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Pulling the strings: Theater der Dinge returns

This year’s Theater der Dinge festival brings material and object theatre – puppets and so much more – to life on Berlin stages.

Photo: Bartek Warzecha

Puppets are back on the menu this November, and not just because there are inexplicably two new movie versions of Pinocchio now available on streaming services. The Theater der Dinge (Theater of Things) festival – an international celebration of contemporary material and object theatre – will be taking place in Berlin, live and fully in-person for the first time since the pandemic. The host will be the Schaubude, a production house and theatre on Prenzlauer Berg’s Greifswalder Straße that has supported the genre’s development since its founding in 1993.

But what is material and object theatre? Whilst it includes puppet and figurine shows, the genre goes far beyond it – the Theater der Dinge also features performances involving found objects, everyday materials, augmented reality and more. Tim Sandweg, the Schaubude’s artistic director, is well aware that not all theatregoers are likely to be familiar with it. “Puppetry and object theatre are a niche, but for me, that’s not a problem,” Sandweg explains. “It’s okay to develop something that is not for a big audience. Of course, there are things like War Horse or big opera installations, and in these cases, you have to think much more about a broad audience.”

It’s okay to develop something that is not for a big audience.

Dramaturg Yasmine Salimi, who is co-organising the festival, is relatively new to puppetry and object theatre. She believes the simultaneous “nearness and distance” of puppetry as an art form makes it particularly appealing to an audience. “It’s mostly the ‘distance’ part I find exciting,” she says. “You don’t have this problematic idea of the unity of the performer’s body with the character or whatever – instead, there is always this distance, which is essential to theatre. It’s a reminder that these are constructions, so you can extrapolate part of yourself and apply it to the puppet. Or what you’re seeing on stage could be something completely impossible!”

To build to bury to remember. Photo: Kara Bukowski

The festival has been running in Berlin since 2003 and annually since 2016. This year’s theme is ‘Unsettling Remains’ – though both Sandweg and Salimi point out that the German name, Spuren der Verunsicherung, offers more insight than its English translation. “Verunsicherung is the idea of feeling unsafe, uncertain, insecure,” Salimi explains. “We wanted to translate this as ‘unsettling’, to give an idea of precariousness.” Sandweg finds the theme timely. “Of course we’ve been thinking a lot about certainty and safety – and uncertainty and unsafety – in light of the crises of the last few years: the pandemic, the war in Ukraine,” he adds. “We bring the art of puppetry together with social and political discourse.”

There are 14 shows accessible in German and English, many from international artists. Highlights include Fünf Exponate (Five Exhibits), a fun take on the story of Alexander von Humboldt that uses commonly-found materials such as potatoes and plaster in a piece of semi-pedagogical theatre. In Romance by the Polish puppeteer and puppetry teacher Natalia Sakowicz, a life-sized human counterpart puppet to Sakowicz offers her the opportunity to ask existential questions. Aside from the performance pieces, Sarah Ama Duah’s To Build to Bury to Remember is an art installation focused on statues and how we perceive them – and the idea of memorialisation.

For those who haven’t had much to do with puppetry before, artistic director Sandweg offers one more reason why it might be worth exploring this admittedly niche theatrical cosmos. “Puppeteers can be shy,” he says. “It is an opportunity for performers who do not want to be the centre of attention.” A rarity indeed, one might suggest, compared to the performers who normally grace Berlin’s stages.

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