Master puppeteer creates magical worlds at Presentation House

National Theatre of Iceland's Bernd Ogrodnik visits North Vancouver for performances and workshop

National Theatre of Iceland master puppeteer Bernd Ogrodnik performing at Presentation House Theatre, Feb. 26-March 2. (phtheatre.org).

Master puppeteer Bernd Ogrodnik approaches his craft like a painter contemplating brush strokes on a canvas.

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“If you perform it without words and you just paint pictures, it’s its own language,” Ogrodnik tells the North Shore News, as he prepares for his upcoming production of Metamorphosis, showing at Presentation House Theatre March 1 and 2.

He doesn’t describe the production in literary terms – there’s no dialogue to speak of – but compares it more to a series of images, or pictures taking flight. “The stories are very gentle and very simple. I think the big power in puppetry is the pictures. This show isn’t about words.”

In fact, it’s hard to pin down exactly what the show is about – it’s shapeshifted considerably during its more than 10-year run, he says.

“You could say the title Metamorphosis refers also to the show as a whole, meaning that the show has constantly evolved and is still evolving,” says Ogrodnik, who created the show and also performs all its feats of puppeteering, in addition to having designed all its puppets, sets and music himself. “It’s a fair combination of many different puppetry styles.”

Made up of vignettes and shorts stories, Metamorphosis gets at big picture ideas – love, compassion, the constantly changing nature of existence – through brief moments that can range from the trivial to the metaphysical and anywhere in between.

In one segment, for instance, the relationship between a mother and daughter charts the circle of life, with Ogrodnik employing a number of different masks in order to help “tell the story of how they transform.” At the beginning of the vignette, the mother cradles her newborn baby. Over the course of the story she becomes very old while the baby transforms into a grown woman who ends up cradling her mother in old age much like how she was nurtured as an infant, explains Ogrodnik.

“People completely perceive it, the human need for compassion, love. There’s one story where a father helps the boy go to sleep – that’s universal language, everyone relates to this.”

With regards to Metamorphosis, he’s not wrong. The current Presentation House Theatre production, which is being co-produced by the National Theatre of Iceland and World of Puppets, has recently completed international runs in Germany, Indonesia, India and elsewhere, with audiences the world over captivated by Ogrodnik’s ability to package a lot of big themes alongside small, wooden marionettes and puppet figurines.

“We might have different religious and cultural upbringings, but the human need is completely identical wherever you go,” says Ogrodnik. “We have a need for compassion, and compassion is the underlying tone (of Metamorphosis).”

Ogrodnik was captivated by puppetry at a young age, while growing up in his native Germany before permantely settling in Iceland. He describes being “fascinated” after watching his first puppetry performance at six years old, noting he was drawn to: “The possibility to create worlds in a very small space.”

But as a young man, puppetry wasn’t always in the offing; Ogrodnik was on the path towards a life in classical music and composition before he decided to do what many young people in their 20s are apt to do – ditch everything. “I was destined to be a classical pianist – and then I broke out of this. At that point, nature was calling,” he says.

Ogrodnik describes a sense of “rigidness” coupled with “a lot of anger and rage” in postwar Germany that didn’t suit him, so he decided to travel the world, learning a host of new skills and acquiring new passions along the way. He visited a brother living in Alaska who was living off the land; he learned construction and woodworking; he took up martial arts and tai chi and practiced naturopathy for many years.

“I hit a wall when I was 25. I dug deep inside: ‘What is it that I want to do most?’” he muses. He was interested in a profession that could act as an umbrella, encompassing the full range of his interests, and discovered that as a puppeteer he could “incorporate them all.”

Now, with his musical background he has been able to compose the soundscapes that pepper his own productions, his woodworking skills have aided him as he’s built countless puppets – including one called Mother Earth, which is featured in Metamorphosis and has been in his possession for more than 20 years – and he compares the motions of puppetry to the gentle, hypnotic movement of karate or tai chi, of which he has long practised.

Ogrodnik has been a prominent figure in the world of puppetry since the mid-1980s, with scores of performance and directorial credits to his name for his puppetry, mask and marionette work which have been featured in numerous theatre, opera, stage, and TV and film productions around the world.

He describes Metamorphosis as a particularly visually strong piece and hopes the production can do what all good theatre aims to do, which is enrich people’s lives.

“People are normally very moved, it touches something in them,” he says of the show. “It’s a pretty crazy world, we’re going overdrive with stimulation … and I think this production specifically helps balance it out a little bit.”

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