Learning Puppetry in Charleville
I first visited the Institut International de la Marionnette in late March of 2005. On that journey I really had no expectations. Though the internet had been around for long enough for me to divine that some sort of theatrical event was occurring here, the translation tools of the time and my insufficient French didn’t really convey an accurate impression of what it was I would find. So I arrived in Charleville-Mézières with no real idea of what I would find or even what the International Institute of Puppetry really was. All I knew is that there would be a few student performances. And I didn’t know why but I thought they might be interesting to watch. And that was saying the least of it. Not that the performances were completely professionally realized shows. Rather there was something in the earnest intensity of the students (les élèves) and the creativity of their work that struck a deep nerve in me. And that moment was certainly one of the pivotal moments in turning me towards puppetry as an art.
And one of the performances that most intrigued me was that of Aurélia Ivan. Her piece used pruned grape branches, sand, an old drawer and walnuts. And so while I was in Paris I decided to look her up again, this time bringing an interpreter, Julien Caron (Paulette’s brother) with me. Without going into the details I’ll just say it was a warm meeting and I think we were finally able to communicate more clearly with each other than at anytime in the past. Aurélia granted me permission to conduct an interview in mid-December on my way back through Paris. And seeing her again reminded me of why the Institute played such an important part in my outlook. I had been back three more times since then and this would be visit number five.
And so on the 6th of November I arrived effortlessly at the Charleville-Mézières gare (train station) and walked directly to the Institute. What once so hard to find now seemed to me only a few short blocks to Place Winston Churchill. I simply walked in passed the entrance straight up the stairways where Aurelie Oudin greeted me like an old friend and I was back. She gave me the keys to the Villa d’Aubilly and I settled in that morning returning after lunch to resume my studies as a chercheur (researcher) at the Institute. I greeted Raphaèle, Brigitte and Delphine and embarked upon four solid weeks of research, studying, putting Gravity From Above into proper order, as well as eventually meeting the new Director Philippe Sidre.
On my second morning I met my fellow chercheur, a dark haired Irish woman named Emma Fisher, who had recently completed her doctorate in puppetry and disability. Emma didn’t speak as much French as I did, so I became her impromptu guide to some of the practicalities of life as a researcher here in Charleville at IIM. Her residency was scheduled for three weeks. Thus our time would completely overlap.
Emma had been in a bicycle accident at the age of nine that ended up leaving her left arm underdeveloped and severely weakened. Through much of her life she had simply tried to be just like everyone else. But in the last few years there had been a change in her outlook. She now saw that rather than avoid the subject she would embrace her disability and incorporate it into her puppetry. In fact puppetry and disability had so wedded themselves together in her mind that she now saw it as a way to express her essence, and not only for herself, but as a path for anyone with a disability. And so her doctoral thesis had been to create a puppet show with others of various disabilities and resourceful abilities, and to write a paper on her project and the ramifications of it. She called the project Pupa. It was fascinating for me to meet someone formulating puppet theatre from that perspective. Also the fact that she was Irish was curious to me especially considering that Ireland isn’t that renown for its puppets. And of course the fact that she was Irish also meant that she enjoyed conversation quite a bit over a ‘cuppa’ or at a pub sampling the Belgian beers. And thus we became good friends.
And then there were les élèves. My first chance to reacquaint myself with the students came that Tuesday evening. Brigitte Behr had invited Emma and I to accompany the students to travel by bus down to Reims to watch a performance directed by an Iranian man of what might called body art, since it wasn’t quite dance or any specific genre of theatre. It was an odd piece where four athletes (I prefer this to ‘dancers’ or ‘actors’) made vaguely sports-like motions of body tension, lifting, movement etc, in a small circus ring as lights and noise increasingly became more important to the proceedings. At times it seemed like it was a series of individual struggles and leading perhaps to more of collective resolution before chaos and failure eventually descended upon all. That’s as much of a narrative as I can give. I don’t think it was a particularly strong show. But it only set me back six euros.
In the large comfortable bus on the way to Reims and back I sat with various students. Cassiel from last year remembered me well. As did Eve, Zoe, Sayeh and Valentin. But besides the students from last year there was a new crop as well. In the last few ‘promotions‘ ESNAM had been trying something different. They would have a new group of les élèves start during the third year of preceding class. It is a three year course through the school. So I had a new batch of students to meet, another 13 or so. Including Raquel (Hakeo) from Brazil, Marina from Russia, Adria from Spain (Catalonia to be precise) and Tereza, believe it or not, the first Czech to ever attend the school. And the rest were mostly various types of French: Camille, Coralie, Rose, Manon and the others. We shared simple and goofy jokes on the bus ride back. Later I would bump into several of them in the Villa where many of them stayed. I would also have a chance to see them practice, going through what are called ‘repetitions‘. But we’ll come to that later.
The next day I had a chance to watch two students from the third (final) year class give a ‘presentation‘ on their artistic influences. Emily and Tristan both spoke articulately. Emily spoke about five women in movement and dance who had affected her, which included such dancers as Pina Bausch, Isadora Duncan and the much more obscure Loïe Fuller, creator of the serpentine dance. She showed clips and sparked further interest in the other students. Tristan gave a much more intellectual presentation, explicating books and theories that influenced him as well as clips from a few films. Interestingly enough these presentations were not simply given and praised. The French students all seemed ready to give their opinions vocally at the drop of a hat. And not just saccharin, isn’t that cool, praise. At the end I spoke with Emily for a while. We ended up a few days later with a visiting friend of hers talking about puppetry dance and art on a floating barge and pub called La Péniche moored on the River Meuse.
Meanwhile Emma had to take a long weekend to return to Ireland for a seminar on puppetry. And so I wandered alone through Charleville to the Saturday marché to find more French food than I could possibly prepare in my cramped quarters at the villa. I renewed my acquaintance with the hiking trails in the park across the river and the Place Ducale. And I prepared to get back to study at the library.
At the beginning of the week I was pleasantly surprised to run into hand puppeteer Brice Coupey, whom Paulette Caron had introduced me to in 2016. He was teaching a two week course at ESNAM and didn’t mind at all if I dropped in on his classes to observe and record his pedagogical techniques. And so with Natalie Elain as our escort Emma and I were allowed to watch the repetitions.
But I’m going to save that for the next part of my ESNAM and IIM story. Meanwhile though I will share a few images of the repetitions of the puppeteers.
Come back soon.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. Film rights are an issue. But really there are dozens of other needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.