FESTIVAL ARCHIVE  —  2023

2023 Festival Archive: Naive Theater

Naive Theater: Choo. Choo. Whistle. Woof!

January 25-29, 2023

Chicago Children’s Theatre

Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival

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The Case for Publicly Funded Children’s Theater: Review of Choo, Choo, Whistle. Woof!

An Essay by Paulette Richards

The Chicago Children’s Theatre (CCT) occupies the former site of the Chicago 12th Police District station. Founded in 2005, CCT was the first theater for young audiences in the nation to win a National Theatre Company Grant from the American Theatre Wing, creators of the Tony Awards. CCT was therefore the ideal venue for presenting Naïve Theatre Liberec’s Choo, Choo, Whistle. Woof!, a show that the award-winning Czech team of director Michaela Homolová, playwright Vít Peřina, set designer Robert Smolík, and composer Filip Homola created specifically for children ages two and up. Homolová captured UNIMA Czech Centre’s ERIK Awards for the most inspiring puppetry production of the year in 2012 (Budulinek) and 2016 (Bohemia Lies by the Sea). The latter production also garnered an award at the 2017 Mateřinka festival, presented each year by the Naïve Theatre, at which Homolová has also garnered multiple other recognitions over the years. A graduate of the Department of Alternative and Puppet Theatre at the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, Homolová has built a well-respected career on her poetic and imaginative productions for small children.

In a 2019 report for the National Endowment for the Arts, Jonathan Shmidt Chapman and Emma Halpern conclude that: “Seeing live theater offers children a range of demonstrated benefits that enrich their social and emotional growth, support their school engagement, and develop their ability to imagine the future” (12). The mission of the Chicago Children’s Theatre is to offer such benefits to the community through “diverse and significant theatrical and educational programming that engages and inspires the child in all of us” (Chicago Children’s Theatre website). Yet Chapman and Halpern identify a number of obstacles that make it difficult for theater targeting young audiences in the United States to meet such goals. Homolová’s career might have taken a different direction in the United States, where children’s theater receives little public funding. 

The Czech people have a long tradition of public support for theater. Individuals across the entire nation contributed money for the construction of the National Theatre that became fully operational in Prague in 1883. Thus, “The National Theatre is the embodiment of the will of the Czech nation for a national identity and independence” (Narodni-Divadlo [Czech National Theatre] website). Between WWI and WWII, Czechoslovakia was the only country in Central and Eastern Europe to retain a democratic, parliamentary government. After the Nazi Occupation in 1938, Czech puppeteers like Jan Malik and Josef Skupa used underground performances to subvert fascist ideology. Czech autonomy was briefly restored in 1945, but a coup d’état in 1948 installed a Communist government and brought the country into the Eastern Bloc of Soviet-allied states.  

The new Communist government passed the Theatre Act of 1948 providing state support for professional theaters. Established in 1949 as simply Divadlo Louteck, the company now known as Naïve Theatre Liberec has remained synonymous with excellence in the minds of audiences, as well as professionals of the Czech puppet theater, for the last seventy years (Dubská & Malíková, 2012). In 1972, it launched its Maternika festival of puppet theater for young audiences. Oldřich Augusta, who was the director at the time, “emphasized the moral and emotional education of children, but in a non-didactic manner (Dubská, 2012: 2). The Materinka continues as a beloved and prestigious platform for children’s puppet theater from all over Europe to this day.

In contrast Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA) in the United States receives no long-term support from the federal government and has difficulty attracting support because arts funders see it as education, while education funders see it as art and therefore nonessential. Since ticket prices and funding levels are lower for TYA, TYA companies cannot afford to pay professionals enough to keep them long term. Homolová’s American counterparts typically view TYA as a training ground and aim to move on to careers in theater for general audiences instead of exploring the artistic potential in creating theater for children as she has done.

Still the question of public funding for the arts is thorny. US taxpayers are suspicious of any policy that diverges from the free market. In 2006, Petr Kratochvil, a Czech theater artist who had lived in the United States, sued the Czech government in the European Union courts arguing that its system of state funding for commercial theaters gave them an unfair advantage over the private theater he had founded on returning to his home country. In the Czech system there are state-funded theaters and there are also commercial theaters that receive large subsidies from the government through grants. Krotchvil’s suit argued that the process of awarding government funds to commercial theaters should be more transparent and equitable. Vladimir Prochazka, head of Prague’s Činoherní klub performance space, disagreed with the suit but felt there should be more transparency in the grant-review process. Homolova belongs to a younger generation of artists taking over from those who started their careers under the Communist regime. This generation has worked to revitalize a system that Prochazka believes led to diminishing audience engagement because state-supported theaters were conservative and resistant to exploring new themes and techniques (Johnston, 2007).

A paper by Jiří Bečica acknowledges that theater is a public good and that it cannot be fully self-supporting in a for-profit market: “Without the intervention from the state or territorial self-governments, the market production of some cultural goods (museums, galleries, theatres, libraries, philharmonic) would be very limited due to its economic inefficiency” (286). At the same time, Bečica finds that the theaters in the Czech Republic that receive the least public funding are the most efficiently organized and that they represent a better return on the public funds they do receive, alongside several other measures of success. From 2011–2016, Naïve Theatre earned positive scores on all of Bečica’ s metrics. Asked why she persists with puppetry when entertainment today is ubiquitous and instantly available on screens, Homolová told Bryne Power (2018) that she likes puppets and joked that she doesn’t care that much about the audience. Yet, as a smaller venue focused on a specific genre and audience, Naïve Theatre has created a viable balance between public funding and profit-generating activities.

The lack of adequate public resources for TYA in the United States makes it difficult to recruit and retain talented arts administrators who could lead their organizations to a similarly sustainable budgetary balance. This reality particularly impacts TYA’s ability to diversify the field. Artists and administrators from underserved communities cannot afford to work for low wages, so they don’t enter the field or don’t stay in TYA. Thus, it is harder to develop programming from underrepresented perspectives, such as the Chicago Children’s Theatre’s internationally acclaimed Red Kite Project programs for youth on the autism spectrum. Finally, another symptom of the failure to treat TYA as fully professional theater is that children’s theater productions rarely garner reviews. Therefore, I turn at last to critical consideration of Choo, Choo, Whistle. Woof!

Sporting black leather jackets and denim jeans, the Naïve Theatre puppeteers look like a motorcycle gang that the 12th District police would have corralled when 100 South Racine Avenue was still their headquarters. There is, in fact, a motorcycle cop in the show, but this character is a dog, as are all the characters in the world of the story, which is a traditional “boy meets girl” narrative. In this case, a boy dog spots a girl dog behind a fence and entices her to come through the gate. He takes her out for a cool ride—in an open train car. Boy loses girl when her owner calls and drives off with her in a motorcar. The boy dog then embarks on a heroic quest to find her again. 

Unlike with a traditional puppet booth or proscenium stage setup, the action takes place on a knee-high platform extending into the audience, where the puppeteers lay track and alter the path of a miniature train set on the fly. The puppets are suspended from rods with trigger mechanisms that operate specific joints. The set is so well designed that the dog puppets riding in the train cars can pass through a tunnel without their control rods getting snagged. These well-rehearsed, highly coordinated movements are as interesting to watch as the story itself. The company hands off the puppets seamlessly and manipulates the dogs’ tails directly, animating distinct, well-rounded characters even though this is a show without language, ensuring that young children with limited vocabulary and adults who don’t speak Czech can easily follow the story.

The protagonist encounters an impressive variety of dogs along the way. When his railroad car runs out of steam, another dog consents to pull it for him. An exuberant family of dachshunds, a clown dog with a red nose, and an intimidatingly large dog he meets outside a hot dog stand all further the hero’s quest in their own ways. Even the police prove friendly and helpful. When the protagonist shows a photo of himself with his lady to a police dog that rides a motorcycle, the police dog sniffs around to find her trail. Spoiler alert, boy is finally reunited with girl in the end.

Sources

Bečica, Jiří. “Income Self-Sufficiency and Profitability of Professional Theatres in the Czech Republic.” Review of Economic Perspectives, vol. 18, 3, 2018, pp. 285-299.

Chapman, Jonathan Shmidt and Emma Halpern. “Envisioning the Future of Theater for Young Audiences.” National Endowment for the Arts, 2019. Available at:
https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/Envisioning%20the%20Future%20of%20TYA.pdf. Accessed August 6, 2023.

Chicago Children’s Theatre. “Our Story” [web page]. Available at:
https://chicagochildrenstheatre.org/our-story/. Accessed July 23, 2023.

Dubská, Alice “Naivní divadlo Liberec” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts [online], 2012. Available at: https://wepa.unima.org/en/naivni-divadlo-liberec/. Accessed July 23, 2023.

Dubská, Alice and Nina Malíková “Czech Republic” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts [online], 2012. Available at:
https://wepa.unima.org/en/czech-republic/. Accessed July 23, 2023.

Johnston, Rosie. “How Should Czech Theatres Be Funded?” Radio Prague International, September 4, 2007.
https://english.radio.cz/how-should-czech-theatres-be-funded-8604461. Accessed August 7. 2023.
Narodni-Divadlo (Czech Republic National Theatre). “The National Theatre – History,” (web page). Available at:
https://www.narodni-divadlo.cz/en/stages/the-national-theatre/history. Accessed July 23, 2023.

Power, Bryne. “Strange Gifts for the Cradle.” Gravity from Above: A Journey into European Puppetry [online blog], December 20, 2018. Available at:
https://gravityfromabove.wordpress.com/category/puppetry/czech-puppets/michaela-homolova/. Accessed July 23, 2023.

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