Unusual theatre: Sergei Obraztsov’s life with his puppets

July 12, 2020

At the age of ten, Sergei Obraztsov realised that a doll could be like a living thing and decades later he convinced the entire world about this. His performances were applauded by his family members and audiences at theatres around the world, who would laugh, cry, become indignant or delighted like children no matter how old they were. The reason was a lifelong passion that he developed at a very young age.

Read this mos.ru piece to learn more about Sergei Obraztsov, an artist, founder and permanent leader of the Puppet Theatre, actor, director and instructor.

Character actor

When Sergei Obraztsov was five years old, his mother bought him a funny doll from a Japanese shop located on Moscow's Kuznetsky Most Street. He discovered it had a hole in its small head big enough to put his finger in and it looked very much similar to a glove. It seemed to be like any ordinary doll until the moment you put it over your hand and then the magic began. It would become alive, waving its hand, bowing, giggling, crying, or dancing.

“The doll's name was Bi-ba-bo, who I endearingly called ‘Bibaboshka’ and loved very much. By the time my childhood was over, its head was missing and all that remained was it dress', Obraztsov would later write in his childrens' cartoon book I Have Played with Dolls All My Life (1983)”.

Obraztsov's parents, a railway engineer and a schoolteacher, wished that their son would choose a serious profession. However, they would have to come to terms with the fact that Sergei made it clear he was going to become an artist. After graduating from the Voskresensky Real School he enrolled in the art and later graphic faculty at the VKhUTEMAS (Higher Art and Technical Studios) where he studied under Abram Archipov and Vladimir Favorsky.

Following which, Obraztsov became an actor. After eight years at the musical studio of the Moscow Art Theatre (now Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre) Obraztsov spent six years at Moscow Art Theatre-II, playing mostly comical and character parts.

People’s Artist of the RSFSR Sergei Obraztsov. Photo by B. Vdovenko. 24 August 1951. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

Just as in the eponymous comedy by Ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, where women refuse to be with men until they have stopped all wars before ending up in power, the 1920s was a time of female emancipation in Russia. The main part was played by Olga Baklanova, with beautiful avant-garde sets by Isaak Rabinovich and a score produced by Reinhold Glière. However, many would come back to watch the amusing Leader of the Old Men squabbling with women.

The leader was impersonated by the young Obraztsov, who had already found fame in Moscow, although in a different capacity.

First Puppets

Obraztsov's first professional experience with puppets dates back to 1920 when he was still a student at the VKkUTEMAS . What motivated him at first was not exactly art, but a dire need of money.

Obraztsov teamed up with friends to make cheap puppets that they could try and sell. Amid a weak demand the plan floundered. Obraztsov did, however, make a puppet called Black Child that he would go on weaving stories about to give amusing performances for years to come.

At home performances at first, for which Obraztsov made different puppets, these later changed to stints at meet-and-greets and concerts. Audiences soon had their favourite characters, and would always cheer the Black Child when it appeared.

In 1928, Obratsov put together papier-mâché Tyapa, his treasured puppet with a face of a surprised young child. 'It's the oldest living child in the world,' he would say referring toTyapa decades later. Obraztsov would never part with Tyapa until the very end. The puppet was his constant companion on all of his tours.

Sergei Obraztsov with Tyapa his doll. Photo by B. Vdovenko. 24 August 1951. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

Puppet Theatre

In May 1930, Moscow was the venue of the All-Russia Conference of Puppet Theatre Workers. The conference organisers decided to establish the Main Central Puppet Theatre that was to help spawn numerous similar theatres all across the Soviet Union. Sergei Obraztsov, by then already a famous puppeteer, was chosen to head it. Obraztsov's first reaction was uneasiness. He knew nothing about theatre management, employment practices or, in fact, how many puppeteers he was going to need. Nor was he well-versed in bookkeeping.

Established in 1931, the theatre would have no building of its own for four years. Rehearsals were staged at the House for Children's Art Education, and performances were given at various venues with the help of a portable screen. In 1936, the theatre became permanently housed in a building on Mayakovskogo (now Triumphalnaya) Square. The opening night was a performance of Puss in Boots. A year later, the theatre founded its own library and the country's first Puppet Museum, which displayed retired puppets, no longer suitable for performances.

 During the Puss in Boots production backstage of the Sergei Obraztsov State Central Puppet Theatre. Photo by M. Ozersky. 1946-1947. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

Over time Obraztsov found gifted playwrights who wrote specifically for the new theatres, and were undaunted by special requirements, such as shorter monologues, which otherwise are an uphill struggle to perform with puppets. Obraztsov loved humourous parodies that ridiculed philistinism and vulgarity: We Just Met, How Strange, Pour Me One, and Habanera.

Joseph Stalin was a frequent visitor. He cherished Obraztsov's wit, creativity and skill, so much so that Obrastsov was often invited to perform at the Kremlin. Once Stalin arrived late and missed his favourite performance of Habanera. The Soviet leader asked Obraztsov to perform it again and was always generous with his praise and applause.

Aladdin's Magic Lamp

In 1940, the theatre staged Aladdin's Magic Lamp, its iconic production based on a play by Nina Gernet, which was the first time rod puppets had been used in the Soviet Union, a true innovation for that time. The three-metre genie Kashkash, the theatre's largest puppet, was designed by Obraztsov and the theatre's chief artist Boris Tuzlukov. Wanting their creation to look magical and mysterious, they discussed it for a long time and went through different ideas and models, until one day Tuzlukov brought a puppet he had been secretly making.

The genie's head was placed on a separate three-metre rod, and the other two served as the puppet's arms. Three actors were needed to manipulate its body made of shiny purple fabric. The head had a mechanism that allowed it to move its moustache and ears, open and close its eyes and mouth, or frown.

The performance, as well as the puppet, achieved country-wide fame. However, the production targeted adults and teenagers as younger children were too afraid of the genie.

War Years

In 1941 the theatre was hit by a bomb and scrambled to evacuate, with most actors moving to Novosibirsk. At a special base there soldiers were taught to make puppets and manipulate them. Novosibirsk was also the venue for the premiere of Carlo Gozzi's Stag King.

During the Great Patriotic War, Obraztsov put together 16 teams that toured the frontline performing Hitler's Dream, Over Berlin's Rooftops, and other productions for the troops. Obraztsov himself would dress as Pierrot and manipulate the puppet of Mussolini. Productions were staged for civilian populations in the Volga region, Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 1946, Sergei Obraztsov became the recipient of a Stalin Prize and a medal, For Valiant Labour in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

Unusual Concert

Post-war years were marked by another iconic production that Obraztsov first conceived before the war. An Unusual Concert, a parody revue, was included in the Guinness Book of Records as the most popular production with over 10,000 performances around the globe.

The lead character of Eduard Aplombov was immortalised by the great Zinovy Gerdt, the first actor to lend it its voice. Aplombov never raises his languid eyebrows at the audience but always succeeds in making it cry with laughter.

Surprisingly, it was conceived almost by accident. As he worked on Unusual Concert, Obraztsov half-jokingly thought about making a compere puppet, and his idea was supported. The character was based on a famous master of ceremonies, Mikhail Garkavi.

As with any parody some actors were offended to recognise themselves. The Soviet Culture Ministry even wanted to ban the production, which allegedly ridiculed Soviet performers. Obraztsov was forced to change a number of sketches. The name changed as well from just An Usual Concert to Puppet Concert.

Reimagined in 1968 and An Unusual Concert has since remained the Obraztsov Theatre's signature performance and one of the most popular items on the playbill.

Global Recognition

In 1955 Obraztsov became a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy of Art. He tried his hand at screenwriting, documentary filmmaking and directing television productions. Heavenly Creature, one of his more famous works, was completed at Soyuzmultfilm.

He continued to stage puppetry productions, and also taught at the State Institute of Theatre Arts where he first began to give classes in 1935 and was given professorship in 1973.

Sergei Obraztsov talks with actors of the Taro-za Japanese puppet theatre during its Moscow tour. Photo by A. Konkov and V. Khukhlaev. 5 September 1968. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

Meanwhile, Europe, and later the US, where his productions were also shown, developed an interest in his work. Obraztsov's way of dealing with his audiences appealed to his foreign admirers.

In 1970 the theatre was relocated to a building on Sadovaya-Samotechnaya Street, specifically built for the purpose. Both the puppeteers and their boss didn't want to leave their old home, but it had become too small and needed to be repaired, so they had no choice. Obraztsov asked for the new building to feature an unusual clock. Every hour, a cock cries out prompting a fairy-tale figure to appear out of a small house to a Russian folk tune. At noon, 12 puppets will appear out of their respective doors.

Unique clock with fairytale dolls on the facade of the State Central Puppet Theatre. Photo by Gladun. May 1971. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

In 1976, Obraztsov was asked to become the president of the UNIMA, the International Puppetry Association, and to head its central council. His term lasted 8 years, followed by honorary presidency.

By the time his theatre received the prestigious status of 'academic' in 1981, both Obraztsov and his puppets had achieved stardom, with numerous celebrity admirers including Sophia Loren, Indira Gandhi, and Yves Montand.

Obraztsov the author

Obraztsov was also an author writing books that talked about his directing and acting, secrets of puppeteering and puppet-making. He was a thorough student of his own successes and failures.

'Books are essential for authors as the air they breathe, and are a prerequisite for any performance. They are the greatest helpers and the best of friends,' he said.

Sergei Obraztsov with his dolls in his office. Photo by M. Trahman. 1960-1970s. Moscow Main Archives Directorate

His books include Up the Memory Steps, My Kunstkamera, What I Saw, Learnt and Understood During Two Trips to London, Actor with a Puppet, My Profession, Art Relay, among others. Art Relay muses about different kinds of art combining and complimenting one another.

Puppets occupied a big place in his writings. In the opening to his book My Profession, Obraztsov wrote:

“If the same honourable burden, the same obligation to really help people that is required of major art cannot be placed on the shoulders of a little puppet, I no longer want to write about puppets or practice this form of art, because in this case it is either childish entertainment or adult aesthetic eccentricity”.
Source: mos.ru

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