Jerusalem’s world famous puppet troupe, the Train Theater has helped turn Israel into a center for international puppetry.

Puppets, like their masters, speak the language of a place. Israeli puppeteers, therefore, talk Hebrew, English and gibberish, but are also known to converse in Arabic — to both adults and children — and act out some of the difficult, and surprising, elements of life in the Middle East.

“It’s always complex,” says Debby Farber, assistant organizer for the International Festival of Puppet Theater, a fete put on every August in Jerusalem for the last 18 years, by the world-renowned Israeli puppet troupe, the Train Theater (or Teatron Hakaron in Hebrew).

It’s especially complex for puppeteers in Israel, Farber explains, when artists deal with issues beyond the realm of every day human emotions, like the Middle East conflict or the history of the Jewish people and the Holocaust.

Speaking through their puppets and props and continuing in the tradition of the European craft and art of puppetry, Israel’s world-famous puppet troupe — the Train Theater — is set to perform four special shows at one of the most famous international puppet festivals on the planet, this week in France.

The one-man Israeli show Private Collection will perform and represent Israel in The World Festival of Puppet Theaters in Charleville, a town in France which hosts the festival from the 18th to the 27th of September.

Founded in 1981 as a collaboration between four Israeli puppeteers — Michael Schuster, Alina Ashbel, Hadas Ophrat and Mario Kotliar — the Train Theater has grown to collect over 30 puppeteers in Jerusalem, and now produces one of the best international festivals every year, drawing thousands of visitors and dozens of productions from Israel and other countries.

Following a long line of traditions

“This year we brought 11 groups from Europe, and worked with some very important puppet theatre groups,” says Farber. The countries that came to the festival, she remarks, were diverse in tradition and nationality and included people from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Russia.

After 18 years of organizing Israel’s international puppet festival, Israel has broken into the niche of puppetry, an art form not yet common in the United States, notes Farber.

Puppet festivals and puppet troupes, “are mainly a European thing. In general, puppet theatre is a niche. But in Europe it is very developed and follows a long line of traditions,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

In France, at the festival that occurs once in every three years, puppeteers will include an unusual mix of people from Iran, Africa, from the US, and Europe.

While the Train Theater has a piece in Arabic which has been very successful with Palestinian schoolchildren in East Jerusalem, there has been little collaboration with other Middle Eastern puppet groups directly outside of Israel’s borders, says Farber.

“Because of the tensions in the last years, it has been very problematic for groups from the Middle East to perform [in Israel],” she says. Still, the show in Arabic is a puppet performance that goes outside the group’s borders and belief system in some ways. “We make it accessible, because we believe that puppet theatre art is universal and can go above the borders of conflict,” Farber says.

A boxcar full of history and entertainment

The Train Theater began its life as its name suggests, in an old boxcar of a train, where performances for kids and their parents were held. After a few years of support from the city, the group succeeded in getting a small building to house administration and some of the puppeteers.

The Train Theater continues to fight to grow in Israel where government budgets are often allocated first to security and defense before art. In the meantime, says Farber, she won’t send in the puppet troupes to fight against the authorities: “Puppets aren’t intimidating enough,” she reasons, jokingly.

Operating as an association, the Train Theater is home to a number of artists who carry out their own repertoires of performances, sometimes at street festivals in Jerusalem, around the country, and of course abroad.

This year, Farber boasts, Jerusalem’s international puppet festival, hosted eight special visitors — all of whom were heads of festivals in their respective countries including Kenya, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and more.

“Many big directors came to make connections with us [in Jerusalem],” she says. “They enjoyed a unique atmosphere and came to build bridges between both worlds with puppets.”

A special home in Jerusalem

Over the years, she explains, the Jerusalem festival has become a major resource for directors. And this year, there were nine performances just for adults. Puppets aren’t just for children, says Farber.

If she had to characterise the style of the Jerusalemite puppeteers, one of the unique things, compared to Europe and other places, she notes, is that the Israeli artists come from a very diverse background.

“Some of our puppeteers come from Russia, Morocco and France. During the years they have found a real home. We have young and less young puppeteers too. . . As a small theatre, there is a lot of power and significance.”

The message of the Theater, Farber adds, is “artistic, intelligent and universal. I think the [Israeli scene] – it’s very mature. It is very connected to Israel with all its historical materials, history, and – you know – most have suffered from the Holocaust – which brings different material. Then there is the conflict, of course.”

There are other elements too that Farber believes makes the world-famous puppet troupe in Jerusalem different. “Jerusalem is not Tel Aviv. Here, you live the conflict every day and it influences the artists.”

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