James P. MacGuire*

Abstract: This paper briefly sketches the career of New York based Roman Paska, which began at the school of mime master Jacques Lecoq in Paris and gradually developed into a distinct personal art summed up in his manifesto Theatre for the Birds. Paska’s productions have been seen in many UNIMA festivals. Between 1999 and 2003, he was the director of the Institut International de la Marionette in Charleville-Mézières, in France. While his own work is decidedly “avant-garde” or “experimental,” with a technique notably influenced by the puppetry of China, Japan and, especially, Indonesia, Roman has always felt an equal affinity for European puppet traditions, especially those in Italy, the cradle of puppet theatre in Europe, as he says, and the country in which he first regularly toured. Roman Paska has also focused from the outset of his career on puppet theory and remains especially interested in the relationship between performer and audience psychology.

Keywords: Lecoq, UNIMA, Dead Puppet, Turturro, Theatre for the Birds

Encouraged by the successful presentation of a play with masks that he wrote for his own graduation, Roman Paska’s early interest in theatre—in a kind of theatre he still describes as a synthesis of poetry, performing and visual arts—drew him from a boarding school in New England to Columbia University in New York, and his life has been tied to that city ever since. But after a general strike curtailed his freshman year, he spent a period of time in France and Switzerland, first studying mime at the École Jacques Lecoq in Paris and then on tour with the Bread & Puppet Theatre, a company whose work he had first encountered as a boy at the Newport Folk Festival.

After returning to New York, he was haunted by the idea of revisiting France with a traveling show of his own, and the following spring devised what he calls a “mock-ritual medieval street performance,” Works & Days, based on the sculptural program of the central west portal of Notre-Dame de Paris. He enlisted two student dancers and a trio of ex-boarding school friends; they rehearsed the show on the steps of Columbia’s St. Paul’s Chapel, then decamped to Paris and set off for the south of France in a decommissioned French postal minibus purchased at auction. Busking their way from village to village, they concluded their intrepid tour in Provence at the Sanctuaire de la Sainte-Baume, once sacred to the goddess of fertility, and where, according to local tradition, Mary Magdalene spent her final days.

Video 1

By the time of his graduation from college, Roman was committed to puppet theatre as the medium most propitious to his vision of a theatre at the nexus of performing and visual arts, and, to hone his skills, he briefly joined the company of the short-lived National Puppet Center in Alexandria, Virginia, where, although his own work was never destined for family audiences, he became (more by accident than choice, he says) the co-star of a weekly, Emmy-nominated children’s show with puppets for NBC Washington.

While in Washington, he also began to build and present a series of solo shows (twice commissioned by the Smithsonian Institution), first with hand puppets and then, after decisive trips to India and Indonesia, rod puppets, largely inspired by West Javanese wayang golek. When he returned again to New York to enroll in Columbia University’s Doctoral Program in Theatre and Film, he continued to present these solo performances, principally as a “performance artist” in New York galleries, theatres and museums, and then, more and more regularly, at theatre venues and festivals in Europe, including the Santarcangelo and Polverigi Festivals, Teatro Goldoni (Venice), Teatro di Roma, Théâtre Vidy (Lausanne), Theatre im Künstlerhaus (Vienna) and Espace Kiron (Paris).

By the time he completed the doctoral program at Columbia and taught for a year at Cornell University, Roman had decided to devote his time exclusively to what he called “the daily practice of puppetry.” He wrote a brief manifesto, Theatre for the Birds and, under that rubric, focused on his expanding series of solo shows—or, as he called them, “little mental dramas”—especially Line of Flight (completed 1984), Uccelli, the Drugs of Love (premiere 1988) and The End of the World (premiere 1992), which he continued to perform until 1999, establishing an international reputation as a performer and gaining renown in the world of puppetry as a master puppet maker and manipulator. Fragments of his solo work can be seen in John Turturro’s Illuminata (1998), which took him to the film’s premiere—and critical kudos—in Cannes.

Moby Dick in Venice, The Public Theatre, New York, 1996. Photo: Josef Astor

Concurrently, through the 1990s and the 2000s, Roman extended the range of his work to productions that were characterized by the integration of puppetry or puppet technique into works created for larger, multidisciplinary groups of actors, dancers and musicians. His ensemble productions from that period, many of which were also created or toured internationally, include original adaptations of Yeats’ The Shadowy Waters at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin (1991), Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata (Stockholm, 1992), Lorca’s Yerma (Seville,1993), his own Moby Dick in Venice (in three versions: Porto, 1994; Perth, 1995; and New York, 1996); God Mother Radio (Paris, 1998, based on Marlowe’s Massacre at Paris); and Arden/Ardennes (Avignon Off, 2000, based on Shakespeare’s As You Like It).

In 1993, his Ghost Sonata received the award for best production, presented by Ingmar Bergman, at the first Swedish Biennial of Theatre. The following year, he received the international critics’ Palm for The End of the World at the Kontakt Festival, Torún (Poland), and, in 1996, the Alan Schneider Directing Award from Theatre Communications Group. With puppets temporarily in the wings, he worked with composer Steve Reich on the development of his video opera Three Tales, designing and directing the first part, Hindenburg, for its premiere at the Bonn Opera (1997), followed by a European tour that included the Hebbel Theatre, Berlin; the Barbican, London; Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw; and, in Paris, the Théâtre du Châtelet.

The End of the World, from the Theatre for the Birds trilogy, The Public Theatre, New York, 1992.
Photo: Richard Termine

Since the 1980s, Roman and his work had been frequently chosen to represent American puppet theatre abroad at major international festivals, including the quadrennial UNIMA Festivals in Dresden, Nagoya, Ljubljana and Budapest, and he was regularly invited to give workshops throughout the world. Then, in 1998, he was recruited to be the director of the UNIMA-affiliate Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières, France, the world’s foremost center for the study, development and promotion of puppet theatre.

Supported by UNESCO and the French Ministry of Culture, the Institute’s activities included a three-year conservatory program, a summer university, a center for documentation and research, publications, conferences and seminars, an international festival of art schools and a resident theatre. During his tenure, from 1999 to 2003, in order to accommodate the expansion of the Institute and house new programs, he conceived and oversaw the acquisition of a former industrial building, a grand magasin et manufacture, that was remodeled to provide studios for visiting artists, flexible performance space, archival storage facilities and a gallery for the Institute’s collections and exhibits. He himself organized a number of exhibits and installations within the new complex, including a retrospective of the work of Dario Fo, an installation of the “Papier-Mâché Cathedral” designed by Peter Schumann for the Hannover World’s Fair, a retrospective of the work of Jan Svankmajer, in conjunction with the Festival d’Animation and the Musée d’Annecy, and an exhibit of traditional Sicilian marionettes from the collections of the Museo delle Marionette in Palermo.

While his own work is decidedly “avant-garde” or “experimental,” with a technique notably influenced by the puppetry of China, Japan and, especially, Indonesia, Roman has always felt an equal affinity for European puppet traditions, especially those in Italy, the cradle of puppet theatre in Europe, he says, and the country in which he first regularly toured. The Neapolitan character of Pulcinella, to Roman’s mind the European ur-puppet, often appears in his shows, and Roman has been the only non-Italian to serve on the diploma jury and teach at Naples’ Scuola di Pulcinella.

Video 2

Another Italian tradition with ancient roots that Roman acknowledges as an early inspiration is Sicily’s “Opera dei Pupi,” with its clashing knights in armor, and his efforts were influential in its finally being inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage lists. Already in Paris, during his first college year abroad, Roman had briefly apprenticed at a Sicilian puppet theatre, run by a family from Palermo, in the basement of a bookshop on the Boulevard Saint-Michel. There, he first unwittingly crossed paths with the director’s son, Mimmo Cuticchio, with whom, after a subsequent encounter in the mid-1980s at a festival in Hydra, Greece, he would form a lasting friendship that finally led, in 2008-09, to Roman’s “magical-realist” documentary feature, Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy, with Andrea Camilleri, Mimmo Cuticchio, Donatella Finocchiaro and John Turturro, an homage to the Sicilian pupi tradition that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2009 and has since been seen at Lincoln Center, BAM, the IFC Center, the Hamptons Film Festival, Cinema Arts Festival Houston and more.

Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy, filming in Palermo, 2008

Alongside his puppet “practice,” Roman has also focused from the outset of his career on puppet theory and remains especially interested in the relationship between performer and audience psychology. He has published essays and articles in Zone, Puck, Alternatives Théâtrales in Brussels (for whom he also edited two issues), the ITI World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, various anthologies (including The Language of the Puppet, 1990), and his work is discussed in Giovanni Lista’s encyclopedia of contemporary theatre, La Scène Moderne.

Video 3
Rehearsal for a Sicilian Tragedy, official trailer

He has taught at Columbia and at Cornell University, and he has also been a guest professor at NYU, Columbia, Cal Arts, London’s Central School of Speech and Drama, the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center and, most recently, the Yale School of Drama. His address to the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1998 was the subject of a New York Times feature article, and he is frequently invited to speak at events and institutions in the U.S. and abroad—with venues including the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, New York; STEIM, the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music, Amsterdam (on digital manipulation and new media); the Centre National de la Danse, Paris (on Oskar Schlemmer); the Ecole Supérieure de l’Image, Angoulême (on virtual puppetry); the Rubin Museum, New York (on neuroscience, consciousness and puppetry); and the University of Sussex, Brighton (on the puppet as a live interface).

Dead Puppet Talk, The Kitchen, New York, 2004. Photo: Richard Termine

Roman considered his time at the Institut International de la Marionnette in France to be a watershed, and so, in 2003, after relocating back to New York, he declared an end to Theatre for the Birds and created a new company identity, Dead Puppet, launched with the production of the eponymous Dead Puppet Talk, which took a playfully and self-consciously subversive view of his dabblings in puppet theory.

Video 4

Dead Puppet Talk was developed at the Sundance Theatre Institute at White Oak (Florida), presented in 2004 at The Kitchen, New York, and the following year in Vienna at the Schauspielhaus Wien, which, then, co-produced his next Dead Puppet project, Beethoven in Camera, with the Grand Théâtre de Luxembourg. His third Dead Puppet production, Schoolboy Play, inspired in part by his boarding school experiences, was commissioned by Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture and was subsequently presented in 2010 at Lisbon’s Dona Maria II National Theatre.

His most recent Dead Puppet play, Echo in Camera, was developed at Robert Wilson’s Watermill Center on Long Island, and has been presented to date at La MaMa, New York (2013), the Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2014), and the Kontakt Festival Wrocław (2015).

Schoolboy Play, Linz 2009 European Capital of Culture.
Photo: Richard Termine

In tandem with these “après-Charleville” Dead Puppet projects, Roman revisited Naples with his production of Souls of Naples, an adaptation of Eduardo De Filippo’s Questi Fantasmi, at the Teatro Mercadante, where it was also the subject of a RAI television documentary, Diario di un viaggio con fantasmi (Diary of a Journey with Souls). And he adapted, designed and directed Strindberg’s Dreamplay, one of Sweden’s most renowned and difficult plays, for its centennial at Stockholm’s Stadsteatern (City Theatre), where it was lauded by the Stockholm press as one of the centennial’s standout productions.

In addition to a new Dead Puppet production, he is currently at work on another feature and a cluster of short puppet films. Other recent projects include his collaboration on a theatrical adaptation of Beckett’s Company, which premiered last fall (2018) at the Dublin Theatre Festival; a music-theatre work in progress based on the medieval Irish poem Buile Suibhne (The Madness of Sweeney); and, with the Philip Glass Ensemble, a revival of the composer’s 1987 opera, The Fall of the House of Usher.

Echo in Camera, La MaMa E.T.C., New York, 2014. Photo: Richard Termine


*James P. “Jamie” MacGuire was born in New York City. He got his PhD from the University of Cambridge. His doctoral dissertation was on the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. In 1980 he joined Time Inc. and later worked for other media companies including Macmillan and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He has been a playwright-in-residence at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, a senior fellow at the Center for Educational Innovation at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, and has served on the boards of many not-for-profit organizations, including the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, Fordham College at Lincoln Center, Stageplays Theatre Company, Student Sponsor Partners and the Man O’ War Project. His books include London and the English Countryside (1989), Campion: A Play in Two Acts (with Christopher Buckley, 1990), Beyond Partisan Politics (1992), Dusk on Lake Tanganyika (poetry, 1999) and Real Lace Revisited (2017).

Copyright © 2019 James P. “Jamie” MacGuire
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A Fin de Siècle Life in Puppet Theatre: Roman Paska

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