Broadway World
The World on a String: An Interview with Puppeteer Vit Horejs
Dec. 19 2005


When Rodgers and Hammerstein's beloved musical THE SOUND OF MUSIC was being adapted to the screen, a creative decision was made to use marionettes in "The Lonely Goatherd" sequence. The result was one of the most charming musical numbers ever captured on film, and one that is fully appropriate for the story's setting. As almost everyone knows, the saga of the Von Trapp Family Singers is set in and around Salzburg, Austria. Not only is that one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, but it is also the home of one of the most famous marionette theaters in the world. Oddly, though, the marionettes in the film weren't the famous Salzburg Marionettes, but rather they were the creations of Bil Baird, the American puppeteer.

Salzburg isn't the only city in Europe that boasts a home for this cherished art form. Marionette theaters can be found in Brussels, Palermo, Budapest and Prague, among other places. New York City also has a marionette theater, but somehow it isn't as well known as its European counterparts. The Czechoslovak-American Marionette Theater has been delighting audiences at the Jan Hus Theater for quite a few years now but even the most culture-minded New Yorkers aren't always aware of its existence. This company is now preparing its own version of Charles Dickens' tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge in the next few weeks. The new production has the long-winded title A CHRISTMAS CAROL: OY! HANUKKAH, MERRY KWANZAA, HAPPY RAMADDAN. And is the creation of Vit Horejs, the artistic director of the company. In his Brooklyn studio, Horejs met his visitor amid bits and pieces of scenery from various past productions and in a cramped loft, there were hung dozens of marionettes that were waiting to be recycled in future productions. A tall man who speaks English fluently, Horejs spoke freely about life in Czechoslovakia (now called the Czech Republic), marionettes, storytelling and the over-all creative process.

As film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli became interested in his craft when he was presented with a toy theater as a childhood gift, Horejs credits his mother's toy marionette theater as the genesis of his involvement with puppets. Horejs still has that toy theater and boasts that it is prominently featured in his upcoming production. While still a child, he was also introduced to the professional puppet theaters that are to be found in his native land. He adds, "In my 20's I saw productions of Drak Theater which exist to this day, ["Drak" translates to "Dragon"]. It was one of the first theaters in the world which mixed live people with puppets and showed me the possibility that puppet theater had. As in the United States, pure puppet theater was for children and something that was kind of dead and kind of stagnant. Oh, there were many theaters, but there was nothing that I, as a budding theater person, was interested in--not until I saw the amazing shows they were doing at the Drak. I thought I would like to do something beautiful like that one day."

In Europe, Horejs was a professional storyteller. There, he told stories for adults and used unusual settings. He often used jazz and even rock music in his tales. Coming to the United States he learned that "People didn't know my fairy tales, so those are the ones I began to perform. What I had done before was more unusual but beautiful.

Here, I began telling tales that every Czech child would know and they were a big surprise not only for my audiences but for myself."

He eventually did a storytelling show with three marionettes at the Czech Jan Hus Church in Manhattan and someone mentioned that they used to have a puppet theater on the premises. "I kept asking where the puppets were and eventually I found them." Of course the puppets needed a bit of restoration but, "they were kind of asking to be put on stage, so I did a full production then of the traditional marionette FAUST in '90." The German-themed legend is really for adults, but Horejs found that children were attending and enjoying the production very much." There were a great many adults in the audience as well and the productions became more experimental, mixing live actors with the marionettes, much as the Drak productions did in Europe.

"I'd seen many straight marionette productions and after a while they become boring." He feels that mixing live actors with the puppets and even showing the set changes taking place, as well as the actual manipulation of the puppets makes for far more exciting theater experiences.

Horejs does most of the writing for his puppet plays, but there is a certain amount of room for improvisation at rehearsals. Very often what is improvised becomes part of the actual text that winds up in actual performance. "To rehearse puppet theater takes much longer than for regular theater," the marionette master quickly adds.

Have there ever been mishaps in his marionette productions? "Quite often a puppet breaks and that's popular with the audiences. So a leg or an arm may come off. Several times they've happened at the right moment when it was a battle scene. This accident was so effective that a special puppet was created so that the limb could be severed on cue. This is nothing new. The Sicilian puppeteers used do that intentionally. They even have heads that spring apart." Another common mishap is when a required puppet is accidentally left in the trunk "I would be talking and opening the trunk as I rummaged through it and tried to get the puppet."

How did Horejs get to the United States?

"That was in 1979. I was not involved in politics but I was involved in the arts and someone in that position could not avoid politics. I was asked to sign petitions against various things and at one point I would have been asked to join the Communist Party, which would have been risky to refuse. The entire environment was very censored and controlled. Not only couldn't you do things you wanted to, but very often you were forced to do things you didn't want to do. The whole political situation was pretty awful."

Although French was his second language, Horejs became "fascinated with English. In 1972." The borders had been closed in 1969 and passports became worthless. He was able to get a visa to study briefly in Italy, from where he traveled to France, hoping to choose between living in England or in the United States. The English, however, weren't very cooperative about his political situation and the Americans refused to give him a tourist visa. However, they told him he was eligible for a refugee visa, which is what he ended up doing. He returns to the Czech Republic from time-to-time, but New York is the place which Horejs now calls home.

The project that Horejs currently is preparing basically follows the story that Charles Dickens wrote, but in an effort to appeal to the multi-ethnicity of the city, has references to various different cultures. Holiday tunes performed in English, Czech, Swahili and Hebrew will be performed in the production by the Czech Marionette Theater Chorus and the set includes a specially designed headboard for Scrooge's bed with a door that opens and through which puppets can pass. Many of the marionettes used in this show are the same ones that Horejs discovered sequestered in the darkest corners of the Jan Hus Church. Down through the years new puppets have been added and they've been carved in Prague, "because they are simply the best" adds Horejs. Of course the costumes will be redesigned and they'll be spiffed up in other ways, but there's a certain comfort in knowing that these are the same creations which began Horejs' endeavors here in New York. The concept of this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL seems very ingenious and promises to make an enjoyable evening for young and old alike.
  



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