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.
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.
Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the final part. We stop in Salzburg Austria. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. (Follow the link below to read the whole essay.)
Okay I have a confession. I’m stuck. I need help. I did this crowdfunding dance two years ago and it was so hard I swore I’d never do it again, but I made it. This time it’s much harder.
On the evidence of 75 percent of the people who contributed to my last attempt to raise funds, the world is in a global recession deeper than anything since the great depression. I thought the recession was supposed to be bad back in 2009 and 2010. But this time, with a few happy exceptions, the majority of folks who seemed so supportive back in 2012 are in some kind of financial straights so bad that all I’m getting is exactly the kind of ‘I-wish-I-could-help-but’ notes that make one look a little too long into the dark water down at the dock at midnight. Or in a more pleasant variation, ‘this-is-all-we-can-afford-now’, and I graciously receive about a quarter of what I might have been given before. And it’s not one or two people. And it’s not one kind of person or just Americans.
Now I believe my friends and begrudge no one a dime. This must be a weird time for quite a few people. And I wonder about my timing. But then again by all reckoning the autumn is the best time to fund raise. But actually in Alaska summer is usually better. But many of these people don’t live in Alaska. Or maybe this whole crowdfunding thing is just getting overplayed and people are just giving too much to too many people.
Or, and here’s another theory, maybe it’s just me. Maybe some people are saying something like ‘Well we gave you money a couple of years ago, why aren’t you done yet?’ (I hope someone remembers how much it costs to make films?) Or maybe people are thinking ‘How can my little contribution help to make a film?’ (It can! It can!)
Or maybe it’s the lack of me? (How’s this for a convoluted theory that might actually be closer to the truth.) I mean, actually all this social networking doesn’t make you closer to people. And the occasional ‘Like’ doesn’t mean anyone is all that involved in anything you do. And so you think maybe people will understand why puppets might be helpful in this weird world. But then I think how can they? They haven’t read any books or essays on the subject. They probably have never seen a decent puppet show. And they certainly haven’t seen my film, because I’m having trouble finding the resources to make it. So it’s probably not me personally, it’s the ‘not me’ which makes me just another cluster of digital pixels.
Now I’m not down and out on this project yet. I pushed the deadline back to December 18th. And I’m right on the edge of 15% of my total. (And if it gets really desperate I have one last January fallback position.) But I must say my plan to raise my money has been largely scuttled by these odd collective financial difficulties. I had planned to raise a certain amount through my friends and supporters from last time. Then to use that momentum to keep the ball rolling. There are also some other differences between then and now that I won’t burden you with, but they are differences that add up. But it’s also clear that I have to change my strategy. And I need help with ideas of how to do that.
One thing that I do have this time, that I didn’t have last time, is that more puppeteers and folks in general know about the project. Since I started doing this over 100 people have joined my Facebook page for Gravity From Above. Yet while I have received some very enthusiastic thumbs up, except for a few generous people, that hasn’t yet translated into anything financial. Maybe it’s because puppeteers are a fairly low rent breed and are also just scraping by. And yet I know also most anyone could make a 5 dollar, 5 Pound, 5 Peso, 5 Euro contribution and believe it or not little contributions add up and eventually inspire more money. So if each of those people gave $5 dollars I’d be up $500. Now that’s not likely to happen for the same reason that statistically most people will not give to anything. But wouldn’t it be great to buck the statistics! And this is a case where it should happen. (For the reasons I gave in my last essay.) Really.
But here’s a thought for my friends who truly are strapped for cash and can’t afford anything at all. Help me in other ways. Sharing on Facebook etc is an obvious way. But in the end that produces the same low return. It’s just the numbers. But here’s where it counts. I’ve got a temporarily tax deductible project that is wildly unique and visually arresting. Gravity From Above is the very opposite of dumbing down and adding to the chaos of the present. This isn’t more noise. This film is a bid for people to try to find a way through the virtual gunk that clogs us up at every turn. It’s about reality, and how to connect people to it. Surely somebody must know somebody who can help with financing?
This is where you can help. You have a friend here (me) and someone trying to get something done that needs to get done. It quite literally won’t get made if you don’t help. If you are a puppeteer you should really be starting to understand what this project is about. So think with me. Work with me. Whoever you are? Even if you’re broke as I am. Look around. Who do you know who does have money that can help? Do you know an organization that can help? Does anyone know anyone who is willing to take very little risk, since it’s tax deductible, to help get this made? I don’t need people who say things like, “Hey have you looked into the Henson organization or the NEA or ARTE etc etc.” Helpful, but ultimately obvious. I need people who will look into those things themselves on behalf of this project. (If anyone brings in a live fish they will get some kind of Producer credit.) Who are your relatives? Friends? Employers? Associations?
These are short samples edited on iMovie. Give a listen. (We do need pro editing tools.)
Or let me ask another question: I’ve been working on this project in varying degrees for something like eight years. I’ve got a start, but nowhere near where I need to be. Am I the only one who sees the need for this? (I might be, because few people, even in Europe, have seen what I have and put the larger picture together.) Does anyone else want to see this film besides me? Seriously? (If you’ve given this time or in 2012 you are excused and have proved yourself.) I believe there are people reading this who do? So even if you really and truly don’t even have a couple of dollars to help out, get creative and think with me. How can I seriously raise this money before December 18th?
I realize I’ve probably violated some rule for fundraising here. The rule that says you are always supposed to remain confident. Well I am confident. I am also realistic. I’d rather seek your help now than wait until five minutes to midnight. I can recognize that my own resources are starting to get thin. But I’m fully confident that someone out there has a piece of the puzzle that I need.
If you have ideas? Connections? Encouragement? Etc?
Write to me at reckoningmotions (at) yahoo (d ot) com or at my Facebook account or below in the comments section. Or heck! Just get your helpful soul over to Hatchfund and throw a few coins in the hat.
This is not surrender. This is a fight to preserve the meaning of this project.
By the way if anyone wants a kit with photos and narrative of the project to use let me know.
Since I have decided to try with all of my energy to get back to Europa next spring to continue the filming of Gravity From Above it occurs to me that this would be a good moment to share with you folks what I actually need to accomplish. At least what I am hoping to get done.
What have I done so far…
First, and most important of all, has been the research. I have been reading puppet history in copious quantities. And more important than how much has been the quality of that understanding. I am nowhere near considering myself an expert on the subject, though I must say I have passed muster with Nina Malíková, editor of Loutkář Magazine, which has been in existence for over one hundred years, with Henryk Jurkowski, the foremost authority on European puppet history living today, and crucially, for my money, the Brothers Quay, with whom I spent a lively afternoon in discussion back in November of 2012. So I’ve learned enough about the homunculi by now to at least ask intelligent questions. And I understand enough to know that no really good and comprehensive documentary on European puppetry exists. So the research is there.
Secondly, I’ve been visiting European puppet theatres since 1996. (Has it really been that long ago?) In 2000 I began my discovery of Czech puppet theatres. 2005 was the first time I spent serious time, several months, investigating puppet theatres in France, Poland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. It was like a visionary experience that really shook up my conceptions of the possibilities of art in the 21st Century. I met puppeteers and other related folks who have remained friends to this day. And it was out of that journey that this project was eventually born, as well as three puppet troupes in Haines, Alaska.
And then in 2012 I raised a few dollars for a preliminary run through Europe with a camera to try to record a few interviews with various puppet folks, especially the aging ones. That is the journey that this site has born witness to. Looking back I am quite astounded by the interviews and the new connections I have made. I even interviewed the elusive Jan Švankmajer, who, along with the Brothers Quay, was in many ways the inspiration and impetus for much of my own explorations into the world of puppetry.
And yet there is so much I could not possibly accomplish in the 2012 trip. First of all my camera skills, which have improved since, were not good enough to film the actual performances. There are two interviews I feel I need to redo. (Fortunately Švankmajer’s was good enough.) And eventually I will need to go back with an actual cinematographer to capture the puppets in motion. But I feel confident enough of my skills now to go back to get more interviews, to redo the faulty ones, and to get more candid behind the scenes footage.
So what am I hoping to accomplish this spring?
Here is a grocery list: Go back to Wrocław, Poland and spend more with Jakub Krofta. Go back to Prague, of course, where there is much to do. Get to Brussels, record and interview Nicolas Géal and attempt to shoot performance footage of the Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Go back to ESNAM to spend some serious time following the puppet students. Return to Lyon for interviews with guignolistes and Guignol historians and to finally capture a Lyonnaise Guignol show. Of course, more time Paris. Switzerland needs a bit of investigating. And crucially get back to London for a serious interview the Brothers Quay. And finally to get myself to the edge of Europe in Georgia to investigate their puppetry, particularly the work of Rezo Gabriadze in Tbilisi. Getting to Georgia is essential to me on several levels, and Gravity From Above will give me a good excuse to get there.
Now beyond that and seriously needing more funds I must get to Italy, Sicily in particular; Moscow, with hope the political situation doesn’t disintegrate; Spain, Catalonia calls out; Austria again to find the Teschner expert, Punch is smashing me over the head in England to get recorded and much more. And I need a film crew. But I can go on at least one more journey by myself if I have to. (I actually like traveling solo. It pops any cultural bubbles that often develop in groups.)
As I mentioned in my last update I have decided to kick off a campaign on the Hatchfund site to raise the funds to get back to Europe for more interviews and investigations. I thought about attaching a “Donate” button here for my PayPal page. But then I realized that it would actually interfere with the coming campaign. A few wonderfully generous souls would probably immediately donate to the cause, which is mighty swell. Except that I do need any contributions to Gravity From Above to be concentrated at the appropriate time and on the Hatchfund.org site specifically between October 15th and November 26th – the day before the American Thanksgiving holiday. (I’d like to be very grateful on that day.) So keep thinking about how you will help out THEN. And after that I will add the PayPal “Donate” button for any stragglers and further supporters.
But whatever I do, wherever I go, I will report in again as I have been doing to include any and all who have an interest in this strangely meaningful world of European puppets.
Come back soon for another update before the campaign.
(With a Detour into Alaska)
I recently edited together the lecture with slides which I gave while traveling through Europe in 2012 interviewing puppet people. The lecture was entitled Puppetry As Antidote Art. It was given to the students at the L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz Switzerland.
This lecture is an in depth introduction to serious puppetry focusing mostly on Europe. It is both a general survey of puppet history and styles in Europe and it is also gives an account of my personal journey into puppetry. The discoveries described in the lecture under-gird the structure of Gravity From Above.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to include the students questions with the video. The presentation itself lasted nearly an hour and a half. Obviously it contains great quantities of information on the subject of puppetry and is not suited to the casual YouTube surfer. My suggestion, download it and watch it in the best available format. (And by the way it is my experience that you can download it easier by going to the actual YouTube page rather than viewing it here.)
If you have any questions about puppetry or the forthcoming documentary Gravity From Above please get in touch here or through the YouTube page. (I hope to know something from Switzerland by the end of April this year.) (I still need more support for the documentary so don’t feel shy about that either.)
Meanwhile stay warm and stay creative…
I woke up early, packed my fifty pounds plus (over 20 kilos) for the last time and extricated myself from Hôtel Saint André des Arts before I had a chance to eat the miniscule bread and tea breakfast one more time. Fred wasn’t working that morning and I had already paid so I simply turned in the key then disappeared into the RER station to pop up later at Aéroport Charles De Gaulle. It was a fairly uneventful trip back through London, Seattle and finally to arrive in Juneau at about 9:30PM Alaska Time.
Although come to think of it I did set a new personal record for baggage checks in one day. Four! The first in Paris. They took a small blunt pair of scissors that I originally bought in France in 2005 and had grown quite attached to. Yet the Americans and Brits had let me through with it! The second was at London Heathrow, which is now resting securely at the top of my list of worst airports in Europe. And in 2005 they didn’t make me go through that? At that point they assumed that you were in the system thus were already scanned. No longer. You know the paranoia isn’t going away. Example number three… I get random searched by US customs officials for answering the following questions in a cheerful manner. ‘Is that all of you luggage?’ ‘Yes it is.’ ‘Did you check anything?’ ‘Nope, this is it.’ ‘Please go to aisle 6 for a random search.’ Nothing found. Five minutes sucked away forever. Finally, about twenty feet away, the TSA folks made me go through yet one more X-ray machine death march, computer inquisition and shoe removal seminar. Beautiful.
But at last I stepped out into the brisk fresh Alaskan night air in a snow covered Juneau where the Best Western van was waiting to take me to the most expensive hotel on my entire trip. But the chill in the air, the homey, sometimes homely, Alaskans, the familiar Tlingit guy who drove the van at 5:30 the next morning, the waiting ferry, the dozens of local folk I met on the way up to Haines, the conversations, ‘How was the trip?’, ‘Are you just getting back?’, all greeted me as the old friends they were. Finally there was no one to greet me in the chill of the Haines Ferry Terminal, but that was soon rectified when Scott Hansen (the elder) arrived to pick me up after getting waylaid in the way Hainiacs often do. (In truth I could have gotten at least six rides from friends on Le Conte.)
And it was over.
I was drained but satisfied. My goal now was to simply stop for as long as I could and catch my breath. And to begin to reflect on what this whole adventure meant. Aurélia Ivan’s question kept coming back to me. Why are you doing this? I don’t think she was so worried herself as to what it was all about, rather I think she wanted me to think about it. What exactly was I trying to accomplish?And what exactly had I accomplished thus far? Quite a bit it seems.
When I thought about all of the people I met, the puppet shows and other theatrical events I’d seen, the wanderings through European towns, the discussions both formal and informal, the moments of dislocation, the music and food from many different cultures, the film files on my hard drive, the moments when things didn’t work and the many, many moments when they did I realized that I had just done something. What exactly it all meant, that would take some time.
And there was plenty of work to do. I had to edit together something to pass on to the Swiss. I had to plan on part two of this trip. which would involve a crew filming the performances. I had to keep up my contacts overseas. Money was still very much an issue. I’d drained my resources to the bone to get this done. There was translation, writing, and rights to puppet films to research. And then there was organizing the details all over again for the second half of next year. (But I should have help this time.) But whatever that looked like it wouldn’t quite be the same as this trip. Trips with others are never as edgy as trips alone. But whatever it took I was committed to the process.
But meanwhile I was grateful to have done this whole thing safely, with as much support as I had, with a sense that others besides myself were starting to see what it was that I was actually constructing. And it is with a fond memory that I look back on moments with all of the people I met or reacquainted myself with along the way.
I will now take a break from this writing too, until there are new developments… in a month, or two, or six.
Thanks for following along with me on my tour of European puppetry and as I start this documentary. Take your own journey someday. Discover something, don’t be just a tourist.
Better yet make a puppet show out of scraps you find in your closet, backyard or the hardware store. And think about what there is to communicate that is not a cliché or propaganda.
Now get off this infernal machine and go outside!
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.
*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!
The train sped on with twists and curves all through the night as I slept fitfully in my bunk alone in my sleeper cabin on the way from Warsaw to Vienna. My back was bothering me from carrying too many kilos on it and my stomach was in odd shape. So I couldn’t quite get the sleep I was hoping for. Ah… the imagined romance of rail travel.
The train pulled into Westbahnhof at about 7AM and after some finagling I bought a two day pass for public transportation and made my way to the Hotel Congress. Fortunately they had a room ready for me at the early hour so I settled in rested a bit more then departed to find the Österreichischen Theatermuseum (Austrian Theater Museum).
I walked through the museum district of old Wien, what was once the palatial estates of the Hapsburg Empire. I turned down a narrow lane and low and behold the Österreichischen Theatermuseum. I entered looking for something very specific: The puppets of the early 20th Century puppeteer Richard Teschner. I had sent an email but had received no reply. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to actually see these exquisite works of art. Teschner had been a serious influence on the Brothers Quay, and much of European puppetry for that matter.
After paying my admission I ventured up the marble stairs past a statue of one of the muses, I assumed. I craned around and was slightly disappointed to find Teschner’s puppets in a darkened room where a projector was showing a documentary about a long gone Austrian tenor. But there in the dim light were Teschner’s creations. And they were every bit as marvelous as I had been led to believe from photographs and descriptions. Unfortunately his unique theater for them was not set up. So I took my little camera and photographed them in bad flash as well as I could.
What kept striking me over and over was the delicacy and the artistic integrity of the puppets. Teschner is important for many reasons in the world of puppetry, but it was by raising the bar for artistry that he made his greatest contribution. Some of his plays include the Weihnachtsspiel (The story of the Nativity of Christ), which was performed regularly, and for those really lucky souls in Vienna this December can watch an authentic recreation during the Christmas season. He also performed Nachtstück, Der Drachentöter (The Dragonslayer), Karneval, Die Lebensuhr and Der Basilisk (about the mythical creature). And each of these has wonderful photographically illustrated booklets dedicated to them available through the theater museum. I tried to at least talk to the curator of the exhibit, but missed her.
I discovered more about old Wien this time finding it a curious place to drift around. Vienna unlike Prague was never boiled in the communist cauldron. And so there is a continuity to the place, uninterrupted by scalding bath of ideology. Thus you never know what you’re going to find when you turn a corner. Naturally one finds many of the chic Euro-boutiques that deface many of the capitals of Europa. But here unlike Prague or Warsaw you can stumble upon some business or vendor that has been in operation for hundreds of years. I found stores selling old paintings in the most refreshing way. Not white walled gallery just painting leaning against painting in a haphazard manner. In the windows of these establishments one would see paintings one, two, three hundred years old in old windows. In that respect Wien is much more like Paris, a repository for antique European culture, than any of the old communist cities or the more modernized cities like London. Getting lost in the heart of Vienna is a wonderful way to explore the city.
And a great way to find food. I stumbled into a locals-only type of restaurant and ate a memorable meal of dumplings and beef goulash and had an interesting conversation with a waiter. I must confess I did end up the next day at a more tourist oriented restaurant and arrived before the lines form for there famous wiener schnitzel, I however chose the sweetbread schnitzel instead. Good food, over priced. But hunger got the best of me.
I enjoyed my cultural wanderings in Vienna, including a stop at the English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., which was unrelated to any other establishment of the same name. I actually saw an Austria film at a theater dedicated to showing European cinema. And what a breath of fresh air that was, since American fare so dominates the cultural landscape everywhere. The film was entitled Die Wand (The Wall), and it was set in the Alps. A woman gets trapped by a mysterious force field in a large tract of alpine land. Alone. With a few animals, including a milking cow. Apparently something has happened to the rest of the world. It’s very low key sci-fi. Worth watching, I did have a couple of quibbles. But I’d still recommend it. But certainly a change of pace from the monotony of American movies ca. 2012.
Eventually it was time to heft my backpack and equipment aboard the train again and head for Hallstatt, Austria, which was not a puppet related stop at all. It was time for a break… it was also time to break an important piece of needed equipment.
Next Hallstatt Austria…
With two weeks left to go and little storm clouds appear on the horizon of the Gravity From Above documentary, mostly in the shape of dollar signs, or actually as euro symbols. In the last month the euro has climbed back up about 9¢ more to the dollar, which means everything, especially hotel costs, which can never be collected till you are done, have risen substantially. That along with a lower projected Alaska PFD amount and other expenses will have me eating into my living expenses that I was counting on when I return. But I can’t really think about that now. I will have to just go ahead and capture the interviews that I will capture. Since all of the plane tickets, train passes and hotel reservations have been made I am on my way October 1st no matter what. I am trying to cut corners by finding folks to stay with in certain towns, but it is what it is. Hopefully winter won’t be too intense when I return to Alaska.
On the bright side, Christos in Switzerland is going to be helping me out with camera and sound equipment. I’ll be able to guarantee that the images are going look and sound professional. THIS is a real relief. I was beginning to lose a little sleep on this. But I knew better. This whole project is an act of faith, it’s best not to worry it too much. He’ll rent the gear and it will meet me in Berlin when I get there near the beginning of my trip.
Speaking of my itinerary you might be interested in following along. Next entry I will give you all a breakdown of my route: places and dates.
More to come…