A puppeteer and his students

”Sssssssssssssssssssss!” hisses professor Michael Meschke imitating a cymbal the Thai classic instruments orchestra forgot for today’s rehearsal of the old epic Ramayana.
     We drop in just days before the first performance of this classic piece, now dressed up as a modern puppet creation, at the Thailand Cultural centre in Bangkok.
     All puppet actors are young students from Thammasat, Chulalongkorn and Silpakorn universities.
     They have practised for almost two months directed by Michael Meschke on a stage design crafted by his Swedish colleague Elisabeth Beijer.
     Not the musicians though.
     They did not only forget to bring the cymbal. This is a completely new orchestra.
     The first one hanged on for almost two full months when the musicians suddenly realised they were booked for another event the last week of rehearsals.
     ”Well. We just go on,” says the lively 73 years young Michael Meschke convincingly to the ensemble and continues to jump, gesticulate and show with his tall body what he wants done by everyone.
     The cymbal incident was nothing. He has come to understand and accept the Thai concept of time and the Thais unselfish and charming but also tiring inability to plan.
     And why not.
     It is after all 30 years since Michael Meschke first set foot in Thailand.
     It was at that visit today’s project was born.
     ”At the entrance to the Grand Palace 1974 I caught a glimpse of something glimmering and ran off that way. I encountered colourful murals with fairytale beings and an amazing world all along that wall,” says Michael Meschke.
     That discovery was Ramayana and it has captured his mind ever since.
     The first Thailand puppet theatre performance directed by Michael Meschke occurred just a year after his first visit here.
     His actors this time are selected from three of Thailand’s most renowned, and competing, universites. Could their creative spirits really be tamed for a common goal?
     ”That’s the whole idea. To make them cooperate! I asked specifically for this,” explains Michael Meschke.
     And it seems to work.
     None of the students have done this before.
     They are beginners still concentrated, knowledgeable fast learners
     A girl in jeans, white t-shirt and long black gloves gracefully leads a golden deer in the air. Her eyes are completely focused on the deer’s fine movements. When the animal suddenly is hit by an arrow she skillfully manouvers the deer’ limbs in an animated struggle against the inevitable death.
     Then Hanuman, a familiar fellow in Ramayana, jumps on stage played live by another young lady and runs around among musicians, in the audience and chases actors in a surprise break to live up the performance.
     Behind the stage are other puppet actors busy steering two-dimensional puppets across the colourful landscape the audience sees.
     Handwritten notes tell where to start and stop your individual puppet.
     It is precision work in a world where everything, puppets, stages and tools are handmade.
     The only difference between this rehearsal and the real performance, which by the way went fine all three days 20-22 February, is the big hall environment and that all actors are dressed completely black when they perform which makes them invisible to the audience.

Swedish Puppet Theatre in Thailand

Michael Meschke founded the Marionette Theatre – Marionetteatern – in Stockholm 1958 and was its Director up to 1999. He is now involved in the international exchange program of the International Puppet Museum in Stockholm.
     Puppet theatre cultural exchange with Thailand began 1975 with ”The Little Prince” by Marionetteatern at the National Theatre in Bangkok.
     Then followed five years of exchange. Thais went to Sweden to learn while Michael Meschke teached in periods at Thammasat and Chulalongkorn universities.
     During 1983-84 did Marionettetatern create a multi media performance Ramayana version in Bangkok, in cooperation with the Fine arts department, Alliance francaise, Bangkok bank and the Swedish embassy.
     Ramayana was also performed at Marionetteatern’s premises in Stockhom 1984.
     After this the puppet theatre related cultural exchange between Sweden and Thailand increased in intensity with projects, performances and events on an almost annual basis.

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