Šárka Váchová cordially invites all and everyone to the world of children's tales. As she puts it: “I love children and people in general. It makes me happy to be able to design and create things for them.”
Her best known and most popular children's tale sends us hiking uphill. However, it would be worth the effort even if the walk wasn't just an imaginary one. Do you remember this one?
“A long time ago in a hilly landscape at the foot of a mountain range, there stood a thatched-roof cottage which looked over woods and meadows at the neighbors' houses in the valley. In this cottage, there lived Tomeš the woodcarver with his three children.”
The names of the children are Mařenka, Andulka and Honzík. They live with their father who is a woodcarver and as their mother has already died, they need to help with all the chores. They are also taking care of Imp the goat, Yelp the dog and full cages of rabbits who have no names.
Yes, you have recognized the Hilltop Cottage as broadcast on the Good-Night Tale on Czech Television. The 13-part mini series kept us watching the puppet family living in harmony with nature and folk customs and traditions.
Šárka Váchová was born on August 6, 1947. In 1962-1966, she studied at the Václav Hollar Art School. At her graduation exams, she was already the mother of a half-year-old daughter. She dreamed of becoming a sculptor but eventually, she became more fond of the painting easel. Eventually, both of her dreams partially came true, because a puppet designer is both a sculptor and a painter. So, how did she become a puppet artist?
First, she went to The Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague to visit Jiří Trnka, the world-renowned animation filmmaker. He loved her paintings so much that he was willing to accept her to the school. However, the joy she felt at his reaction soon faded, because Šárka realized that rather than making illustrations, she would prefer creating things that move and come to life. Nevertheless to this day, she is very delighted whenever she reads that her films resemble those of Jiří Trnka; she sees this comparison as a great honor.
In 1969-1973, she studied puppet stage design (not drama stage design as many sources erroneously state) at the Theater School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU). At that time, she was already a mother of two and her busy schedule taught her not to procrastinate.
As a student, she already cooperated with various puppet theaters, such as the Nitra puppet theater in Slovakia. Her actors were marionettes (puppets controlled with strings from above), wayangs (puppets on a stick which extends downwards) and hand puppets (worn like gloves).
Her puppets were introduced to Northern-European audiences in performances of the Little Red Riding Hood in Denmark. The show was a success and paved the way for more of her spectacles to the region. These shows included The Swineherd, The Three Goats and Hansel And Gretel which was also performed in Sweden.
She cooperated with Petr Forman at the Theater Fair where they jointly created a water performance on the surface of the Vltava river entitled The Figure Skater Who Got Swallowed by a Carp.
Šárka Váchová designs and creates puppets, masks, props and the stage for the Kostičky educational show of the Czech Television.
She created designs for decorations used at the children's oncology department of the Motol hospital in Prague. These included painted window blinds and toys. For the SONO department, she designed painted screens, decorative fish, pictures for the doors and colors for the doors and door frames. The neurology department of the same hospital is made cozier thanks to her color designs for hallways and patient rooms.
She taught the art of creating puppets and bringing them to life at DAMU in Prague and at the Puppetry Academy in Norway. However, she also designs costumes for live actors in films, for example, “Rozpuštěný A Vypuštěný”, “Indiáni Z Větrova”, “Julek”, “Strašidla Z Vykýře” and “Plaché Příběhy” which was a story film in which three young directors transferred stories of Karel Čapek to the silver screen. For the television, she dressed up actors in fairy tales, such as “Modrý Ptáček”, “O Třech Ospalých Princeznách” and “Jak Chutná Láska”.
As it happens, Šárka Váchová lives and works in a house on a hilltop in Divoká Šárka, Prague, which feels just as ancient and comfortable as the cottage of Tomeš the woodcarver. In the kitchen, there's her grandmother's cupboard and on the table, you find nowadays rare delicacies such as dried apple and pear slices.
Visitors who come to her studio are welcomed by puppets waiting to take the throne once again or to set on a trip to defeat a dragon and save a princess.
In the “My Všichni Školou Povinní” TV series written by Šárka's friend Markéta Zinnerová, there is a character of a female puppeteer portrayed by Jana Brejchová. Šárka Váchová provided her puppets for the shooting. Also, the puppeteer from the US film entitled The Adventures of Pinochhio has 28 marionettes in his workshop which are actually Šárka Váchová's puppets. The main protagonist, a wooden puppet of Pinocchio, was created at the Jim Henson studio in London as a fully mechanical, computer controlled puppet. “For the first time, I saw such international cooperation at work,” comments Šárka Váchová.
Šárka is a gentle and ethereal woman but in her workshop, you would be surprised to find not only fine knives and cutters but also very sturdy power tools, such as a bandsaw, a power drill and even a lathe. Typical marionettes are 11 inches in height but some have grown as tall as 3'4” and the puppet of Zlatovláska from 1973 is nearly 5 feet from head to toe! If you don't believe it, feel free to take the height of the charming princess yourself.
Puppet making is a demanding work as one wooden character can take up to 100 hours to create.
Puppets for animated films have replaceable heads to allow the wooden actors to change facial expressions. For example, Hansel from Hansel and Gretel could literally put on 15 different facial expressions.
Šárka Váchová is happy when her puppets remind the spectators of somebody they know. Her Petite Prince was modeled after Šárka's then-baby son Martin.
Šárka created another Good-Night Tale series for the TV audiences – a 7-part puppet miniseries entitled Christmas Carols. Šárka wrote the script, directed the series, designed the stage and personally carved and dressed all the puppets. They are made of linden wood but in order to enable them to play musical instruments, their fingers are made of flexible latex.
The original Hilltop House series had 13 episodes but now, there are seven more coming up on Czech Television. This time, the focus is on human character traits rather than on folk customs and traditions. Šárka Váchová is happy she could film more episodes as she had to leave some ideas out of the original series, for instance, an episode taking place during the harvest. The new episodes will also tell the audience more about nature: “In the old times, nature was much more alive and preserved. For example, people appreciated water springs and they also used to sing at home.”
Šárka Váchová would also like to create television fairy tales inspired by the stories of the Bible.
Šárka Váchová was the first artist in the Czech Republic who started exhibiting puppets as artworks. We are happy to see she is keeping up this commendable activity and we can come see her latest exhibition.
Author: Pavel Taussig