Greetings from Tbilisi! It’s been too long since I’ve written here on Gravity From Above. And given the current strictures of these pandemic times I shouldn’t have an excuse. And I don’t. Nevertheless I do have an answer. My video channels have been distracting me quite a bit as well as my observations of the moment. And I have some videos to share.
Tbilisi Georgia has actually turned out to be a very good place to be. Only 626 cases. Almost half now recovered. Just 10 deaths. And the reason the numbers are quite low for this country of about 4 million is that the government took the advice of their medical staff and put things into quite a serious lockdown, which given the touchy feely nature of Georgians in general is quite a blessing, lest we repeat the nightmares of Italy or Spain. Meanwhile there have been moments when the one and half million population capital has felt like a strangely muffled ghost town. Particularly around Georgian Easter.
I won’t spent too much more time telling you about the lockdown here. If you are curious watch some of my videos posted here. It will give you glimpses of desolation that should satisfy your apocalyptic soul.
I guess one thought I’ve had is about puppetry during this pause. I have noticed on Facebook that many puppeteers have been heroically doing little impromptu live video shows to keep up morale for others and for themselves. Actual puppet filmmakers whether animated or live certainly haven’t had enough time to assemble anything too elaborate yet. They are I am sure doing what they’ve always done. They remain hidden in studios moving little inanimate yet highly symbolic objects around to create the images they have often made. But who knows maybe a few puppeteers have decided to dabble more in actual cinematic dramaturgy?
Meanwhile I’m sure that most puppeteers the traditional and the experimental have been itching to get back to the place that they long to be, in their theatres, or on the streets, or in their castelets. And puppets are in a unique place in this worldwide pause that we will be emerging from. They are objects, objects reminding us of the material texture of the world and of actual presence on the stage. Too many people now are feeling the effects of the glut of virtual imagery. Like a lethargy of the mind, too many stories, too many images following on quick succession, without recourse to the physical stuff that dreams are made of, it produces a strange heaviness. Life becomes a series of visual binges, without the tactile sense of daily life, of exploration in the material that makes up our own stories, nor the discussions we use to ruminate over our little discoveries. And so the puppeteer can, upon the reawakening of physical life, bring the object back to the starved folk willing to partake. Yet some will not come because the virtual opioid addiction will be too hard to break. Yet many sensing the unreal rickets of the soul developing in their marrows will want the vitamins of tangible puppetry and theatre as an antidote. And so my suggestion. Get your shows ready. Spend this time developing ideas.
And for inspiration I’m going to pass on a couple of videos I haven’t shown you here yet.
First I present to you Giorgi Apkhazava, theatre director and puppeteer here in Tbilisi. Georgia has gone through tough times particularly from 1989 until 2008. And Giorgi came of age during this time and sees puppetry as a way to fight the virtual disease of which we now being given a mega-dose. I have given you his entire interview because I feel like it is important to understand the meaning of puppetry during these dark abstract times.
Next on a more practical nuts and bolts level I present to you a couple of Czech carvers Lenka Pavlíčková and Mirek Trejtnar who show us more about the actual art of carving wood into puppets. So take heart. Make a puppet. It doesn’t have to be wood. Follow your own muse. But sometimes just watching another creator gets the little gray cells working.
Meanwhile if you you wish to support this endeavor use the PayPal link.
I have 40 hours of interviews and time but I need to get backing to finish Gravity From Above. But I’ll discuss that at a later time.
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
Well I will be back soon with more…
10 / 5 / 2020
And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
And so I began my investigations of puppetry. If the world was increasingly being emptied by the sterile textures of this shiny but hollow environment we were creating for ourselves. Could puppetry have an antidote to it? Since approximately the year 2000 music has become background soundtrack. Too much reading is now situated on another superficial glass plane. Art is the ‘wallpaper’ for your screen. I thought, maybe in this new world the puppet had a possibility of speaking into this flatness to help us to find the meaning of objects again? But that could only be true if humans were meant to live in textured environments not the glossy surfaces of our shopping malls and digital magazines.
But was that true? Could we not live anywhere? Has not humanity adapted to the Sahara Desert and the Arctic Coast? Maybe the distraction provided by our screens was exactly the kind of coping mechanism that we needed to live in this age? And nothing was wrong here. And there was no correlation between the vacuous commercial surfaces of this world and the insanity of our lives in this time.
Obviously the original human environment was the natural world. And nature has certain visual features. One is expanse, the other a fractalized complexity the closer you get. When you first see the natural features often what we grasp is the whole, the forest, the desert, the ocean, the mountains. Then as we approach closer things change definitively into unique specific unrepeatable objects. And the textures overwhelm us through their complex structures. And this twofold process does something for us. It acts upon us something like food. The larger vistas seem to calm us, while the closer explorations seem to excite us with discoveries. Thus the ocean at the beach leaves a strong impression, which is then interrupted by the discovery of a strangely shaped piece of driftwood floating up to the shore in front of us. This is our general experience of nature.
Traditional art has less complexity than the natural world yet it has a similar affect upon us. We stand in front of a Rembrandt at a museum. We take in the overall impression, then slowly we begin to attend to the many individual features, indeed textures of the piece. And it can take years to appreciate one work by such an artist. Hans Rookmaaker, the late Dutch art historian, tells the story of a woman who had been looking at Rembrandt’s Night Watch for years, yet had never even seen one of the figures in it, until it was pointed out by a casual visitor. Older architecture likewise made a similar impact upon us. We approach the structure seeing one building, a cathedral for instance, but the closer we observe it the more we see. Even its decaying texture becomes a part of its features. But it’s a lot more difficult to have that experience with a Ken Noland chevron or the Brutalist AT&T Long Lines building in Manhattan. And by the time you make a Google image search for dog photos or collect images of anime on Pinterest one is not encouraged to spend any time entering into these images. They are simply digested, stored, and evacuated of meaning.
Do the objects and textures we are surrounded by mean anything to us? There is a story of a girl named Genie+ (not her real name) who was a prisoner of her own house from her birth until she was 12 years old. She was locked in a room with blank white walls and strapped to a plastic potty trainer. She slept in a plastic sleeper crib. She was not spoken to except to largely understand simple commands like ‘No!’ And that was her life until one day her mother finally (!) decided to get her away from her father and take her to a social worker. Sensibly they took the girl away from this negligent woman. And she was put in an adoptive situation with scientists who realized that she was the product of a forbidden experiment: What happens if you delay language acquisition in a child and cut down all outside stimulation? Well it’s ultimately a tragic story and unrelated to our theme. But here is what sparked my interest. When, for instance, introduced to the ocean for the first time, she of course had no words, and yet the indescribable expression on her face spoke of something beyond anything any of us can know. Yet even with that experience, what she was most attracted to was plastic. Plastic! The only thing in her formative environment. What she saw in her world. And that tells me something. What we surround ourselves with has a profound affect upon us. Far more than we realize. And yet there is her mouth open wanting to speak and unable to at the sight of the ocean.
Maybe we have been conducting a kind of forbidden experiment upon ourselves for years now as we have slowly manufactured this new empty world. Interestingly in my recent thinking about texture I have noticed that there is very little serious writing on the subject. And that has to relate to the fact that even 50 years ago the Modern world had far more texture in it than it does now. This slow ironing out of the wrinkles of texture has been creeping up on us relentlessly. And it is this that has focused my attention to the realm of the puppet, and specifically in Europe. Both traditionally and in its newer incarnations.
If you want more do spend time with my lecture on Texture.
To be concluded…
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
+ – Genie: A Scientific Tragedy by Russ Rhymer © 1994 Harper Perennial
This essay was originally commissioned for a book. Alas it was not accepted. Please accept it here in three parts. You’ll notice that the style is slightly more formal than usual. That shouldn’t be a problem should it?
I think puppetry is magic. Because you animate matter, make it alive. It’s the process of animation. You take a piece of wood, or whatever you’ve found, you are able to do some theatre with it. Or any kind of art. The process for me is the most interesting and important thing. I still feel like it’s magic. It’s like the photograph. You have traditional photography and it’s still connected to alchemy, because you literally capture the light by means of a chemical process. It’s all very tactile and physical. And digital photography, it’s all about watching these small screens. And it’s just about information. It’s completely virtual. And puppet theatre for me is about the physical experience, about the tactility, about how you change things by touching them. So for me it’s very physical.
Tomáš Procházka, Puppeteer with Buchty a Loutky, Prague 2012* (Later with Handa Gote)
Puppets have texture.
It doesn’t sound like a radical notion. Not too long ago such a statement could easily have been put into the category of obvious, so obvious as to be unremarkable. Today it stands out as almost something of a miracle. In a world of dead surfaces: the flatness of glass on the sides of buildings, stainless steel walls, enamel refrigerators, plastic tables, white painted walls, faux materials and, most of all, the unbroken smoothness of the screens engulfing our imaginations, to say that puppets have texture suddenly seems like a mighty contradiction of the realities that have been created for us to inhabit. And yet we can now say it with courage: Puppets have texture.
We often ask questions of ecology. What is the proper environmental habitat for creatures to live in? Humanity is something that we often assume should fit into this imagined ecosphere the way a frog does. And yet this only demonstrates a paucity of imagination. We rarely ask this question: What is the proper environment for a human being to live in? Yet without asking this question we often end up in such contradictions as the creation utopian communities which lack much of what makes the human experience worth living. Or we find people who lament the loss of natural habitat for snails and swans while simultaneously living themselves in cramped apartments, in crowded cities, in suburbs designed for automobiles, in universities of sterile modern architecture, eating processed instant food, injecting coffee into our veins to stay alive, turning music into the interpretive background score of our personal film through headphones, selfies taken to validate our passing through an unmemorable landscape, cruise ships that seem to keep us in one place as we move through space, endlessly addictive flickering images on our screens, which now are held in our hands. We don’t ask how much of this new environment is the place where a human can flourish. (And it really has appeared like lightning out of non-existence less than a hundred years ago.)
The world we now live in is a rapidly changing unknown moving towards a total encirclement. It is a product of the more reductive experiments of Modernism (Bauhaus, Pop Art, Minimalism, etc) in an unholy commingling with the commercial forces of this world. While those art movements meant to focus us upon uncluttered form, the market realized very quickly that to eliminate the last vestiges of bourgeois ornamentation would be a boon to economical production. Thus by the 1960s most industries that crafted home merchandise had begun the shift from the solidly manufactured products of the 1950s to the more cheaply made and far more disposable world we now inhabit. Skyscrapers were made to look eternally new. Kitchens were made to be the most sanitary and empty rooms on the house. Art galleries objectify their wares by hanging them in utter isolation on blank walls. Shopping mutated into a journey into the deadest of spaces devoid of humanity, all utility, all prosaic shapes and angles in ‘big box stores’. Plastic was molded to look like any number of materials. ‘Contact paper’ with photos of wood grain was glued to the pressed debris of the lumber industry to imitate planks of oak or pine. The car became another dead zone waiting to be filled with the waste products of the fast-food industry. And into this toxic antiseptic landscape the screen increasingly was placed to mediate our nullity. Think of the last airport you spent much time in. Think of the GPS navigators in your vehicles. Think of your white living room wall punctuated by a flatscreen television. Look to your palms. A device so insidious that it keeps you from noticing the world, the trashy, dead, horrifically colored, brutally designed, world around you.
Oliver Grau and Thomas Vogel in the Introduction to their book, Imagery in the 21st Century†, have written: “Never before has the world of images around us changed so fast, never before have we been exposed to so many different image worlds, and never before has the way in which images are produced changed so fundamentally.”
And again: “The historical development of images, between innovation, reflection, and iconoclasm, is reaching a new level of global complexity in the twenty-first century. These transformations have hit a society that is to a large extent unprepared.”
And then there is the puppet. Not the puppet as toy, another cute entity for distraction, but the puppet, handmade, conceived as performer, as solitary three dimensional presence, made of wood, papier-mâché, bone, fabric, metal, etc. This figure does not fit into the flat landscape. It sits in the corner cautiously. There is a mystery to it. (Which is why some people fear the puppet.) Questions emanate from it. Questions about why we make our mirrors of such rough textures.
The texture of the puppet. That is what in inspired me to begin to investigate puppetry back in the late 90’s. I had seen the odd puppet films Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay. And while I was impressed by their techniques, something else was speaking to me. The puppets themselves. Švankmajer seemed to go out of his way to add texture upon texture in films like Rakvičkárna (The Coffin Factory or Punch and Judy) where his two malevolent hand puppets smack each other silly in an environment of burlap, pages from old books and newspapers, badly painted automaton monkeys and a live guinea pig. Even the two puppets, not Punch and Judy but rather a Kašpárek and Harlequin, are purposely stressed and corroded in their appearance. And their puppet smocks likewise are texturally alive. The Quays likewise would use textures like a musical score: iron shavings, meat, dust, rubber bands, scissors, light bulbs, dirty glass, and old doll parts. And while their work hearkened to a gray (now mythic) Communist age, nevertheless in these evocations one could see the value of that grayness in contrast to slick illusions of high tech hypermodernity. (More than one puppeteer who had operated behind the old Iron Curtain has expressed a strange nostalgia for the gray, in contrast the ‘bright’ shiny present.)
This set a beacon for me to follow.
To be continued…
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 2 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
† – Imagery in the 21st Century Ed. Oliver Grau w/ Thomas Vogel © 2011 The MIT Press
And so I was in Prague to meet puppeteers. I had an idea to get a last round of interviews for Gravity From Above before going to Tbilisi to start editing. I wanted to get caught up on Czech puppetry since my last serious round of interviews in 2012. (I was also here in 2016 but that was more to capture performances.) And changes had occurred since then. One of the more serious changes in the landscape of the Czech puppet was that Josef Krofta had died in 2015. Krofta more than any other director in Czech theatre had changed the presentation of puppetry. The actor now came out from behind the stage to perform with the figures. His passing signaled the end of an era.
Another change had occurred over at Loutkář (the Czech word for puppeteer), the first serious puppetry magazine in the world and still in existence after over 100 years. Nina Malíková, daughter of famed puppeteer, historian and theorist Jan Malik, had been editor-in-chief for many years, but she had stepped down to allow Kateřina Lešková Dolenská to take over the post. And while in 2016 I had only briefly met Kateřina, so briefly that I hardly remembered her. I decided that it was time to formally make her acquaintance and to conduct an interview.
Thus I spent a couple of sessions with Kateřina at the offices of Loutkář on Celetná Street in the heart of Old Prague. Again I find it curious, if you look down from the windows onto Celetná you see the aimless tourists, but inside I was connected to the real world of České loutkářství (Czech puppetry). In a simple office with shelves filled with copies of recent editions of Loutkář I met Kateřina. She was never a puppeteer herself, yet in university (DAMU) had developed an abiding interest in České loutkářství as a historical and intellectual subject. Kateřina is the kind of person you rarely find back in the USA. She obviously could have chosen any career path she wished. In America you might find a such a woman ensconced in the higher ranks of corporation or law firm. But here she was quite proudly a historian of loutkářství and now editor-in-chief of an old yet not particularly profitable puppetry magazine. That was perfect.
We discussed the situation of puppetry at present in Czech Republic. One thing that was clear, Josef Krofta’s generation in the 1970’s, the one that had made the most changes to puppetry during the peak of the communist suppression after the violence of the Soviet invasion of 1968, had nearly completely departed the stage. Švankmajer remained, but his puppets were in films and Kateřina explained that there was too broad a gap between the worlds of theatrical puppets and film animated puppets. A divide she hoped to help bridge. Now the idea of the multi-media show had taken over, mingled with the concept of object theatre. She still considered this to be puppetry, yet I detected a wistfulness for the more direct tactility of the traditional puppet. And indeed she felt that the puppet would eventually emerge again.
Kateřina pointed out a few puppet folks she felt I should meet, one of them was Michaela Homolová. Michaela was a director of puppet shows for children. But she treated these as art, not as simplistic entertainment. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to see one of her shows. I met her at the Celetná Divadlo (divadlo = theatre) along with her friend fellow puppet director Jana Vyšohlídová, who also directed pro děti (for children). Now I may have had more prestigious and informative interviews with Jan Švankmajer, Nina Malíková, Josef Krofta, Henryk Jurkowski and on and on. But I’ve rarely had as enjoyable an interview. One thing that most Czechs seem to have in common is a sense of humor in a way that other cultures simply don’t. It is a dark sense of humor. But this humor is also passed through everyone. And every Czech I’ve met will give evidence of this humor in a way that other cultures simply won’t. And so while being a serious interview it was also one of the funniest I’ve ever done, with Michaela and Jana riffing off or each other like jazz musicians. For instance I asked them why do puppets in a world of instant entertainment on every screen. And they burst into laughter explaining that they like the puppet theatre and “we kind of don’t care about the audience.” Which was actually remarkably similar to what Jan Švankmajer told me back in 2012. (I’ve left a sample of their interview over at YouTube. Look below to watch it!)
I also dropped in on Buchty a Loutky over at the Švandovo Divadlo for one show pro děti called Vánoční raketa, which translates into Christmas Rocket. And is about these alien creatures called Špidlíci who bake a strange cake to take to Bethlehem by rocket. And somehow that strange cake reminds me of what Buchty a Loutky has always been. An odd but lovingly made thing given to us. It was good to see Marek, Vit and Zuzana again. Radek was out of town and I was hoping to interview him about his puppet film Malý Pán.
On the last day I hopped on the number 22 tram and jumped off at the Vršovické Náměstí to meet Mirek Trejtnar of Puppets In Prague. (Link below) Puppets in Prague is a studio that both makes puppets and conducts multi-week training workshops in making puppets for film animation, toy puppet theatre, wooden marionette carving and in performance. It was a quiet morning when Mirek Trejtnar invited me in. Indeed I was in Geppetto’s workshop. Wooden puppets parts abounded. Half finished puppets made by students. Trick puppets. And the pièce de résistance, a nearly finished wooden automaton made for a woodcarver’s conference. Mirek in his conversation again underscored the importance of the tactility of the puppet. The need to see the thing itself. (You can sign up for his classes if you wish.)
That evening I got together with Nina Chromečková at a cafe to discuss translations for the film. Which I felt I would get enough support for to get accomplished soon. We had an excellent conversation but soon it was time to get back to my little apartment over by the Národní Divadlo (National Theatre).
Hear and see more from this visit!!
All in all it was a long full week in Prague, making me miss it more than usual. The tourism, as it often has, sticks in the throat, but as a man peering into the world of puppets I am soon blissfully consumed by the real Prague, away from that one main artery of tourism, and onto the puppet stages where I find something irreplaceable and completely Czech. I look forward to visiting again. Nina Malíková invited me to come in June for the 90th anniversary of UNIMA. I’m not that far away now. Let’s see what happens by then.
And so back to Paris, which is burning!
Come back next time
Oh and if I don’t write before then Merry Christmas or should I say Merry Western Christmas. Christmas in Georgian is on January 7th.
And if you are interested in puppet workshops in Prague with Mirek visit their Puppets In Prague site.
And to find out more about Loutkář in English:
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of 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.
Why do people come to Prague? I mean that as a serious question. Yes the architecture, the bridge, the castle. But why are so many people here? So many that even in the first week of December it is impossibly crowded with people who truly aren’t seeing what they supposedly came to see. I ran into this problem at the Louvre facing the Mona Lisa. The same problem exists here. People are told you should go to Prague. I’ve told dozens of friends the exact same thing. Yet I would always add but don’t go in the summer. But now I’m wondering when to go. Early December is obviously just as problematic as the summer would be. Is there a rainy season in March? But I’ve been here in March too. This is my 5th time visiting. And it won’t be my last. And yet the maw of tourism only grows.
I first came in 2000 at the exact same time of the year. It was wonderful. Yes there were tourists then. But I didn’t need a battle axe to cut my way through the Christmas Market in the Old Town Square. Today that Market is a kitschy festival of shoulder to shoulder tourists drinking hot wine out of plastic cups and chewing on trdlo, a fake ‘Old Bohemian’ sweet rolled bready thing baked on a spit over coals. (It looks much better than it tastes.) In fact if you want to sell anything to tourists just slap the words ‘Old Bohemian’ on it. ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal is a good example. There are probably hundreds of these ‘Old Bohemian’ crystal stores all selling exactly the same kinds of bling glitz to people who wouldn’t recognize fine crystal ware from a plastic sippy cup for infants.
One truth I’ve come to see about industrial tourism over the years, whether in Alaska, Paris or New York City, is that tourism syphons the realities of a place off into a simulacrum of itself. Making it difficult, nearly impossible for most people coming to this place to find the reality that attracted people in the first place. Yes you get an economy. But at what cost? Most true tourist destinations are often stocked with workers unrelated to the sights they came to see. And Prague is a classic example. You see Russian nesting matryoshka dolls, even matryoshka dolls in the shape of American football players. (Why?) You get classic car tours, at exorbitant rates, in fake classic cars at that. And you can ride a horse drawn carriage through the impossible pedestrian congestion. And you can pay ridiculously high prices for the privilege. Oh yeah you can get a Thai massage. I won’t point out the obvious here. That this isn’t exactly Thailand. Nor will I ask any further questions about how similar these institutions are to their Thai originals.
You want food? Watch out. Anything near the main arteries of tourism could be a trap. You could pay $50 for a single meal. Although just as ironically a good Czech restaurant could be buried in the mix. My most expensive Czech meal this trip was around $15 and it was tasty. (Duck, sweet red cabbage and dumplings, with beer!) My cheapest meal was $5. (Pork, cabbage, and dumplings.) And again watch out for the stalls selling ‘ Old Prague’ ham. I was ripped off once by these in the past. And seriously watch out for the ‘Change’ or ‘Exchange’ bureaus. These are probably the most evil currency exchanges in Europe. (I’m putting links below to videos that will help you navigate the tourist traps. I highly recommend Wolter’s World and for especially for Prague, Honest Guide.) And those sites that people came to see? The old town square, the bridge and the castle. They are mostly to be seen from a distance or endured. So many people clog these places that they have become unpleasant in the extreme. And the sharks? Oh they are there!
Do you want a real Christmas Market in Prague? I found the one in the Smichov district at Andél quite enjoyable. With genuine and inexpensive Prague ham on a spit too! In other words get away from the obvious. (Actually my favorite Christmas Market on this journey was in Lüneburg Germany while visiting my friends Carsten, Rebecca and their three daughters. But I digress.)
But then I come back to the question why do people come to Prague? Or more specifically why do I keep coming to Prague? Well one thing I can tell you, my Prague is not the tourists’ Prague. And I feel bad for those who come for ‘it’. I mean really what are they coming for? They don’t understand the history of what they looking at. The lines at the castle are too long. The bridge completely loaded with folks who aren’t really seeing anything. Oh yes you can take selfies here! Wow! How exciting! The old town square? Jam packed like a cattle car on its way to the slaughter house. So no, those are only valuable if you stay up late enough or get up with the chickens. Or come out in the rain. It’s not worth the effort to come see those things anymore.
But Prague is a special place indeed. It has a life that goes far beyond the crowds on onlookers. It has a unique history. It has a deeply creative side. It has art. It has the strangest assortment of outdoor sculptures I’ve ever seen. It has creepy puppets. (No not the cheap ones festooning that crowded tourist street.) And most importantly it has Czechs. That’s my Prague. My Prague is mysterious and filled with hidden symbolism. It is the place of the Golem and Faust, of Rudolf II and Vaclav Havel, of Trnka and Švankmajer. Prague in communist times was a gray decrepit city. I would have loved to have seen it then. Prague now is a harlot to the masses, with the Russian and Serbian underworlds counting coin behind the windows of hundreds of cheap gaudy whoring façades. One puppeteer I spoke to, who was old enough to remember the gray days, and was appalled by the cannibal culture of tourism, told me that she wished that there was a time after the Soviet Era collapsed and before the tourist explosion when Prague was cleaned up and belonged to the Czechs again. At least to have as a memory. But such a time was not to be. Sadly, unable to turn down the the cash Prague struck a Faustian bargain with the Mephistopheles of tourism almost immediately. People couldn’t wait to exploit her. And exploit her they did. At least in Paris the tourism seems somewhat organic. But here a massive vacuum was begging to be filled. And suddenly the vultures swooped in. To be fair not all of the tourism is on the carrion level. There are indeed many reasons to come here. Alas though, it’s not for the three major attractions. The story of Faust remains central to the mythology of the city: The man who sold his soul to the devil.
My friend Nina Chromečková, translator from my interview with Jan Švankmajer back in 2012, had told me that there was a puppet version of Faust playing at the Colloredo-Mansfeldsky Palace shortly after my arrival. She bought tickets and met me at the palace entrance shortly before the play. We ascended a couple of flights of stairs and arrived in the empty shell of Hapsburg Era splendor replete with mirrors and filigree on the walls. We passed through haunted room after haunted room until we arrived at a makeshift puppet theatre behind a homemade stage, reminiscent of Buchty a Loutky in their classic period. And there in suit and tie stood Tomáš Procházka, former Buchty, now one of the creators behind tonight’s show by Handa Gote (Japanese for ‘soldering iron’). We greeted each other warmly and I knew instantly that if nothing else it would be an intriguing show. Tomáš said I could film the proceedings, so I set up discreetly off to the side near a window looking down on the Royal Road below me. In that darkened room it was hard not to be awed by the black silhouettes of statues on the Kostel Nejsvětějšího Salvátora across the narrow alley peering down on this darkened drizzling night as the hoards continued their mandatory strolls across the bridge. They never do look up to see the figures like beacons of the last judgement illuminated by the lights from below, as the trams pass on the tracks with regularity across the glistening cobblestone streets.
The show, a fascinating experiment, was done much in the way a show might have been done 150 years ago. Instead the usual theatre tech, with the exception of light bulbs, 95% of the devices used for music or special effects could have been seen before the age of electricity: a hand crank player piano, a music box, a whirring machine to make wind, a sheet of metal for thunder, old style linden wood carved marionettes with a rod in their head, painted back drops, cloth curtains and most surprising of all, a bellows stepped on occasionally to blow powdered tree resin into a hidden candle flame to produce a ball of fire on the small stage. A rare treat to behold. And the kind of performance that fills me with wonder, all the while wondering if the little stage would catch the flames.
Not only were the devices antiques, but so was the play itself. And while this may have made the entertainment a bit longer than contemporary distraction permits, (Let ’em squirm!) it was fascinating to watch the rhythms of this Faust and the strange archaisms. The elaborately carved medieval devils had their tongues drooping down their chins for instance. Now and then they spoke gibberish as though they couldn’t control their speech. (Švankmajer captured this strange sound perfectly in his version of Faust.) Also this followed a variation of Marlowe’s Faust, not Goethe’s. So there is no redemption for Faust at the end. But being as this is the Czech version, there is also not much of a damnation scene either. Instead in this version Faust is whisked off by the devils and then a long anticlimactic comedy with two guards continues as if not much has happened. As if to say people go to hell everyday, what’s the big deal? Life goes on. And eventually the two guards have more problems with a dumb Austrian bully than they did with the devils. (Obviously when this was written it was a subtle dig at the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had for so long stripped them of their language.) Another major Czech addition, Kašpárek, the fool, who tries everything after Dr. Faust does, becomes a black humor version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Disney’s Fantasia.
I also had a chance to meet my dear friend Nina Malíková at another traditional performance of Faust at Říše Loutek. The puppets were similar to the traditional Don Giovanni that ran at the same theatre for over 6000 performances and counting. And so while this wasn’t Faust antique it was Faust trad. And it was in fact the same classic Czech text, edited more, and minus the antiquarian touches. It even had the German bully scene at the end, about 15 minutes shorter. And it also had nice explosive effects and lots more traditional Czech devils.
Watch this now to understand what I’ve written!
Now truthfully I arrived late. I committed the classic boneheaded American blunder of confusing the 24 hour clock time of 16:00 with 6 o’clock. (Usually I’m better than that.) But before I could rectify my mistake I had missed the first half of the play. Nina however showed me the old puppets in the basement of theatre that most people don’t see. And again I marveled that the Prague I inhabited was so very different than the Prague of the tourists. Not that a visitor couldn’t have found this. After all they do find this theatre for Don Giovanni performances. It’s just that the rest of the repertoire of the theatre isn’t hawked as aggressively. And most folks don’t do enough research to find the real Prague. (Hint!)
Prague, the city of alchemists and puppets. Today’s fake alchemists don’t seek either a purification of materials or of souls anymore. Instead they lurk in chintzy doorways looking to turn unsuspecting tourists and their base tchotchskes into financial gain. But those who come to Prague willing to do a bit of digging will find much more than they ever expected. Be one of those people. Come to Prague. Look for puppet shows.
I’m writing this while on train during a day of German strikes when I am not sure when I will get back to Paris, nor what indeed it will be like when I get there after weeks of violent protests.
But next time we continue our Prague stories finding more puppet folks and more hidden gems beneath the surfaces.
On a German train somewhere beyond Berlin but not quite at Karlsruhe.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. There are dozens of 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.
Watching the first year students at the Institut International de la Marionnette practice their repetitions is a fascinating experience. I can’t imagine many (if any) puppet teachers in the USA going through the kind of discipline and rigor that les élèves do. In a way it almost becomes a form of dance. Body movement is held in the highest regard. Brice Coupey, a renown artistic hand puppeteer works with the Guignol style puppet. In my interview later it was obvious that he saw Guignol as an astounding creation, though he himself never went to Guignol shows as a child. His parents put much more emphasis on sports. Which is a curious thing to think about as we watched the exercises. And they were exercises. One of the repetitions consisted of holding the puppet up high and then slowly turning it. Brice would do this until the students were visibly worn out from holding there arms up over their heads. And just when they began to groan he would the return his hand around using a different set of muscles. Then they would truly begin to moan. But holding the puppet over the head like this serves a real purpose. In a real show you have to do exactly that for sometimes an hour. Not always up but often enough to feel it. And what he was doing was getting them ready for the difficulties of performance. There is no groaning during a show.
Another exercise had each student hold the marionnette a gain (glove puppet) aloft while five or six of them walked in and out of each other in a more cramped space behind the castelet (the puppet stage). They would do this for five to ten minutes arms up… and not bumping into each other. Quiet a feat.
Emma Fisher, the Irish puppeteer and I got to watch as they also played various theatre games. Some games were played at the beginning to limber up. The rules of some of these games were frankly a bit of a mystery to me. Some I understood as I continued to observe them, a game where half the puppeteers would stand behind the castelet and choose a leader, while the other half would watch their movements and try to guess which one was the leader.
A stranger game consisted of everyone, about 15 students, standing in a circle and passing around a series of rapid comical bowing to words like ‘hi’ and ‘heeya’ and then suddenly someone would say something random like ‘samba’ and everyone would start shimmying around while vocalizing a funny tune together. That almost made sense. But then a girl said ‘James Bond’ and the girls on either side of him would act like fawning devotees. It was funny, but certainly left me scratching my head.
When it came time for les élèves to take turns doing little solo performances then the transformations occurred. Why were these students wanting to become marionnettistes (the French word for any kind of puppeteer not just those with strings)? There were girls who were obviously a bit comical and theatrical, for instance Czech Tereza or Manon. (And the ratio of girls to boys was quite high.) But then there were quieter ones like Camille, Coralie, or Alika, who emerged from their shells to be completely and wonderfully odd, even a little edgy. Or Marina, the normally serious Russian, who not only proved to have a slyly comic style, but also revealed a fantastic singing voice, almost by accident. And I realized that this little school to train marionnettistes must have had some peculiarly intriguing characters over the years.
Meanwhile Emma and I were given a chance to make presentations to the first year students. Emma showed a short documentary that had been made about her doctoral project, Pupa. It revealed to me just how complex her thinking on the subject of puppetry and disability is. And no, she’s not seeing puppetry merely as a therapeutic device. Puppetry for her is a way to tell stories that we might otherwise not hear. And especially told in a manner that is directly related to the disability in question. And she had a bit of an epiphany at one point that broken or incomplete puppets could be an excellent way of convey ideas that perfectly made puppets never could.
I, on the other hand, showed the students a short art film that I had been working on for years. They immediately let me know everything that was wrong at first. (Fortunately these European students don’t have that doctrinaire attitude of compliments before criticism. Which I’ve often seen as false.) But interestingly enough they then spent quite a while pleasantly trying to figure out what it was about. I took note of their best suggestions and decided go back and re-edit the film a bit. Since they were in many ways an ideal audience their ideas carried weight with me. Even though I knew I needed to retool the film I was heartened that they found many points to discuss, which is all I really ask out of anything I do.
One person I had remembered good discussions with last year was Coraline Charnet. I hadn’t come across her yet. But soon that would be rectified. On a quiet Monday afternoon we hunted down a café in the rain. It was easy to renew our acquaintance and talk about issues of texture and life at ESNAM again. Coraline is thoughtful and committed to trying to understand how to live. Sometimes too much so. I appreciated her honesty and integrity. With regard to certain obstructions I reminded her of the wisdom of picking one’s battles wisely. An excellent conversation overall.
I had another reason for being here. I had hopes of finding support for my documentary Gravity From Above. (You know the thing that this whole site is dedicated to.) I had a pleasant lunch with Raphaèle and the new director Philippe Sidre. And without going into any details I’ll say this. Yes there is some support there, not quite what I was hoping for, but enough. But I am quite grateful for what is there. But it turns out a have a longer way to go and more funds to seek. When I go to Prague I will be investigating more avenues. And in Tbilisi as well. But the good thing is that, as a result of good prompting from Raphaèle I now had a very detailed budget of my expenses over the years and a detailed catalogue of my many hours, over 30 (!) of interviews. (Getting them transcribed will be another expense.) There are other things I realized about what this project will need. But I will save that for another essay down the road. Meanwhile I feel good about things, even if this does raise new questions. But I am quite satisfied that Philippe, Raphaèle and the Institute are behind me in various important ways.
Finally my time here at Charleville was winding down. Emma left before my last week and was not replaced by a new chercheur, though an American was supposed to come. They were setting up the Noël Marché in the Place Ducale, but it wasn’t quite ready when I left. The scent of freshly cut Christmas trees did waft through my olfactory glands. It was at last time to make my rounds to say farewell to Aurelie, Delphine, Raphaèle and Brigitte. To say farewell to Emily, and the other students staying at the Villa: Sayeh, Valentin, Manon, Adria, Camille, Rose, Raquel and Tereza, who gave me an impromptu performance with her puppets made from the remnants of real fox and ferret stoles, while explaining how she cut the furs and sewed them back together and told me adamantly to ask the other Czechs I would meet in Prague why she was the first Czech student, and why weren’t Czechs coming to perform at the International Puppet Festival next year.
In the morning I arose early, vacated my apartment, said farewell to Charleville-Mézières once again while musing what an important place this has been in my life. Now all I had to do was to find the SNCF TER train to the TGV in Champagne-Ardennes and get myself up to Northern Germany. But I knew I wasn’t done with the Institut International de la Marionnette yet. I would be back again.
Strasbourg, France (waiting for the TGV to Frankfurt)
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.
Part One of this visit to Charleville here.
Earlier visits to the International Institute of Puppetry below.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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While in Tbilisi I also hunted down puppets in other places. (Puppet = თოჯინა or tojina; plural = თოჯინები or tojinebi; puppetry also = tojinebi.) One of the places I ended up in, which I need to return to, is the Movement Theatre, which was located in Mushtaidi Park near the National Stadium. The Movement Theatre was not a puppet theatre per se but incorporates puppets into its performances. They also mingled dance, electronic music, acrobatics along with puppets into an unusual stew. They had a definite post-apocalyptic patchwork style in their cluttered foyer. Stacks of manikins decorated the lawn. The one show I saw was more of a dance performance in many ways than any sort of traditional play or puppet show. It was definitely an edgier vibe than the other theatres. And will be well worth further exploration.
I also stopped in at the pantomime theatre, which seemed to be in some ways like the black theatre shows in Prague, stylish but low on substance. More for visitors than serious art. About half the show kept my attention.
I mentioned in my last essay that I had run into Nino Namitcheishvili and she had invited me to a puppet performance of Antoine Exupery’s classic Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince. And soon it was time to wander over to the upper room of the Marjanishvili Theatre to watch Nino’s project. Nino gave me access to the light and sound booth so I had a chance to watch the whole performance give in the black box style theatrical space. ‘Black box’ means essentially there is no stage, just a square performance space with chairs usually on one end. Although in this case it was really a white box. White for the desert landscape.
The style was a mixture of live actors and puppets. The prince in particular was played by a young boy. And the denizens of the planets visited were mostly puppets. Lighting and visuals were important for setting the mood, especially in the unforgiving white environment. And the puppets were again, as in Gabriadze and the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, a modified Japanese bunraku style. More than one puppeteer moved the puppets from behind with little rods in the puppets. Bunraku would not have the rods. And the puppeteers were clothed in clothing appropriate for the performance, rather than all black. But I had seen variations of this style at The Little Theater in London, in Prague, and at ESNAM, the international puppet school in Charleville France. The puppets were creatively made. And one figure stood out, a woman all dressed in futuristic blank white to blend in with the desert environment was attached to a shiny scaly snake puppet, thus avoiding the use of strings or rods and giving it a much more sinewy movement. Nino had come up with this idea as a way to give more life to the snake. Seductively done. Serpent and Eve in one.
Meanwhile March 21st was approaching. March 21st is World Puppetry Day. An idea that has been around since the year 2000. In Alaska the day would pretty much come and go without fanfare. But here it was taken fairly seriously, at least by the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre. And one of the things, besides performances of ‘Georgia’, they did was to organize a tojina exhibition. Now I need to tell you one thing that will become more important as this story goes on. In Georgia the word tojina means both ‘doll’ and ‘puppet’. There are many cultures in the world for whom this is the case. And then as in English there are cultures where it is very different. And often when I spoke to people, even puppeteers in Georgia, they didn’t make the rather hard separation between the doll and the puppet that we make. And in fact more than once I did not know which the Georgians were referring to. And so the tojina exhibition turned out to be a doll show.
And what an interesting doll show at that. Dolls in America tend to be of a certain nature. I wouldn’t last very long at an American doll show. It would be like swallowing a cup full of artificial sweetener. Don’t believe me? Search the words ‘doll show’ in English. Then stand back with an insulin injection at the ready. And when the dolls aren’t cute they tend to be kitschy. Or maybe that’s the same thing. Even the ‘creepy’ dolls tend to be postmodern ironic cute. And for a break one gets the big eyed anime dolls. The only interesting trend is the BJD dolls (ball jointed doll), a Japanese idea, that has moved through other cultures, though not without its own issues. There is of course a separate world of genre plastic models and related superhero geek dolls found at comic book and fantasy conventions. And then there are art dolls, but they seem to show up less in the sweet world of the American doll and more in art galleries.
Maia Aladashvili’s detailed Tojinebi (Click for larger images)
But here at the old Silk Factory gallery these dolls were serious art, without trying to be edgy or countercultural. They were dolls as a classical art. And truthfully one could see that dolls being confused with puppets was indeed a very good thing for Georgian doll makers. Because many of the dolls seem to be telling stories. Rather than babies and Barbies these dolls had more character and presence. I was impressed. No mean feat. And indeed one could see a connection between puppets and dolls here. Whereas in America a puppet play made with anything resembling the average American doll would be something done in the worst possible taste, either inadvertently or on purpose to deconstruct the point.
Speaking of tojinebi, I was searching for a puppet museum. I had already finally gotten into the astounding Puppet Animation Museum of Karlo Sulakauri. (Do read about that here!) But I was also looking for a tojinebi museum that was listed on a map as existing near the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I walked to the spot on the map. It was no longer there. In it’s place was an industrial black shiny postmodern box instead. In a conversation with Elene Murjikneli at Budrugana Gagra she told me one day it was simply closed. Soon the building was gone as well. And no one knew what happened to the tojinebi. Ana Sanaia though said she knew. And she gave me an email of a women who could tell me, Nini Sanadiradze, the director of the Union of Tbilisi Museums. (This is not a union as Americans often think of the word. It is more of a civil department.)
I got together with Nini Sanadiradze at her office on Agmashenebeli Avenue. I told her of my documentary project and how I was looking for the missing puppet museum. She said she had the tojinebi in storage, which unfortunately I couldn’t see. But she did have a mock up of a rather exciting book of the collection. As she showed it to me I realized that most of the tojinebi were dolls. Wonderful dolls. Not so many puppets. She also told me of her difficulty in getting good workers in her museums. She said that eventually she wanted to rebuild the tojinebi museum. There was a potential plot of land that she showed me on a map. All very interesting. It was a pleasant two hour visit. She told me to get in touch with her again before I left, she wanted to show me the work she had done on the Nikoloz Baratashvili House Museum.
I contacted her a week and half later and we made an arrangement to meet at the museum. I met her early Sunday afternoon again down near the Gabriadze Theatre. She showed me how she had remodeled the building and redesigned the exhibition. She was proud of what she had done with good reason. We then sat on the veranda and talked for another hour or so. I had thought we might discuss Georgian puppetry more but the conversation turned in a different direction. She said ‘I’d like to offer you a job.’ I was slightly taken aback. ‘Doing what?’ I replied. I didn’t imagine myself simply working in a museum. ‘I’d like you to work with the tojinebi museum.’ ‘But there isn’t one.’ ‘Yes’ she replied calmly. ‘So do you want me to help organize the museum?’ ‘Yes.’ she replied. I was a little skeptical. ‘Well right now you have many more dolls than puppets. Can we get more puppets and have a room for them?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied in the same level voice with just a hint of a smile. So I threw this out. ‘Can we have a performance space?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied again. ‘Can we have a room that is hands on for dolls and puppets and for workshops?’ ‘Of course.’ she replied steadily. I put out a few more questions and then I came to this, thinking of the old tojinebi museum. ‘Look,’ I said ‘When people build new buildings these days they tend to make bad postmodern monstrosities. Can we make a modern building that looks like it belongs in Georgia, with elements of classic Georgian architecture?’ ‘Of course.’ She replied steadily and indeed smiling. Finally I just said ‘Okay you got me.’
I had been thinking about something like this for a while now. I was leaning more and more towards wanting to come back to live. I had made some very good friends. I had made excellent connections. I had been intellectually and creatively stimulated. When I talked with folks about music or puppets I had had rich conversations. When I had told various people about my music collection they suddenly perked up, wanting to hear more. Someone had suggested possibly getting me to lecture over at the state university. And there were many other possibilities. And now this…
Before I left Alaska, having put my life into storage, getting ready to spend six months in Europe and Georgia, more than one friend asked ‘Are you planning to move to Europe? Or Georgia?’ My answer was always the same. ‘I’m not planning to move there? But I’m not planning on NOT moving there either.’ I was simply open. It seemed like a time for considerations of things that had formerly been off the table. There was a moment in France when I briefly considered living there. But it was a passing speculation. But since I had been in Georgia I went from wondering why I was even there, especially during the long holiday season when it seemed like I could barely contact anyone. To finding the scales weighing more and more in favor of coming back to this place to live. And now I would say that everything had gone from 60/40 in favor of coming, to 80/20 before I spoke with Nini, to 98/2 with the 2% uncertainty being simply for the unpredictability of life.
I felt I had been in a game of chess with God and now he had me in checkmate. This was the road forward. I would go back to Alaska to finish my commitments for the summer, to say farewell. But Europe now had me.
More next time as we start to say our farewells to Georgia and go out on a small full dress tour with Erisioni.
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One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
My primary reason for coming to Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy was not to see the mysterious hanging corpses of the Catacombes Dei Cappuccini (though I confess that was quite high on my list of reasons) but rather to see some other antique pendulous figures, Opera Dei Pupi, the Sicilian Marionettes. Whose lineage goes back perhaps 250 years to the late Eighteenth Century with versions being referred to in both Naples (Napoli) and Sicilia. Now stringed marionettes as we usually think of them go back much further. But the Sicilian versions developed in a very specific way that continues down to this date.
Opera dei pupi does not mean ‘puppet opera’, they certainly aren’t performing Verdi with these marionettes, then again as Enzo Mancuso pointed out, marionette isn’t the right word either. The Italians have the word marionette and they have other words for puppets too, burratini are hand/glove puppets, fantoccini are trick puppets. In fact the word for all types of puppets considered together is burratini. But pupi are the puppets that are specific to this Sicilian style. They have a couple of strings, real marionettes can have nine or more, and they also have a metal rod attached to the head and often to one hand. This is quite similar to the puppets at Toone in Brussels, whose style is derived from Sicily, although no one can quite point to exactly when and how. Possibly through a wandering puppeteer. But another feature, and this is similar to Toone as well, is the size of the pupi. They are one third scale, one third the size of a human being. And since there is wood involved, this makes the pupi quite heavy. Then there are major differences between the Toone style and the pupi, obviously the Belgians didn’t quite get the whole recipe for their pupi influenced marionettes.
One difference is that the pupi are almost always heavily armored, which, while the metal is light, adds even more to the weight, I didn’t see any women behind the scene hefting these weighty figures, unlike in Brussels. Next the pupi often perform feats that require much more mechanical invention. So both Toone puppets and Sicilian pupi will feature decapitation during a fight. But for the Toone puppets to pick up a sword or any other objects is a lovably clunky affair. The pupi on the other hand simply reach down to the scabbard pull out a sword and then have a hard clanking fight with it. And then they put it back with ease. And all of this happens gracefully, seemingly in one motion. Also not only do the pupi lose their heads, but their faces are slit in half, whole bodies sliced down the middle, legs separated from torsos, arrows launched into the knights and much more. During their plays there has to be a big battle scene. One brave character, usually Orlando, stands against all comers.
And then there is the noise, like Palermo itself, these are loud puppet shows. One young girl brought to an evening show kept her hands over her ears from the moment she entered the theatre until about two thirds of the way into the show when she finally just gave in and went with it. And the puppeteers wears a special wooden shoe to make even more noise on the wooden stage. And other special devices are used backstage to create more sounds. And finally it is all topped off with a special hand cranked player piano device that was obviously created over a hundred years ago and gives the action a charming antique chaos as pupi clash while the actors’ voices are histrionically exaggerated with vocal quavers and taunts. And when you get a whole room full of children who laugh and cheer at every act of violence and special mechanical trick you get the full dissonant catastrophe. All in all quite a spectacle!
My first stop was at Il Museo internazionale delle marionette (the International museum of puppetry), one of the best puppet museums I’ve yet discovered. (Someday I should list the various puppet museums I’ve visited.) Naturally one assumes that they will have a very thorough display of Sicilian pupi, and they most certainly do. Along with hand burratini, featuring commedia dell’arte figures and many other classic European puppets. But beyond that they had quite a full representation of puppets from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Africa. Plus a few Modernist puppets. All in all a worthy collection complete with a pupi theatre. And an interesting selection of books for sale. Now the difficulty with the museum from my perspective was that it was difficult to communicate with the front desk staff because English is simply not well spoken in Sicily. Eventually I bought a ticket and looked to find someone who could help me. I did find a woman who spoke a bit of English. She then introduced me to Monica Campo who was fluent. They told me that I could come back the next day at noon and would be granted an interview with the director. Well that was good news. And I would certainly return.
On the following day, Monica greeted me, I had come early to set up my tripod and camera. And to get a feel for the light. Eventually I was introduced to Rosario Perricone, il direttore. Rosario was a man in his prime, several days growth of stubble, a trend down here, and obviously a very intelligent and vigorous man. When I first started Monica translated line for line. Then Rosario had another idea. He would speak for a while and she would summarize. And so he began. It was like turning on a fire hose. He spoke in lightning speed for about 15 minutes. Probably containing 40 minutes worth of any other interview I’ve done. Surprisingly I was able to follow the general tone of what he was saying. I knew enough Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, plus theatrical and puppetry words to hear a variety of concepts being addressed. When he finished I turned to Monica with a smile as if to say ‘Well?’ She smiled back. Rosario left the room for a while as I discussed the impressions I had of what he had said. Then Rosario returned and we did this a couple more times. I also got an answer to a question I’ve had for a while: What is the oldest continual puppet theatre in Europe? And the answer technically still is the Toone theatre in Brussels. But there has been a family with a longer history in Sicily, going back to the late 18th Century. (I would have to get the interview translated to tell you the name.) At one point I asked about the point of puppets in the 21st Century, when we have so many other kinds of entertainment and art mostly coming at us through screens. Uncharacteristically he struggled for his words and then carefully said a couple of sentences. We could all tell that something worthy of the subject had been said. Even Rosario asked for a copy of his statement. I won’t give my impression of it now, except to say that, yes, we do in fact need puppetry in this time. (Monica will help translate this for me later.) All in all it was an excellent interview and prepared me to see a real show of the opera dei pupi.
One teatro dei pupi had responded to my translated messages, Opera dei Pupi teatro Carlo Magno Enzo Mancuso. I stumbled around near the docks until I came upon the teatro on a narrow side street festooned with graffiti.I had been supposed to come earlier, but that was at the exact same time as the interview the Rosario Perricone. So I had to honor my earlier commitment. That was fine. Enzo and crew were happy to have me no matter what. I attended two performances, the first an evening show, which was sparsely attended. The next morning at 10 a show packed with children between about 7 and 10 years old. The shows were similar. The audiences were not. The children howled and squealed with delight. Though their guardians shushed them, sometimes making more noise than the children in doing so.
But in both cases we were treated to the legendary exploits of Orlando, who fought off the Moors near Poitiers in France around the time of Charlemagne. This was about as gleefully politically incorrect in this age of hyper-sensitivity as you could want. And as relevant. Many folks have forgotten how close the Islamic invasion was to sweeping into all of Europe. And these stories keep that fact alive. And as far as I could tell the Islamic side was treated fairly in these legends as portrayed in these Sicilian narratives. In the past the story of Orlando Furioso was done as a long continuing saga. Some versions had over 300 parts. With a heavy reliance on cliffhanger endings. But as Rosario explained to me by the 1960’s the Opera Dei Pupi was pretty much dead. People just didn’t want these old fashioned things anymore. But there was a revival ironically through left wing political sources, just as they had been behind the folk music revival in America. And one of the things that happened was that the plays became self contained. No more endless cliffhanging, no more long drawn out legends. The same stories of Orlando and Renaldo would be told. And there were many different stories. But now they resolved. Slowly also they attracted a tourist audience as well. And they were played for school children. As I witnessed.
Now one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s show was that Enzo, a swaggering burly guy capable of lifting the heavy pupi and making a lot of noise, introduced the show by explaining to the children the difference between history and legend, and about the time of Charlemagne. Now when I say that he introduced the show, please do not imagine someone getting up to talk for a few minutes and then saying ‘Okay let’s watch the show!’ Oh no. His introduction lasted easily a half an hour. And he asked the bambini questions and they asked him questions. And he poked fun at them. And they poked fun at him. All the while he went into great detail about opera dei pupi. And after the rip-roaring show he came out again and showed us many of his special effects and devices, how the swords were done, the strange sounds they made. It was absolutely fascinating. And once again I realized that how you deal with children says so much about the culture. Watch the pupi was in fact a step on the road becoming Sicilian. And in the incredible battles and over the top noise and wild language there was something deeply Sicilian in all of this. And one thing you can say, Sicily is not a society for wimps. And Orlando is incredibly furioso.
Enzo and his co-performer Giovanni Battista Rappa didn’t speak much English but they were magnanimous and welcoming all the same. I was treated well as a fellow puppeteer and as someone who had entered another country with it’s own rules. Not Italy. Not Sicily. Not even Palermo. But the Opera dei Pupi. And I was extremely grateful to have entered this strange, unique, utterly human world of puppets and puppeteers.
On the train to London from Paris
I was whisked from Brussels back to Paris on the TGV. Sitting next to me was a young woman in sloppily dyed greenish/blondish hair reading Russian. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that Olga worked for one of the three larger media conglomerates in Moscow and within a few moments she revealed to me the depth of the state control on all the media outlets there. I don’t think writing this will get her in trouble since Olga is an extremely common name (though the green tint not so much), and she didn’t act particularly worried about it, and besides I suspect that these essays are on no one’s radar. She was taking a break to come look for art in Paris and was quite curious about the Symbolist museum I’d visited in Brussels. She was also going to see a progressive metal concert in Paris the same night I was scheduled to catch up with the Gabriadze Theatre’s performance of Ramona. I helped her get situated at Gare de l’Est and the continued on by metro and bus to L’Häye Les Roses in the southern banlieue of Paris to stay with Paulette’s parents Gilles and Lori Caron.
This was my home base on my journey through Europe and I would be breaking bread and sharing good conversation with them off and on until I finally took a plane to Georgia in late December. I also was getting to know Paulette’s younger brother Julian, who is an avid gamer and is aware that his chosen field is a battleground of sorts. He is working on a theses concerning the sociology of gaming. And was aware the some aspects of gaming had an extremely addictive quality built into them by the designers (MMORPG’s for instance). He himself was actually working on games to be played in real time, without computers, roughly based on the old Dungeons and Dragon model. He could see the importance of not being disconnected from living breathing humanity. A worthy discussion was had all round.
Since I was only in Paris for a few days I decided to make the best of it. After a day off, working on practical chores, I decided go to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to see the Christian Dior retrospective. It was quite crowded but I’m quite glad I waded through the humanity to see Dior’s fashions. Part of my reason for coming was in my continuing to think about texture and its affect upon us. And indeed there was much food for thought here. (I thought of several friends who would have feasted on this exhibition.) Now I won’t say that everything in the show caught my eye. Occasionally there were the kinds of clothes that seemed too fashionable, too haute couture, for my tastes. But when confronted with actual items made of a vast variety of textures I was smitten by the way texture changes everything. And how so many clothes today (T-Shirts with slogans, yoga pants, gray sweat shirt material, various polyblends) see so lifeless by comparison. The weave of a fabric changes its texture, changes its meaning. While we, American’s are particularly bad at this, seem to have only one criterion left, comfort. But I was certainly converted to a more truly beautiful aesthetic by my stroll through this gargantuan exhibit.
Finally on the same November evening I took a bus over to Le Monfort théâtre in the 14th Arrondissement to see the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre’s production of Ramona. And this proved to be one of the best puppet shows I’d ever seen in my life. The story concerned two trains in the old USSR, one named Ramona, who are separated by the socialist call to duty during World War II. The trains are given character and the supporting cast of puppets were made largely of various socialist functionaries. The trains are constantly separated from each other by war, circumstances, and communist decrees. And in the end both trains are scrapped. And in the heartbreaking twist they are both melted down together to form one essence.
The puppeteers performed largely on a tabletop dressed in black faces exposed. Related to, but unlike, bunraku style. I approached one of the puppeteers after the show to introduce myself. He did speak English yet didn’t know exactly what he could do for me. But then as I turned to walk away the puppeteer called me back. He told me to wait while he called a man over to meet me. Rezo Gabriadze is no longer traveling with the troupe due to his age. But I was introduced to his son Leo and he was glad to meet me. And I will indeed be visiting them again in Tbilisi in 2018.
I also met another Russian, Irene, who was an actress come down from Saint Petersburg who had two months to try to get involved with French film or theatre before her visa expired. And something in her manner struck me in that elusive manner that only the Russians can generate; part mystery, part tragedy. All in all this little interlude proved to be evocative on many levels. And inspired many new thoughts and ideas.
Next stop: Lyon, France.
Besides revisiting Nicolas Géal I also had made a friend in Dimitri Jageneau along with his mother Biserka at Théâtre Royal du Peruchet and so I decided to take a bus out to see them as they performed a play based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child from The Jungle Book.
So I say I decided to take a bus. But finding out how to get there was really a work of serious deduction. Brussels’ bus and tram lines have baffled me before and in both of my trips out to Peruchet this time I was completely stymied. I wasn’t taking the method I had last year, because I couldn’t find a record of how I did it looking over my online records. The problem the first day was that the train for the second part of the trip was not due for 45 minutes after I arrived. And that spoiled my attempt to get there early. It also occurred to me that I might need another ticket for the train, that the one ticket for all might not include the train lines. (This is the problem with Google directions.) Fortunately no one asked nor were they likely to. So having figured out a way to make things work the first day you’d think I’d breeze through it again. Except for one big problem. It was November 1st, All Saints Day, or All Hallows, a date that means very little in America, (but the night before it does!) but in de-Christianized Europe it still survives as a major break on the calendar, much like Ascension Day. And I have been caught by this one before. And so the bus and train schedules were radically different from the day before. Eventually, with a great deal of exasperation, I managed to arrive in good enough time on both days, having allowed myself the grace to leave earlier than I needed for just this reason. Planned disarray?
Dimitri Jageneau feels like an old friend already. He has helped me with my crowdfunding and has taken me out in Brussels in early 2016 to a pub with puppets hanging from wall to wall. I enjoyed the time I spent here last year. So when we met it seems that we simply resumed our discussions about puppetry, in which I am very much the student still. He explained that theatre Peruchet is one of the few children’s puppet theatres still featuring marionettes, as opposed to glove/hand puppets. And they occupy a unique situation within the puppetry world, one he is keen to keep. But the problem is one of getting the help. His mother Biserka is his number one puppeteer, and she is getting older. Yet given the income of the theatre it is hard to train another puppeteer to take over the slot. He had a few younger people helping him, including Fernando and Velina. But neither were really puppeteers in waiting and they worked the door. Yet I did have good discussions with them.
I had a fascinating experience at one point I decided to take a few photos of their fantastic puppet museum again. This time I decided to leave the lights off and capture the puppets in the shadows. And this changed everything. I wished I could do that in every warehouse or museum featuring puppets. Dimitri kept coming in and asking if I needed light. But I didn’t. The way the darkness enveloped the puppets gave them even more of a sense of life than normal, which in turn gives me more ideas for possible ways of presenting puppets.
Eventually it was time for the show. Biserka came out to greet the children and to introduce the show which was going to explain once and for all how the elephant got his trunk. The marionettes were all flat made out of board, except for the elephant who seemed like a plush toy fallen on hard times. The story takes place on the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” And all manner of animals come round to discuss the insatiable curiosity of the manic little elephant. Finally shortly before the intermission the elephant child is caught in a struggle between the crocodile and the python when the curtain comes down. I’ve noticed in Belgium it is standard to have an intermission for selling refreshments and showing of a museum in even a short puppet show. Following the break Biserka rings the bell and then has a bit of a raffle and finally introduces part two for les enfants. And naturally, voila the elephant’s nose is now the long lovable hose we now know. Yet the young elephant doesn’t believe it looks oaky. The Peruchet puppet shows are certainly there to teach the children little lessons. And the Belgian children certainly like it. These shows have some give and take with the children, including singing songs mid-performance, but the Belgian style does not push the kids over the edge as the Parisian Guignol shows do. Though there is plenty of physical action.
When the children left the second show I showed Dimitri, Biserka and the others a sample of my trailer for Gravity From Above. They laughed when they saw themselves and were glad that it looked like I would be getting financial assistance from the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières. A visit to Peruchet in Belgium is to visit friends in puppetry. When in Belgium go find them and enjoy the show for yourself.
PS. Now we’ve had a crashed hard drive! Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
This journey is already different from all of the rest if only for the pure pressure and chaos of my final days in Alaska before departing. Normally the days of preparation in anticipation of leaving have many confusing aspects to them. This time though it was on another level altogether. Unimaginable. This time I had to clear everything from my house, which had been sold, prior to my leaving. I actually thought that I could get everything moved from my house and prepare for the journey without a hitch. O stupid me. I needed another week to do it right. And I needed more help from friends a month ago. And I should have done something about it. But the date for leaving and my time in France was a hard intractable deadline.
I was right about the time it took me to pack my library. I was wrong about the chaos that had grown over the years in the back room. And in the end I paid for it. I won’t go into the details except to say that at the end I felt more like one of those people standing on top of the American embassy in images from the fall of Saigon. I know I left things behind. And there was nothing I could do about it. I had to be on the ferry at 4pm. End of story. And so with the help of several very good friends I took my final load over to Storage Unit 3 and called it quits. Feeling so drained from the two months of packing and dismantling my life that I could barely focus on anything else. Somewhere I had taken some time to prepare for this six month journey, but I fear that I must have left something important undone. (I owe deep thanks to all who helped me in some manner in this Sisyphean task.)
Nevertheless nothing has ever felt quite like stepping foot on the 4 o’clock ferry bound for Juneau. It was like crossing a demarcation from one world into the next. Everything in Alaska was temporarily wrapped up. My life had been put into boxes into a room without windows. But now it was all behind me. And what lay before me? Well I can tell you where I’ll be. And what I’ll be trying to accomplish. But it seems like something much deeper is going on. I wouldn’t even be taking this journey had I not been granted a residency at the International Institute for Puppetry in France. And submitting my application was something I had forgotten about until literally the last hour. And had I not had that residency I would certainly not be taking this journey in light of my housing situation. And yet here I am writing from France in Charleville-Mézières in an apartment of the Institut International de la Marionnette.
The ferry ride, the hotel in Juneau, the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, the inevitable hours spent at Sea-Tac waiting for the Icelandair journey all transpired in the normal manner which doesn’t require any comment. Icelandair was a slightly new experience. Small details stuck out, like having to buy my meal as I crossed the Atlantic, (Oh that’s how the tickets get so cheap!) landing at the Reykjavik Airport and then volunteering to make €200 by switching planes to land in Orly instead of Charles DeGaulle (I’m still waiting…), glimpsing a rather bleak corner of the Icelandic landscape as we then flew south (But I can’t really count that as having been to Iceland.), meeting a pleasant French woman who was a global representative of Christian Dior, as well as a few rather jovially lost Americans who were from Oklahoma and were gleefully happy to say things to the Parisians like “Hi. I’m just an ugly American.” when they gave ample evidence of their naïveté. It was all I could do not to tell them that you don’t need to point it out. They know! They know!
In Paris after helping the Oklahomans get pointed in the right direction (They spent €65 on a five day transportation pass!) I arrived at my usual destination, Hôtel Saint André des Arts, meeting my old friend Fred, for whom I had brought some smoked Alaskan salmon. I found the crepes I craved, noticed that a few stores that I had remembered now closed for business, tried to stay awake for most of Blade Runner 2049 and bought a SIM card for my dumbphone.
And then I repaired to the good graces of my puppeteering friend Lea Paulette Caron’s family in the southern Parisian suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses. Paulette arrived by train later that day to complete the reunion. And again I was overwhelmed by the food selection in the covered market: endless cheeses, cuts of meat unknown in the USA, quails, terrines, patés, and desserts that I can’t mention here for fear of violating the decency standards of WordPress. Haines, Alaska has three nice grocery stores but everything sold there is fairly predictable. This was precisely what I needed to resuscitate my American palate. I looked out at the lushly overgrown backyard of the Carons and realized that I’d always loved the kind of casual clutter of France, in opposition to the strict neatness of Switzerland, which also has a different kind of allure. I stayed for two days waiting for my body to fully catch up to my brain as I found myself still waking at 3:30am.
Finally on the morning of the October 9th I departed by TGV for my residency in Charleville-Mézières at the Institut International de la Marionnette. As the train glided effortlessly across the northern French landscape I couldn’t help but wonder about the next step in this expedition. A few days ago I was watching my life miniaturized in a traumatic blur of excavation and flight. Now I was beginning a six month journey of exploration of both inner and outer worlds.
Next time, puppetry research and clowns in Luxembourg.
So here is a vague idea of my itinerary on this mammoth adventure from October 3rd 2017 through April 3rd 2018. This only gives you the geopolitical references not the reality of my expectations for each place. Suffice it to say that this will be a serious undertaking. And as I review my expenses, after far too many last minute hidden unexpected major payments, I will indeed be counting coins by the end. (So feel free to help out with that PayPal button on the right. I can’t tell you how much that could help.) I won’t mention my expenses again for quite a while and unless I get in deep waters but do keep me in mind in your ponderings. Meanwhile I am going nuts trying to literally store my entire life of 21 years into one storage room and haul the rest away. (Garbage costs!!) In three more days! So I haven’t got anymore time to fill you in about the journey. If you need more information, read the last few entries. If you want to know why on earth I am doing this then go back to the three essays I wrote as a history of the project. (Click This Spot.)
This journey is a strange mixture of exploration, exile and mission for me. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll find this time, but I really don’t have another choice but to go. So next time I write it will be from Europe. Hopefully I will have settled everything back here in Haines. Wish me well. I can use prayers too. Good thoughts if that’s what you can spare.
Back to work!
And thanks for your support in this.
October 3rd Haines to Juneau, Alaska
October 4th & 5th Juneau through Seattle and Reykjavik to Paris, France
October 5th – 8th Paris
October 9th – 27th Charleville-Mézières, France – International Institute of Puppetry and ESNAM
October 27th – November 5th Brussels, Belgium Time spent with the Toone and Peruche tMarionette Theatres
November 5th – 7th Paris
November 8th – 13th Lyon Various Guignol related activities
November 13th – 24th Huémoz, Switzerland – L’Abri Fellowship (Giving two music lectures)
November 24th – Train to Genoa, Italy then 17 hour ferry to Sicily
November 25th – 30th Palermo, Italy – Sicilian Marionettes
December 1st – 5th Rome, Italy – Commedia dell’arte style puppets
December 5th – Overnight train to Paris
December 6th – 10th Paris (More puppet related activities including Guignol)
December 11th – 14th London – The Quays & meeting filmmaker Matty Ross
December 14th – 21st Paris More puppet and cultural activities
December 21st – 22nd Plane through Warsaw, Poland to Tbilisi, Georgia
December 22nd, 2017 – March 28th, 2018 (!) – Tbilisi, Georgia Guesthouse stay for a few days then three months in a studio apartment – Much more research into Puppetry and the unusual music and dance of Georgia.
March 28th – Plane from Tbilisi, Georgia through Warsaw to Paris
March 29th – April 1st – Paris
April 2nd – Plane from Paris through Reykjavik to Seattle to Juneau, Alaska
April 3rd – Juneau to Haines, Alaska
To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.
And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.
In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)
And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)
And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.
Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.
And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)
So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:
“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”
What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)
You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.
(Loading up my storage room)
I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)
I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.
What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.
Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)
In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.
In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.
Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)
Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.
Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?
So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.
And so we come to another crossroads in our our efforts to complete Gravity From Above. Maybe it’s time to give you folks a summary of the origin and history of this project thus far. And why I’m determined to try to get this done… in my lifetime.
I did not grow up around puppetry. The most exposure I had to puppets was in watching the occasional Davey And Goliath children’s show, the odd early pre-Sesame Street performances of the Muppets on the Ed Sullivan show and other variety acts seen on television during the 60’s and, of course, televised reruns of the 1933 King Kong. As a child I never once watched a live puppet performance. Music grabbed my attention much more fully.
And recently as I began to wonder when I actually saw my first puppet show, I realized that it wasn’t until I was 32 years old in Paris at Sacre Coeur in 1987 where I watched an unusual street performer who brought various sculpted heads out from under a large red velour curtain of sorts on the steps of that cathedral. They interacted with each other in pairs. All the while a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played from a boom box. It was a moving performance, but I did NOT even recognize until only a couple of years ago that what I had been watching was indeed puppetry. What an astonishing first performance!
Near the end of the 1980’s I ran into my first Jan Švankmajer films and then the Brothers Quay at the Film Forum while I lived in New York City. But even then I was more attracted to the curious animation techniques of the films than I was to the puppets they used. By the mid-Nineties I had been working in the New York art world for a while and I was puzzling over the defects of much of the contemporary art scene. I was writing a few notes down for some kind of new art that would use forgotten elements from the past in a different configuration. I wrote ‘puppets’ down. I had been thinking about the Brothers Quay and Švankmajer’s use of puppetry more. I made it through most of the first half of the Nineties without a television set or VHS player. But I did decide that I needed a couple of VHS tapes. The first I videos I bought were by Švankmajer and the Quays. And I was just beginning to suspect that it was Eastern European puppetry that was a key to apprehending their unique qualities.
By 1996, my last year in New York City, I had begun to articulate a serious interest in puppets. I visited a Guignol show in Paris early in the year. I watched Vietnamese water puppets at Lincoln Center. I sat through a boring student performance in NYU that was more noteworthy for the anticipation of the show than in the loopy postmodern politically correct posturings of the actual show/diatribe. And I was accumulating more animation videos in anticipation of my move to Alaska.
In the year 2000 I took my first true steps to find puppet theatres in Europe as I spent two months visiting friends and traveling by train. I did not get to see the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which was on tour, but I did run across a seasonal Christmas marionette entertainment in Vienna. In Romania I came across puppetry that mixed jovial full sized actors with various hand and rod puppets . And then I arrived in Prague…
Prague was a revelation. I came seeking to encounter some kind of puppetry. After checking into what would be last cheap hotel I could ever frequent in Prague, I wandered into the night and quickly discovered why it was called the ‘Golden City of a Thousand Spires’. As I walked into the Staré Město I turned around catching the towers of the Tyn church and other structures. My mouth was agape. With abrupt understatement I realized I was in PRAGUE! And I was there to look for puppets and other odds and ends of theatrical culture. I saw my first Don Giovanni show at the National Marionette Theatre. I visited Lanterna Magika. I took in a black light show. I saw a strange play that also featured puppets and masks. I was also obscurely aware that I was only scratching the touristic surface of Czech puppetry. I would need to come back someday.
Now I didn’t go home and start a puppet theatre. Nor did I even become particularly obsessed with puppets. And frankly to this day I’m not overwhelmed by puppets qua puppets. Just because something is a puppet I don’t immediately go gaga. Cute puppets, Muppets, many children’s puppets, ill conceived and textureless puppets don’t grab my attention is all. (Which largely explains why so many features of American puppetry don’t interest me.) But I saw just enough to know that there was much more to see and to know. And so I began reading more about puppetry, began my library on the subject, puppet books were hard to find for me at that point. Found DVDs and online interviews with the Quays and Švankmajer. Picked up more animation videos. Names like Starewicz, Trnka, Barta became second nature. In late 2003 and I performed a shadow play with a student of mine for a few friends: A version of The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman. (A small figure was the normal size, a full human in silhouette was the giantess.) But I wasn’t rushing to get back to Europe to see more puppet theatres. I hadn’t really seen enough to convince me yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the right kinds of performances yet. But all of that would change in 2005.
Next week we’ll discuss how that happened. Come back soon! Meanwhile click this and do help out.
And while you’re here seriously if you have been following this journey at all do help us get back to Europe. It’s quite possible that we’ll get enough footage to finally wrap up the journeys for a while and start editing everything together. Wouldn’t you LIKE to see what this is going to look like? (If so watch the video directly below this.) Any amount would be appreciated. Help us to avoid being stranded overseas! And thanks to all of the supportive folks along the way!
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
And so we come to another one of those moments where real life and reel life collide into a fine kettle of fish. So let’s get a few things out of the way. First of all one way or another I will be back in Europe come fall. I will be at the International Puppetry Institute in Charleville-Mézières for a three week residency, where I will be officially presenting my work on the documentary. And I am now trying to see how much of this project I can wrap up. But it’s not going to be easy and it’ll take all of the good will I can find.
Let’s get this announcement out of the way. I’m raising money again. This time I’m going through Indiegogo. And I’m trying a different method of approach. I think the all or nothing mode was too much stress for me. So I thought that I would see if I could try it, if not actually casually, then more so than in the past. Those who know me and have followed me for a while know that I’d pretty much sworn off crowdfunding for the foreseeable future.
So what has changed? Or rather what has happened?
Well as I mentioned the real and reel have coincided. Back on the home home front the Quonset Hut where I have contently lived for twenty years is being sold. And I know I shouldn’t even seriously think of buying it, for a host of reasons that would be outside the purview of this website to explain. I was getting a very good deal and this abode served myself and our community here in Haines, Alaska, very well. But, given the size of my library and price of my rent, I seriously doubt I will find something to match my needs right away. So I have come to another conclusion. I’ve decided I should put my huge library of books, records and films into storage for a while and I go knock on doors to get this and other projects finished.
I’m looking into spending a more time in Europe than I was originally planning. I need to find the resources that elude me way up here in Alaska. I’m not thinking of moving, but I am for a while open to new possibilities.
So the Indiegogo Gravity From Above campaign is live now. I’ve purposely kept the amount low at a $3,500 goal, not that I don’t actually need $25,000 to $50,000 to get the documentary finished. But once I crest that goal I should be able to stay on Indiegogo’s InDemand radar for quite a while longer to continue bringing in funds. And if I can get the lower goal met soon then I might get noticed by the folks looking for investments. We’ll see. I’ve decided to do this with a no worry approach, especially since I’m on the keep whatever I raise ‘Flexible’ program.
I also just had a 60th Birthday Feast (2 years late), because two years ago it was impossible for me to even consider it. I had a huge 25lb. (11.33 kg.) pork leg that turned out quite tastily and 60 people joined in. Bringing food and playing games. It was also a farewell to the Quonset Hut and a fundraiser as well. $290 in cash came in, which did not go into Indiegogo, since I’m NOT doing the all-or-nothing version, thus saving me the ten percent fees. (It also makes it easier to accept cash from the good folks in Haines. But the point is this. By the many means necessary I will be going back to Europe and trying to get Gravity From Above finished if I can. Maybe begin more serious research on Georgian music and dance. Following whatever trail I need to to find the money to get this done or a Producer who will understand this project.
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
So I’m asking for your help once again. Whether a few dollars or something more extravagant everything adds up. Check out my new maybe final (that’s up to you) Gravity From Above fundraiser. And especially check out the perks. (I’ll explain more about them soon, as well as give you a short history of the project up till now.)
Links abound on this page. Follow one and let’s get this done together! If I can get close to $10,000 I can probably finish up all of Europe footage.
Thanks for the subscriptions and the support. My life is obviously at turning point. Will you help turn the wheel with me?
And just in case you didn’t see all of the links to my Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Here’s the link…
Interview with Kevin Titzer
Kevin: A couple of years ago an artist named Kevin Titzer contacted me. An American living in Quebec in a small town called Saguenay, he mentioned influences from Švankmajer and the Quays and that was enough to pique my curiosity. This is an interview about his art and his newfound experiments in puppetry that might find eager interest here.
Byrne Power: When did you start making these figures?
Kevin: I first started making figures when I was in University. I had a woodworking class and a clay class. I wanted to save time, or I was just lazy, and decided to start a project that I would cover an assignment for both courses. So I made these sort of puppet figures with wooden bodies and clay heads. I really enjoyed making them, so I kept exploring what else I could do with them and just never stopped. That was around 1995.
On a side note, people often think the heads of my figures are still made out of clay. They haven’t been clay since I left school and lost my access to a kiln. Since then they have all been carved from wood. Although I surface them with many layers of paint and varnish which gives them a very smooth look.
Byrne: Why figures? Why not paintings?
Kevin: I do a little painting every once in a while, but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been very good at it. I always feel like there’s a barrier between me and the work. The same feeling when I have to create something in a computer. It’s like I’m a scientist working behind glass controlling mechanical arms to do a task. I feel really detached when I can’t manipulate a material more directly.
As far as why figures in particular, I’ve found it’s much harder for me to make art that doesn’t have a face or at least eyes. I have some pieces I’ve been working on currently that are prosthetic arms. I really enjoy making them but there still feels like something missing.
Byrne: The puppeteer in me sees a relationship with puppetry. Is there a conscious connection there? Did it start off consciously?
Kevin: Since I was a little kid I’ve had a fascination with puppets. Yes, I think there’s a definite influence on all of my work.
Byrne: I notice that you are inspired both by music and stories. I find that fascinating in a time where quantities of art reek of a suspicion of narrative. Where does that come from? Does puppetry come into play in this aspect at all?
Kevin: There’s always a thread of narrative in my work. I feel that I’m presenting a show or performing with my work. Or at least showing a sliver of a show. I think I’ve always been a frustrated performer and I express that part of me within the presentation my art. I’m not always in a situation where I can dictate the atmosphere of a venue or gallery space, but when I can try to incorporate the space into the viewing experience of the show. Kind of setting the stage as it were I suppose. I think this is going to become more prevalent in my exhibitions now that I’ve started doing more work for the theatre recently.
Byrne: What puppet influences are you drawn to?
Kevin: I love the Eastern European style and aesthetic of puppetry. I would really love to travel to that part of the world.
The French puppet group Royal de Luxe does just mind boggling stuff. I just had the opportunity to see them for the first time in Montreal and it was amazing. I also love the company that split off from them Les Machine. They will be coming to Ontario soon and I hope to make the drive over to see them as well. That would just make my year.
I had an opportunity to visit the Bread and Puppet property in Vermont a couple of years ago. They have a big barn full of old puppets they’ve made going back to the 60’s. It was a breath taking collection of work.
Byrne: If you are ever Vermont again you must visit the Sandglass Theatre. Ask to visit the older puppets. I think you’d find some real inspiration there.
Also if you ever get to Europe there are so many places I could recommend. But research this site more for that.
Are you familiar with Jan Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay? Any other puppet filmmakers?
Kevin: I really enjoy the films of Jan Svankmajer. He’s such an inspiring man. I find it so bitter sweet that he is currently working on his last film. I so respect that he’s leaving fully on his own terms. The looseness, chaotic quality, the bluntness are all aspects of his work I connect with wish I could be more like in my own work.
I enjoy the Quay Brothers also but for different reasons. The Quays have been more about atmosphere for me. They are much more moody and ambiguous. Both have been influences on my work. If an artist works with rusty dusty found materials, it’s a safe bet they’ve seen “Streets Of Crocodiles” at least once .
That movie is the gateway drug for that whole aesthetic for loads of people.
I love the movie “The Mascot” (1933) by Ladislas Starevich.
I think Robert Morgan is doing some of the most interesting and adventurous work right now. I walked into a screening of one of his shorts a few years ago titled “Bobby Yeah”
I saw it totally cold with no idea of what I was about to sit though. I felt punch-drunk when I walked out. I can’t recall the last time a film had that kind of effect on me. It was wonderfully disturbing.
Byrne: Your faces are often quite perplexed, bewildered even a bit glum. Comments?
Kevin: Yeah, they’re kind of bummers. My guys never get invited to cocktail parties.
Byrne: What’s with things growing, popping, from holes in the head?
Kevin: Hmm, I don’t know. What’s your interpretation?
Byrne: Something’s happening in the brain evidently, probably something trying to get out. Hopefully not the physical gray matter itself. Then again it could be somehow related to trepanation, an antique medical practice involving cutting a hole in the skull to relieve the pressure.
I also love the materials and texture of your work. What kind of materials do you prefer? What is your approach to texture?
Kevin: I use a lot of recycled materials. Wood, cloth, whatever. I like to use old hardware, screws and washers as well. I buy up whole boxes of that kind of stuff any time I can. I can’t make them look as good as they already do.
Byrne: I’ve often found hardware stores a source of fascination, not to mention Salvation Army stores, junkyards, etc.
Kevin: I’ve always been drawn to objects with a history or a timeless feel. I’m from Southern Indiana originally and there was always lot’s of things that feel like that around. I guess I’m also just naturally nostalgic.
Byrne: I’ve often found that in the art world one is often given a stark white wall as a context. I find that this objectifies the work. Abstracts it into a kind of thing it may not have meant to be. In my own puppet work I find we have to totally colonize the space to communicate. Putting our puppetry onto a modern stage turns it too much into ‘theater’, thus rendering it only theatrically communicative. I worked for years in New York City moving art from artist studios to galleries and office buildings. I was always sad to see the work in dead white space, usually the artist’s own studio was a much more human and unsanitized space. What does your studio look like? What is the best environment for your figures?
Kevin: My studio is pretty much a packrat nest. As far as presentation of artwork, it all depends on the context and the intent of the artist. I’ve taken many different approaches in different kinds of venues in the past. Some times white walled galleries are very good to focus the viewer in on detail. If the intent is to construct a little world in a box, that is a good presentation. There have been other times where I wanted the world to be the whole space. To set a mood for the viewer as soon as they walk into the room. I’d actually like to do more installation work where the room is the art. It’s interesting to extend the world of the art like that sometimes.
Byrne: What do hope people see in your work when all is said and done? Obviously everyone will see something different. But what’s the minimum you hope they take away from your figures?
Kevin: I hope they take away anything. I don’t expect everyone to like what I do, but the worst reaction there is, is indifference. I’d rather someone hated my work than to have no reaction at all.
Byrne: You seem to have a storytelling aesthetic. How far are you willing to take your work in that regard? Have you ever thought of collaborating with a puppet troupe to make your figures move? Or to make them with armatures for puppet films?
Kevin: My newest work has been for a new stage production called “Mémoires d’un Sablier”. It’s a cross cultural collaboration between two puppet theatre companies. La Torture Noir from here in Quebec and Luna Morena from Mexico. I did an art exhibition at a puppet festival two years ago and they saw my work there and later brought me on to the project. My sculpture work often references puppetry, but this is the first time I have actually worked in the theatre and made functioning puppets to be used night after night on stage. It was a very different experience for me. There are many different things to consider in construction and it was very technically challenging. I built props and two puppets for the show. One was life size and probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever made.
Byrne: What part of it was so challenging. Was it the translation of your puppet art into functioning puppets.
Kevin: Yes, it’s very technically different. In my own work I only have to worry about the aesthetic. It’s much easier designing improbable things when they don’t actually have to work for real. So I kind of had to work in reverse for this project and focus on the function first. If the puppets and props don’t work on stage it doesn’t matter one bit how good the look. All told it took a year to finish the production and I’ve also never worked in that kind of time frame before. Theatre is a much longer process than I’m used to and that took some adjustment. It’s very easy to frustrated that everything is not moving faster but that has more to do with me being use to only working alone for the last twenty years. Coordinating a whole company of people takes time and much more work. I just had no experience with that. Being a part of a whole took some getting use to, but in the end I learned so much more and created work that I never would have thought to make or technically could have made working by myself. I even had the opportunity to travel down to Mexico and work in the Luna Moreno studio where I learned more about traditional puppet construction.
Byrne: Well Kevin thanks for your time and work. It certainly does provoke a reaction in me. Continue!