achieve a master's status. Despite this lack of traditional education, he says his students in the art of puppetry learn not only about history and movement, but also gain an understanding of significant Japanese virtues.
"I would like to give [participants] a feeling of Japanese discipline," says Sawa, who learned his skills through an intensive one-month tutorial at the Institute of International Puppetry in France and by studying at DAMU, the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
In the first weeklong segment of the workshop, participants will craft a prototype of the most significant part of a Bunraku puppet - the head - and will also learn about the craft's history. Intricate details in the building process will force students to practice disciplinary virtues like patience and dedication.
Using simple materials like wood and paper mache, Sawa plans to help participants make heads that are a comfortable handling size, much smaller than those of traditional puppets. Students will have to observe close calculations when painting their heads so that decoration does not inhibit subsequent movement - one of the ways Sawa will directly bring disciplinary teachings to the workshops.
With their crafted heads completed, participants will practice the most basic, yet crucial, element of Bunraku manipulation: a dramatic and fluid circular head motion. By drawing circles in the air with puppets' heads during stage performances, Japanese puppeteers dramatize emotions and are able to more clearly communicate with their audience.
In Sawa's second three-weeklong segment, selected participants will build upon techniques learned during the first installment. They will work with Sawa to enlarge the previously learned prototype process, creating full-sized Bunraku puppets - typically five or six meters tall. During this time, Sawa will also speak about the differences between and integration of Bunraku with European figure theater.
"It is a mixture of the actions of actors with huge puppets," Sawa says.
After combining these two forms of puppetry, puppeteers and actors must find a balance between hiding and revealing themselves. In the European style of figure theater, puppeteers are more frequently called actors and present themselves on stage, standing in stark contrast to the shy and hidden nature of Japanese puppeteers.
Following this second segment of the workshop, Sawa and a chosen team of designers, actors and puppeteers will use the puppets created as part of an outdoor theater production, scheduled to premiere in June. Participants in the workshop at MeetFactory will have the opportunity to be a part of the final production, which will tell a story that combines both Czech and Japanese fairytales.
Just like the puppeteers must balance a tension between performance styles, Sawa's goal to integrate different cultural stories will require a balance between thematic components.
"Japanese [stories] say 'life is empty,' which is far from the European fairytale," Sawa says. "But I like happy endings, so I would like to keep the hope."
The first segment of "The Art of Being Invisible" will take place March 25-30, and the second is scheduled for April 2-21. Those interested should send a résumé and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emily McDermott can be reached at