Uncanny Friends: Viktor Barkar’s Puppet Theatre and Puppets of the World

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By: Eileen Chen

Photo credits of: Viktor Barkar, Eileen Chen, Keiko Honda

How many of us grew up watching puppet shows? Perhaps a portion of you can relate, but many Gen Z-ers like myself missed out on this privilege. I learned about puppets from an art textbook and was quizzed about them at some point.

Fortunately, Viktor Barkar is around to save the day. Aside from founding the Vancouver Puppet Theatre and performing puppet shows for children of all ages, Viktor reminded us that puppets don’t just dangle from strings, but pervade our lives in various shapes and forms.

On the evening of June 22nd, Viktor was the guest of honour in a memorable evening salon, where he put on snappy solo performances using half a dozen different puppets and delivered an informative talk on puppetry.

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Viktor and handmade hand puppet

After a cordial intro, Viktor started with a bang with the slapstick hand puppet “Petrushka,” or “Punch,” as he is known in England. By inserting a small and round metal whistle called a “swazzle” in his own mouth, Viktor modified his voice into an obnoxiously squeaky falsetto. He explained that even manipulating Petrushka – the most basic hand puppet – requires great hand dexterity, physical endurance, and vocalization practice.

“You’re not a Professor (Petrushka’s puppeteer) until you swallow two swazzles,” Viktor humorously quoted a puppeteer saying. “By that definition I am not a Professor yet.”

The puppets in Viktor’s suitcase all represented different schools of puppetry. Within a short hour, Viktor took his audience through the colourful line-up: a fluffy pink Muppet who says “banana,” a Javanese shadow puppet from an Indian myth, a ceremonial rod puppet from Sri Lanka, and a marionette rock singer who plays the electrical guitar. The show concluded with a sphere-headed man belting out a tragic ballad to a wine bottle, whose body consisted of Viktor’s two gloved hands.

“Anything can be a puppet,” Viktor reminded everyone. “That pillow over there, that watch (which a little girl was playing with), this toy giraffe…” What’s important is the intent to make something come alive.

“There are three things to remember if you want to work with puppets in any way,” Viktor summarized with care. “Ground, eye, and breath.” Whether you manipulate the puppet from within or suspend them from above, you must ensure that they walk, see, and breathe as they would if they and their world are real. All in all, puppetry is truly a complex art of illusion magic.

“Nobody sets out to be a puppeteer,” Viktor asserted in response to a question about his backstory. Despite having been enchanted by puppetry when he first saw the Belarussian State Puppet Theatre perform, he obtained a medical degree and practiced medicine for years before ever entertaining the idea of professional puppetry. It wasn’t until his second son was born in 2012 that he decided to found the Vancouver Puppet Theatre and do something a happy father would do as a career. The positive thing about professional puppetry is that it’s a small niche where everyone in North America knows everyone else, but the downside is that it can get a little lonely. Nevertheless, Viktor is optimistic about the future of puppetry.

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Viktor performing for school children

To reach wider audiences, especially the youngest generation, Viktor once participated in a puppet TV series. “I never want to do it again” was his surprising reaction. Performing for only a camera for hours of retakes was different from engaging with a live audience that laughs and asks questions. Viktor believes that even as technology advances and digital entertainment dominates, “there will always be people who choose to go cable-free.”

He and his colleagues over the world continue to perform for children and adults alike for live smiles and real wonder.

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Inspired by the enlightening evening, I visited the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, where a puppet exhibition with the evocative title “Shadows, Strings and Other Things” is on until mid-October. Sure enough, Viktor is one of the collaborators who will be putting on a joint performance for the Puppet Festival there later in the year.

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Giant puppet Meh

Just as Viktor said, the exhibition entrance was guarded by a 12-foot tall Salish puppet made of wood. The puppet, Meh, looked too heavy and stoic to serve any function other than a statue, but the description plate explicated that he could be manoeuvered for Tsatsu Stalqayu performances with the power of five puppeteers.

The exhibition room emitted a much different vibe. With spotlights pitting shadows against pitch black walls and diverse music coming from screens in different compartments, the space itself seemed like a well-concealed circus within the museum.

The core of the mystique was, needless to say, the varied collection of puppets itself and how each display spoke to the other from shared or opposite sections of the room. It seemed to me now that puppetry was not only an art of seamless illusion, but also one that encompasses peculiar contrasts.

The same theatrical set can accommodate clowns and emperors, colonizers and native rulers, talking animals and deities. Of course, stories that bring together characters of dichotomous differences exist outside of puppetry. However, the vibrancy and playfulness of puppets cancels out the need to justify vastly different characters’ existence on the same plane, and grants them an opportunity to interact on equal footing.

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Guangdong rod puppets

Furthermore, the art of puppetry itself exemplifies both playfulness and uncanniness. While reveling in the jolly sight of Guangdong rod puppets, I still managed to get momentarily spooked when I caught sight of a shorter clown figure sandwiched between the others.

As Freud would say, it is only natural that we as humans come to fear what resembles our faces but blurs the line between inanimate and alive. This feeling reminded me of Viktor’s comment on ventriloquism: “Every ventriloquist has this creepy moment where their puppet says something they didn’t intend – some sort of subconscious speech.”

In fact, examples of the uncanny arose multiple times during Viktor’s salon, such as when Petrushka’s shrill voiced scared the toddler in the front row, when Viktor commented that a puppet with his own name “would be creepy,” or when Viktor brought up the fun fact that Chinese shadow puppets are designed with removable heads to prevent them from coming alive at night.

Yet, interestingly enough, the primary audience of puppet theatre is children, more often than not. Maybe growing up with puppets resolves this fear, or maybe the lingering unease is exactly what makes these puppets so very alluring?

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Four Faces of the Moon display

Beyond this, there was one more unlikely mash-up that Viktor’s presentation already touched on: the synthesis of tradition and technology. Aside from four traditional types of puppets (string, rod, hand, and shadow), the Museum of Anthropology listed a fifth – stop motion. A large section of the exhibition was dedicated to sets created by Amanda Strong, an award-winning Indigenous stop motion filmmaker. The puppets as well as other items in the set are manoeuvered on a frame-by-frame basis to tell creative stories about encountering mythical figures, crossing paths with the past, and dealing with crucial colonial and ecological conflicts.

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Thunderbolt Fantasy TV poster

Technology doesn’t stop at stop motion either. I was half-surprised to see a section on Pili hand puppets – the stars of a well-loved TV franchise from my native country, Taiwan. While I never grew up watching Pili on TV as my father and uncles did, I was recently flabbergasted by the series Thunderbolt Fantasy after being sold by a beautiful fight scene clip and the fact that it was a collaboration between Pili and my favourite Japanese anime screenwriter, Gen Urobuchi. Like all Pili titles, this one is set in a fantasy version of ancient East Asia and shows it through traditional clothing and poetic dialogue, but incorporates CGI and elaborate animation techniques to deliver its signature fight scenes. It was simulcasted in Japanese and Taiwanese before garnering minor fame worldwide with English subtitles, and being able to see the series discussed on blogging platforms makes me a contented geek (although nobody can decide whether to call it “puppetry” or “anime,” and generally settle with “that puppet anime”).

My small steps into the world of puppetry over the past week has taught me that not only do puppets come in various sizes and shapes, the forms of puppetry and their means of popularization can be just as diverse. Whether puppetry continues to grow in the version of theatre troupes such as Viktor’s, films and TV series, or dedicated museums, our whimsically uncanny friends will certainly prosper on and evolve in the most fashionable ways.

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Medley of puppets

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