And then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.
* (In Arca a film I made with Sasza Sandur.)
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.
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.
(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…
So I arrived back in Prague staying at a cheap hotel, that confusingly goes by two names, in the Smíchov district. I received a couple of separate messages from two erstwhile Haines folks who wanted to get together with me that evening. One, Blair, was only a river guide for one season back in 2005. He’s now married to a Czech girl and has been in town a little while. The other, Shawn, has been circulating in the guide world in Haines since at least the time I moved there in 1996. Most recently he’s been working in heliskiing, those trips into the jagged mountains to drop well-heeled skiers down the untouched vertical slopes of the Chilkat Valley. Shawn has more than a touch of the jaded about him by his own reckoning. Prague, with its millions of tourists, reminded him a bit of Skagway on a five ship day. He’d already had his big Euro-experience in Munich having his wallet, laptop and soul gobbled up by Oktoberfest. But in fact flying under the radar as he does, he was none too worse for wear.
Blair met us at the Jan Hus statue and knew of a place to go for beer and food, a real Czech hospoda called LoKal. The place was jammed with over a hundred Czechs in a smokey cacophony of conversation and laughter. Blair bought us a round of their unfiltered beer on tap as we waited for a table. An affable Canadian girl, Carmen, sitting alone, gave without to much difficulty to Blair’s pleading. And soon the four of us were talking and sampling things from the menu, including the infamous Moravian cheese, which I should warn all cheese fans has the weirdest aftertaste of any dairy product I’ve ever tried. It is cured evidently on rotten beef, or something like that. I would say you get the picture, but you probably don’t. I ate more of the headcheese. Finally I bid them all adieu as I wandered back to my hotel to get some rest after my first day in Prague. How odd to come back to Prague to meet people you know from Alaska.
The next few days were for getting reacquainted with Prague as I waited to find out about my interviews. There was the endless parade of tourists to just get around, in more ways than one. And the endless means of bilking them out of their euros, pounds, dollars, pesos, yuan, rubles, francs and yen. Yes the endless trinkets, the shiny glass baubles, the bad authentic Czech art, the ripoff money exchanges and, of course, the truly inferior puppets made in the Balkans to sell to the euro-rubes.
But what really struck me this time was the shopping malls. In Krakow, Berlin and now Prague I found huge, sleek, 21st Century malls feeding a hunger for all of the same crap you can find in any American shopping Mecca. There are food courts, cinemas and franchises that certainly are replicated around the world now. All the big American movies were here. The most frightening aspect of traveling now is that you can feel that you haven’t actually gone anyplace at all. And these malls are not for the tourists.
I was getting antsy to find the real Prague away from all of this bling and glitz. I knew it was here but I just had to search it out.
I’ve been to Prague a couple of times before. I know my way around. This time I bought a month pass and just hopped aboard anything that moved my direction. Mostly I was using the trams. Speaking of shopping, I did have some things to look for while I was here. There were a couple of musicians I wanted to seek out on CD, some visual material on DVD. I am loath to download things if I can get a physical copy. So I found a CD by Radůza, an accordion playing Czech singer I’ve listened to for years. Then I looked Jana Vebrová, also an accordion playing wench, but much more abstract and intense. I lost out on that. But I would continue to hunt around. Sadly it seemed not much of the kind of Czech puppet animation I was looking for on DVD was to be found. Trnka, Barta, all seemed unrepresented, though they had recently re-released Švankmajer’s feature films.
I met my previously online only friend Silvie. She is a multi-talented Czech who sings and paints and we finally bridged the virtual barrier by hanging out at a café for a while talking into the late evening. She’s been quite helpful in trying to get me an interview with Jan Švankmajer. (But there are some kinks there! More on that in the future.) I also met Eliska, a guide to an alchemy museum. An interesting discussion about reality in the 21st century was forthcoming. (Hint: Being an Alaskan is a real plus over just being from America for starting conversations.)
Which reminds me… there are the sites and exhibits and other things. And what about the puppets? Yes there was an alchemy museum and a museum of haunted Prague. These were just little tourist traps. But the kind I like: Weird mannikins and homunculi, strange dioramas, odd facts, the past faked with dummies and puppets.
Then there is for me one of the most interesting places in Prague, the Strahov Monastery Library, which besides having a fascinating book collection also has some truly peculiar curiosities in their old cabinets and shelves. And if you really look at the unlabeled items on display, if you get down on your knees and survey the ground level, if you pay attention to what is in front of you you you might see a dried baby dodo bird, books made of wood, a portrait made entirely with seeds, if Švankmajer hasn’t investigated this place carefully I’d be really surprised, and objects that defy any obvious classification. This is indeed the Prague I come to find.
I finally found one DVD featuring the strange animated art of Karel Zeman at a small hole in the wall establishment connected to Kino Světozor, the art film theatre. An intelligent Czech girl named Lucie, helped me navigate around the riches of Czech Cinema, giving me more than a couple worthy opinions, and restoring my faith in the small specialist store of over mega monsters. (But still no Jana Vebrová.)
Finally I went to see a puppet show over at Říše Loutek, which is also the National Marionette Theatre where they show the classic Czech puppet version of Mozart’s Don Giovanni every week. (There is another inferior Balkan version in town, watch out!) The title of the children’s show was Kašpárek in Hell. For me that’s a promising title. And it was enjoyable. But alas Kašpárek as seen better days. He was now just a little rascally hero. Not the sarcastic truth telling fool of the past. Nevertheless the devils in the piece were worth a watch. And who better to start my Czech puppet shows with than with Kašpárek, the quintessential Czech figure.
But ironically the real puppetry display was over at the Czech Museum of Music. They had a serious exhibition of mechanical musical instruments and automata. Many of these creations from the last three hundred years were marvels of ingenuity. There were player pianos, barrel and pin band organs and various humanoid puppets and animals… including cousins to the puppets that Švankmajer used in the opening scenes of Rakvickarna (Punch and Judy or The Coffin factory). Engrossing.
More and more I was seeing Prague through the tourists. I didn’t mind them anymore. Let ’em wander. Maybe some of them will actually begin to see the statues on the Charles Bridge or be tempted to stroll off down a forgotten corner or a twisting alley, and there are more corners here than there are tourists. I felt at home in this haunted city.
Oh yeah… I almost forgot. After going to one CD store after another, no one had the Jana Vebrová album. Finally I saw one more place off the tram out of way. I found it again later. I looked through the racks and didn’t see it. Finally I asked. There was a pause… Yes! They had it. What can I say… A moment of victory and worth the effort to find.
Prague, Czech Republic