A Journey Into European Puppetry

Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch

Roadblock to a Documentary

toone-troupe-2

Nicolas Géal and the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels Belgium

Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.

zon-zons

Zon Zons in Lyon France

What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.

quays-laugh

The Brothers Quay get the Joke in London, England

The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.

byrne-sophie-gela-1

Interviewing Gela Kandelaki in Tbilisi, Georgia

So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.

beatrice-and-franc%cc%a7ois-martin

Beatrice Starewitch and François Martin outside of Paris, France

The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).

parodie-de-faust

Daniel Streble’s 1872 copy of a Guignol Parodie de Faust in Lyon

Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.

buchty-puppet-studio-1

Inside the Studio of Buchty a Loutky in Prague, Czech Republic

So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)

paulette-a-lyon

French Puppeteer Paulette Caron in Lyon

Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.

with-dimitri-jageneau-biserka-assenova

With Dimitri Jageneau &  and Biserka Assenova at Peruchet in Brussels

From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

9/19/2016


The Beetles as Puppets

Starewitch ???

I have no idea what this is… A puppet from Le Roman de Renard by Ladislas Starewitch.

Upon returning from a very full three days in Brussels I met my friend Paulette, who had been working behind the scenes to set up time with Leona-Beatrice Starewitch Martin, the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch (also spelled Vladislav Starevich, in Russian: Владисла́в Старе́вич, in Polish: Władysław Starewicz). (Always pronounced Star-a-vich.) Because we are in France we will stay with the French version of the family name, which is also helpful in trying to buy is DVDs (region free playable anywhere). After a meal in a French café, wherein I almost lost the multicolored checkered scarf I’d had since the 70s (!), we took off by train to the Val-de-Marne area where Beatrice and her husband François Martin were waiting for us. Fabrique de Cinema

Ladislas Starewitch, for those not aware, whom I must consider to be most folks conscious at present in the world today, is considered to be the first person to make and show publicly stop-motion animation films in 1910 in Lithuania. There are whispers of another, a Russian named Aleksander Shiryayev, a principal dancer in the Imperial Russian Ballet, made a few animated puppet ballets in 1906. He only showed his work privately and they were completely forgotten until their rediscovery in 1995. Nevertheless Starewitch is the man who discovered animation independently and became a master of the art.

Lion Queen

Lioness from The Tale of the Fox by Ladislas Starewitch.

We were taken by car over to Le Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne where they were currently showing an exhibition called ‘La fabrique du cinéma’, a look at the history of movie studios in the Val-de-Marne region from the early silent era till 1970. Walking through the many photos and memorabilia from the active area of film production one is suddenly arrested by the encased puppets of Ladislas Starewitch for Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox). These are the actual figures made by Starewitch, including the Lion Queen, the singing cat and other strange creatures. (Unfortunately the lighting and the glare of the glass made good photography difficult, but I did manage to locate a couple of worthy angles.

Starewitch Beetle

A Starewitch Beetle

Also in the museum were several of notebooks and animated beetles that indicated Starewitch’s abiding commitment to entomology. In the early 20th Century Starewitch had been the Director of the Museum of Natural History in Kaunas, Lithuania, where he sought a way to demonstrate a couple of stag beetles in action. He had been making live action films of other insects for pedagogical reasons. But putting any light on the beetles effectively killed them. And so, inspired by French pioneer Emile Côhl he came up with idea of animating the carcasses of dead insects. And then he began to focus more exclusively on animation to tell stories. So successful and unusual were these strange little films, including gems like the Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), that even the Tsar took notice.

Madame Starewitch & I

With Madame Leona Beatrice Starewitch Martin

After our time in the museum we were taken back to Madame Starewitch’s home where we spent more than an hour discussing her grandfather as well as looking at curious books (like the one from the Metamorphosis exhibition from Barcelona that featured Starewitch, Jan Švankmajer and the Quays that I must find for myself) and sipping on tea and eating madeleines. I recorded audio of the conversation, which Paulette translated, but it was decided not to film until later in the year or the spring of 2017.

Val Du Marne Boaters

A fond farewell to Val-de-Marne.

After the generous time and hospitality from the land of Starewitch it was now time to move on to Lyon to discover Guignol on his home turf. Meanwhile if you haven’t seen any of the films of Ladislas Starewitch… what are you waiting for? I mean it. Go look you can find them. Start with Mascot (Fetische) or the Cameraman’s Revenge. Look for The Tale of the Fox (Le Roman de Renard) and discover a truly enchanted world.

Byrne Power

Huémoz, Switzerland

22/2/2016


The Ultimate Puppet Animation Exhibition

 

 

Starewitch Svankmajer Quays

A once in a lifetime event in Barcelona at the CCCP, an exhibition featuring the work of Ladislas Starewitch, Jan Svankmajer and the brothers Quay.

 

This week in Barcelona, Spain (perhaps one day Catalunia) there is a remarkable museum exhibition opening at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona aka the CCCB. It is entitled Metamorphosis: Fantasy Visions in Starewitch, Švankmajer and the Quay Brothers.

 

I entitled this little essay the ‘ultimate’ puppet animation exhibition. I suppose a stickler could imagine a much more complete museum show than this. A show that features the works of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, Jiří Barta, Jiří Trnka, George Pal, etc etc. Nevertheless a show that features Jan Švankmajer, The Brothers Quay and Ladislas Starewitch (I’m using the French spelling) is pretty gosh darned ultimate in my book. Especially since Švankmajer, the Quays, and Starewitch’s granddaughter and estate caretaker Leona Martin-Starewitch will all be there to discuss their work. I know from personal experience that none of them make the regular promotional rounds. Essentially this is pretty much going to be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

 

And I’m stuck in Alaska! It was my dearest hope to get myself to Barcelona in time for the opening to use the footage for Gravity From Above. I was even invited to come by curator Carolina López, who had heard of this project. But alas the finances did not come through in time.

 

But if you find yourself taking a European tour sometime before September 7th, make sure to schedule a trip to Barcelona to see this singular exhibit.

 

Meanwhile April is a month of waiting for Gravity From Above, as I am due to hear about two serious sources of funding for the rest of the expedition by the end of the month.

 

Thanks for continuing to follow this story.

 

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

3/25/2014

 

 

For more information about the Metamorphosis show:

http://www.cccb.org/en/exposicio-metamorphosis-45068

 

CCCB – Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona

Montalegre, 5 – 08001 Barcelona

Tel. 93 306 41 00 – Fax 93 306 41 01

info@cccb.org

 


A Visit to a Miniscule Enchanted Lost World

Butterfly Queen

Nina Star in Ladislas Starewitch’s La Reine des Papillons

While I’m waiting for the gears to turn in Switzerland, and I’m assured that they are. I have an update related to one of the puppet people I plan to interview for the Gravity From Above. And that’s Madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch the granddaughter of Ladislas Starewitch.

Nina Star

Nina Star

Wladyslaw Starewicz or Ladislas Starewitch as he spelled it in France created some of the earliest and most magical puppet animation films in existence back in in first half of the 20th Century in both Russia and France. For a long time it has been difficult to see Starewitch’s work. Milestone released one DVD several years back. But one look at Starewitch’s filmography has tended to leave one gasping for much more. Fortunately Madame Martin-Starewitch has been quietly working on this issue in France. At this moment there are officially five Starewicz DVDs that she has released. Including the subject of this little review, simply entitled Nina Star.

This 2013 release by his granddaughter in Paris contains a few serious new revelations. The four titles each featuring Nina Star (Jeanne Starewitch) are L’Epouventail (The Scarecrow), La Marriage de Babylas (The Midnight Wedding), Le Voix du Roissignol (The Voice of the Nightingale) and finally, la pièce de résistance, La Reine des Papillons (The Queen of the butterflies).

These films were all made silent in the 20s and have a new score and a voice narrating the intertitles, which will help French kids and others rediscover them. And they are all obviously made for children. But they certainly go far beyond any contemporary family films in their artistry.

Starewitch on Papillons

Starevich on the Queen of the Butterflies

The Scarecrow is a curious little tale, marvelously politically incorrect (I won’t give away how) and features Starewitch himself as a comic actor. But the best part for stop-motion fans are the animated devils and the scarecrow. The Marriage of Babylas is wonderfully weird in the best sense filled with plenty of strange animated puppets. The Voice of the Nightingale has been available recently on the somewhat bootleg edition done by Milestone (they never paid for the rights), but this one is better and I noticed a little bit of extra material.

nina_star_Butterfly

A mysterious scene from La Reine des Papillons

But the real reason to buy this collection is the final 25 minute opus The Queen of the Butterflies. This one gives Fetiche (The Mascot) a run for best Starewitch of all time… and that is really saying something! The film starts with a story bracketing the central dreamscape (or is it real?) featuring Nina as a street and carnival performer. The scenes in Paris are quite nostalgic. As she sleeps she is transformed into the Butterfly Queen. I don’t want to give too much away. Let’s just say we are treated to an astounding assortment of Starewitch’s famed insect puppets, including my new all time favorite the Spider King. This film is by turns pastoral, creepy, feudal, hallucinogenic and pure enchantment. I had to feel around for my jaw on the floor. And finally I just said to myself “This is why I’m into puppets!”

Nina Star - Le Reine des Papillons

Nina Star – Le Reine des Papillons

And besides all of this you get Nina Star, Starewicz’s daughter, growing up from film to film and she is a sassy, jaunty, precious treasure. And there is also a three minute 30s era documentary on how Starewitch made and animated his puppets. `Thus it is officially the only footage of Starewitch at work. So essentially this is the goods.

And the good news: It is subtitled in English too. And it is region free thus you can play it in North America. (But really getting an all zone player is a necessity isn’t it?) If you are interested in either puppetry or stop-motion animation this is a serious discovery. It can be found easily enough by looking in the usual sources.

For more information on Ladislas Starewitch please look at this website, which is the official one run by Martin-Starewitch.

http://ls.pagesperso-orange.fr/tsommair.htm

More Gravity From Above news coming…

Byrne Power

Haines Alaska

10/6/2013


A Dark Labyrinthine Studio Visit

Skyscraper into

A Skyscraper in Southwark disappearing into the clouds.

In booking the Eurostar, the Chunnel train, I discovered that the United Kingdom starts with customs in Brussels at the Midi/Zuid train station. I wasn’t quite ready for the grilling and heavy security to take the train. I had gotten so used to life in the Schengen Zone that I was a bit taken aback by the sudden emergence of fences again. And it seemed to have gotten stricter since my last journey in 2005. And then there is the strange fact that the U.K. IS in the European Community but NOT in the Schengen Group, while Switzerland IS NOT in the European Community but IS in the Schengen Zone, which creates the odd situation that you don’t need a passport check to get into Switzerland anymore BUT you do need to show your passport to get into the U.K., and to show that you have a ticket out of the country, and that your luggage will have to pass through a similar degree of airport styled security to board the train. Nevertheless after a hair-raising set of circumstances I did make it into the U.K. In one piece.

At St. Pancras Station in London my old friend Nathan met me and took me back to his place in the Elephant and Castle area near Southwark (which should be pronounced Suth-uhk by the same unwritten English code which turns Greenwich into Grenich and Leicester into Lester). We dismounted a double-decker bus and strolled passed a large apartment tower, with non-working propeller blades on the top, back to his apartment to meet Annika and to put me up in his spare room, for which I was deeply grateful. And almost the minute I arrived in rainy old England a little tickle in the back of my throat became a full fledged cold with coughing symptoms. Fortunately my hosts had already been attacked by this very same creature. And also it was not the kind of thing which saps ones strength. Nevertheless I was determined not to go off into London simply to see things. I’ve been to London before, and, while I find it worthy of my time, I’ve never been as fascinated by it as I am by Paris, Prague, Lyon and other cities. And besides I had friendship to catch up with, which included a well cooked dinner by Nathan.

Nathan and the Cheese

I’ll try the Montgomery Cheddar… My friend Nathan samples the wares.

Nathan and Annika took me through the extensive Borough Market. Where I resisted the urge to buy Ostrich meat and large wheels of cheddar cheese and even the Stinking Bishop. Though I was in a mood to mostly rest, recover from my cold and get my strength back, there were two things I had to do while in London. One was more of an introduction to another puppet theater and the other was to find a couple of brothers quite high on my list of people to interview for my documentary.

Pinocchio

The Little Angel Theatre’s production of Pinocchio

We journeyed out to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre. While I couldn’t find anyone I could really talk to about the theatre they were performing an unusual version of Pinocchio. In their version Geppetto and most of the other characters were played by humans in paper masks on a stripped down stage, while Pinocchio was performed in a modified bunraku style by three different players in brown floor length coats. The puppet was a naked collection of raw wood, sans clothing, sans strings. This was not the Disney version but much closer in spirit to Carlo Collodi’s original. Yet still with a deconstructed essence. There were quite a few children present. And I was struck by how different, how quiet, they were compared to the French, Polish and Czech children’s shows I had seen. Ah the English.

Pinocchio Bunraku

I managed to squeeze off one blurry photo of Pinocchio being done bunraku style before being scolded for doing so.

On Monday I had one appointment. I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. It was with the Brothers Quay at their studio not far from my hosts’ apartment. Along with Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay were by far the most influential in getting me to explore the world of European puppetry. The Quays are twin American brothers who have been thoroughly europeanized and, having lived in London for about thirty years, speak with a bit of an anglicized inflection. And while they are not puppeteers themselves, their consistent and mysterious use of puppetry down through the years had raised a lot of questions about the nature of the puppet as an object. It was through hints gleaned in interviews found on DVD’s that I first heard of the Toone Marionnette Theatre, Richard Teschner, and generally realized that there must be a larger world of puppetry behind the former Iron Curtain. I also knew enough to dispel several misconceptions, that they had embarked on their course prior to discovering Švankmajer, that Starewich had had a greater influence upon them, along with Polish animation from the Sixties. I had contacted them by email after communicating with their longtime producer. We had exchanged several emails, which ranged between cordial welcome to questioning caution to finally being told that I must arrive with a bottle of chilled white wine “for provocation”. So I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. But I had a notion that there might be connections.

I arrived on a rainy London Monday at the place  at the appropriate time. I was welcomed into their crammed darkened studio. Books, vinyl record albums (CDs were in the WC) weird puppets and old European Christian iconography was practically falling off the walls in in their labyrinthine wunderkammer. I immediately greeted each by name and produced my clammy bottle of Grange Volet from Ollon in Switzerland. (Swiss wine rarely escapes the country.) I also passed on Madame Starewitch’s card with personal greeting, along with Cognac chocolate from Switzerland. We all sat down at their crowded table and poured the wine as I gave them updates on the Toone theatre and Švankmajer in Prague as well as the fact that Teschner’s Nativity was being performed by a Teschner expert at the theater museum in Vienna. I also filled them in on Buchty a Loutky, whom they had never heard about, ESNAM in France, Polish puppetry and a host of other subjects. Our conversation took us through their most recent projects* and their show at MOMA in New York. Before careening off into new territory.

T Quay 1 B & W

Timothy Quay at table in the studio

We discussed Georgia, the country, which they had also had some music from. I pointed them towards the Gori Women’s Choir. We had all discovered the fantastic book, The Empire of Death, about the ossuaries of Europe and beyond. To my surprise they hadn’t heard of Merhige’s Begotten, nor did they know that Peter Delpeut had released the mesmerizing Diva Dolorosa. We unraveled puppetry a bit more and I filled them in on my experiments in Alaska. They showed me books on Teschner and other related subjects. We shared an antipathy towards the virtual, wireless, digital contemporary world. And at one point they showed me their old film camera that they sadly needed to sell. (The camera they had made all of their classic pre-digital films on.) We were all being dragged into this present evil age. They also gave me a little tour through the narrow crowded corners of their atelier. At one point they showed me a pile of sand on a small table. “We just finished shooting that.” They told me. Coming from the guys who animated metal shavings with a magnet I had no doubt that the results would be gripping.

S Quay 1 B & W

Stephen Quay at table in the studio

At a certain point, somewhere around the three hour point I told them that we had had such a profoundly good conversation that it would be a shame to spoil it by filming an interview. They agreed completely. But we can do it when I come back next year. “By all means!” They concurred. They were fully on board with the project now. They understood what it meant. And in a way more than I hoped. While the interview was certainly a high priority for me, meeting and connecting with them was of greater consequence, of more import. In a way I felt that my whole study of puppetry had been to get me to the point where I could have an intelligent discussion with these guys. And I couldn’t help but be grateful for the time and the hospitality.

QQuays 1 V2

The Brothers Quay in their studio discussing puppets, film, animation and music.

London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

12/29/2012

*Animation aficionados will be glad to know that there are several newer Quay related things to look for. Firstly there is a great book for their show in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is over in January.

Secondly a DVD exists from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia of Through The Weeping Glass, their examination of the museum. It is well worth buying.

Thirdly a DVD exists for Maska their version of Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask (It could be region 2) Get this! I own a copy now. But it is tough to find. Good luck!

(Note from 2016: These can both be found on their 2015 Blu-ray ‘Collected Short Films.)

 


Mascot and Toone VIII

Toone Ancient Puppets

Ancient puppets on the wall in the museum of Le Théâtre Royal de Toone in Brussels, Belgium

Charleville-Mézières is in France on the Belgian border. My next stop was Brussels to find the Toone Marionnette Theatre, perhaps the oldest continuing puppetry organization in Europe. Yet I was on a train, then bus, then train again (don’t ask) on my way back to Paris with my back stressing load of belongings for another meeting. One of the people I had most wanted to connect with was madame Leona Beatrice Martin-Starewitch, the granddaughter of the first animated puppet (in fact dead bugs!) filmmaker Ladislas Starewitch, a Russian of Polish extraction, whose parents were from Lithuania. (Variously spelled Ladislaw Starevitch or Starewich, or Władysław Starewicz his birth name in Polish and even Владислав Старевич depending on the country. Since we are in France we’ll stay with the French orthography.) After the Russian Revolution Starewitch moved to Paris, less from political convictions than from the simple fact that Bolsheviks did not have the temperament to appreciate or support his sort of puppet films. Starewitch found success within a few years of his arrival in Paris and his home became a magnet for White Russian emigrés. Most of his great films were made in France: La Voix du Rossignol (The Voice of the Nightingale), Le Roman de Renard (The Tale of the Fox), Le Lion Devenu Vieux (The Old Lion) and especially the miraculous Fetiche Mascotte (The Mascot) from 1933.

Starewitch is a big influence on the Brothers Quay. When I mentioned him to Švankmajer, he immediately corrected my translator who was fumbling with the name a bit. Terry Gilliam also owes him a real debt and considers The Mascot as one of the ten greatest animated films made. Tim Burton’s animated work screams Starewitch. And Fetiche Mascotte seems like a direct ancestor of Toy Story. And if Wes Anderson did not make a careful study of Starewitch before making the Fantastic Mr. Fox. I’d be really surprised. Starewitch, like George Méliès, is one of those seminal figures, an original, an inventor, whose work is still literally marvelous!

The Frogs Demand King

The Stork Tyrant from Starewitch’s Frogland or The Frogs Demand King (Les Grenouilles qui Demandent un Roi) 1922

I made my way to a small café near the Bois de Vincennes to meet Madame Martin-Starewitch. I had tried several times to get in touch with her while in Paris, but alas schedules would not permit. And when she asked top meet me here two days after I had already left Paris I couldn’t turn her down. Fortunately the place was not overly crowded. I had just taken over a small booth with my three traveling packs and ordered a meal when she arrived, a bit early but that was fine with me. I still had to get to Brussels that evening.

We immediately began to talk. Her English was good enough to understand me thoroughly when I explained the nature of the project. The Brothers Quay had wondered if she remembered meeting them back in the 80’s at a conference in Annecy. She did indeed, and fondly. She was glad to know that their work owed such a debt to her grandfather. One of the first things she had told me was that they had recently found a longer version of Fetiche Mascotte that superseded all of the other versions. To puppet folk and animation fans this was good news indeed!

Starewitch

Starewitch on the set of The Old Lion

Also she told me that in addition to the four DVDs of Starewicz work currently available in France (with English subtitles, etc) there would be another four due to hit in the near future including one with the longest version of The Mascot. While she was the guardian of her grandfather’s legacy Starewitch is still hardly a household name. The one American DVD issued a while ago and now out of print was essentially a bootleg made without any funds ever returning to the estate. We both agreed that what was needed was a film like Hugo that made prominent use of Starewitch the way Scorsese had used Méliès. And she had stories of her grandfather that were certainly film worthy in themselves. All in all it was an excellent meeting with Madame Martin-Starewitch and she too was game for an interview and to use her grandfather’s work in Gravity From Above.

Now it was time to move on to get to Brussels. After passing through the Metro again, while sitting next to a hip young girl in a real fur coat (something you’d never see in America), listening to an entire string ensemble playing Baroque music at the busy Châtelet stop and paying an extra hundred dollars to get a train to Brussels, thanks again to the disconnect between the rail passes and life on the ground, I arrived, my back demanding rest in a rather industrial hotel near the old center of Brussels at around 21h00. Unfortunately my current information on the Toone had said that they had performed that day but were not to play again for a few more days. Had I come straight from Charleville without the extra stop I would have made it! But that Parisian meeting was very important.

Brussels in the Rain

Bruxelles in the Rain

I then strolled Bruxelles in the dark, passing the central cathedral bathed in purple light, and locating Le Théâtre Royal de Toone all the while slowly savoring a couple of Belgian chocolates. The next day, after sleeping in to give my aching muscles a rest, I wandered through the old town under a light rain. I stopped into to see if I could glean anything from restaurant that was also a part of the Toone theatre and it turned out that they were indeed playing that night! So much for relying on websites as some sort of final word…

Hanging at Toone

Puppets Hanging in the Rafters at the Toone Theatre. (Note the Nazi Skeleton Puppet – Top Row Center)

I drifted around the town, found some old record stores, though sadly left the wares in their bins by command of my spine. That evening I entered the Toone restaurant again to wait for the theatre upstairs to open. The show for the evening was Romeo and Juliet á la Toone. Eventually the Royal Toone VIII himself, Nicolas Géal arrived in buoyant spirits to open the door to the stairs for us. Géal is the son of Toone José Géal, an important puppeteer in his own right who bequeathed the theatre to Nicolas back in 2003 in a coronation ceremony by the town Burgomaster. (Toone is pronounced ‘tone’ and a Belgian nickname for the original Toone I, Antoine Genty, who started the theatre a few years back in 1830.)

Michel de Ghelderode Poster

A battered old poster for one of Toone’s Michel de Ghelderode Productions

An eager throng ascended, passing old Toone posters, including the Passion play of the legendary modern playwright and puppet enthusiast Michel de Ghelderode. In the theatre itself we sat beneath over a hundred figures, each about one third human scale, that were hanging from the rafters high above us: such figures as Nazis with skulls for heads, Napoleon, knights in armor, many princesses and scores of variations on the classic Toone hero Woltje, a jaunty figure in checkered clothes and cap.

Woltje

A classic representation of Brussels – Woltje

Eventually maximum density for the evening had been achieved and Toone VIII emerged to greet us to the evenings production of Romeo and Juliet. He then vanished behind a side curtain and the farce began in an outrageous nasal quacking French/Dutch dialect. Woltje plays Romeo. Juliet has the face of a doll. Mercutio is played by another classic Toone figure with a nose long enough to be sold by a hotdog vendor. In the middle of one scene, Romeo is distracted by a cellphone call. Obviously it’s not exactly word for word Shakespeare. But it certainly is amusing.

At the Ball

The Toone Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet Farce in Bruxellois dialect!

During the intermission Nicolas Géal invites us all down to the ‘museum’, which does have quite a few battered antique characters on the wall, but really this is a chance to down a bit of another Belgian specialty, beer, which I must confess is an excellent way to spend the halftime. After about twenty minutes we then watched the rest of the show, which being a comedy does not exactly have the same ending as the Shakespearean tragedy. Death comes for Romeo and Juliet, but seconds before he can take the dead puppets is unceremoniously booted off stage my the monk.

Nicolas Géal

Toone VIII Nicolas Géal of Le Théâtre Royal de Toone in Bruxelles

After the show I spent a while talking with Géal about Toone history. I reminded him of a strange story of one of the Toone marionettists who was found dead hanging among his puppets. To confirm the fact, he showed me a book that his mother wrote back in the 70’s about the history of the Toone theatre, complete with oodles of illustrations. It’s a book I determined to track down some day. He also explained something about the weird Brussels accent that used to be Dutch with some French but over the years had become French with some Dutch. Géal was delighted to have Toone performances captured when I returned for part two of this journey next year. And I was pleased to have another solid contact for the future.

And I can also gladly say when in Belgium do not miss Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Tell Toone VIII that you heard about it from me. It doesn’t matter what language you speak. You’re in Brussels, a place where language is so polyglot that your original tongue doesn’t matter to anyone. (Still, at least try to learn a few French greetings.)

Next we cross La Manche to enter Angleterre.

Byrne Power

Haines, Alaska

December 22, 2012

For more information on Starewitch go here:

http://ls.pagesperso-orange.fr/tsommair.htm

And to discover Le Théâtre Royal de Toone try this:

http://www.toone.be/