Puppeteers of the World: Frank Soehnle

Pierwodruk: Lalkarze świata / Puppeteers of the World: Frank Soehnle, TEATR LALEK 2020, nr 4 (142), ss. 21-26 (wersja polska), ss. 27-32 (English version)



Frank Soehnle has been conspicuously present on the international theatre circuit for the past quarter of a century, i.e. from the mid-1990s. In 1987 he was one of the first graduates of Studiengang Figurentheater, established four years earlier by Albrecht Roser (and Werner Knoedgen) – a new trend at Staatliche Hochschule für Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Stuttgart, combining the puppet theatre and Materialtheater and Obiekttheater forms, at the time popular in Germany, although Roser was one of the most outstanding marionette puppeteers in Europe. From a time perspective, and after observing over three decades of the careers of the Studiengang Figurentheater graduates it becomes obvious how the idea of a master workshop, intensified at a puppetry academy and subsequently developed independently during years of praxis, passes the test regardless of the sort of technique pursued by the artistic quests of young graduates. The essence will always consist of striving towards animation mastery, which characterises the individuality of the artist-puppeteer.

Upon graduation from the puppetry academy Frank Soehnle was 24 years old, and it will not be an exaggeration to say that his encounter with Albrecht Roser, followed by studying in Stuttgart, moulded his interests, workshop skills, and, ultimately, puppetry style. From the very onset he focused on building the form, testing the material to be used, the technology of the puppet as such, and, subsequently, a gradual discovery of its nature, potential, concealed temperament, and character revealed in the entire creative process. Soehnle was fascinated by marionettes and masks, simultaneous existence “within” the hand built form and, at the same time, an attempt at creating the greatest possible distance towards it, so that “the puppet could shape its personality” – as he recalled years ago in a conversation with Christian Bollow. This ostensible contradiction constitutes the essence of the artistic quests of Frank Soehnle, who admitted that it is the most most exciting part of the creative process, a dialogue of sorts, and co-dependence, somewhat in the manner of life and death. “The fact that I create my puppets myself is of fundamental importance. This is some sort of a strange dance involving observation and a challenging test of strength – manipulation and autonomy”.

The path leading towards the puppetry elite took up only several years. Upon graduation Soehnle first became associated with Figurentheater in Karlsruhe, where he staged six experimental spectacles intended for adults, i.a. Idiot and Kasperl on the Electric Chair (1988–1989), but also productions based on prose by Daniil Kharms or Heiner Müller. This was the onset of separating the literary and visual structure of the stagings, using (alongside the actor) assorted puppet forms (masks, marionettes, paper and latex puppets), experimenting with the word, image, sound, and motion, and searching for stage space other than the traditional one. A time (to 1991) of moulding the Frank Soehnle aesthetics, when together with Karin Ersching he established Figuren Theater Tübingen. The new company was conceived as an itinerant troupe concentrating independent artists and theatres, producing spectacles of its own, and involved in assorted co-productions; eventually, it set up a permanent seat in one of the culture centres in Reutlingen, the capital of the district, situated more than 10 kilometres from Tübingen. From that moment its activity and that of Frank Soehnle was concentrated on four pillars: his solo and textless spectacles; group creations including the participation of invited artists and sometimes – as in the case of the actress Ines Müller-Braunschweig, director Christiane Zanger or musicians from the rat’n’X duo: Stefan Mertin and Johannes Frisch – belonging to Figuren Theater Tübingen; increasingly frequent spectacles with Soehnle as guest director, or his cooperation as a puppeteer upon the occasion of assorted projects initiated by theatre companies across the world; finally, the artist’s pedagogic undertakings at various puppetry academies (Bochum, Stuttgart, Berlin, Charleville-Mézières, Jerusalem) and in the course of scores of international workshops.

In his solo works Soehnle concentrates more on sculpture and motion than on the text and acting, starting with the first premiere given by Figuren Theater Tübingen in 1991: Night Visions or People Beset with the Demons They Deserve, directed by Karin Ersching, Marcus Dürr, and Frank Soehnle. And commemorating the French pre-Surrealist poet Max Jacob, whose texts were totally eliminated in the course of the rehearsals, since the performances of latex puppet forms (table puppets, hand puppets, and marionettes) supported by music performed on stage by rat’n’X proved to be a more powerful theatrical proposal. Relations between the actor and the puppets – phantasmagorical hermaphroditic creatures – describing the life and works of Jacob, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who perished in a concentration camp, shifted the centre of gravity from the animator to his visions and obsessions, producing the impression that he becomes manipulated by puppets. Night Visions was also the first production that thanks to Goethe Institut managed to tour South-East Asia already several months after the premiere and inaugurated Frank Soehnle’s international career.

Successive years witnessed stagings of new spectacles presented by Figuren Theater Tübingen: The World Machine (1992), directed by Christine Schmalor with Soehnle as one of the actors and author of puppets-mannequins, followed a year later by edge. directed by Christiane Zanger, in which the puppeteer Frank Soehnle (naturally, the author of the puppets) accompanied the actress Ines Müller-Braunschweig; in 1994 the same artists staged Rothschild’s Fiddle and Nowhere is Everything Different, addressed to older children and adults, a rarity in the theatre’s repertoire. A number of successive productions, i.a. those co-created by Karin Ersching, exploited to a greater degree means characteristic for the object theatre.

In 1996, five years after his solo premiere, Soehnle showed his second individual production: Flamingo Bar, directed by Hendrik Mannes. This is how he described the sources of inspiration: “A bar in Karlsruhe, with a pink neon sign, provided both the title and inspiration for the spectacle. None of us had ever been inside the bar, which suddenly vanished. Already this fact turned into a catalyst of suppositions and fantasies. The resultant idea led us to a collection of objects (feathers, ventilators, and assorted other findings), texts (Genet, Benjamin, Müller), and music (flamenco performed by Carmen Linares, operas by Sir Henry Purcell, assorted pop music), all connected with the theme of passion, deception, and promise. The created diverse puppet forms were semi-human, semi-animal hybrid creatures, obviously deprived of gender features”. The rest assumed form in the course of rehearsals. Flamingo Bar – Soehnle stated – “is a mute sketch, in which the audience is invited to participate in the process of creation”. The spectacle combined elements of the dance, the theatre, and variétés, “with two main sections dealing with death and seduction, interrupted by two satirical interludes depicting a visit to the opera, together with a puppet dog”. The flirty female dog, with only an elongated muzzle and a costume-fabric concealing Soehnle’s hand, performs, i.a. Tosca’s death scene from the Puccini opera, while charming and seducing the animator. One of constant motifs appearing in the artist’s oeuvre: life and death, this time in a melodramatic version but also a theatrical one, a true masterpiece. Flamingo Bar is full of such imagery. I still recall a curious semi-human marionette sitting alone in the centre of the stage and animated by Soehnle manipulating threads attached to the right side wall of the stage window. A case of brilliant “remote” animation conducted from a distance, with the puppet appearing to be set into motion as if by its own energy. (In subsequent years quite a few puppeteers applied this conception in their auteur spectacles). Another original creature – a four-fingered hybrid-bird (all of Frank Soehnle’s marionettes have unnaturally elongated four fingers), with a peacock feather plume attached to its lumber spine, attempts to reach the crosspiece on which it is suspended so as to snap the threads and set itself free, to regain liberty and “real” life. Two extraordinary female dancers with elongated limbs and holding fans perform a magnetic, brilliantly synchronised dance as if in a mirror. Truly, every puppet conceived by Frank Soehnle and appearing on stage is simultaneously an intriguing work of art, an unusual instrument, and an element of an interpretation puzzle provoking imagination and intellect alike.

Flamingo Bar consolidated Frank Soehnle’s international position, uniqueness, and originality. As a graduate of the Albrecht Roser marionette school he accomplished a true revolution in conceiving and applying this technique by showing its entirely different aspect. His puppets have nothing in common with the emulation of man, for centuries obligatory in this particular technique. They are human-animal hybrids, products of the artist’s imagination, exaggeratedly elongated, and in their way ghastly, wrinkled, bony, and cadaverous, with proportions resembling sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, albeit granted a great variety of details, with almost always elongated hands, a decidedly greater animation potential than that of the classic marionette and, above all, captivating and beautiful just like images of death, temptation, any variety of sin, or illusion. The Soehnle marionette is, at the same time, a vehicle of sorts. It can change its form and disintegrate into smaller elements, while simultaneously turning into an entirely different puppet endowed with a technical, interpretation, and animation potential, as can be seen in the artist’s successive spectacles, to mention With Enormous Wings (2003–2008), based on prose by Gabriel García Márquez and co-directed by Enno Podehl; here, use is made of a kaleidoscope of puppetry potential, including fascinating forms filled with water, animated on thick cords attached to permanent blocks suspended on stage barrels. Other examples include Termitropolis (2004) or salto.lamento (2006).

Flamingo Bar was also the first Frank Soehnle spectacle with which Figuren Theater Tübingen appeared in Poland at the Łódź festival of solo puppeteers (2003). Three years earlier Soehnle showed in Poland Exit. A Hamlet Fantasy, a diploma staging (1997) by Michael Vogel, Soehnle’s student from the Stuttgart academy. From the 1990s, Soehnle directed numerous productions chiefly in Germany. Each season featured two-three spectacles – the outcome of his cooperation with European puppeteers: Christoph Bochdansky, Michael Vogel, Vanessa Valk, Damiet van Dalsum. These were almost never stagings of dramas; frequently nonverbal, they were inspired by assorted texts: Hrabal, Brecht, Shakespeare, Maeterlinck, Gertrude Stein, Cocteau, Borges, Bruno Schulz, Lorca, Kleist, Cervantes, and Giacometti. Soehnle appears as a director also in large institutional puppet theatres in Magdeburg and Frankfurt an der Oder, and, naturally, in puppet academies with which he cooperates, and even in Komische Oper in Berlin. His directing undertakings – a total of several scores – for which he personally prepares or designs the puppets deserve to be discussed separately.

In 2008 the artist met the ensemble of Białostocki Teatr Lalek. Up to then his staging of Sklepy cynamonowe (The Cinnamon Shops) by Schulz was Soehnle’s only work – both fascinating and extremely difficult – prepared in Poland. “Whoever dares to be an independent artist in an institutional theatre – Soehnle recalled this realisation – requires patience and lots of pull. In particular, however, he needs love for the theatre and the people creating it. Upon numerous occasions the artist succumbs to solitariness (…). I willingly compare the process of directing with that of animating a marionette: it involves guidance and a simultaneous pursuing a path. The director holds all the threads while at the same time following all the impulses of the ensemble, technology, music, and text; sometimes the entire theatre heeds that single minimal motion of a tiny puppet. (…) The outcome of the work was an open house with dark corners and evil glances, incomprehensible commentaries and joyful meetings. (…) Inanimate matter does not exist”. Although Sklepy cynamonowe inspired numerous favourable reviews and attracted many fans it also proved that Polish actors-puppeteers are not ready (also today) to pursue a path delineated by the masters of puppetry. We still yearn to be excessively actor-like, and by not creating puppets with our own hands we remain incapable of keeping up with their potential.

The absence of a language barrier certainly facilitated Frank Soehnle’s cooperation with German actors-puppeteers, as exemplified by Theater des Lachens in Frankfurt, in which Soehnle enjoyed great success while staging: Kleist – On the Marionette Theatre or How to Overcome Gravity in Three Acts, winner of prizes granted in Poland (Poznań, 2011 and Łomża, 2013), or Don Quixote – A Dream Game based on Telemann, which received the Grand Prix in Łomża (2014). Nonetheless, work conducted in a studio of his own, together with a team of partners, unquestionably guarantees every artist the greatest possible comfort.

Frank Soehnle appeared on stage as puppeteer and partner of the actress Ines Müller-Braunschweig already in earlier productions featured by Figuren Theater Tübingen. Clearly, he finds this form of relation between an actor and a puppeteer, preserving the independence of the professions without becoming involved in a mutual dialogue, but, at the same time, creating a new literary-visual context for the spectator, much more to his liking; more, he was to return to it. In 2000 Soehnle staged together with the Israeli actor Yehuda Almagor, in a co-production with TEATRON theatre, an acclaimed spectacle: Children of the Beast, based on a novel by David Grossman: See Entry: Love. A multi-level reflection evoking the Holocaust, but also contemporary victim-perpetrator relations seen through the eyes of a child. Almagor, spinning the narrative, was accompanied by Soehnle-animator of puppets: table puppets, masks and, naturally, marionettes.

“The outcome” – wrote one of the German reviewers – “is a stage venture located between dream and reality, in which people turn into marionettes, and marionettes – into people, a work of profound sadness that, however, does not succumb to the latter but seeks comfort – in narration. (…) Almagor and Soehnle create a theatre that evades all categories. (…) A phantom undertaking, but one that demonstrates what the theatre is capable of”.

Soehnle referred to a similar principle, i.e. partnership involving the puppeteer and the live actor, in a co-production shown by his theatre, this time (2011) together with the French Compagnie Bagages de Sable and the Swiss Theater Stadelhofen from Zurich, featuring the French actor Patrick Michaelis in Hôtel de Rive – Giacometti’s Horizontal Time. The spectacle, based on three Surrealistic texts by Alberto Giacometti and inspired by the author’s sculptures and sketches, is a sui generis visual poem about the Italian artist whose “work is the starting point, like trails, which leads to a new place. An invisible place appears where visual and performing arts unite with literature”.

A particularly captivating feature of the Frank Soehnle oeuvre appears to be his interest in aesthetics, the theory of puppetry, reflection about matter and its relations with man. This is probably the main theme of all his quests, experiments associated with new material, novel technological solutions, and the equally new artistic shape of his works. The source of inspirations is, on the one hand, literature, Kleist, Schulz, or Giacometti, and, on the other hand, registered images, topics, and events transposed by the artist’s incredible imagination, which in every situation attempts to breathe life into inanimate objects. This was so in the case of Liquid Skin (2005), an unusual undertaking realised together with the Australian Igneous Group, and shown not quite a year later at the Bielsko-Biała festival. The Australian ensemble was composed of Suzon Fuks and dancer-choreographer James Cunningham, who as a result of a motorcycle accident had lost his left arm but with the assistance of assorted prosthetics managed to create a specific language of motion in the non-existent limb. The fascination with objects, shared by dancer and puppeteer, was truly unlimited, setting imagination into motion and encouraging them to embark upon the theme of bringing an inanimate form to life. For Frank Soehnle this was a successive encounter with a representative of another discipline of the arts – this time a dancer whom animated, transparent Plexiglas forms of puppets, masks, and body parts (pars pro toto) allowed to mould an awareness of his body. Suzon Fuks, responsible for the direction and the video, placed on the stage a pool full of water, with the dancer inside – real and abstract objects appeared and vanished around him. The rhythm of the spectacle was marked by ice masks melting in real time. The number of variations and mutual relations between the constructed images, and incessant balancing on the borderline between life and death, the animate and the inanimate designated successive interpretation proposals.

Quite possibly the chef d’oeuvre in heretofore works by Frank Soehnle is his salto.lamento or the Nocturnal Side of Affairs, directed in 2006 by Enno Podehl, Karin Ersching, and Frank Soehnle, a production naturally featuring his puppets and performed by him on stage. In this successive solo spectacle Soehnle is accompanied by musicians from the rat’n’X duo: Johannes Frisch and Stefan Mertin, cooperating with his theatre from very onset but now actually live on stage and comprising a puppet-musical trio. salto.lamento was inspired by mediaeval iconography depicting the Dance of the Dead, images of death changing across centuries, musical fascinations, and the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Frank Soehnle, who often undertakes the effort of defining the essence of his spectacles, wrote in the programme: “Work on the project at present entitled salto.lamento began with seven poems and seven pieces of fabric. From the very onset music was a decisive component. The mediaeval Dances of Death suggested possible forms and events. The puppets, originally conceived as seven separate portraits, began to build interpersonal relations, a fact that seemed to be worth exploiting. The original dramaturgy of the Dance of Death developed and created space for assorted metamorphoses. Nonetheless, the fundamental theme of the Dance of Death was retained. The music, the ambience, the mood, and the motion of the figures, slowly but steadily progressing, assumed a dynamic of their own. (…) At the same time, the whole composition has its visual, musical, and theatrical sense; it is a visual poem, a musical vision, and the outcome of theatrical quests”.

In the wake of the Polish premiere of salto.lamento at the festival held in Bielsko-Biała in 2008 Halina Waszkiel wrote in “Teatr Lalek”: “Assorted inspirations have been transformed and theatrically expressed with the aid of measures not only appropriate for the puppet theatre but upon each occasion created anew. The figures devised and animated by the brilliant puppeteer possess a moving guise. Their aptitude, gestures and motions are not of this world. Manipulated, they resemble neither man nor animal, but are creatures that merge shapes from the world familiar to us (including those of skeletons and corpses) and one of mysteries. Death appeared to be the most ‘human’ of all – a splendid lady in a tulle dress and an enormous white hat, displaying long earrings decorating her skull and lavish bracelets on the bare bones of her arms. Stirring music, played on stage by the rat’n’X duo (saxophone and double bass), supplies the rhythm and brings the stage figures to life, while they, in turn, force the manipulator to grant them, if even for a moment, a fleeting existence that they had once lost. The artist does not revel in the decay of death – on the contrary, with a virtuosity befitting a great master of animation, he bestows life, allows each of the forms to speak for itself, and at times even makes fun of death (for example, in the scene when a tiny skeleton with a jaw gaping in a wide smile walks about with a dustpan to tidy up, in an apparent travesty of a poem by Szymborska: ‘After every war someone must clean up’)”.

salto.lamento is no longer part of the repertoire of Figuren Theater Tübingen. Together with numerous other works by Frank Soehnle and his partners it is now part of the history of world puppetry, although it could be exploited for years to come. Spectacles by Frank Soehnle do not age – they deal with universal themes and, first and foremost, are based on extraordinary visual-technological beauty and the construction of puppets, which the artist sets into motion with masterful virtuosity. New works continue to emerge: Wunderkammer! (2013), a display of puppetry experiments performed by Alice Therese Gottschalk, Raphael Mürle, and Frank Soehnle, and Nachtkonzert – Le Grand Pas de Deux (2015), a puppet-music duo of Frank Soehnle (puppets) and Jesper Ulfenstedt (double bass) unter.wasser – farewell party (2016), probably Soehnle’s the last directing work at Figuren Theater Tübingen.

Today Frank Soehnle is indubitably one of the masters of world puppetry. Increasingly often he shares his talent and experience with younger generations, and still continues his pursuits. Cooperation with him is an exceptional pleasure and a life lesson.


Photos: Figuren Theater Tübingen



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