Marionettes are becoming the safest and most interactive entertainers at these times. 8-centimetres-tall cute trolls, 6-meter-tall gigantic mantises… Which stories tell the unique performers during street shows? Learn from their creators street artists Yaroslava Bykova (Plovdiv) and Plamen Ivanov, Fireter (Sofia).
98 years of puppets history in Bulgaria
World Puppetry Day which we celebrate every March 21 is a great occasion to explore one of the most salient parts of Bulgarian culture – puppets-making – at different levels. The special attitude towards toys and their links to nature is reflected in many Bulgarian traditions. Bulgarians are known to create the most original puppets in Europe.
Making Martenitsa is the best example. Millions of Bulgarians every year on March 1 create red and white bracelets with or without small puppets. People believe that kind spring spirits help to attract all good things to life. And this pagan tradition has become the favourite one for the whole nation.
In this post, together with modern artists Yaroslava Bykova and Plamen Ivanov, I invite you to learn about incredible Bulgarian puppets and performances they create.
Let’s start with a brief historical overview of the modern Bulgarian puppet theatre. The main event signalling its systematic development was the first organized theatrical puppet performance ‘The Beetles’ in 1924 (Sofia). The puppets theatre evolved along with the alternative form – wandering puppeteers.
Since then, puppets theatres have emerged in all 28 Bulgarian regions, and the Bulgarian society has integrated puppets-making and puppets performances on different levels. One can see puppets shows everywhere. They are the best exhibitions of modern Bulgarian puppetry.
Puppets-making in Bulgaria is a practical art-form used for education, entertainment and making money. It benefits and enriches society because people select what makes sense to them and apply those experiences to their lives.
With special puppets-making workshops, Bulgarian children learn traditional craft and sustainable practices from 3 years old. In Sofia and Burgas, some children’s centres combine puppet-making and performing workshops. In Varna, at creative classes, 4-year old learn to create puppets from recycled materials.
Experimenting with puppetry and other art forms, many modern artists create original projects that wow a wide range of audiences both in Bulgaria and abroad. The puppets projects of Plamen Ivanov, Fireter and Yaroslava Bykova are the best illustrations. The former also skilfully rethinks pagan traditions in many shows and reflects Bulgarian nature in his puppets (the snail-mobile and puppets of mantises).
Yaroslava’s marionettes are popular with theatre lovers in England, France, Ireland, Russia and the USA. The performances of Fireter cheered up spectators in England, Greece, Germany and Russia.
In the following interviews, each artist shares the secrets of their incredible marionettes and fairy-tales they create.
Felting puppet theatre
Slava, your woollen theatre has become a colourful feature of modern Bulgarian street art. Performances in Varna, Plovdiv… Where the idea came from?
I make toys all my life. But I began working with wool 12 years ago when I was still living in Russia. It was then when I saw for the first time a puppet theatre from Plovdiv. They came to my home town Omsk for a festival.
I was deeply impressed by the Bulgarian marionettes. I started ordering Bulgarian wool and making different toys, pictures, clothes and then marionettes. I’ve never seen better wool, really! And while choosing where to live in Bulgaria, my family considered only two options: Plovdiv, the creative region, and Kardzhali, the wool production centre. But when we saw Plovdiv, we fall in love with the city and stayed there.
Which techniques do you use for making puppets?
Only felting. It’s the process of producing a creative artefact by combining and compressing the loose fibres or wool.
I love this means of expression because it allows a great deal of creativity and all artworks have their individuality and look incredibly sophisticated.
I create miniature marionettes for amateur theatre lovers, but I also make larger puppets for creative professionals. Several years ago, famous Russian writer Faina Grinberg ordered a puppet of François Villon that she needed to understand better the storyline of her next play.
How much time does it take to make the smallest puppet?
It’s needed a minimum of 3 days of intensive work to create the smallest personage of a woollen theatre, a figure 8-centimetres long. For one puppet, I use between 20 and 30 grams of wool.
And how do you chose protagonists for woollen theatres?
All the little performers are from our, my children’s and mine, favourite cartoons and fairy-tales such as Mumintrolls and My Neighbor Totoro.
You frequently experiment with your puppets at different events and street shows. I still remember your incredible theatre in the coat. And how do those who buy your theatre use it?
My first theatre went to an American acting school to teach students performing arts. The teacher personally selected the set of puppets in ‘Rukadelnitsa’.
Many art lovers from England. France, Ireland, Russia and Bulgaria order woollen theatres as gifts for children or home performances. I’m happy that my toys entertain people during these difficult times and provide many with ideas for pleasant pastimes during prolonged COVID restrictions
Activating gigantic puppets by Fireter
Plamen, the Fireter collection has some of the giant dolls in Europe – over 6 meters. What kinds of creatures do you have?
We can roughly divide them into four groups: animals, human dolls, fairy creatures and vehicles.
Our biggest ones are the 7-meter-long spider and the 6-meter-long giant mantises. Only the big blue giants of similar size can compete with them in scale. Last September, they debuted at a festival in the mountains in our favourite Plovdiv.
The blue giants, our newest puppets created seven months ago, can be put into a group of “human dolls”.
Firemobiles are another category of our dolls-props. Undoubtedly the most outstanding is the snail-mobile. It’s a giant vehicle in the shape of a snail made of wood and metal with many hiding places and small surprises for children, moving on its own and driven by a crazy professor. This group can also include our Christmas glowing and singing pumpkin.
Another group represents a “group of fairy creatures”. We can add a green forest dwarf and his sister Clotilde (12 years old), one of our first puppets of the size of large children that we operate from stilts.
Royal De Luxe performers, known for their giant puppets, operate them with cranes and dozens of performers. How do you manage your big puppets?
Well, we don’t have so many resources for expensive equipment as our French colleagues, but thanks to our creative team, we find more affordable means to create fantastic shows our spectators love.
In our giants, we combine creativity, feasibility and safety matters. Innovative materials ensure impressive designs of our puppets. Mastery of our performers on stilts animates all those fantastic creatures.
We are always happy to watch how our audience interacts with our puppets. And it’s safe because our performers are very mobile and the puppets’ constructions are flexible and light.
How many actors manipulate your puppets?
You will be surprised but only three artists on stilts operate each of the 6-meter blue giants. And only one person runs each of our green mantises, a puppet on four stilts.
In fact, very few Fireter performers dare to manoeuvre green creatures because it is quite challenging as they are the heaviest and most dangerous costumes we have. There are fans inside, and we also leave some water for the contractor to avoid dehydration.
What stories do your marionettes tell spectators during street performances?
Our genre is the fairy tale, and to create another story, we collaborate with the best authors and musicians. For our giant mantises, we created a story about dangerous creatures. A black witch controls them and walks them through the central parts of the city. She does her best to prevent them from causing damage.
With big cheerful blue giants, it all begins with dances in the woods. Our fire performances add more dramatic details to the show, and in this way, we experiment with different art genre and always offer our audience something new.
Another artefact – the snail-mobile – is not just a strange large vehicle, but a labyrinth of entrances through which the little kids can enter a stick where surprises await them or open a fairy window and find an old suitcase there. And what inside, you may ask? Well, come to us, and you will see. It’s absolutely safe to visit our shows even now – our gigantic puppets are very high at a safe distance from the audience.