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 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.
How did GRAVITY FROM ABOVE begin? Read about the original journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the seventh part. One more to come. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
Meanwhile Prague was calling. I had been traveling for a couple of months through Europe, visiting friends and hunting down puppet theatres in Europe. The entire time I had essentially been making a Fibonacci spiral towards Prague, the heart of puppetry in Europe. Švankmajer, Skupa, Trnka, Faust, Don Giovanni, Kašpárek, puppetry as history complete with heroic martyrs.
Well while I’ve been sidelined on Gravity From Above I haven’t been idle. Now I just have to get to where I’m going by a new route. I’ve exhausted the crowdfunding route. I just don’t have the name recognition, a big enough pool of acquaintances or friends with deep enough pockets to be able to go through that again in the near future. But still it was good to know that I could raise the funds, twice(!), to help me get this far.
But here’s what I have been doing… Someone did get in touch with me about an idea. It didn’t quite work out but it was a good connection. I’ve also been going through documentaries from the last 20 or so years that I have appreciated to see if there’s a producer who might be worth contacting. I did come up with about 10 solid names.
I realized that I need to make a new trailer to give this producer and new backers an idea of what exactly I’m up to. And so I spent about 50 hours working on a this small feast for your eyes.. This trailer is not meant to announce the film. But it does serve to show how much work I’ve done so far. Some of the images are from animated and live puppet films that I wish to use in the documentary, but will need to obtain the rights in the future. There are many images from interviews which I’ve already conducted. What’s missing is great footage from a few puppet shows to bring the whole project home. But consider this a taste of what’s to come. This is somewhat the mood of the forthcoming film. More poetic than didactic. But let me know what you think of it? I’d appreciate your thoughts.
And here is where I could really use help. Who do you know who can help get Gravity From Above made? Do you know a hungry producer? Do you know someone who’d love to donate and get involved? (We can even work it out to make it a nonprofit contribution if that’s an issue.) Do you have or know someone with ideas? Think with me on this. I need to get back out there as soon as possible. And one of you might have the key.
In the meantime enjoy the new trailer!
Thanks to those who have contributed by using the PayPal ‘Donate’ button up above.
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.
I was awakened by the sound of the BBC coming from the kitchen. It turns out that heavy downpours of rain had flooded many parts of the U.K. And it seemed that my travel north towards Durham might be interrupted by the waters. Nevertheless as I have learned in past moments of uncertainty, you commit yourself to a course, even if it is doubtful. And so I arrived at King’s Cross Station an hour and a half early. And it’s a good thing I did. Because as I sat there waiting I heard a sound on the public address system that definitely announced that the train to Durham, my train had been canceled. So I got up, dragged my weighty bags and got on a different train also heading north. I figured that I would at least get as near as I could, which in this case was Newcastle. As I passed field after flooded field north of York the train announced that there would indeed be a stop at Durham. Evidently many of the people aboard had the same idea that I did and since they had just cleared a fallen tree we would be the first train to pull into the station.
My main reason for going to what would prove to be the smaller town of Seaham, on the North Sea Coast, was to meet Lenka Pavlíčková, a Czech carver who had made my own Nimrod puppet for our Great Ziggurat show back in 2009. We had only communicated online and I thought it would be good both to meet her and to interview her on carving for Gravity From Above. When I arrived at Durham I was met by George, Lenka’s affable English husband, who gave me a guided tour as we drove and quite a bit of the history English labor relations, since he was also a union representative of long standing. He considered himself a socialist, which was interesting on many levels, especially since Lenka, being a good Czech girl was anything but. Yet I enjoyed seeing a relationship where political agreement was not the glue. (One rarely sees this in America anymore.)
In Seaham and vicinity I was taken to a spot on the coast that had had so many coal slag heaps once that it had been used by Ridley Scott in Alien to stand in as the foreboding planet where the creature was discovered. On this day though the North Sea was boiling in stormy anger as waves created fifty foot sprays as they crashed into the pier. We visited the old town of Durham and saw St. Cuthbert’s tomb in the old cathedral. I was also taken to see the Angel of the North, a strange statue near the motorway of an Oscar©-like giant with wings like an old biplane. We ended up at a classic fish and chips joint on the docks of Newcastle as the ferry to the Netherlands plowed through the nighttime waters lit like a Christmas tree.
I did interview Lenka for the film and watched her carve her curious puppets in her little studio. Her actual craft is a bit worrisome looking to the casual observer since it features her turning a block of lathed wood into puppet parts all the while digging the blades into her body, which is loosely protected by a leather apron and some rather gauged out flat piece of wood. Has she ever missed? Does she have scars? Certainly. But she’s also the total professional. She was currently working on a year long project of making many marionettes for a Czech music video. She also showed me a clip of one her other customers from Costa Rica a man named Randall Gutiérrez who performed an extremely lively dancing puppet show. (This reminds me of how much puppetry there is besides what I’ve seen on my European exploits.) I also had a chance to see many of her current crop of figures hanging up nearby. After talking with her I had a sense of accomplishment. This was my last official interview on this trip. I could now relax and just enjoy the rest of my time in Europe. (Or so I thought.)
My last stop in the U.K. was a trip up to Aberdeen Scotland to see my close friend and erstwhile Reckoning Motion puppeteer Carsten Hyatt who is studying systematic theology at the University of the same name. Carsten was staying with another theology student, David, in an apartment not too far from the campus. In a way I felt as if we were all contemporary monks keeping the coal fires low to conserve resources while having meaningful discussions about the nature of faith and humanity in the 21st century.
I did have a chance to see some Scottish folk music at a local club. Well to be precise the band called Amos was from the Shetland Islands, far north of Scotland, almost, and at times in its history actually, Norwegian. Between jaunty fiddle tunes the band members told extremely droll stories in a quirky accent that pronounced house as if it rhymed with goose. Carsten also took me around the town and campus and to an ancient Presbyterian Church, which was going through the same kinds of political/moral issues as Presbyterian churches in North America. All in all I found Aberdeen to be an intriguing town, though devoid of puppetry. I also spent yet another hundred dollars to mail back some of the film equipment I had borrow from my Swiss producers. But the relief to my back cannot be over stated.
At last it was time to go. Carsten saw me off at the train station. I arrived in Edinburgh, regretting that I couldn’t look around. Eventually I was packed into a cheap air flight and sent back to Paris for the final leg of my journey. (You may wonder why the extra flight? I actually saved money by flying out of Paris. Instead of Edinburgh or London. Plus Paris is a great place to do a little shopping before exiting the continent.) But the flight itself contained something I wasn’t quite wanting. One more little bug circulating in air, which my travel weakened system, nearly finished with its other symptoms, wasn’t strong enough to fend off.
And I wasn’t quite finished with puppets yet!
Next time we arrive back in Paris for the third time…
For more information about Lenka Pavlickova go here: