Slovenian folk tale given 21st-century treatment at World Puppetry Festival

The miniature puppet characters in Open the Owl directed by Renaud Herbin
The miniature puppet characters in Open the Owl directed by Renaud Herbin Benoit Schupp

The World Puppetry Festival has chosen prominent French theatre personality Renaud Herbin as one of its two stars in 2017. The director of the national drama centre of Alsace in Strasbourg chose the festival as an opportunity to première two pieces which combine classical puppetry, technology and contemporary stage concepts.


Open the Owl is an adapation of a folk tale of a man turned into a night bird for being so wicked.

He strikes a deal with a desperate and ambitious pauper, who he enlists to help him become human again. In director Renaud Herbin’s revision of the 1936 version of The Owl Castle, the pain of the process is less fairy-tale-like. In fact, it is excruciating for both of them.

Herbin has intrigued audiences with his rewrite of this age-old tale of ruse, manipulation and ambition and hoped to give spectators a taste of independence.

His 21st-century stage concept deploys cameras on rails which project images of the puppets and the scenery on either side of a stage. The stage suddenly comes apart from front to back. As the small, TV-size puppet stage opens, sliding behind the audience, they are gently encouraged to move forward.

Herbin’s aim is to find a new way to consider puppets.

“The camera moves automatically, there’s no human intervention," he explains. "The image is continuous. And I believe that puppetry is able to go very deep and very fast in a profound way to consider the human being. For me technology is just a tool not the object of the show.”

The two Slovenian puppeteer-actors are revealed. They pluck and lift or drop the strings of the 10cm-high puppets as Herbin draws the audience physically closer to the core of the action, the puppets and the feathers with each scene.

In this piece the audience is challenged to think differently about their own relationship with the stage, with illusion and reality. The images projected on the screens from the moving cameras, divert the spectators’ attention from the 'real-life’ puppets.

Choose a point of view

“As a spectator I like to be able to choose and invent my own story," Herbin says. "It’s not important if everyone can see the same thing at the same time. We have to choose. To choose a point of view. We have to take a position in the space, and be confident with our faculty to connect with an image or a movement.”

The tiny string puppets are copies of those made in the early 20th century by the founder of the Lubjiana Puppet Theatre, Milan Klemencic.

The theatre commissioned the piece from Herbin as part of the celebrations for its 70th anniversary.

“I discovered the reserves of the puppet theatre and I fell in love with those tiny, detailed, costumed puppets," he recalls. "I decided to take them out of their traditional register.”

The current manager of the Theatre in the Slovene capital, Ajda Rooss proudly shared a historical anecdote, “Klemencic made the puppets so that they could be seen by friends and family in his own living room. And that was the beginning of the Lubijana Puppet Theatre.”

Herbin’s premières in September mixed history and the present in different ways. His Au Milieu (In the Middle), a piece for a solo puppet premièred in the St Rémi Church in Charleville-Mézières. It travels to the less voluminous and more standardly atmospheric Théâtre des Amandiers in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 2018.

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