The Kingdom of Denmark (Danish: Kongeriget Danmark), a country in Northern Europe, is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, located south-west of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. This sovereign state comprises Denmark and two autonomous constituent countries in the North Atlanta Ocean: Greenland and the Faroe Islands.
The first reports of troupes of professional puppeteers from Italy and France touring in Denmark come from around 1670. The troupes probably performed Polichinelle comedies – presumably with the assistance of an interpreter, as was the case in England. As time passed, puppet shows became popular, and, in 1718, a French puppeteer, Étienne Capion, established a puppet theatre in Copenhagen with a large repertoire including plays of William Shakespeare. We know that from 1795, Dyrehavsbakken – the oldest amusement park in the world – in Klampenborg was the only permanent venue for the traditional Danish puppet hero Mester Jakel (possibly from Maître Jacques, the Danish variant of a popular puppet character from Northern France).
Parallel with this, a more bourgeois tradition developed, which involved many of the great artists and musicians of the Golden Age. In 1810, the composer Christopher Friederich Weyse (1774-1842) built a puppet theatre for the dramatist Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1791-1860) at which Heiberg staged his comedies with music by Weyse.
Around the turn of the century the painter Jens Ferdinand Willumsen (1863-1958) created an artistically designed puppet theatre at which he, together with contemporary authors, performed comedies with string puppets (marionettes).
The 20th Century
This more exclusive tradition was continued by the illustrator Ebbe Sadolin (1900-1982), who in 1922 set up his own theatre in Copenhagen, at which the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) were staged with string marionettes in picturesque settings, to music composed by Knudåge Riisager (1875-1974). Sadolin toured all over Europe with his performances and worked hard to get puppet theatre accepted as a serious art form.
In 1930, the artist Helgo Jørgensen (1888-1972) decided to renew the old Mester Jakel comedies. He gave them a new artistic form and created his own rod puppets. He performed with these for seven years in the Tivoli Gardens. Then he moved out into the Copenhagen parks and finally established his own theatre in Kongens Have (King’s Gardens) in 1970. After Helgo Jørgensen died, his theatre has been continued by Birthe Norst, and two free performances are given each day during summer – although Mester Jakel no longer is on the programme.
In 1962, Danish puppet theatre received new impetus. The actress Jytte Abildstrøm (b.1934) discovered the possibilities of this medium during a visit to Alexis Robert Philpott and his puppet centre in Wandsworth, England. Together with Paulette Møller (b.1928), who started Legoland’s puppet theatre in 1968 (Legoland, a famous amusement park built with LEGO blocks in Billund, Jutland), and Hertha Kaah, Abildstrøm established her own troupe of puppeteers. Their first performance was Molière’s Le Médecin volant (The Flying Doctor). Jytte Abildstrøm’s theatre still tours Denmark and puts on performances in Riddersalen, for example, the Michael Meschke production of Kong Ubu (King Ubu), and she has arranged guest performances by a number of foreign puppeteers.
The year 1966 brought the opening of Copenhagen’s first permanent children’s theatre, Det Lille Teater (The Little Theatre), which often uses puppets as its idiom. Their first production, Karusellen (Carousel, or The Roundabout), based on children’s rhymes by the poet Halfdan Rasmussen (1915-2002), was created by the artist Kaj Matthiessen (1929-1986), who had already been working with puppets for some years in Algeria. This was followed by many other productions both at Det Lille Teater and the theatre in Kongens Have. Kaj Matthiessen was a good teacher and one of his pupils, Morten Grue (b.1948), has made a name for himself with productions for both children and adults at Bådteatret (Boat Theatre), at the Kongens Have theatre, and also at Det Kongelige Teater (The Royal Theatre) and with television productions, many of them based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales.
From the end of the 1960s, Danish theatre took a new direction following alternative research into the world and experiences of children: thus, the aim was to create alternative “eye-level” theatre focusing on children’s own experiences, set in their everyday environment. Many touring puppet theatre companies emerged during this period, at first presenting traditional plays for children, but soon taking a more experimental line, with inspiration drawn from the other arts and in the process creating new forms in which everyday objects acquired new functions and surprising meanings.
In 1969, ASSITEJ Danmark (Association of Children’s Theatres in Denmark) was established. The association, which comprises professional puppet theatres as well as actors’ theatres for children and young people, to date (2013) has 68 members, who present their shows at two annual festivals.
One of the theatres from this period is Paraplyteatret (Umbrella Theatre). Founded by Ray Nusselein (1944-1999) in 1969, it was headed by him until his death. Nusselein gained international recognition with his poetic one-man shows, for example Min Altankasse (My Window Box) in which the puppets are made of everyday objects. The unique philosophical and educational concept of playing for children that permeated Nusselein’s work has greatly influenced the artistic development of puppet theatre for children in Denmark. As described by his dramaturge and personal friend, Biba Schwoon, “Ray’s shows emerged from the alternation between the idea, the visual expression, and the language of emotions – the one element not without the others. Only when these were in place was it possible for the show to continue to develop, in interplay with its audience of children.”
Another famous name in puppetry is Ole Bruun-Rasmussen, who is internationally acclaimed for his work as director, set designer, teacher and writer within this art form. In recent years, Ole Bruun-Rasmussen has spent much time living and working in Burkina Faso. He now lives in Sweden and his theatre, Life-Line-Theater, often performs in Denmark.
In 1981, Tom Nagel Rasmussen and Catherine Poher formed Bjørneteatret (Bear Theatre), which used puppets and objects to create new visual forms of theatre throughout the 1980s and 1990s until its closure in 2000.
The year 1983 saw the establishment of the association En anden slags Teater (Another Kind of Theatre). In 1988, the present Danish UNIMA Centre was recognized. By 2013, forty-five professional puppet theatres and ten amateur theatres are members of the UNIMA organization.
During the 1990s, in the field of theatre for adults, the internationally renowned Odin Teatret (Odin Theatre) turned to alternative expression with puppets and objects, as in its production Itsi Bitsi, as did also Blå Hest (The Blue Horse) from Århus with En dukkes erindringer (Memories of a Doll). Hans Rønne and Teatret (The Theatre) broke new ground in theatre for young people with his famous production, Springtime. Since the mid-1990s, Thy Teater in Hanstholm, Jutland, has created large-scale puppet performances for adults, and has trained puppet makers and puppeteers.
Also during the 1990s, in the growing field of professional puppet theatre for children, theatres began to venture into more aesthetic areas of visual expression, leaving much of the political and pedagogical approach of the past behind.
One of the most influential puppet theatres in this respect was, and still is, Teater Refleksion (Theatre Reflection) in Århus, founded by former teacher Bjarne Sandborg. Starting as a workshop, this theatre has constantly developed its sophisticated artistic style in puppetry and animation up until the present day, with innovative and acclaimed shows such as Prinsen og hans Tjener (The Prince and His Servant). Young puppeteers from the theatre have continued their studies at various academies, and have since founded their own puppet and animation groups. In 2010, Teater Refleksion moved to a new and beautiful location in central Århus.
Although not exclusively a puppet theatre, the renowned Gruppe 38 (Group 38) has nevertheless created brilliant and internationally acclaimed shows for children using puppets and objects, for instance En lille Sonate (A Sonatina), as has also Nørregaards Teater (Nørregaard’s Theatre), led by the experienced puppeteer, actor, and director Hans Nørregaard, whose shows are renowned for their stories, puppetry, acting and use of live music. Hans Nørregaard retired in 2003; since 2011, Nørregaards Teater has been located in Odense. Another theatre, Musikteatret Undergrunden (Underground Music Theatre), has achieved much success by translating opera into puppet theatre for both children and adults.
Puppet theatre in Denmark has proved especially well suited for very small theatregoers. Two Copenhagen-based theatres producing shows specializing in puppet theatre for toddlers and infants are: Teatret Månegøgl (Moonfun Theatre), founded in 1981 by Hanne Trolle, who created the popular character Pyt, and touring extensively abroad; and Teatret Lampe (Lamp Theatre), led by actor and puppeteer Anne Nøjgård, with its musical and dramatic puppet and object interpretations of H.C. Andersen tales, and its handling of new, challenging themes for this age group. With their gentle, poetic puppet shows, Teatret 83 and Teatret My (Micrometre Theatre) have also gained recognition in this increasingly popular genre.
Since 2000, Danish puppet and object theatre has expanded into the area of visual performance through the innovative work of Sara Topsøe Jensen and her theatre, Carte Blanche, whose artistically acclaimed shows take shadow theatre as well as puppets and animation into new and exciting realms. Among the skilled and promising newcomers and troupes, as of 2012, are: Spiir Produktion (Spiir Production), a puppet company from Århus; Astabasta Teatret (Astabasta Theatre); and Gertrud Exner from Teater Blik (Theatre with a View) who was educated at Thy Teater.
Viewed in the totality of Danish theatre funding, puppet and animation theatre covers only a small fraction of the national budget, which is due to the fact that, in Denmark, puppet theatre is mainly directed towards an audience of children. Some puppet theatres with permanent companies and playhouses are state and/or regionally funded, such as, for example, Det Lille Teater, Jytte Abildstrøms Teater, Marionetteatret in Kongens Have, and Svalegangen Dukketeater (External Gallery Paper Theatre) and Teater Refleksion in Århus. A limited number of touring puppet theatres without their own venues are funded on a regular basis by the Danish Arts Council, through yearly subsidies for production, technical equipment and administration. Other professional puppet theatres are indirectly subsidized by the unique Danish reimbursement system for children’s theatre, which gives regional and municipal institutions a 50% price reduction when purchasing theatre for children. To be included in the reimbursement system, theatre shows must be evaluated and commended by a special committee of professionals.
In 2009, Hans Hartvich-Madsen left Thy Teater and became the leader of the Puppet and Animation Department of the Developing Center for Stage Art in Odsherred where, in 2011, a 2-year experimental education project in the field of puppetry was granted by the Ministry of Culture. This project has received funds to be continued. Hans Hartvich-Madsen founded First Hand Theatre with Külli Palmsaar in 2009; the theatre has travelled in Germany and Sweden with the interactive performances, Wunderland (Wonderland) and Alice.
Several new puppeteer/performers have recently emerged: Astrid Kjær Jensen, educated in Berlin, in her performance of Lilith acts on her own body with palm puppets (see Hand Puppets); Katrine Karlsen, educated in Norway, performs with her Teater Graenseloes (Theatre with No Limits); Sofie Krog, of Sofie Krog Teater, performs for adults with her “free-style puppet theatre” in productions such as Diva and The House; Ida Tjalve, educated in London, works with shadow plays and other kinds of puppetry.
Since 2005, the tendency in Denmark has pointed towards more puppet theatre for adults. Rolf Søborg Hansen was puppet maker and performer in Sally Stina Skriget (The Cry of Sally Stina) and På den anden side (On the Other Side, directed by Catherine Poher) at Det Kongelige Teater (The Royal Theatre), and at Bådteatret the productions King Lear, Odysseen (The Odyssey), and plays treating the theme of alcohol. Non-Stop and Brudstykker af min Marionetdukkes Bekendelser (Fragments of My Puppet’s Confessions) – both productions with puppets made by Carl Press and played by Peder Holm Johansen – were staged at Plan-B Teatret. Also within the last five years, Copenhagen has seen two festivals devoted entirely to puppetry performances for adults.
The principal organization for puppetry in Denmark is UNIMA Danmark, a branch of Union Internationale de la Marionnette, which receives an annual grant from the Arts Council. Denmark takes part in the international registration and promotion project, Road of Puppetry, which was introduced by UNIMA’s European Commission.
Denmark is the host of a number of puppet theatre festivals of which the most noteworthy are held in Copenhagen, Silkeborg, Taastrup, Fredericia, Bornholm, Hanstholm and Ringsted annually or biannually.
(See also Alfred Jacobsen.)
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- Jensen, Carsten. For det største i de mindste [For the Biggest in the Smallest]. Copenhagen: The Association of Children’s Theatres, 2004.
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