Acts With and Without Words
Negotiations with the French rail system, SNCF, have led me to conclude that the TGV trains are essentially forbidden for anyone with a French rail pass. At nine in the morning I was told that the TGV (the trains of great speed) would not take me to Paris until six in the evening, when they could sandwich me into the most inconvenient train schedule they could find… plus I’d have to pay a reservation fee. That would put me on the ground in Paris around 8PM and at my hotel around 8:30 or 9PM. To my American brain this was unacceptable. The lady at the desk said that that was my only choice. But did not add ‘if you want to take a TGV train to Paris’. I thought for a moment and then remembering past trips asked if there was a TER (slow regional train) or two connecting the dots. Why yes, there was. She was not going to volunteer this information. I guess the French thought was ‘Why would anyone purposely take a slow train when one could spend more money for the TGV?’ My cheap American mind, however, leapt at the opportunity. Yeah it was a five hour ride but it got me to Paris at 6PM and saved me endless hours sitting around the train station guarding my luggage (lockers being non-existent since the late nineties when several terrorists used such convenient means to cause panic and destruction). And my pass would work for no extra money at all! (Note to self: In the future do NOT buy a French rail pass. Buy all of the separate tickets online ahead of time, even for the TGV, it will save time and money.)
And so that evening I arrived back in Paris for the sixth time. I checked into the Hôtel Saint André des Arts where I have stayed at least 3 times before. Fred at the front desk remembered me with enthusiasm. (Who says Parisians are cold?) And over the course of my sojourn we had several animated conversations about technology, puppets and the current state of humanity on the streets of Paris. I walked around Boul Mich, Odeon, and on the rues I felt at home in. I stopped at the stall beneath the statue of Danton and order ed a ham, mushroom and cheese crêpe, which hit a spot so nostalgic that I felt a wave of deep contentment. I was indeed back in Paris.
It was now time to reconnoiter and arrange my puppet visits, not forgetting however that I was in Paris and that other needs must also be attended to. There are many observations I could make about the seeming multitude of images and events that I encountered in my wanderings around Paris that had nothing to do with puppets at all. I will try to summarize so as not to load the entire essay with the wonderful minutiae of my strolls around Paris. I did enter the Musée d’Orsay to spend time with the Symbolist works of Redon, Puvis de Chavannes and others, which meant I steadfastly ignored the Impressionists, which would’ve have given me far too many images. (I’ve been here before.) Many people have this odd notion that you should always see everything in a museum. I don’t. I have a good idea of my internal capacity to really pay attention to works of art. It is limited. On another day I also visited for the second time the Musée Gustave Moreau, also another serious Symbolist painter from the second half of the 19th Century. And was quite taken by the strange attempt by the more spiritual Symbolists to get beyond the growing materialism of the Realists and Impressionists. They failed in many ways, in their darker modes leading to an occult interpretation of the world, yet in their more redemptive inclinations go back to the Catholic Church. Nevertheless I’ve been fascinated by the era for a while now. And there’s nothing like standing in the physical presence of the art or in Moreau’s case his actual studio to give one a time machine back to a moment now lost to us.
But you see I’m doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. I’m getting lost in Paris. So maybe I shouldn’t spend much time mentioning my first meal in a Georgian restaurant eating lamb kinkhalis, the full chamber orchestra at a Metro stop, the quantities of accordions on the subway trains, about the gold ring scam, or how an elderly Parisian woman stopped an onrushing highway full of traffic by bravely walking into the road alone with one hand up in defiant gesture.
Let’s get back to les marionnettes shall we?
One of my chief reasons to come back to Paris was to see a couple of folks I’d met on my 2005 trip through European puppetry: Aurélia Ivan and François Lazaro. I’d been in communication with Aurélia via the usual social networking channels. She had told me that the Clastic Theatre, François’ theatrical institution, was performing a Beckett piece, Acte sans paroles I (Act Without Words I), for which she had devised the scenario, out at Le Théâtre aux Mains Nues (Theatre of the Naked Hands) in the 20e arrondissement. And so on Thursday I hopped on the Metro and missed the performance by 15 minutes, because the French don’t allow anyone in whatsoever if you are late. Well at least I knew where the place was now and they would be repeating the show the next evening.
And so I arrived in plenty of time Friday evening and sat in the petite theatre. A strange figure in a gunny sack mask comes out in absolute silence. He is shaking fine dust out of his handkerchief. He then cautiously walks over to a chalky white table and moves a small mummy-like dummy with the precision of a lathe cutter in a series of abstract and absurd motions in relationship to its being caught in a desert of talc without water which descends from heaven yet remains constantly out of reach. The play is actually a play within a play, the masked man being trapped himself. Pure Beckett. And an eloquent and pitch perfect example of puppetry in its most philosophical state.
The burlap faced man was played by François Lazaro. Other strings and things were manipulated behind the stage by Paulette Caron. Unfortunately Aurélia was not there. François easily recognized me. He introduced me to Paulette and the lighting girl Vickie. And he also fortuitously introduced me to Lucile Bodson, la directrice of l’Institut International de la Marionnette and l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM), who was quite interested in the Gravity From Above project and invited me to see her at the school, which I had planned to do after Paris. When the bulk of the audience had cleared out, François and I discussed the documentary film and agreed to meet before the show the next evening for an interview.
Saturday I arrived in plenty of time for the interview before the last performance of Acte sans paroles I. I had an excellent interview with François Lazaro. He explained the importance of the text for puppetry. It is a permanent temptation for puppeteers to improvise. It is also a permanent temptation to craft half literate works, since most puppeteers are not writers. His concept was to find other texts, works, and to seek to remain faithful to them. Thus the importance of Beckett, who actually wrote several works perfect for puppet adaptations.
This time I tried to filmed the performance. I was not entirely successful. Nevertheless I captured enough of the spirit of the work. And resolved to get a filmed version of this piece on the documentary later, when I could bring a real cinematographer. François said he could set it up at his atelier. And so we left it there, for a future shoot.
I also had several interesting discussions with Paulette Caron, who had an American mother and spoke American English quite well. On Sunday evening I interviewed her too for the perspective from a younger marionnettiste who had only been active in the art for a couple of years. And again I found the same thoughtfulness I seemed to find in puppet folks everywhere.
Unfortunately I did not get to see Aurélia Ivan, who was quite busy building her android and on other projects. However connecting again with this very philosophical and very French strain of puppetry energized my perspective for the second half of my trip.
But I wasn’t done with Paris and puppets yet. I now had to ricochet to the other extremity. It was time to spend some quality time with Guignol!