The Kingdom of Norway (Norwegian Bokmål: Norge and Kongeriket Norge; Norwegian Nynorsk: Noreg and Kongeriket Noreg) in Northern Europe today comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, the volcanic island Jan Mayen in the Arctic Ocean, the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, and claims a section of Antarctica known as Queen Maud Land. The indigenous Finno-Ugric people inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi, known as the Sami (also Sámi or Saami, traditionally known in English as Lapps or Laplanders), inhabit far northern Norway, Sweden and Finland.
The first mention of traditional puppet shows in Norway dates from the end of the 18th century. The figures were animated by strings tied to the fingers of langeleik players (the langeleik is a zither instrument, played on a table, like the dulcimer or the épinette des Vosges). These shows were performed in rural valleys until the end of the 19th century. (See also Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.)
From the 18th century until approximately 1900, there are numerous descriptions of the Julegeita or Christmas goat, which was the main figure in popular Christmas processions amongst rural communities. A puppeteer hidden under goats’ skins operated a grotesque goat’s head attached to a pole.
During the same period, travelling puppeteers and players from Norway or the rest of Europe frequently performed in marketplaces. The best-known puppeteers were as follows: the Italian Joseph Bernabo, who toured the country during the first half of the 19th century with his “marionette theatre of the jolly Polchenel”; later, the Norwegian Havor A. Fredriksen, who, inspired by the political tensions between dukedoms in Denmark and Prussia (War of the Duchies), performed the “marionette-play” The Jolly Mr Jachel and the Prussian Hverver. Fairground spectacle, however, never really caught on in Norway.
Drawing Rooms and Libraries
During the 19th century, the extensive trade and cultural exchange created by Norwegian shipping led to puppetry becoming fashionable in bourgeois homes. Authors such as Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) and Gabriel Scott (1874-1958) had their own puppet theatres as children. Another Norwegian author, Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), made miniature theatres out of matchboxes and performed shows for her two younger sisters while she was still a child. In 1927, as an adult, assisted by the artistic circle she moved within in Lillehammer, she staged two performances for children and wrote Østenfor sol og vestenfor måne (To the East of the Sun and to the West of the Moon) and De tre kongsdøtrene i berget det blå (The Three Princesses in the Blue Mountain), both based on Norwegian folk tales and staged as toy theatre (also known as paper theatre) productions. The artists Alf Lundeby and Einar Fagstad painted the proscenium, scenery and figures, while the musician Reidar Brøgger composed the music. The theatre became an attraction within artistic circles and also toured Lillehammer and its suburbs.
Over the Christmas period in 1937, the librarian Johanne Mowinckel Wetlesen started a puppet theatre at a library in the Oslo suburb Grünerløkka. Although the library was in a working class area, the puppet theatre was frequented by people from the whole city and surrounding areas and at times up to 400 children came to performances in which the small glove puppets were no more than 25 centimetres tall. The library at Grünerløkka became a pioneer institution for information and popular education. This explains the important role that libraries have had in Norway for disseminating puppetry work.
The Second Half of the 20th Century
After World War II and the end of German occupation of Norway, children’s art blossomed dramatically within literature, music, visual art and theatre, including puppetry: during the 1950s this was seen in the work of Agnar Mykle and his wife Jane. They both studied guignol with Marcel Temporal between 1948 and 1949 and subsequently founded Norsk Dukketeater (Norwegian Puppet Theatre). They ran workshops for adults and performed marionette cabaret shows, but the bulk of their work was in the performance of fairy tales for children in the parks of Oslo. They tried to introduce the greedy and lazy character of Smørbukk (Butterball) for Guignol. In 1952, the Folketeatret (People’s Theatre), which tried to bring theatre to the working classes, engaged the Mykles. Agnar Mykle adapted the folk story Gjete kongens harer (The Shepherd for the King’s Hares, 1952) for performance; Jane Mykle made the puppets and the sets. The puppeteer was recruited from the team of actors at the Folketeatret. A short while afterwards, Agnar Mykle broke off his connection with the theatre and one of the actors, Julian Strøm, took over the management of the puppet theatre. Strøm was already well known as a storyteller of romantic folk tales and he brought this expertise to puppetry. His daughter, Birgit Strøm, was studying puppetry in Prague, and returned to Oslo to join the team. After some years, following bankruptcy, the Folketeatret was integrated into the Oslo Nye Teatret (Oslo New Theatre). The puppetry group retained a level of autonomy within the new theatre and became known as the Oslo Nye Dukketeatret (Oslo New Puppet Theatre).
In 1976, the national touring theatre Riksteatret directed by Gudrun Waadeland began a three-year puppetry training programme under the leadership of Mona Wiig (who had studied with Oslo Nye Dukketeateatret and with Ţăndărică in Bucharest, Romania, and had taken puppetry courses at DAMU – Divadelní fakulta akademie múzických umění in Prague). In 1989, a further three-years training was instituted with the aim of recruiting new talent to the puppetry ensemble. Irina Niculescu and John Lewandowski were employed to lead this training.
During the 1970s, a number of freelance professional theatre groups were formed. In other parts of Scandinavia, these groups often had a strong political or ideological basis. In Norway, however, this was less the case, which led to greater diversity in Norwegian theatre, but less solidarity, which weakened their perspective and economic status in relation to Norwegian cultural institutions. Among the puppet theatres that emerged during this period, it is worth mentioning Musidra Teater in Oslo, which used pedagogy, interaction with children and combined acting, puppetry and music. This group was led for some years by Camilla Tostrup.
During the decade of the 1970s, there was great interest in puppet theatre among teachers and the Norwegian state financially supported small-scale touring. The scene was therefore favourable to one-person shows. Other companies of note during this time include: Vibeke Helgesens Dukketeater (Vibeke Helgesen’s Puppet Theatre), Baldrian og Musa (Baldrian and Musa), Marits Dukketeater (Marit’s Puppet Theatre), Ballonteatret (Balloon Theatre, now known as Dårekisten), and Unge Husers Dukketeater. In 1979, Petrusjka Teater was set up in Trondheim and, due to its high artistic qualities, was soon established as Norway’s leading independent puppetry company.
The puppet theatres created in the 1980s and 1990s were motivated by aesthetic considerations or a desire for new experiences, but they also addressed the desire of regional expression. Klomadu Teater, Dukkenikkerne and Tromsø Dukketeater are examples of regional troupes that have gained national recognition.
Training in puppetry was improved through the work of Riksteatret, and its members formed several other companies: Knut Alfsen formed Levende Dukker (Living Puppets) in collaboration with scenographer and designer Agnes Schou. The company mostly performs for children but has also had some success with musical theatre productions. Three students from the Riksteater set up Teater Figur, which performs for adults; their greatest success was En fredelig mann (A Peaceful Man), based on a short story by Henri Michaux.
Puppets and Television
In 1966, Birgit Strøm engaged the Czech scenographer and director Jarmilla Majerová to create the show Journey to the Sun for children and a Ludvig Holberg play for adults. These two plays introduced rod puppets and black theatre to Norway. Birgit Strøm later worked for NRK (Norwegian television) where she developed an individual style of dialogue between puppets and actor. The teddy bear Teodor (a glove puppet made by Mona Wiig) and Titten Tei, a precocious boy (represented by a string puppet made by Karel Hlavaty), became important television characters. The conversations between Titten Tei and the Norwegian Queen Sonja and the English actress Julie Andrews remain classics of Norwegian television history.
Arne Mykle, son of Agnar, took over the management of the Oslo Nye Dukketeatret after the Strøm family. He formed a new company by delivering a three-month course for a group of young talented artists. The students were taught classical glove puppetry. Mykle’s first show was Ali Baba og de førti røverne (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves). Mykle left the company shortly afterwards and, around 1966, with his wife, Bjørg Mykle, formed his own theatre, Dukketeaterverkstedet (Puppet Theatre Workshop). The couple were assisted by their parents. Their greatest success was a surreal television show, Reperatørene (The Fixers), which children either loved or were terrified by. Bjørg Myrkle later made a name for herself as an educator and therapist, using puppets as tools to work with abused children.
The early 1990s were favourable years for puppetry, both economically and artistically. In 1991, a state training course for puppetry was set up in Fredrikstad. This was first called Norsk Dukketeater Akademi (NDA, Norwegian Puppetry Academy) and later renamed Akademi for Figurteater (Academy for Figure Theatre). In Stamsund, in northern Norway, the Nordland Dukketeaterverksted (Nordland Puppet Theatre Workshop), now Figurteateret i Nordland (Figure Theatre in Nordland), was set up to produce shows and organize tours.
Recently, Norwegian institutions have shown more interest in puppet theatre than in other theatrical forms: in the west, Hordaland Teater is responsible for creating puppet shows, and Agder Teater in Kristiansand in the south of the country hosts an international puppet festival every second year.
Puppet theatre in Norway had to fight stagnation of the form towards the end of the 20th century. Animation of figures and material was pushed out to make way for a greater interest in the human body and installation. The Akademi for Figurteater developed into training for physical and visual theatre and the name changed to Akademi for Scenkunst (Academy for Scenic Arts). Other institutions, however, continued to support puppetry. There has been renewed interest in recent years in animation, not only live performance but also in film and digital arts. Among the groups working in this field, Hollow Creature and Katta i Sekken (Cat in the Bag) are worth mentioning.
Tendencies in Norwegian Puppet Theatre in the 21st Century
There are several small independent puppetry groups in Norway around the country, but they are difficult to discover in the Norwegian cultural landscape. However there are some notable exceptions.
One productive and progressive institution is Figurteatret i Nordland (FIN) which marked its 20th anniversary in 2011. The theatre is based in Stamsund, Lofoten, a windswept fishing village in northern Norway with just over 11,000 inhabitants. FIN has collaborated with national and international artists, producing many interesting and innovative performances. During its existence, the number of performances has reached more than one hundred. The shows are mainly aimed at children, but the theatre is also making performances for young people as well as adults. The theatre organizes workshops, international collaborations and tours both at home and abroad. The aim of FIN is to develop puppetry arts as an artistic and communicative genre regionally and nationally. The founder of FIN is Knut Alfsen. Preben Faye-Schöll has been Artistic Director since 2004.
In the central Norwegian city of Trondheim there are four theatre groups that have contributed to puppetry: Teater Visuell (2003), which has puppetry as its main artistic form of expression, Fusentast (1980), Cirka Teater (1984), and Teater Fot (2004), which works with physical and visual theatre expressions, including puppets. Teater Visuell has a permanent mini-stage for puppet theatre that seats about thirty children, one of the smallest in the country.
In Norway there were, until 2011, two puppet theatre festivals: Fri Figur in Oslo and Den Internasjonale Figurteaterfestivalen (The International Puppetry Biennale) in the southern city of Kristiansand, which closed down in 2011 after 20 years. When the city and the regional theatre, Agder Teater, opened the new and ultramodern cultural centre Kilden (The Source), no more money was available for the international festival. This biennale, running from 1991, was a vital meeting place for Norwegian and international artists, especially puppetry artists. The biennale was popular and gathered people of all ages, especially children, from the surrounding district as it introduced them to new and fascinating forms of theatre. The closure of the biennale was a great loss for Norwegian puppetry arts. It had given Norwegian artists a chance to see excellent international performances and it brought new trends and influences to the country. UNIMA Norway, in partnership with other institutions, established Fri Figur in 2004 as a national festival, but is now working to expand and invite international groups. However, there are challenges.
Although most independent puppetry groups are based in the capital, the city holds few permanent stages for puppet theatre. So far only one individual artist has managed to obtain her own stage, Annes dukketeater (Anne’s Puppet Theatre) in the Vigeland Park, by converting a children’s nursery into a small theatre in 2000.
Two Norwegian institutional theatres have permanently had puppeteers in their companies, Oslo Nye Trikkestallen (previously Oslo Nye Dukketeater) and Riksteatret. During recent years, the two institutions have co-produced performances. In 2012, the Ministry of Culture awarded a grant to both theatres to strengthen their collaboration within puppetry. These theatres have officially stated the need for recruiting puppeteers. Strengthening these ties will mean more co-productions and the increased possibility of performing in Oslo as well as on tour.
The Norwegian Arts Council is the most important source for economic grants for all categories of non-institutional performing arts. In 2012, the Arts Council will spend NOK 24 million in promoting performing arts outside the official institutions. They will also administer Den Kulturelle Skolesekken, DKS (The Cultural Rucksack), a “national programme for arts and culture provided by professionals in the Norwegian schools”. In recent years, the grants from DKS have increased, reaching a total of NOK 162.5 million for 2012.
The two above-mentioned grants are the most important for performing artists of all categories, but other funding options are available from regional and national state institutions, as well as internationally. Competition is, however, fierce with a clear expectation of artistic innovation.
- Alfsen, Knut. “Dukketeater” [Puppet Theatre]. Scenekunst. No. 1. Oslo: Norges offentlige utredninger, 1988.
- Helgesen, Anne Margrethe. “Animasjonen – Figurteatrets velsignelse og forbannelse. Norsk figurteaterhistorie” [Animation – Figure Theatre’s Blessing and Curse. Norwegian Puppetry History]. PhD Diss. Faculty of Art. University of Oslo 2003.
- Helgesen, Vibeke, and Ragnhild Wang. Den magiske hånd [The Magic Hand]. Oslo: Pax Forlag, 2000.