Ten questions for Stefan Schlafke, director of Kolk 17 Puppet Theatre

by | May 18, 2021 | Interviews, Raise the curtain

Stephan Schlafke has been artistic director of the puppet theatre in Lübeck, now KOLK17, since 2007. In this interview he gives interesting insights into his path to puppet theatre, his work, and his plans for the future.

KOLK 17: As usual in our interviews, I have 10 questions for you. My first question is: How did you get into puppet theatre in the first place?

Stephan Schlafke: When I was 8 years old and living in Berlin, I often went on holiday with my parents to a farm in Hessen. About 20 kilometres away from this farm is Steinau an der Straße, where the brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm spent their early childhood years. In Steinau there was a small puppet theatre, similar to the Lübeck puppet theatre run by Fritz Fey senior. I saw my first performance there with my sister, “Käferchen Klärchen”; and thereafter every year we went on holiday I begged my parents to take us to Steinau to see the marionette theatre. From then on I watched a lot of television programmes with puppet shows – the Augsburger Puppenkiste and all the other programmes that were on television!

Käferchen Klärchen of the “Holzköppe” from the Steinau puppet theatre of the Magersuppe family

A great idea: What do you think about starting a puppet theatre workshop?

The initial spark occurred at high school. We organised a farewell event for the graduates of the 7th form pupils. For the last two and a half years before high school graduation, we had wanted to found a theatre group. There was already a theatre group for political theatre and one for experimental theatre. And then I asked, “What do you think about us doing puppet theatre?” That went down well, the classmates thought it was a great idea! We started to look into how one goes about building marionettes. Katharina Magersuppe, the headmaster of the Steinau Marionette Theatre, gave me a cross brace for controlling the puppets that we could copy. Even after graduating from high school and completing my apprenticeship as an electrician, I continued to lead this group for 10 years. It was always fun to work again and again with pupils who were new to the subject. I was able to inspire them, but I didn’t really get anywhere myself.

I made contact with the professional puppet theatre scene in Berlin: with Tilmann Harte, with P. K. Steinmann (Peter Klaus Steinmann) and his wife Benita. That’s how I met Heike and Wolfgang Reihing and Beata Hundertmark, who built their first marionette with John Wright in London. We founded the “berliner marionettenbühne”, a semi-professional theatre; we all had a normal job and a very serious hobby on the side. Parallel to my daily work, I began my training as a puppeteer with vocal training and workshops at the Freie Bildungstätte für Puppentheater in Schleswig Holstein and also in London at the Little Angel Marionette Theatre with John Wright. The “berliner marionettenbühne” staged productions for adults with marionettes in a peep-box stage. During this time in Berlin the whole scene became a network of professionals, colleagues and amateurs. When the Wall came down in 1989, a venue for the independent scene was opened in the “Schaubude”, the former puppet theatre in East Berlin. In the first few years, we often sat together there, created programmes together and felt welcome as a Berlin amateur theatre in this venue. Here we were artistically equal to the others, except that we didn’t earn our living from the theatre.

We met through work and fell in love

During this time I had my first contact with Silke Technau and Kristiane Balsevicius from the KOBALT Puppet Theatre. For our revival of “Faust I”, Wolfgang Reihing, our narrator and player of Mephisto, fell seriously ill. After I had done about 80 performances with Wolfgang where I had given voice to Faust, I now had to speak the voices of Faust and Mephisto alone in their dialogues. For the first time we separated voice and character in a live performance: Doris Gschwandtner played Mephisto, I spoke both roles and played Faust. It worked well and was the solution to allow the performances to continue. Silke was in the audience with some of her colleagues and was impressed; after the performance she took me aside and asked if I could imagine playing Rigoletto with her, because her co-star Dietmar Müller had tragically died the year before. We worked on Rigoletto together and had our premiere in 1998.

In the meantime, I ran my own electrical company with a few employees together with a partner. I mainly took care of the books. But for me, the question of whether to take the step into professionalism as a puppeteer arose more and more.

Rigoletto & Stephan in summer 1998 during rehearsals – © anemel

After Rigoletto with Silke in 1998, other joint plays followed: the bilingual co-production with Tineola (Prague) “Faust Metamorphoses” German/Czech, “Kohlhaas”, “The Barber of Seville”, “The Adventures of Little Goose Adele” and others. Out of this partnership through intense collaboration fell in love. Silke and I got married, I left the electrical company in 2000 and joined KOBALT Puppet Theatre as a full-time puppeteer.

KOHLHAAS by Matthias Brand (player: Silke Technau, Kristiane Balsevicius, Stephan Schlafke, Ralf Lücke) – © anemel

In retrospect, these various elements: leading a working group, having a semi-professional stage, the constant training and further education, ensemble playing on the marionette stage and the commercial knowledge from my self-employment as an electrician were good training for the management of the PUPPET THEATRE LÜBECK, which Silke and I took over in 2007, after moving to Lübeck.

KOLK 17: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to become a puppeteer today?

Stephan Schlafke: The first thing which must be made clear is that the potential to make a fortune is rather slim and now, under the cloud of the Corona virus, many of the solo, self-employed artists fall through the cracks receiving little or no help from the government. Networking is very, very important to keep in touch with others, to orientate oneself and to seek help!

Associations – get to know people who share the same passion!

Seeking help from existing professional theatres was a very important point for us back in Berlin! Most colleagues are very open and helpful. And we are the same today. Silke and I have contact with younpg colleagues through our work in various associations. Many young puppeteers are unaware of the networks that a professional association like the VdP (Association of German Puppet Theatres) or UNIMA can help to build up as an organisation for all those interested in puppetry. You get to know people who share the same passion.

There are now two courses of study for puppet theatre in Germany available; in Berlin and Stuttgart. Training and further education centres include, for example, the Bochum Puppet Theatre College and the Hof Lebherz in Warmsen. A new and exciting possibility is the annual, hugely diverse puppet theatre conference of UNIMA & VDP in Northeim.

KOLK 17: From 2003 to 2015, you were the chairman of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette/Germany (UNIMA) and continue to work there today as an editorial member of the professional journal “Das andere Theater“. Since 2018, you have been active on the board of the Verband deutscher Puppentheater e.V. (Association of German Puppet Theatres). How important is the work in the VdP and at UNIMA, especially at present in light of the Corona virus?

Stephan Schlafke: In the present climate in light of Corona, our involvement in the cultural-political work of the association has proven to be very valuable. The VdP is a co-founder of the KSK, the Artists’ Social Insurance Fund. The VdP cooperates with the World Association of Puppeteers UNIMA e.V. and is an associate member of the Bundesverband freie darstellende Künste e.V. (Federal Association of Independent Performing Arts). (BfdK), the World Association of Children’s and Youth Theatres ASSITEJ e.V. and the German Cultural Council / Council of the Performing Arts. Furthermore, it is a member organisation of the ‘Fonds darstellende Künste‘.

Commitment to cultural policy: we were able to exert our influence

Even before Corona, we were active in the Alliance of Liberal Arts. This is an organisation that made sure that all those working in the arts pull together. And it was a good thing that it was founded, because now in the era of Corona it is a fantastic representative body. As VdP, we are one voice within a total of 19 associations at present.

As KOBALT Puppet Theatre Lübeck, we have also applied to the ‘Fond darstellende Künste‘. We want to use it to support our puppet designers, our costume designers, our musicians and also the directors, because without live performances their income has largely evaporated. This is why it’s important to think in a networked way and not just look at your own bank balance to see if it’s full, but also to give a lot back to others. I think one of the great things about our puppet theatre scene is the solidarity we often find.

In UNIMA’s professional journal “Das andere Theater” (DaT) there are many different topics concerning puppet theatre; many people interested in puppet theatre write here about their experiences, thoughts and visions or report on their activities. Interesting productions and insights are also to be found.

KOLK 17: During the renovation phase of the theatre in the Kolk, the puppet theatre gives guest performances at the European Hanse Museum (EHM). When do you hope to welcome guests there with the premiere of “CHERRY-PICKING SHAKESPEARE – Pearls for the Queen”, and what is the play about?

CHERRY-PICKING SHAKESPEARE – Pearls for the Queen – © Karin Lubowski

Stephan Schlafke: A never ending story! Corona has really given us quite a beating. Our colleague Gerhard Seiler from Hanover wants to gradually retire from professional life. He offered his production “Shakespeare in a rush” to us to take over. The play for one player is about Queen Elizabeth I, who has a birthday. Her former lover plays Shakespeare scenes for her.
After some consideration, we bought the play with the characters and the basic idea from him. It was the saviour of 2020 for us!

There is also music from Shakespeare which has been interwoven

Silke started reading Shakespeare plays when Corona broke out and we were no longer able to perform. We then dramatically reworked the play during 2020 with our director Dietmar Staskowiak. We rewrote it for two players, songs from Shakespeare texts were woven in. Jürgen Maaßen built additional figures to expand the ensemble of characters.

We wanted to start the season in early October 2020. The premiere was postponed until the end of November because of the Corona crisis, then to the 4th of December. But the lockdown was extended again. That’s why we cancelled the whole winter season at the EHM (European Hanse Museum). We finally dropped the plan to start at the end of March as well. With the theatre night September 2021 in Lübeck, we hope to put the new play on stage. We have also received funding from the Fund for the perfoming arts, for two outdoor productions, an evening production and a children’s production, which we hope to be able to show outdoors in the summer.

KOLK 17: “CHERRY-PICKING SHAKESPEARE – Pearls for the Queen” is the new play planned for the evening performances. While Sleeping Beauty will be our children’s play. In the blog article “Building a castle out of fairy wishes” from 11 January 2021, you described the wonderfully creative ideas that went into the castle stage design. And those who were able to see the production of “Rungholt’s Honour” were able to experience the true, modern puppet theatre! How many hours of work does it take from the idea to the fruition of such plays? Puppets, costumes, set design, music, learning the text, rehearsals, poster design and advertising … it must take a lot of time to conceive, design and realise all that, doesn’t it?

Stephan Schlafke: We keep falling into the trap of thinking we can do it faster than we thought.
We need approximately one year for a children’s production and up to two years for an evening production. And that’s under the conditions we’ve been working under so far. In reality, we are a repertory theatre. However during the run of the play we perform we always have blocks of one week of rehearsal time, then we play again, then we have another two weeks rehearsal time … That takes a lot of time. Unfortunately work on a production from the beginning to the end of January, for example, for four weeks is not possible, often the director has other productions at the same time.
With “Cherry Picking Shakespeare“, we thought we would have the play finished relatively quickly because almost everything was there. However once we started to work on the play, adding more scenes and songs to the production our initial time prognosis had to be revised. We discussed and completely restructured the text!

A beautiful description for “learning the text by heart”!

Then you need to get the text into your head, so that the it rolls off the tongue, because we don’t read from a script like on the radio. Once that is done, the recitation must be filled with emotions, enough to fascinate children and adults alike for the length of the play! This of course takes time! The play has so many levels. On the one hand, there is the level of the actors – Sir Archibald, the jester and Elizabeth I as main characters -these need to be fully composed and coherent in the social bubble of the play: How does the jester react to Archibald, how does Elizabeth I react to the two of them. When the jester and Elisabeth have a conversation, Silke as Elisabeth’s speaker and I as the player have to play it together; we have to breathe together. On the other hand, there is the level of Shakespearean scene excerpts, with a total of 18 Czechoslovakian small rod marionettes with 18 social relationships of their own. Time was then very much of the essence for this restructured Elizabethan production.

“The Bremen Town Musicians” as an open air event in the summer of 2021?

The four familiar animals of figure designer Doris Gschwandtner: donkey, rooster, cat and dog © Gschwandtner/KOBALT FT HL

Even in children’s productions, the team of puppet designer and set designer has to grow together. Ideas are collected and implemented. This process of preliminary work takes less time for a play lasting only 45 minutes compared to an evening production that lasting two hours. But the creativity and the process of coordination between the participants is the same for both productions! For outdoors, we are currently staging “The Bremen Town Musicians” with great animal figures by Doris Gschwandtner. Thomas Rump has made the first sketches for the stage set. We are developing the bandits and our actors’ costumes with Denise Puri.

KOLK 17: Your research project “puppet & microcamera” examined the interplay between camera, animation and puppetry. You reported on this on our blog on 19.10.2020. What do you look for when modern technology and puppetry are to be brought together on stage? And what are you considering next?

Stephan Schlafke: We started working with slide projections from the front and shadow play interludes from the back in “The Barber of Seville”. This we found to be very enriching. Then we thought about how we could get nature onto the stage in “The Rider on the pale Horse”. How can we bring the vastness that one experiences on the dyke along the North Sea coast, onto the stage? And that’s apart from the emotional interaction between the characters. That was important, also because there is a lot of emotional interplay between the characters.

That defeats the Puppets!

We tried to bring nature onto the stage with film projections. It turned out that this “overwhelms” the puppets. The audience immediately looks at the large projection of nature, while the puppets recede into the background. The focus becomes the moving image. It was not clear to me at the time why. We then used edited photo motifs. We never took 1-to-1 photos of a landscape, but processed them in Photoshop taking into account the mood and desired atmosphere of a scene: the sea bathed in grey, when it really should have this gloom and inertia, or the ash tree, of which only the crown can be seen, where Elke and Hauke meet, where the transformation from a green summer tree to a bare snow-covered tree in winter depicts the passing of time. The only moving film image is the destructive storm surge. The projection has thus been given a theatrical twist.

And therein lay my question, why does the audience member tend to look at the image of nature and not at the figure, which is actually much more exciting because it is telling the story.

The image of moving hands was only in her head

In “Rungholt’s Honour” we experimented with cartoon cinematography. Michaela Bartonova drew scenic processes, we cut and pasted them together ‘imperfectly’ in an animated film, i.e. one image after the other, a sort of cross-fade. The resulting film is in a jerky image. In the viewer’s mind, however, apparent perfection is created. We players only give impulses; the audience’s imagination then gets a free hand and takes the reins. In my early years, for example, when we played “Faust”, members of the audience came backstage. They were able to view the characters and in the case of Mephisto they exclaimed; “But he has movable hands and these are rigid!” Then we explained to them that the image of the hands moving was only in their heads. This is a rigid hand that is immaculately carved, i.e. a stepped cut, so that in light and shadow it looks as if it is moving.
In “puppet & microcamera” we found that the image of nature leaves too little room for your own imagination compared to what we do with the figures, so you actually have to alienate this image of nature through editing so that it becomes a balanced partner to the puppets on stage.

We will play with different types of puppets, with different dimensions and continue to work with modern media!

The development of the stage set, incorporating modern media techniques – (c) Kobalt

Together with Mervyn Millar, Michaela Bartonova and Karsten Wiesel, we have collected a whole trove of ideas, like a stage set design portfolio for the next production, a Shakespeare play in which nature plays a decisive role. We will play with different types of puppets, of different dimensions and also with modern media such as projections or computer-controlled lighting technology. It will be interesting to see what happens . That’s still a little way off.

KOLK 17: The management of the theatre is not limited only to the productions. The plays have to be advertised, ticket sales have to be organised, the premises have to be prepared. To ensure that the audience feels comfortable and the theatre performance is a success, the “to-do list” runs to quite a length! How and from what do you draw strength for the many things you do?

Stephan Schlafke: It’s teamwork. In my school group, in my semi-professional theatre work and in the many productions we have done for Kobalt with our freelance artists, teamwork has always been important and fortifying to us. I also find the entire team at Kolk 17 Figurentheater & Museum very inspiring.

Of course, I draw my strength from a good relationship and from our little grandchild: free time is not in abundance, however when possible it is used comprehensively

The work we do for the association and the editorial work in our UNIMA magazine “The Other Theatre” is also very stimulating. One is confronted with so many things that you wouldn’t conceive of yourself. For example, when we did the issue on paper theatre: we looked at many productions, the whole festival in Preetz, we collected English and Danish influences, talked to players and then did the magazine. It would never have occurred to me to investigate paper theatre if I hadn’t had this task. I would never have gone there.

We forget time and space…

Then you are inspired and take paper thin puppets into a production. That’s what I find great, and that’s where I draw the strength from. We are actually, and I include Silke in this, total puppet theatre junkies and workaholics. The medium is so important to us that we forget quickly lose track of time; we really have to force ourselves to take time off and relax.
Even when we’re out walking, we’re already talking about the next topic. That has an advantage and a disadvantage when you live and work together, because of course you can’t easily separate business from pleasure, but it’s also a joy, and I wouldn’t want to miss it at all.

KOLK 17: What are you most looking forward to when you think of the finished puppet theatre in the Kolk?

Stephan Schlafke: To the audience, to the visitors! After this long break, I’m looking forward to getting back in touch with the audience. Even though the EHM (European Hanse Museum) is our alternative venue, we are looking forward to the Kolk, our puppet theatre!

KOLK 17 Puppet Theatre & Museum, Lübeck – an institution that is prepared for the future

The puppet theatre and the museum of theatre puppets have grown together to form KOLK 17, an institution that looks inquisitively towards the future. Of course, the old town houses restrict us to smaller rooms, however the theatre space itself will become so functional that it will also make things possible that we haven’t yet conceived. With the addition of the rehearsal stage and the forum, we will have a performance capable spaces where we can experiment, where workshops can take place, where knowledge can be imparted, be it to children, adults or in conference with like minded professional audiences!

KOLK 17: With which type of figure (hand puppet, marionette, moving sculpture or rod puppet) do you prefer to work?

Stephan Schlafke: As a child or as a teenage pupil, I found puppet theatre simply virtuosic. The Punch and Judy show I first saw in Berlin as a child was not brilliant, however since then I have seen colleagues who play hand puppets masterfully.

If someone plays his instrument in a virtuosic manner, then in principle it doesn’t matter what kind of puppet it is

I would never say that the marionette is the better type of figure or the higher quality or the more artistic. If someone plays his instrument with virtuosity, then in principle it doesn’t matter what kind of puppet it is.
In puppet theatre you have the chance to play many different characters in one production. You can play a maiden or a woman, as a man in a children’s play, your gender can know no bounds, you can empathise with others, you have the possibility to play the crossover: so that while one animates the character, the other delivers the text. But that means that you have to deal with every character of this role in which you play but don’t speak! In Schimmelreiter, Silke plays the young Hauke Haien, I then take over and speak for him when he is older. What a great opportunity that a woman with a trained speaking voice capable of speaking with depth and profundity can play a young man and my voice is Hauke’s pitch after his voice breaks. In a film, it would take three actors to pull off such a character over a biography.

Scene from “DER SCHIMMELREITER” – © Martin Buchin

I have great fun in this career and that is actually the deciding factor in why I make puppet theatre, but I don’t have a favourite character!

KOLK 17: Is there anything you envy about a theatre character?

Stephan Schlafke: Oh, I could say something quite philosophical at this point such as that they don’t age! Though sadly that’s not true at all, because the material of the theatre characters ages! As a puppeteer, I enjoy the fact that you can simply slip into many characters. The puppet is a character and has a social structure like living creatures. I don’t envy theatre characters, I let them take me to other places!

Theatre is a bit like magic

That’s the great symbiosis between player and character: that the appearance of the character can be wrought through one’s skill to build up the triangular relationship between puppet, audience and oneself; the player. The audience usually looks at the puppet – although it is often very much appreciated to also observe the connection to the player – the player also looks at the puppet, while the puppet makes eye contact with the spectator, with the stage situation or perhaps with another puppet; it is animated by the movements of the player and at the same time by the imagination of the viewer, who thinks he sees something alive. This creates a triangular relationship. Theatre is a bit like magic. If we ask an actor now, he would probably say something similar, except that he uses his body as a medium to fill a role.

Or: We use the medium of the puppet or sculpture or object material to create something. For example, we built large figures out of wrapping paper, crumpled them up and animated them in threes. Three players work on one of these figures made of paper and it’s crazy what creativity, movement and coordination skills emerge between us. You have to harmonise with each other so that the figure doesn’t tear. You have to work in harmony with the others. Just like in dancing. Dance has a lot in common with puppet theatre. When you play in an ensemble, you have to pay attention to the others.

KOLK 17: Dear Stephan, thank you very much for your exciting insights and the interview!

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