Only a few blocks away from the Old Town Square is the oldest permanent puppet theatre in the Czech Republic. It is called Rise loutek (Kingdom of Puppets in English) and despite its fame and a tradition of almost 80 years it has always been largely made up of amateurs. Currently, Rise loutek has about 40 members, performs every Saturday and Sunday, and premiers two pieces per season. Klara Lichtagova has been with the theatre for eighteen years.
"In 1921, the group of Rise loutek was founded, and about seven or eight years later, the group moved into the theatre where we are now. So since 1928 we've been performing in this theatre without interruption. The founders of the theatre were Vojtech Sucharda and his wife, and after him the leader of the group was Bohumir Koubek. These two men, Sucharda and Koubek, were the most important personalities in our history. They both were sculptors, puppeteers and puppet makers."
The theatre's activities have withstood both four decades of communism and the arrival of capitalism. However, it could not resist the devastating floods which hit Prague in August 2002. Water got into the theatre, which is under ground level, and the theatre had to suspend its activities for half a year.
"Fortunately, we didn't lose any puppets, but we lost our archive, which was the biggest puppet theatre archive in the Czech Republic. We also lost lots of props, and without props we can't put on certain productions. The archive was very important because it included such things as the founding contract and documents from the 1920s. We lost most of this."
Sounds in the theatre, like the typical creation of a storm on a large sheet of metal, are usually done by the newest members, who are in the process of learning the puppeteer's craft. Becoming a full member of the group is subject to traditional rules, although these are far from strict compared to some decades ago. Frantisek Lichtag is Klara's father; he started frequenting the group at the age of ten.
"One becomes a member at the age of fifteen. Till that time, one is a beginner, and has to take part in some performances for at least three years. Currently, we have six or seven kids who are younger than fifteen. But of course today the situation is much different from the times when I was a newcomer. My beginnings consisted of seeing absolutely all performances from the auditorium; after two years of that I was allowed to peek backstage."
Unlike tasks of each newcomer, the ceremony of accepting a beginner as a full member has not changed since the 1920s, when Vojtech Sucharda started the tradition.
"The ceremony always takes place on the occasion of a general meeting. The newcomer has to take a vow to the chairman of the group. I can't recite the vow here because it's two pages long, but the message is that the person is an ardent puppeteer. After the vow, the adept is delivered several delicate blows to the head by a marionette beam. On this, he or she becomes a full member of the Rise loutek artistic association."
The theatre prides itself on several primacies. Besides having its seat in the oldest permanent puppet theatre in the Czech Republic, it is equipped for leading puppets from a distance of greater than 3 metres. This technique is more demanding because the transmission of the puppeteer's movement takes longer, but a ramp enables puppeteers to walk with their puppets in all directions in greater distances, so the entire space of the forestage can be used. However, there is yet another aspect in which Rise loutek was first. UNIMA is an abbreviation for the International Union of Marionettes, and Klara Lichtagova explains its connection to Rise loutek.
"UNIMA was founded in our theatre in 1929, so about one year after we'd moved here, and the contracts were signed here. UNIMA is the oldest international theatre organization in the world. It still exists, but I think that it's got less importance than it used to have. The international centre of UNIMA is in France. There are executive meetings, I think every two or four years. One of the top subjects is the encyclopaedia of puppetry, which has been finished and which should be issued next year. It's quite a big project - they've been working on it for twenty years."
The sound of the wind might be one of the more difficult ones to recognize for the youngest audiences, at whom the repertoire has been aimed throughout the history of Rise loutek. Frantisek Lichtag talks about the philosophy of the theatre.
"We aim our stories at young children. This might sound like a superficial phrase, but we actually want to educate them. We believe that the very act of getting dressed up and coming to the theatre with granny, mum or dad, creates a relationship with the theatre, and that builds some more general cultural milieu. Of course nowadays in the times of television, film and so on, the fight for audiences is much more difficult. Nevertheless, we still can't complain about a lack of people. There is a certain decrease in attendance. I remember times, when it was hard to get a ticket to Rise loutek."
The previous decades, however, did have some drawbacks. On the one hand, the Communist regime kept giving money to the theatre, which belonged to various state institutions like the Municipal Library for example. On the other hand, it censored the scripts and banned any tours abroad. Today, the theatre is artistically independent, but as a civic association, it gets no official state funding. Rise loutek, however, has devoted members and a good deal of good luck.
"Currently there are two groups performing in the theatre. The artistic association of Rise loutek and Via Praga, which puts on Don Giovanni. A contract with the Town Hall obliges Via Praga to pay us a considerable amount of money annually. This of course doesn't cover all costs, so the members subsidize the theatre, as well. Not only do we get no money for our work, but we even donate money to the theatre to keep it going."
Prague's children can only hope that Rise loutek stays alive for many more years. Otherwise, they might have to meet the famous figures of a king, a water sprite and a devil only on a computer monitor.
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