Located in Northern Europe, the Nordic island country Iceland (Icelandic: Ísland), with its capital and largest city Reykjavík, was first settled in the latter half of the 9th century by a Norwegian chieftain; over the following centuries Scandinavians settled Iceland. Until 1918, when it became independent, it was ruled by Norway and later Denmark. It became a republic in 1944. Icelandic culture is founded upon its Scandinavian – Germanic (and Norse) and Gaelic (Celtic) – heritage.
The Icelandic history of puppetry seems to be very recent, but is based on ancestral literary sources such as the sagas presenting a natural world peopled by trolls, elves and fairies, and an inexhaustible folklore on which the puppeteers have built their art and their repertoire.
The first recorded puppet show was given by a Dane in 1914 in a little fishing village in the south of Iceland. The villagers took him for a madman, too old to be playing with dolls. The second known performance was a Faust staged by the students of the Reykjavik School of Arts and Crafts in 1934, led by the German puppeteer, refugee, and art teacher at the school at that time, Kurt Zier, who founded a Marionette Society, the Maríonettufélagið.
In 1954, Íslenska Brúðuleikhúsið (Icelandic Puppet Theatre) was established by Jón E. Gudmundsson (d.2005). He had studied Fine Arts in Denmark and worked all his life as an art teacher. For many years Guðmundsson travelled every summer and performed his marionette shows in the villages and towns around Iceland, often assisted by Sigrídur Hannesdóttir. His plays were mainly directed at young audiences and took their subjects from popular folk tales. Gudmundsson had a little workshop in his cellar and during the winters he carved an amazingly large collection of elaborate string puppets. These marionettes are now in the possession of the Theatre Museum of Iceland (established in 2003) along with Gudmundsson’s tools and equipment, scenery, stage properties and documents concerning his artistic work. The Theatre Museum regards the Gudmundsson collection as one of its finest treasures and takes every opportunity to show it to the public. (www.leikminjasafn.is)
In 1968, with the aim of producing puppet plays for the newly established Icelandic Television, Kurt Zier returned to teach the puppet art to a group of six people. Four of them (Bryndís Gunnarsdóttir, Erna Gudmarsdóttir, Hallveig Thorlacius and Helga Steffensen) formed a new theatre group – Leikbrúduland (Land of Puppets). In 1973, they were allocated a venue in the heart of Reykjavík, where they performed every weekend, keeping up a high level of activity for 25 years. Leikbrúduland has toured widely in Europe, participating in festivals, winning awards and critical acclaim. Its productions include Tröllasögur (Giant Stories, 1983), Bannad ad hlæja (Forbidden Laughter, 1998), The Princess in the Harp (2000), inspired by the Saga of the Völsungs, Ævintýrid um Stein Bollason (The Adventure of Steinn Bollason, 2002), based on an ancient European fairy tale, Selurinn Snorri (Snorri the Seal, 2006), adapted from a Norwegian story. It was a severe blow to Leikbrúduland and their audience when they lost their venue in 1998.
Brúdubíllinn (Puppet Car) is the oldest outdoor theatre in Iceland with regular summer performances held in Reykjavik, and touring the country in the autumn. The car serves as the stage. Helga Steffensen has been the director of this theatre from 1980 to the present. She has been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of the Falcon for her contribution to theatre and children’s culture. The theatre’s repertoire, mostly based on Icelandic stories, songs and folklore, is for young children.
Strengjaleikhúsid (String Theatre) was founded in 1982 by Messíana Tómasdóttir, when she was chosen Artist of the Year in Reykjavík for her puppet performance, The Blue Girl. She has developed a style that weaves together contemporary live music and puppet theatre. Strengjaleikhúsid has commissioned and staged seven modern Icelandic operas as well as other combinations of music and puppetry. With their emphasis on inner rather than outer reality, productions of Strengjaleikhúsid have travelled widely abroad, both in film and on tour. Messiana Tómasdóttir has created scenography and costumes for over eighty theatre productions in Iceland, Scandinavia, Europe, and the United States, and has held fifteen exhibitions of her art works as well as participating in larger exhibitions. (www.messiana.is)
Sögusvuntan (Pocket Theatre) was founded in 1984 as a solo puppet theatre by Hallveig Thorlacius. Her style, which involves audience participation, has captured a steadily growing audience and she has toured all over Europe, Canada and the United States, always performing in the language of the audience. In 2008, she was invited as one of seven puppet artists to “share their secrets” in a solo theatre workshop in Finland. In this process the special possibilities of the genre of solo puppetry were analysed and studied. (www.xx.is/sogusvuntan)
The 10 Finger Theatre was founded by Helga Arnalds in 1993. Arnalds received her puppetry education from the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona. She is also trained as a visual artist from the Iceland Academy of the Arts. The 10 Finger Theatre has always transcended discrete artistic disciplines with its integration of visual arts, music and the new media. It was from these sources that Helga Arnalds developed her own special art form of “Visual Theatre” over the years. The company has performed in Scandinavia, Spain, the United States, Canada, and Australia. Among many different distinctions for her work, she won the 1st Prize for the best children’s performance in Iceland in 2008, in collaboration with the National Theatre of Iceland. (www.tiufingur.is)
The Theatre Bakery is a new experimental theatre group in the field of visual and puppet theatre. Its seven members (Eva Signý Berger, Helga Arnalds, Högni Sigurthórsson, Katerina Fojtikova, Karolina Boguslawska, and Sigrídur Sunna Reynisdóttir) all have backgrounds in different fields of visual arts, theatre design, puppet theatre, and literary theory.
One of the most remarkable Icelandic exports has been the television programme, Latibær (LazyTown), created by Magnus Schewing. Since 2004, this TV series, featuring both actors and puppets and originally created by Gudmundur Thór Kárason, has won both recognition and a worldwide audience, winning among many prizes the BAFTA Children’s Award 2006.
Thórhallur Sigurdsson is the most experienced of Icelandic directors in the field of puppet theatre productions. He is the Artistic Director of a children’s theatre stage “Kúlan” in the National Theatre of Iceland where he has produced several puppet theatre productions.
Katrín Thorvaldsdóttir has been prominent in the field of puppetmaking for productions in the big theatres. She also received her puppetry education from the Institut del Teatre in Barcelona and has participated in puppeteer work with diverse groups abroad and in Iceland. Katrín has made puppets and masks for various theatrical companies at home and abroad as well as scenography and costume design for theatres and the Opera. She has also held exhibitions of her work.
Stefán Jörgen Ágústsson is a special effects artist who makes puppets for films, television and theatres. (www.stefanjorgen.com)
Puppets have been used for educational purposes in Icelandic schools, where three of UNIMA’s members, Jóhanna Fjóla Ólafsdóttir, Hallveig Thorlacius, and Bryndís Gunnarsdóttir, have played a significant role. UNIMA Iceland (Unima á Íslandi) was founded in 1975 on the initiative of Michael Meschke.
Perhaps the most promising development in Iceland is the new puppet centre Brúduheimar (World of Puppets) Centre for Puppetry Arts in Borgarnes in the West of Iceland, founded in 2010 by husband and wife team Hildur Jónsdóttir and Bernd Ogrodnik. In a group of historical renovated buildings by the seashore, the Centre features a museum, theatre, cafe, library and elaborate workshop/studio space for the creation of both theatre and film productions, teaching and conferences. Brúduheimar hosts a biennial international festival of puppetry.