Nothing Fashionable Here!
When you tell the French that you are trying to put together a documentary on puppetry usually one of the first words to escape their lips is Guignol. I had already been to Lyon, the birthplace of this rascally little canut (silk weaver). I had missed seeing the Lyonnais version of the little guy’s escapades. But this was not to be the case in Paris. Back in 2005 I had visited the Parc des Buttes Chaumont at the outdoor Theatre Anatole for a performance by Les Petits Bouffons de Paris of a Parisian style Guignol show. At that time I had met the wiry Pascal Pruvost and his unflappable sidekick Bernard Willeme. They had seemed more like aging punk rockers than children’s entertainers.
And now I had taken the Metro out to the 20th arrondissement and was standing next to a blank locked storefront at 9 in the morning on the Rue du Capitaine Ferber hoping for the arrival of these same two guignolistes. The building itself showed no signs of puppetry. I waited patiently. Time ticked on past the hour. Eventually I got them on my Euro-cellphone. The car was only a block away. It felt like a scene out of a zany spy film for hand puppets.
It was great to meet these mecs again. They were not the kind of guys who spent long hours devising complex messages for the kids. They were in many ways die-hard traditionalists yanking the 200 year old Guignol into the 21st Century. They were more like the puppeteering equivalent of a rockabilly guitarists like Deke Dickerson back in the states. Nothing fashionable going on here folks! Nothing that would be considered remotely pretentious. Just hardcore traditions that needed to be kept alive.
As we drove through the truly unaesthetic chaotically jammed unfashionable ring highway around the edge of Paris into the banlieue the conversation turned to the American mythology surrounding Paris. Pascal was convinced that most of my fellow countrymen saw Paris as some mythological ville des merveilles, with accordion players on every street, lovers strolling on bridges over the Seine, existentialist poets in the cafés. Even Woody Allen had fed this fantasy in his recent film Midnight in Paris. But we were driving through a stark landscape of ugly housing projects, bleak industrial warehouses beneath perpetual gray skies and a gargantuan football stadium that looked like it had just landed from outer space.
We finally did arrive at the Parc des Chanteraines for the site of the winter performances of les Petits Bouffons de Paris. The park also featured a little train, a small circus and swans and ducks for the school children to feed. Our guignolistes opened the doors of small wooden building and made sure everything was functioning. Eventually about thirty five young kids came in to sit on the miniature benches which I’m told could hold over a hundred of them. It was dark in the building and I decided not to film in the front stage darkness, which would also put me in conflict with the beseeching and besieging children. Rather it seemed like a good plan for me to film the movements of the two puppeteers from behind their bunker. Having performed with puppets before, I knew that what goes on behind the stage is often just as fascinating as what goes on before it. And that certainly proved to be the case this time.
So I stood out of the way in the cramped space and tried to follow as much of the action as I could. And what a bizarre spectacle! On one level you had Bernard, who as the show began hardly missed a beat from his normal insouciance to start performing as Charlie the frog or whatever characters he was called on to become. Then there was Pascal who besides being Guignol was often several other characters at once. Sometimes each of them had a two hand puppets apiece. They performed in a fairly precise choreography of steps and actions, the kind of movements that come from many repetitions of the same show. And when some of the children were acting up a bit Guignol suddenly took matters into his own hands and and beat his baton on the stage to get their attention. But mostly the kids were along for a rollicking ride. They laughed and cheered and spoke to Guignol from their seats. They told him what to do next, which invariably he contradicted. And when there was a bit of classic Guignol/Punch/Polichinelle style baton-bashing the kids roared oceanically with gales of laughter. In the end a moral was delivered, les petits filed out of the building and Pascal bid adieu to them.
Back at their studio in the 20th arrondissement I interviewed Pascal for the documentary. We spoke about the significance of Guignol for French children and about the meaning of these puppets for a generation who are completely saturated in the virtual world of screens. And there is indeed much meaning for contemporary kids. The puppets obviously still communicated quite well. These guys were not the face of puppetry in the postmodern world. They were not the folks who people clamored to see at the international puppet festivals. While they had added a bit of amplification and lighting to their indoor shows, Guignol had essentially remained Guignol. He had not become an experimental object for a kind of abstract project. And while Paris is not that quasi-magical dream painted in tourist brochures, nevertheless, like the accordionist who occasionally wanders onto the Metro trains as they zoom between stops, Guignol is indeed a living example of traditional France that anyone can discover for themselves. And I’m grateful to puppeteers like Pascal and Bernard and the many others who keep him alive and well. Yet in the end it is the children of France who howl their approval in demonstrations of true interactivity that are le vrai secret to the longevity of this iconic creation in the face of hyper-modernity.
But the puppet adventures aren’t over yet! Now it’s time to go to school… puppet school.
Back in Haines, Alaska
For more information on Les Petits Bouffons de Paris
Also see our Anadromous Life essay on the 2005 trip.