An interview of laughter
a conversation with Frank Soehnle of Figurentheater Tübingen
Talk to me about the inspiration behind the Cabinets of Curiosity.
"The Cabinet of Curiosities really provided a frame for two colleagues to work with together" Frank admits. Although Figurentheater Tübingen always invite other artists to create work (their past shows for example have included dancers, actors and musicians), this is the first project where they have invited other puppeteers to collaborate on the project as well.
"Normally I am the puppeteer and I work with other art forms" Franks says giggling, "because I am already the puppeteer - so it never seemed as interesting for me".
The two other puppeteers are Alice Therese Gottschalk and Raphael Mürle and Frank explains that their devising process was mostly about offering. Sometimes scenes would start with a question, idea or some material one of the artists brought in, and other times it began with a finished puppet. Offering in a devising process can take both extremes and provides different beginning points especially when working with puppets. Frank speaks very fondly of this opportunity to work in a trio with two other very good solo performers, who he knew were both able to work with complex string puppets.
"A lot of people think that String Puppeteers are solo performers... but I think this is only one part of the string puppets possibility, the other part is that you can really do things together."
Frank also introduced me to the Swiss puppeteer Sophie Taeuber-Arp who was a big visual inspiration for the show, working at the very beginning of the Dadaist movement with String Puppets. She had skills in a variety of art forms, combining her knowledge of costume, dance and choreography, making text and scupltures as well as puppets. This made her work incredibly multi-faceted, and with these same clear Dada foundations that are apparent in Frank's work.
After so many years of working in puppetry you are still exploring the art of the marionette. Is there something unique about string puppets that keeps them as your focus?
"For a string puppet creator, I think they really are the freest form to create something." Frank explains there is a great versatility to what you're able to make because it is such a unique type of puppetry and as the audience are frequently quite far away he thinks there's another level of freedom with size, colour and precision to play with.
Frank also likes the whole concept of the pendulum:"As a puppeteer, you give an impulse into the mechanism of the pendulum, and then in a few moments it comes back. Then you receive another impulse that you can continue to react on. It's so much like a dance piece, you and the puppet are in the flow of doing something together. Its funny because people think the image of the marionette is like 'controlling' something, but especially with the string puppet it's not possible to completely control it."
This is a question you probably get asked quite a lot, but I think it's quite important. How did you get started in puppetry? Were you always interested in puppets?
"I really started as a child, but I must tell you a very funny story" Frank says, "I started with puppets from England!" He stops briefly to politely check if I'm old enough to have heard of Pelham Puppets and then goes on to explain that his mother bought one for him from the toy shop near where he grew up. With a few friends, Frank then began writing shows for his Pelham Puppets, which, he giggles, was not dissimilar to the scene from The Sound of Music.
So Frank, is now a good time for puppetry?
"I think so, yes. On one side it brings back to us the feeling to materials - we tend to lose the contact of materials, the sensation of touching. And on the other side, we are able to make a wonderful combination of old and new media in puppetry." Although there's no video or projection in Wunderkammer it does appear as a central element to many of Figurentheater Tübingen's other work. The use of projection in performance illuminates therelationship between what is two dimensional and three dimensional on stage, especially in a form where the live-ness of object is so important.
What was the best piece of advice you have been given?
Frank's teacher Albrecht Roser would remind his students: "In the end you have to listen to your puppet."
"I think there is something very essential in the sentence - you have to listen to the thing you are working with" he says sincerely. "Yes," I add as a closing thought, "whether they are puppets or not!"
Wunderkammer is being performed at The Barbican as part of The London International Mime Festival from the 2nd - 6th February. Due to popular demand, only return tickets are available now and your best chance is to arrive early on the day of the performance.
On the 3rd February we will be having a Puppet Gathering in the Barbican bar space on Level -1 from 6pm. This is an open and informal networking opportunity for puppetry practitioners to meet before the show. On the same evening our founding member Penny Francis will be hosting the Q&A session with Frank and Figurentheater Tübingen after their show. We hope to see you there.
I wanted to leave you with my favourite video I've found of Frank so far, understandably drawn from my combined love of opera and puppetry. Dog Opera (or Visits to the Opera, with a Dog).
Interview by Roxana Haines