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‘True artistry’: Austria puppets charm with age-old craft

It takes as long to train to be a puppeteer at the world-famous Salzburg Marionette Theatre as it does to become a doctor.

The puppets and their startlingly lifelike movements take years to master, which is why the Austrian theatre’s work has Unesco World Heritage status.

“It’s like playing an instrument. You can’t think about which string to pull during the show,” said Edouard Funck, a puppeteer and costume designer.

Puppeteer Edouard Funck is seen with faceless puppets in a storage area prior to the Snow White fairytale puppet show at the Salzburg Marionette Theatre in Salzburg, Austria, on February 14, 2023. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Most puppets have at least 11 strings, so the puppeteer can make them “kiss each other, hug each other, hit each other, (or) whatever we want.

Some complicated puppets have dozens of strings, requiring up to five people to operate them, said the 34-year-old French-born performer.

Their movements are so subtle that audiences sometimes believe a puppet has “moved her lips”, said Funck, when it’s just “the illusion that is created on stage”.

Lengthy apprenticeship

The theatre’s founder, Austrian sculptor Anton Aicher, invented a special control bar to manipulate the puppets a century ago.

“Because the control bar is so small, we can make the puppets interact closely,” Funck said.

The puppeteers make the puppets themselves, spending their mornings designing, carving and dressing them before returning later to perform.

Puppeteer Marion Mayer works on a puppet prior to the puppet show. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Despite the lengthy apprenticeship, the theatre has no problem finding recruits, said Funck, who dreamed of being a puppeteer as a child.

Ilse Laubbichler, 79, who has been coming to the theatre since her own childhood, took her four grandchildren to see “Snow White” there for the first time. 

“I love the characters, the movement of the puppets — this is true artistry,” she said.



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