Tunis forum shows puppetry is not just for children
Tunisia’s National Centre for Puppetry Art celebrated its second national forum with lectures and workshops on making and handling puppets, a longstanding art form in Tunisia.
The National Forum for Puppetry Art included ten shows for adults and children showcasing theatrical puppetry.
Despite Tunisia’s long tradition of puppetry, the artistic discipline was not fully recognised by the state until 1993, when the government founded the National Centre for Puppetry Art.
Hassen Sellami, the centre’s director, said the national forum is a step towards organising an international forum for puppetry.
“The idea was to examine and investigate the issues that puppetry theatre faces in Tunisia and organise workshops on how to make puppets and how to handle them,” he said. “We worked in partnership with the puppetry section in the theatre school and we launched a training programme to advance puppetry and its techniques.”
He said the puppetry centre organises programmes for adults and children. There are opportunities to answer the audience’s questions on puppets, including how to make them, and introduce the various puppetry disciplines.
The forum’s opening show, “The Storm,” based on Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” was a hit with critics and the audience. Sellami noted “The Storm” was the first instalment in a “Shakespeare in Puppets” series of programmes for adults and children and aims to revive the Centre for Puppetry Art.
“In the whole world, puppets were used to modernise speech and revamp discourse, which is why the centre tries to attract the attention of adults as the adult audience has an inner relationship with the puppet,” Sellami said. “This direction was missing in the kind of shows for adults.”
He said puppetry, which has existed in many forms in Tunisia since the 19th century, deserves more attention as a key part of Tunisia’s cultural heritage. Among the puppetry forms in Tunisia are Karakouz, glove puppets that were introduced during French colonisation, and the Sicilian “Pupi.”
“The history of puppetry started with shadow puppets during the rule of the beys of Tunis, when the Palace of the Bey used to have puppetry shows. Then Sicilian puppets came with colonisation,” Sellami explained.
“There were other traditional versions of puppets. For example, in the south, women used to make puppets for children and create shows. These puppets were different than the rest. Accordingly, we include these traditional forms of puppetry in our shows to reintroduce and preserve our heritage.”
Mohamed Bchir Jalled, who has 37 years of experience as a puppeteer, said he was hopeful about the future of puppetry in Tunisia. Participating in the forum with a show for children titled “The Fox Said,” Jalled recalled his experience working in puppetry.
“People used to appreciate and come to the puppets show and used to react to them,” he said. “There are some glimpses of hope with a law project that will regulate the
issues of the people working in this discipline. Puppetry is a unique artistic discipline as it includes dancing, music, writing, painting and it should be recognised for that.”
In addition to its cultural and artistic value, Sellami said puppetry could be used as an educational instrument in schools.
“We are also working on involving theatre teachers in the workshops of the centre to implement our vision of puppetry theatre, which consists of taking puppet shows to schools and to the streets especially in the interior regions. Today we recognise the role of puppetry arts as a pedagogical tool and a mediator in raising and educating children,” Sellami said.
“We are focusing on reaching regions where children are isolated and don’t have access to cultural centres, which is why we will have the puppet shows in schools or in tents set in a public space. The future of Tunisia lies in the children once raised on creativity and values of tolerance and respect.”
One of the forum’s workshops focused on puppetry as a therapeutic tool. Houda Lamouchi, who specialises in therapeutic puppetry, showed how the art could help children dealing with psychological issues.
“We need to understand that therapy through puppetry arts can be a medium for the child to express his anxiety and stress and to communicate with others and with themselves. This helped achieve important results; children communicate with the puppet sharing their daily routines,” Lamouchi said.
“Only the national centre offers these kinds of workshops. What about the children of the rest of the country? We need to figure out a way to spread this initiative by implementing cells of puppetry therapy in the centres of these governorates.”
Roua Khlifi a regular Travel and Culture contributor in Tunis.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.