Hands In The Dark #2
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. This journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part two of six posts. Profitez!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
There, a little ways down the road where it curved on Place Winston Churchill, stood a three story tall golden figure of a puppeteer, le Grand Marionnettiste. In his midsection was a small stage, that later I saw open up on the hour as marionettes performed for the passerby or for the children who came to sit on the benches facing the clock. To the right of the statue was the entrance to the Institut International de la Marionnette and the Ecole Superieure National des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). I entered the door and found the reception desk. A diligent French woman was sitting behind a wooden counter. “Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked. “Non.” Came the reply. I summoned up a bit more of my tentative French and asked if anybody else there did? “Une moment.” She picked up the phone to ask if a woman could come down to the office. In a minute a brunette woman with a formal manner and a conservative style came down. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. I briefly explained the purpose of my visit and asked if it would be possible to conduct an interview with any of the teachers. Alas no, the teachers had all just viewed the student presentations and would be engaged with meetings discussing the progress of les élèves for the next two days. Fair enough. There was no point in trying to worm my way in any further. I had taken my chances in coming here, thus it was. But were the student performances open to the public? Yes they were. But I had missed the first rotation. The students gave their presentations twice. The first half had done their first shows the night before and had already finished up with the second round that morning. The last half was now presenting their first set and would be repeating it again at seven that evening. “C’est parfait.” I replied. And would I like to be signed up to attend? “Absolutement.”
Just then a group of perhaps ten people opened a door to the theatre behind us and walked through the building. A woman carrying a few papers stepped into the reception area. The formal brunette woman spoke rapidly to the dark haired woman in her thirties. The dark haired woman pleasantly agreed to something I didn’t quite catch; then she left to join the small group of people as they walked passed our window. The woman I had been speaking with said. “You can go with them now if you want. They have room for you.” “What about the shows this evening?” I asked. “You are signed up for that too. It’s the same rotation, but now you will miss two of the shows. But you should go now.” I thanked her in a beaucoup manner and left the building with haste. They were just rounding the corner. I sidled up to the back of the informal line and joined the procession. I had no idea where we were going.
The small group was staggered along the sidewalk as we proceeded down the street. A few people were speaking in French to each other, while several people like myself were simply quiet and strolling. The dark-haired woman leading the leisurely little parade turned back to see me and smiled politely. She handed me a simple program with titles and names listed on it. The march continued. Amongst the other voices I thought I could recognize a familiar accent. It sounded North American. A woman in her late forties or early fifties was talking to an older man.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure”, she replied. “The presentations are held in different places.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m From British Columbia.”
“Oh! I’m from just up the coast in Southeast Alaska.” Almost a thousand miles away but in northern Pacific coastal geographic and cultural terms a next door neighbor.
“Really”, she remarked, “how did you hear about the school?”
“I’m traveling around Europe looking for puppet theatres. I’m collecting information for a possible magazine article. What are you doing way over here?”
“My daughter is enrolled here. My husband and I came to see her presentation.”
“Has she performed yet?”
“Yes, twice, last night and this morning.”
“So I guess I won’t get to see her then.”
“No. Unfortunately she’s already finished her piece.”
“How long has she been here?”
“This is her third year.”
“What’s it like for her?”
“She loves it. But I think it was harder for her in the beginning.”
“It was different than she was expecting.”
“Will we see her today?”
“Yes. She should meet up with us.”
“If you could introduce me to her I’d like to ask her about her experiences here.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind talking with you.”
Overall we walked perhaps four city blocks before we turned to the left and continued at least another block north towards our final destination. The Canadian woman, Gerri Minaker, and I entered into a discussion concerning her last name and a similarly named family back in my rural Alaskan town, typical small town talk, the kind of thing that keeps people up at nights wondering about the strange coincidences in life. At last the dark-haired woman with a ponytail stopped before a large brown door made to fit in an arched stone corridor. She pulled out a skeleton key and jiggled it a bit in the lock. The door heaved open and she bid us to step inside. A couple of other students caught up with us, bringing our contingent up to perhaps fifteen people. One of the students seemed to be Gerri’s daughter. We stood quietly in a loose line-up in a compact antique gray courtyard waiting for the door to be closed behind us. All the while we were being patiently observed by a pair of probing eyes – the presentation had already begun.
A woman in her mid-twenties stood across from us in the ramshackle court gazing intentionally, directly at us. She neither asked for silence nor prepared us with an introduction; she didn’t need to. Her presence was potent enough to give us the message. She was attired in a simple black dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at a semi-formal New York dinner gathering. Her hair was pulled up giving her face not severity but a piercing quality nevertheless. Behind her, resting on rusted iron machinery and pipes, were a plethora of scarves: beige, brown and black. She chose a beige scarf, held it up somewhat and deliberately walked up to one the members of our party. She placed the scarf around his neck, all the while staring directly into his eyes. She said that the word, la parole, brings mirth. Then she turned silently and walked back to the hanging scarves. She carefully selected a brown one. She then turned and walked up to the next person, a woman, saying that la parole brings sorrow. She then repeated her actions with each person. The word is left or right, she spoke. And as she placed a beige scarf around my neck, I understood her to say that the word is the way to silence. I knew that the gist of the piece was going to revolve around the failure of dialogue in a relationship. After that she did not speak, but methodically placed scarves around the remaining necks. Finally she turned and walked back to the remaining scarves and drew them aside like curtains and bid us to descend into a darkened underground chamber. The cluster of watchers slowly began to move down a short narrow flight of stairs. They had to bend down under a rusted piece of metal to enter. There was a momentary delay, but at last we all made the descent.
We had entered a darkened place that to these American eyes could only be compared to a dungeon; a European might have just seen an old empty basement. The murky texture of the medieval stone walls was rough all the way athwart the low rounded ceiling. I had to hunch over along the edges of the chamber and never did feel comfortable fully erect. In opposite corners of the unlit room were dim lights that just barely cast our profiles in a heap of silhouettes along the dry dingy walls. We waited in a huddle, bunched together mostly in the center of the room all the while awaiting the next phase of our expedition. Gradually a pair of black shoes came down the steps. Her dress followed as she descended cautiously her arms above her body. She slid along the curved walls, a lithe somnambulist, a female Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, without the paint or makeup. Light beams emanated weakly from her palms from tiny light bulbs as they traced the stone and mortar. Along the floor lay a trail of water worn rounded stones the size of a person’s fist. She came to a strange contraption resting on a platform at the end of the confined room. The machine resembled a homemade meat grinder. She placed a few stones into it and cranked the handle.
Next she tipped over the other side of the stone grinder, sand drained out of it: the rocks breaking each other to atomic nothingness, the dissection of a discussion to infinitesimal matter. She continued her creeping along the row of stones arriving at a place where a broken doll-like creature exuded sand. Then she opened an iron door into an even darker chamber. She beckoned us further; confessing that what might seem to us like serenity was actually mortal silence in her reckoning. We squeezed ourselves into an awful claustral tomb of a room. She knelt on the floor beneath us, where seemingly random clusters of curved stones were stacked in fives. She slowly picked them up one at a time. She spoke almost simplistically as she unraveled the pattern hidden before us, a spiral, which she then followed to a final ‘stage’. A dimly lit ant farm shaped terrarium glowed weakly before us with a humanoid shadow figure lodged in the midst of a faded orange background. She slowly suffocated it with the sand, the details, the minutia, the abstractions of dialogues pulling the meaning of words apart.
At last she stepped away from us into a black chamber. She picked up one last larger stone shaped like a potato. After a poetic discourse with the stone on the nature of la parole, the word spoken, she finally said or asked for la dernier parole. To which the stone said nothing. She stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
After a moment of stunned silence we all applauded. And then she reappeared and took her well-deserved bows. I looked down at the program notes; her name was Julie Trezel. The piece was entitled Félicité, after a text by Thierry Panchaud. We climbed up another set of stairs. She greeted us as we passed. Her eyes filled with water, the intensity of the piece had taken its toll upon her. And there were other reasons that I would discover later. To say I was impressed was to say the least, but before I could really begin to confront my own impressions I found myself whisked off out of the door again on my way to the next performance.
More strolling ensued. The British Columbian woman spoke with her daughter this time round. I was preoccupied with new puppet contemplations. We eventually passed the front of a grand Catholic church: our contingent then turned to walk behind it. We entered a school or church building and stopped in a well-lit workshop. Two circular saws stood in obvious evidence. By this time I was expecting the saws themselves to be a part of the next performance. A petite black-haired girl wearing a long dark dress emerged from a doorway and with an unaffected smile softly explained to us that the show would be ready in a couple of minutes. We relaxed our stances. Some individuals took this opportunity to use the sanitation facilities. Gerri eventually introduced me to her daughter Clea, a serious red haired girl with an amicable sense of humor and a definite sense of artistic mission. She agreed immediately to allow me to interview her. I asked her what sort of piece she had done. She asked if I wanted to see it. Sure, I replied. She told me to come with her after the shows were finished to the performance space that she had used and she would give me an idea of what her presentation had been. The diminutive black-haired young woman returned and told us that Julia Kovacs was now all set to perform. She ushered us into a long hall that had been smothered in black felt. She sat most of us down on a few wooden benches. I chose to stand to get a better view. The raven-haired girl sat on a stool behind me and dimmed the lights to black.
22 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.