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Dream Tale Puppets

From Poland to America: My Life in Puppetry and Theatre – Notes on the Presentation at the Boston Area Guild of Puppetry Meeting

In May, 2013, my puppetry and work in Poland and US were the subject of a program which I presented for members of the Boston Area Guild of Puppetry at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in Brookline, MA. The following notes on the presentation were taken by Gail Kearns, a BAGOP guild member. They appeared in the July, 2013, issue of “The Control Stick”, newsletter of the Boston guild. Thanks to Gail for the permission to use the notes here.




The May program was presented by Cape Cod’s Jacek Zuzanski of Dream Tale Puppets. It was entitled “From Poland to America: My Life in Puppetry and Theatre.” Jacek talked first about the concept of “wonderland” and of the theater as a “gateway” or means of passage into this “wonderland.” Jacek, while not religious, does believe in “wonderland.” He has recently been given space for his studio and children’s classes in the John Wesley United Methodist Church in Falmouth, where he is now teaching children and others how to create “wonderland” for themselves.


Jacek says that there are two layers to think about when creating one’s own theatrical gateway into “wonderland.” The first layer is that of the story and which stories you choose to tell. The second consists of the tools that one uses to create the “passage” into “wonderland.” These include dance, puppets, movement, and more — whatever helps; all are ways to reach “wonderland.”


You the artist are always going to be the “hero” in the wonderland you create. But language is also important, and Jacek talked about the significance of language. Our cultures have different languages. And the language of the puppet arts is also complex and rich in its many forms. How are we to manage using language to gain entry into our “wonderland”? Jacek says that one way to do this is by giving life to one’s puppets. Working with puppets has taught him how to pass through the theatrical gateway.


Another key word when thinking about theater is “community.” Creating community and being part of a community can be another means of discovering “wonderland.” You work with others to find a common passion. And while telling one’s story, there really is no “I” in it because in working with others, the story has become “our” story; this is the “paradox of ‘I’” in the theater.


Jacek first began learning theater while in high school in Poland in an afterschool class in pantomime theater. Pantomime is “theater of the body.” This class led to an apprenticeship for Jacek in the professional Wroclaw Mime Theatre, which is known throughout the world. Here, Jacek worked with Henryk Tomaszewski, the founder and director of the theater. Jacek also studied in a puppet theater in the south of Poland called “Jeleniogorski Teatr Animacji,” or “Animation Theatre of Jelenia Gora.” Founder and director of this theater was Andrzej Dziedziul, who had begun his career working as a solo performer with dramatic texts using objects and props to represent characters. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, e.g., was performed with bottles that represented the characters in the play.


Jacek drew a contrast between the way puppetry is taught here in the United States and how it is taught in Poland. In Poland the student starts by learning the skills and arts of acting, and then of acting with puppets. LOTS of time in Poland is spent on acting skills and on using the body in motion.


Also, most Polish puppetry projects are done as whole class or as group projects rather than as individual projects. Here in America at the University of Connecticut, Jacek said, students begin with making puppets and creating their own shows. But creating one’s own show was only one of the final projects completed while studying the arts of puppetry in Poland.


Jacek also participated in projects conducted by the actors of the Theatre Laboratory of Jerzy Grotowski in the south of Poland. In Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre, there was not much puppetry done at all. Jacek told us of projects of the theater from the 1980’s in which groups consisting of actors and non-actors created and performed unscripted experiential activities without audiences. These projects were created to enable participants to reach the potential of their creative and physical abilities. The creators of these projects developed techniques for building intensive awareness of all who were involved in the process. Learning was about what group members were able to do together with their bodies and minds. The quality of the interactions between participants and always climbing to reach one’s potential as part of the group was always the basic goal.


Jacek also studied with Grotowski’s actors, who were all instructors in the physical style of acting that had been developed at the Grotowski Laboratory. Jacek was reminded of how diverse his training had been when he saw one of Margaret Moody’s puppet shows. In her puppet shows, Margaret uses Chinese hand puppets with the Chinese hand puppet manipulation skills that she learned in Taiwan from Li Tien Wu. This, Jacek said, is a language of hand puppetry that uses the puppeteer’s hands in ways that are quite different from the language used by puppeteers from Western cultures, despite the fact that the puppeteer’s hands are used as the bodies for the characters in both cultures. In much the same way, the physical body skills that Jacek learned are used with his puppetry to create a different orientation to puppetry.


One of Jacek’s teachers was Jan Dorman, who used puppets together with the rituals and games of children’s play activities to create puppet theatre. Dorman’s highly stylized puppet shows were created like musical compositions. A variety of literary materials were used and adapted for desired theatrical effects. The acting was stylized and included the use of masks and other objects in performance as well as puppets.


Jacek also told us briefly about some of his own artistic projects. In the earlier years of his career, he produced and performed his own puppet shows in southeastern Poland. He also taught acting and puppetry in a variety of cultural centers, museums, schools, and theaters, and he designed sets and puppets and directed puppet shows for municipal puppet theaters in Wroclaw and Jeleria Gora. He founded the Group of Theatrical Actions Association and TEART. Through these groups, he worked with artists and actors to create puppet shows, parades, outdoor shows, street theater productions, and workshops for children, youth, teachers, and international groups.


Jacek gave us a brief demonstration of how he combines body acting with puppetry. In his Dream Tales Puppets version of “Rumpelstiltskin,” he uses tabletop puppets with the puppeteer fully visible for the audience. The puppeteer is both actor and puppeteer, and the bodily actions of the actor, which were quite exaggerated and dramatic, contributed much to the effect of the scene that he performed for us. In Jacek’s “Jack and the Beanstalk,” hand puppets, marionettes, inanimate figures, and masks were all used in performance with minimal costuming (such as a bonnet) to represent a character. By exchanging simple costume items, characters are able to be easily changed by a solo performer within a performance.


Learning how puppeteers are trained and how puppetry is learned and conducted in different parts of the world contributes much to how we are able to understand our own traditions and add to our own skills. More of the work of Jacek’s Dream Tale Puppets can be found on his website at Jacek and Dream Tale Puppets will also be offering a one-week puppet camp class for children through and at the Puppet Showplace Theatre in July.


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