When puppeteer Bernd Ogrodnik ended his 40-minute puppet show titled “Metamorphosis”, as part of the seventh Ishara International Puppet Festival in Chandigarh, the 57-year-old Icelander called his wife Hildur M Jonsdottir on stage. The space was already teeming with children who, right after a spellbinding spectacle, wanted to pose for pictures with Ogrodnik. The couple opened their “magical” trunk again, to give the children another dazzling experience as an encore. “The puppets also have emotions like us,” Ogrodnik told the children, who couldn’t seem to get enough.
For someone who has performed over 7,500 puppet shows in over 50 countries, Ogrodnik has spent more than half his life in the world of puppetry and believes that art depends on thinking with your heart and his practice. “I believe the reason for being a puppeteer is always in his heart. The key to becoming one is to keep practicing again,” said Ogrodnik, who believes in knowing how to filter your thoughts to create and perform puppets.
Puppetry has always been understood as an interesting combination of technique and emotions. According to Ogrodnik, it’s like learning the sitar. “You first learn the technique of how to play the instrument. This is when you create music. There are calculated mathematical techniques and technical thoughts behind how puppets work and sometimes technique can be complicated and advanced. It’s technology combined with emotions and the audience. A good puppeteer manipulates the puppet in such a way that the audience can understand the story. When the audience finally believes, it helps to give marionette life on stage,” said Ogrodnik, who performed in India for the first time.
Ogrodnik grew up in Germany, where he first saw street puppetry and traditional puppet shows. Artistic director and co-founder of the Icelandic Center for Puppetry Arts, he is also master puppeteer at the National Theater of Iceland in Reykjavik and has also taken a Western classical music course. Ogrodnik became a professional puppeteer in 1986 and made his own puppets and the mechanical tools needed to create them. While his early years were spent in television and film, Ogrodnik also turned to acting in 1995 and worked as an intern at puppet festivals in Iceland and other countries in Europe before creating his own company, “Worlds of Puppets” with his wife. Jonsdottir. “I was fascinated by worlds in small spaces and the idea of teddy bears and dolls coming to life and walking puppets using strings. When I was 25, I started this craft and my first show was a collection of short stories, similar to what we played here, and it brought back so many great memories. Ideas have evolved, but the underlying theme of our shows is always compassion, whether in Europe or Asia,” Ogrodnik added.
Jonsdottir, originally from Ireland, manages the company and the lighting for the shows. “I guess the puppets are in my karma. Ireland is a small country and there are a lot of puppeteers. My best friend and her mother were puppeteers and then I met Ogrodnik. My love for puppets has been constant,” Jonsdottir said.
Prior to Chandigarh, the couple, who have four children, performed in Indonesia. They are also involved in the production of special shows, some of which have been performed at places like the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, Denmark and the Vancouver Opera House in Canada. Since 1990, their company has produced 14 productions including Aladdin, Peter and the Wolf, The Little Troll and the Witch among others. A few years ago, the two took part in a big production based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which was held in Poland. It involved 15 puppeteers and saw them perform on rotating stages, which had never been done before. “My favorite character was Bagheera. The hardest of my characters was the genie from Aladdin. The show was based on puppet wood craftsmanship and there was the use of flexi glass. Our genie was female and it gave a whole new dimension to the show. Many of our characters are based on people we meet. One of my characters, who I call Mother Earth, is based on what I saw in a dream. Then it took us over two years to run the whole show, the characters and improvise its look and
spins its head mechanically,” Ogrodnik explained.
While the art of puppetry in India has seen popularity in states like Rajasthan and Kerala, the couple believe it needs to adapt to the needs of the public. The main challenge, he thinks, is to keep tradition alive and innovate new forms, for which we must rely on technological advances, as this creates new ways and new audiences. When you bring that, the audience is amazed and they want to see more,” Ogrodnik said. Young artists, according to Jonsdottir, must adapt to change and move the art forward. “In Iceland, we have many universities offering puppet classes and financial grants to learn the art and lead workshops. Puppetry is also part of medical therapies in the country,” she added.
Before packing their puppets into the trunk, Ogrodnik’s advice to puppeteers is to always observe. “How they move, their facial expressions, in addition to reading books and listening to different types of music. We have to make someone live on stage and these are the ways to succeed,” Ogrodnik concluded.