I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. Yet this journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part three of six posts. Bon Courage!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten yards away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us.
She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If Spoken by the Wind). The program notes also explained that all of the solos had to be collaborations with contemporary authors, that each piece was to be seven to ten minutes in length and that marionnettes (the French word for all puppets not just hanging string puppets as our similar word suggests) were optional. People casually began to leave the room. I stood there almost in shock. My thinking processes were now on a high state of alert. Where did war come from? Indeed. I wasn’t expecting this, not to be engaged so directly. I was beginning to get a glimpse of something, a possibility, a fork in a road not taken. But I still didn’t have the time to mull it over. The dark haired woman with the ponytail was beckoning us further along. There wasn’t much I could do but follow.
We scaled perhaps three or four floors worth of steps to arrive at a converted attic. The ceiling was angled like its roof directly above it. We sat in two slanted rows in simple chairs. An aisle divided the seating arrangement in half. The room’s lighting was muted though not black. A cabinet of sorts cobbled together out of scrap wood lay to our immediate left. Further in the wooden floor was strewn with carpenter’s dust and debris. And off to the right was a hastily constructed cross standing on a small wooden base. We sat in the dimly lit room awaiting whatever would come next. There was a dragging, scraping sound behind us. From the center aisle a tall young man with sandy brown hair and a face I immediately recognized as Polish dragged three crosses in on his shoulders. He also had a collection of little placards on bits of rope. If you wanted you could hang one around your neck. The placards were more than strongly reminiscent of Christ’s I.N.R.I. placard featured in so many works of art, but these were merely blank pieces of old wood. He turned slowly towards us as he passed. He stopped, then handed one of the placards to a man sitting in the audience. He gave the now condemned man the slightest and slyest of knowing smiles. He dispensed one more in a like manner then he dragged his cargo over to the center of his ‘stage’.
He began to speak as he set up the three extra crosses. He spoke of the names on the blank placards, names only he would know. He hung them on each of the four crosses. Olga’s name made him smile wistfully. But when he read one man’s name and as he hung the placard upon his crucifix he suddenly grabbed the cross in such a manner that he was transferred into the crucified man himself and he writhed and bellowed suddenly in a tortured voice. He continued on with a dialogue between crosses and the crucified. Unfortunately I did not pick up all of the nuances of his words, but it was clear to me that he was the crucifier and that all of these stories intersected at different points, and that the greatest harm had been wrought upon Olga. But then the story began to plumb a deeper level of questioning: why evil, why torture, why death. Yet our executioner could not escape his own culpability. He stretched out his hands in a gesture of both crucifixion and supplication. The lights dimmed to black. Then a thick beam of light radiated from the homemade cabinet, or was it a confessional. He crawled along through the nails and sawdust and other carpenter’s refuse towards the light in the box. He knelt before a small window and prayed earnestly in Polish. A strange cobweb textured blank white mask emerged from the dark. No words were spoken. Then it was submerged back into the void. Something was wrong. He investigated the cabinet. He pulled out a chair with the mask connected to it. He picked up the mask, looked through the back of it, placing it over his face. He turned it over in his hands, finally facing it, then holding it as a doubting Hamlet before the skull of Yorrick he studied it in silence. At last he said that perhaps it would be best if we didn’t go any further and just leave this where it is. The lights were then killed.
Applause, naturally, as before, and a head, mine, that was assembling puzzle pieces together at a furious rate. Then a quick check to the brochure: Polish all right, with a name nearly unpronounceable in the English tongue, Przemyslaw Piotrowski. This too was based on a text by Thierry Panchaud. Besides the fact that I wanted to engage the actor in a long conversation about the existence of God, my memory was also taking detailed notes of every element I observed. Having left my camera and audio recorder at the hotel I itched to put this experience into a bottle somehow, which is probably why I have such a good recollection of these performances. I have discovered that in life there is such a thing as ‘new time’. New time is present during experiences that are absolutely without precedent in one’s life; firsts in most categories – a first trip to Europe, a first day on a new job or a first kiss. With new time experiences we are completely present, taking in far more detail than normal. I can still vividly remember the first day of my initial visit to Switzerland back in 1978. All of the strangeness of the new thing colonizes our memory with powerful primary impressions. That is what was happening to me here at Charleville. I could sense that I had entered a zone that was completely distinct from anything else in my experience. However, before I could even acknowledge that, even as these things were being stenciled into me, I had to move yet again, back down the stairs, back through the wood shop, all the way beyond the felt covered hall of Julia Kovacs’ performance where I began to hear a woman’s voice piercing the air with haunted declamations recited in a tone of sad finality.
At the end of the long black hall we turned a corner into what was now another long room that felt like the brown dead leaves of autumn. Yellowing shafts of light illuminated the walls, which were covered in brown paper with handwritten words listed upon them. Tombstone rows of walnuts in sand were arrayed on the floor beneath the scrolls. Further back into the room was a shadowy forest of dangling signs. Even further back along the nethermost wall there were dead branches. Looking up at the wall a woman dressed in an ornate pale antique blouse and a floor length black skirt held a dark brown basket of walnuts while reading from the scrolls. Her voice was strong, prophetic, plaintiff. It was hard to believe that this was the same petite unassuming soft-spoken raven-haired girl who had ushered us into Julia Kovac’s presentation not even an hour before. Yet indeed it was, and the transformation had been accomplished without an extra milligram of make up. She had just thrown some sort of interior switch and voilà.
Her voice intoned what I assumed to be a history of an important man named Jean (John). She read aloud the noble attributes of his public life in a rhythmic tone. At last she knelt down and picked up a lone walnut and presented to us the personage of ‘Jean le mort’ (John the Dead). She turned and walked away from us further into the room. She stopped behind a table upon which rested an empty dresser drawer filled with sand. We followed her into the autumnal chamber and stopped in front of the table. To the sides of the sandbox were square wooden boxes filled what looked like twisted roots with round white faces. They were made of dead grapevine branches and simple little plaster faces; actually direct tributes to artist Jephan de Villiers and his sad world of Arbonia. She picked one up, a straight ‘root’; held it face up and very carefully moved it towards us, towards the edge of the drawer. As she did she imbued it with a personality, speaking its thoughts. She then planted it in the sand, leaving it there rooted in the earth. She took up another more twisted root-creature and likewise, yet in a different voice, she moved it next to its companion. Then she did it again and again and again; different shapes, different voices, now quizzical, now cooing, now serious, now childlike; until at last their seemed be nearly twenty of them in the box, in the sand all hungry, all digging in, looking for the human food. She paused. She picked up her basket again and walked us further into her strange autumnal labyrinth through a forest of signs made of brown cardboard or wood with handwritten French phrases that were too poetic for me to quite comprehend. She read from a few of them. When we arrived on the other side of the hanging signs she raised her hands across a couple of elaborately twisted grapevines, now representative of walnut trees, and she too had lights in her palms. Yet rather than use them for illumination, this time they were used for animation as the shadows of the dead branches now grew and grew against the last wall by her art. She approached a door off to the side. She rapped once and it opened. She bid us to step through into the light of day. As we passed she handed us each a walnut, a reminder of death, the fruit of our decomposition, an emblem of hope.
The sky has never seemed so blue.
After the last of our small cluster of wanderers had emerged from that autumn chamber the petite raven-haired girl stepped out behind us. As we stood in a lazy semicircle we clapped our hands. The girl, Aurelia Ivan, smiled sweetly as she resumed her unassuming status. The piece was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man). My head was exploding by this time with ideas both creative and intellectual. Still I couldn’t take the time to sift these things out. There was yet one more performance to take in to finish off the set. But this one was much more of a straight theatrical meditation on the Marilyn Monroe image of femininity by Morana Dolenc, based on a text by Eddy Pallaro. Since it was presented in a standard theatrical venue, without much that would connect it to the world of puppetry or object theatre, it didn’t set off many fresh alarm bells in my head, although it did contain an interesting mobile of small mirrors. That was probably just as well. My brain was requesting a teensy bit of time for vital reflection or philosophical musing, whichever came first. But that would have to be delayed a little while longer. Before I could even eat lunch, nay dinner, I still had one more thing to do; one more place to be.
28 / 6 /2020
Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces
Or go back to the earlier sections
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. This journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part two of six posts. Profitez!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
There, a little ways down the road where it curved on Place Winston Churchill, stood a three story tall golden figure of a puppeteer, le Grand Marionnettiste. In his midsection was a small stage, that later I saw open up on the hour as marionettes performed for the passerby or for the children who came to sit on the benches facing the clock. To the right of the statue was the entrance to the Institut International de la Marionnette and the Ecole Superieure National des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). I entered the door and found the reception desk. A diligent French woman was sitting behind a wooden counter. “Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked. “Non.” Came the reply. I summoned up a bit more of my tentative French and asked if anybody else there did? “Une moment.” She picked up the phone to ask if a woman could come down to the office. In a minute a brunette woman with a formal manner and a conservative style came down. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. I briefly explained the purpose of my visit and asked if it would be possible to conduct an interview with any of the teachers. Alas no, the teachers had all just viewed the student presentations and would be engaged with meetings discussing the progress of les élèves for the next two days. Fair enough. There was no point in trying to worm my way in any further. I had taken my chances in coming here, thus it was. But were the student performances open to the public? Yes they were. But I had missed the first rotation. The students gave their presentations twice. The first half had done their first shows the night before and had already finished up with the second round that morning. The last half was now presenting their first set and would be repeating it again at seven that evening. “C’est parfait.” I replied. And would I like to be signed up to attend? “Absolutement.”
Just then a group of perhaps ten people opened a door to the theatre behind us and walked through the building. A woman carrying a few papers stepped into the reception area. The formal brunette woman spoke rapidly to the dark haired woman in her thirties. The dark haired woman pleasantly agreed to something I didn’t quite catch; then she left to join the small group of people as they walked passed our window. The woman I had been speaking with said. “You can go with them now if you want. They have room for you.” “What about the shows this evening?” I asked. “You are signed up for that too. It’s the same rotation, but now you will miss two of the shows. But you should go now.” I thanked her in a beaucoup manner and left the building with haste. They were just rounding the corner. I sidled up to the back of the informal line and joined the procession. I had no idea where we were going.
The small group was staggered along the sidewalk as we proceeded down the street. A few people were speaking in French to each other, while several people like myself were simply quiet and strolling. The dark-haired woman leading the leisurely little parade turned back to see me and smiled politely. She handed me a simple program with titles and names listed on it. The march continued. Amongst the other voices I thought I could recognize a familiar accent. It sounded North American. A woman in her late forties or early fifties was talking to an older man.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure”, she replied. “The presentations are held in different places.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m From British Columbia.”
“Oh! I’m from just up the coast in Southeast Alaska.” Almost a thousand miles away but in northern Pacific coastal geographic and cultural terms a next door neighbor.
“Really”, she remarked, “how did you hear about the school?”
“I’m traveling around Europe looking for puppet theatres. I’m collecting information for a possible magazine article. What are you doing way over here?”
“My daughter is enrolled here. My husband and I came to see her presentation.”
“Has she performed yet?”
“Yes, twice, last night and this morning.”
“So I guess I won’t get to see her then.”
“No. Unfortunately she’s already finished her piece.”
“How long has she been here?”
“This is her third year.”
“What’s it like for her?”
“She loves it. But I think it was harder for her in the beginning.”
“It was different than she was expecting.”
“Will we see her today?”
“Yes. She should meet up with us.”
“If you could introduce me to her I’d like to ask her about her experiences here.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind talking with you.”
Overall we walked perhaps four city blocks before we turned to the left and continued at least another block north towards our final destination. The Canadian woman, Gerri Minaker, and I entered into a discussion concerning her last name and a similarly named family back in my rural Alaskan town, typical small town talk, the kind of thing that keeps people up at nights wondering about the strange coincidences in life. At last the dark-haired woman with a ponytail stopped before a large brown door made to fit in an arched stone corridor. She pulled out a skeleton key and jiggled it a bit in the lock. The door heaved open and she bid us to step inside. A couple of other students caught up with us, bringing our contingent up to perhaps fifteen people. One of the students seemed to be Gerri’s daughter. We stood quietly in a loose line-up in a compact antique gray courtyard waiting for the door to be closed behind us. All the while we were being patiently observed by a pair of probing eyes – the presentation had already begun.
A woman in her mid-twenties stood across from us in the ramshackle court gazing intentionally, directly at us. She neither asked for silence nor prepared us with an introduction; she didn’t need to. Her presence was potent enough to give us the message. She was attired in a simple black dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at a semi-formal New York dinner gathering. Her hair was pulled up giving her face not severity but a piercing quality nevertheless. Behind her, resting on rusted iron machinery and pipes, were a plethora of scarves: beige, brown and black. She chose a beige scarf, held it up somewhat and deliberately walked up to one the members of our party. She placed the scarf around his neck, all the while staring directly into his eyes. She said that the word, la parole, brings mirth. Then she turned silently and walked back to the hanging scarves. She carefully selected a brown one. She then turned and walked up to the next person, a woman, saying that la parole brings sorrow. She then repeated her actions with each person. The word is left or right, she spoke. And as she placed a beige scarf around my neck, I understood her to say that the word is the way to silence. I knew that the gist of the piece was going to revolve around the failure of dialogue in a relationship. After that she did not speak, but methodically placed scarves around the remaining necks. Finally she turned and walked back to the remaining scarves and drew them aside like curtains and bid us to descend into a darkened underground chamber. The cluster of watchers slowly began to move down a short narrow flight of stairs. They had to bend down under a rusted piece of metal to enter. There was a momentary delay, but at last we all made the descent.
We had entered a darkened place that to these American eyes could only be compared to a dungeon; a European might have just seen an old empty basement. The murky texture of the medieval stone walls was rough all the way athwart the low rounded ceiling. I had to hunch over along the edges of the chamber and never did feel comfortable fully erect. In opposite corners of the unlit room were dim lights that just barely cast our profiles in a heap of silhouettes along the dry dingy walls. We waited in a huddle, bunched together mostly in the center of the room all the while awaiting the next phase of our expedition. Gradually a pair of black shoes came down the steps. Her dress followed as she descended cautiously her arms above her body. She slid along the curved walls, a lithe somnambulist, a female Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, without the paint or makeup. Light beams emanated weakly from her palms from tiny light bulbs as they traced the stone and mortar. Along the floor lay a trail of water worn rounded stones the size of a person’s fist. She came to a strange contraption resting on a platform at the end of the confined room. The machine resembled a homemade meat grinder. She placed a few stones into it and cranked the handle.
Next she tipped over the other side of the stone grinder, sand drained out of it: the rocks breaking each other to atomic nothingness, the dissection of a discussion to infinitesimal matter. She continued her creeping along the row of stones arriving at a place where a broken doll-like creature exuded sand. Then she opened an iron door into an even darker chamber. She beckoned us further; confessing that what might seem to us like serenity was actually mortal silence in her reckoning. We squeezed ourselves into an awful claustral tomb of a room. She knelt on the floor beneath us, where seemingly random clusters of curved stones were stacked in fives. She slowly picked them up one at a time. She spoke almost simplistically as she unraveled the pattern hidden before us, a spiral, which she then followed to a final ‘stage’. A dimly lit ant farm shaped terrarium glowed weakly before us with a humanoid shadow figure lodged in the midst of a faded orange background. She slowly suffocated it with the sand, the details, the minutia, the abstractions of dialogues pulling the meaning of words apart.
At last she stepped away from us into a black chamber. She picked up one last larger stone shaped like a potato. After a poetic discourse with the stone on the nature of la parole, the word spoken, she finally said or asked for la dernier parole. To which the stone said nothing. She stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
After a moment of stunned silence we all applauded. And then she reappeared and took her well-deserved bows. I looked down at the program notes; her name was Julie Trezel. The piece was entitled Félicité, after a text by Thierry Panchaud. We climbed up another set of stairs. She greeted us as we passed. Her eyes filled with water, the intensity of the piece had taken its toll upon her. And there were other reasons that I would discover later. To say I was impressed was to say the least, but before I could really begin to confront my own impressions I found myself whisked off out of the door again on my way to the next performance.
More strolling ensued. The British Columbian woman spoke with her daughter this time round. I was preoccupied with new puppet contemplations. We eventually passed the front of a grand Catholic church: our contingent then turned to walk behind it. We entered a school or church building and stopped in a well-lit workshop. Two circular saws stood in obvious evidence. By this time I was expecting the saws themselves to be a part of the next performance. A petite black-haired girl wearing a long dark dress emerged from a doorway and with an unaffected smile softly explained to us that the show would be ready in a couple of minutes. We relaxed our stances. Some individuals took this opportunity to use the sanitation facilities. Gerri eventually introduced me to her daughter Clea, a serious red haired girl with an amicable sense of humor and a definite sense of artistic mission. She agreed immediately to allow me to interview her. I asked her what sort of piece she had done. She asked if I wanted to see it. Sure, I replied. She told me to come with her after the shows were finished to the performance space that she had used and she would give me an idea of what her presentation had been. The diminutive black-haired young woman returned and told us that Julia Kovacs was now all set to perform. She ushered us into a long hall that had been smothered in black felt. She sat most of us down on a few wooden benches. I chose to stand to get a better view. The raven-haired girl sat on a stool behind me and dimmed the lights to black.
22 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it was seen as being an obscure subject, especially since I wanted to narrate parts of the trip that had little to do with puppetry as well. This was the journey that cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. My short one day visit to Charleville-Mézières was the first crux of the journey. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will take six posts. Enjoy!
“One of Those Days”
March 23, 2005
I spun around instantly. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have my coat anymore. And that was terrifying news. My coat’s secretive zipped compartments, in lieu of a money belt, contained my money, credit cards, passport and rail pass. If I didn’t find that coat soon the trip would be well over. With adrenaline coursing through me I picked up my weighty black backpack with my one good arm, thrust my broken braced wrist through the strap and picked up the rubber handle of the other pack while my eyes darted to and fro. The sweat was instantaneous.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious commencement to a day that didn’t have much promise attached to it as I scanned the Gare de l’Est: perhaps le plus louche train station in Paris. Although I would have to admit that the sleaze factor was far below that of, say Frankfurt, Germany. And neither of these locales would even register a blip on the old American sleaze-o-meter. In America I could be fairly certain that my coat would be in another state by now. Memories of one night waiting at the Baltimore bus terminal, heck any Greyhound bus station in the U.S. of A., are far more indelibly tainted with apprehension than any time spent in any train station in old Europa. Nevertheless, that being said, I wouldn’t want to take a stroll around this vicinity at two in the morning on a Wednesday looking for the nearby Gare Du Nord. Fortunately for me it was only about 09:45 and most of the station’s shiftiest denizens were probably just getting tucked into bed with a comforting bottle of vin table. Well most of them but not all, I did glimpse a few suspect insomniacs in one of the darker recesses of the building. I frantically and physically retraced my immediate past quickly hitting the points like a silver ball in a pinball machine. Bingo! There was my coat. I had taken it off at a stand-up table where I had consumed some narcotic pastry. Evidently the French edible had fully put me into a trance state so deep that I would be willing to sacrifice my whole journey for a seductive combination of flour, butter, salt and sugar. This could never happen in the Czech Republic. But now I had lost my comfortable seat and was forced to stand for the next half-hour as I waited to find out which voie the train to Charleville-Mézières would depart from. Inauspicious indeed.
“You ever have one of those days?” Yeah I know it’s a cliché of the highest order. But we all say things like that: “It’s just one of those days.” And that’s how I was beginning to feel about this one. I had arisen at 7:00 AM and had left the Hotel St. Andres des Arts around eight. The sun was shining a little too brightly for this March morning and I was already beginning to regret wearing my wintry dead-moss-green coat. As I rode the Metro from Odeon to Gare de l’Est I tried to remember everything I could about my day’s destination. I was attempting to find the Institut International de la Marionnette (Marrionnette is the French word for puppet.) in the twin towns of Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes region of France. The guidebook information was spare. I had no map of the town. (This was 2005 and I had no cellphone yet.) I did not know where the Hotel Les Cleves was located in relation to the train station. Therefore I had no idea what kind of brutal walk I might have to endure with my hefty packs. Nor did I have any idea where the institute might be vis-à-vis the hotel or even the town for that matter. My attempts to contact the institute via email had produced one reply, which had told me to write to the email address of a woman who never replied back. On the town’s French language website I had discovered that there were going to be student mid-term performances, although I would be arriving only in time for the last of three days worth. I knew precious little about the school. I was just hoping that this might be interesting in some degree and accessible. In other words, I was going into this situation nearly blind. Thus I didn’t hope for much. But I took my chances rather philosophically. At worst I figured I’d be in another French town, with yet another medieval center and a fair possibility of obtaining some species of decent cuisine. Still it wasn’t the best recipe for a sojourn. And nearly losing my coat didn’t put me into a buoyant mood.
My qualms seemed to be confirmed a little later on when I read that our train would not even be completing the route to Charleville-Mézières. There was an ominous little note on the board saying something about a bus continuation from Rethel onward. I was not too surprised therefore when we were asked to get out of the train and to transfer ourselves to two waiting buses. A poor Japanese fellow, who spoke neither French nor English, wandered back and forth between the two buses like a comedian from a silent film. I tried to point him in the right direction, either bus, and he eventually chose the opposite bus from me: a sage move no doubt. As we moved through the undulating French countryside we passed the railroad workers out on the trackers who had blocked our passage. Within a half-hour we arrived at the Charleville-Mézières Gare.
At the station I vainly searched for a local map. As I stepped outside I noticed an enlarged fiche with a good-sized map of the town. I studied it. It turned out that of the two towns of Charleville-Mézières I was in Charleville; I never did get to Mézières. There was Hotel Les Cleves about three blocks off, though I did not see any listing for the institute. I started off across a narrow green park in the general direction of the hotel, until I saw the streets, those baffling European streets. I skulked back to the little billboard with the map on it. I studied it much more thoroughly. This map problem would dog me through much of my trip. And it’s not that I have trouble reading a map. I don’t. I collect maps. I’m an excellent map-reader, well at least an excellent American map-reader. But American towns generally don’t have four or five streets all crashing into one intersection at cockeyed angles. American maps generally don’t list alleys the size of two car driveways as destinations. Maybe it’s just a lack of subtlety on our part; I wouldn’t want to speculate. But finally I felt I had interrogated the map’s graphic particulars long enough to stake my claim to a course of action. I hefted my debris two blocks up the main drag. The street names being europeanly obscure, of course, I then ventured upon one rue that seemed to be the appropriate place to make a left-hand turn. Eureka! Not only did I see the hotel but also just above my head was a friendly white sign shaped like an arrow pointing my direction and stating quite clearly, “Institut International de la Marionnette”. Voilà, two birds with one stone. Maybe it wasn’t “one of those days” after all.
As I waited for the maids to finish with my room I realized that it was nearly 3 o’clock and that I should get myself out into the town to locate the institute. This would be the only day I would have to observe any of the student presentations. I left the hotel casually without bringing my camera or my little digital audio recorder. I assumed that whatever would be happening wouldn’t occur until the evening. I stepped out onto the street again and soon saw another reassuring sign pointing the way for me. Yet as I tried to follow it I wandered around for several blocks seeing nothing that resembled an institute for puppets. At last I admitted defeat and retraced my steps back to that sign. Aha! European arrows point at things slightly differently than American ones. Once I adjusted my route accordingly I marched up the street two blocks and then saw another sign pointing right. I turned. No doubt I’d found it. Before me stood a large golden figure of a marionnettiste buried in the side of a wall.
(Next section: A Procession of Puppeteers)
16 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.
I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.
I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.
Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.
And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.
Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.
On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.
But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.
And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.
This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)
And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.
Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.
And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.
But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.
And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!
Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.
October 11th 2019
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And so I stepped onto the České dráhy train bound first for Berlin then to Köln (Cologne) then to Paris. I would arrive back around 8 in the evening. At least that was the plan. We arrived at Děčín, the last Czech station before Germany, where we were informed that everyone had to exit the train. Deutsche Bahn, the German railways, had decided to go on strike. But only for two hours. Strange. How nice of them to ask for more money to show they weren’t being appreciated enough. I mean I personally appreciated the gesture. As I’m sure the rest of Germany did too as all trains were sent into a tizzy of lines and confusion. I tried to figure out which way to go next. Two hours changed everything. Yes eventually the next train from Prague to Berlin came by two hours later. But now none of my connection would work at all. And when I did arrive in Berlin I was delayed again. Another hour. So whither Byrne? A train to Dusseldorf then another to Karlsruhe through Strasbourg, France, a TGV into Paris. which allowed me to walk through the Carons door about 11:45 that night after a metro and bus ride through the dark streets. But at least I had made it back. I came very close to missing that last Strasbourg train, which would have delayed me until the next day.
The next day it was time to visit Paris. Something had happened while I was gone. Paris was in the middle of the most serious popular revolt since May of 1968. People wearing yellow safety vests, les gilets jaunes, were protesting Emmanuel Macron’s fuel taxation policies. But it wasn’t just that. This cauldron had been boiling for some time. I had actually seen Macron back in Charleville-Mézières about a week and a half before I left. Well I didn’t see his face, but from above him in the International Institute of Puppetry I did see his hands on the other side of the limousine waving at folks on the street. But I also remembered something from that day as well. There were gilets jaunes in Charleville too. They were just beginning their protest. But the gendarmes had shoved them off out of the way before Macron entered his car. Now Paris was erupting, particularly on the weekends, with anger from all across the political spectrum from far right to far left, with many apolitical workers in between. I was curious as to what I would find when I returned to Paris.
And so the next day I wandered out to find out what Paris looked like. I had spoken with the Carons’ house guest Ugo Jude who had given me the idea that gilets jaunes had moved to the fringes of the city during the weekdays. So I didn’t expect much in the way of activity. Nevertheless I decided to venture out. I arrived near the Opera and decided to walk towards the Champs-Elysées. I began to noticed a few windows with cracked glass every now and then. Then I would see a large piece of plywood in another window. I passed Galeries Lafayette, the most extensive and chic department store in Paris. Next door was Printemps, another huge classic French department store. And at first I was struck by their elaborate Christmas windows because they featured puppet automata. But then I looked again and noticed that instead of glass their windows were huge sheets of plexiglass, with glue in the middle holding them together. And I could guess why. A pizza restaurant had broken glass. Clothing stores had been attacked. Every bank from there to the Champs-Elysées was boarded up completely. The police and military presence was everywhere and toting serious ordnance. They were ready for whatever came next.
Eventually I arrived at the Champs-Elysées. I slowly made my way up the grand boulevard. More boarded windows. Stores with freshly glazed glass. And people were out shopping for Noël. In fact if you didn’t know better you would swear it was a normal day. Only the gendarmes with their guns, the broken windows and the darkened skies made it feel different. I didn’t go all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I felt I knew what it would look like. The weekends had already become ritualized protests. But most people were talking under there breath about a Sixth Republic. Would this movement overturn Macron’s globalist technocratic agenda? Winter was coming and it was hard to say. People don’t like to protest during the holiday season. But no matter what, this was yet another sign of Europe’s fraying political situation.
The next day I had an appointment to meet Aurelia Ivan again this time for our official interview for Gravity From Above. My friend and translator Julien Caron was unable to come because he had acquired the local Europe illness which had been circulating in Germany and the Czech republic as well. I had felt a sting in the back of my throat, but my immunities must have been strengthened by the four various colds and fevers I had picked up on my last trip. Aurelia wanted to meet at the cafe of the La Halle Saint-Pierre, a museum dedicated to exhibitions of art brut (outsider art). The museum was located between the seedy Pigalle district and the gleaming white domes of Sacré-Cœur, and that seemed just right.
In spite of not having a translator we had a warm meeting and a very good interview. Aurelia, originally from Romania, had been living in Paris ever since she graduated from ESNAM in Charleville in 2005. I had kept an eye on some of her projects over the years. She has also been teaching courses of practical puppetry at the Sorbonne. Aurelia is obviously a woman with many ideas. We discussed the direction of her work as well as her thoughts about the nature of puppetry. At one point she had commissioned an android to be made for a show where she asked essentially what we are doing to ourselves. She certainly understands the tactility of puppetry, charmingly refusing to type out the name of her shows on my laptop, which I had brought with my translated questions. She did that not to reject technology, she certainly uses computers. But to maintain her contact with the physical world. And she definitely understands, as so many puppeteers do, that we are losing out connections to the material objects of this world. After I had finished asking her thoughts we talked a little longer. At one point she looked at me and then realized that I had already formulated answers to many of the questions that I had posed. She smiled broadly. I admitted that I didn’t simply want to say it myself. I wanted puppeteers to say what I knew they already felt for themselves.
Yeah I know what I think. We are heading into dangerous times. And not for the usual political reasons. It’s because we are living in the abstractions of technology and our screens. And if we don’t turn back to the real world… reality will come for us.
At last it was time to say farewell to Aurelia, to the Carons, to Paris, to Western Europe, and to travel by plane to Georgia. It would require the usual 9 hour wait at the Warsaw Airport so that I could arrive in Tbilisi at 5:30 in the morning. I spent that time writing. Reflecting. This journey to Europe had been a diet of many potent memories. But now all bets were off. I really had no idea what to expect next. What would happen when I arrived in Georgia… to stay?
December 30th 2018
If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above please do so. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing in 2019. 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. Thanks for all of your help over the years!
Watching the first year students at the Institut International de la Marionnette practice their repetitions is a fascinating experience. I can’t imagine many (if any) puppet teachers in the USA going through the kind of discipline and rigor that les élèves do. In a way it almost becomes a form of dance. Body movement is held in the highest regard. Brice Coupey, a renown artistic hand puppeteer works with the Guignol style puppet. In my interview later it was obvious that he saw Guignol as an astounding creation, though he himself never went to Guignol shows as a child. His parents put much more emphasis on sports. Which is a curious thing to think about as we watched the exercises. And they were exercises. One of the repetitions consisted of holding the puppet up high and then slowly turning it. Brice would do this until the students were visibly worn out from holding there arms up over their heads. And just when they began to groan he would the return his hand around using a different set of muscles. Then they would truly begin to moan. But holding the puppet over the head like this serves a real purpose. In a real show you have to do exactly that for sometimes an hour. Not always up but often enough to feel it. And what he was doing was getting them ready for the difficulties of performance. There is no groaning during a show.
Another exercise had each student hold the marionnette a gain (glove puppet) aloft while five or six of them walked in and out of each other in a more cramped space behind the castelet (the puppet stage). They would do this for five to ten minutes arms up… and not bumping into each other. Quiet a feat.
Emma Fisher, the Irish puppeteer and I got to watch as they also played various theatre games. Some games were played at the beginning to limber up. The rules of some of these games were frankly a bit of a mystery to me. Some I understood as I continued to observe them, a game where half the puppeteers would stand behind the castelet and choose a leader, while the other half would watch their movements and try to guess which one was the leader.
A stranger game consisted of everyone, about 15 students, standing in a circle and passing around a series of rapid comical bowing to words like ‘hi’ and ‘heeya’ and then suddenly someone would say something random like ‘samba’ and everyone would start shimmying around while vocalizing a funny tune together. That almost made sense. But then a girl said ‘James Bond’ and the girls on either side of him would act like fawning devotees. It was funny, but certainly left me scratching my head.
When it came time for les élèves to take turns doing little solo performances then the transformations occurred. Why were these students wanting to become marionnettistes (the French word for any kind of puppeteer not just those with strings)? There were girls who were obviously a bit comical and theatrical, for instance Czech Tereza or Manon. (And the ratio of girls to boys was quite high.) But then there were quieter ones like Camille, Coralie, or Alika, who emerged from their shells to be completely and wonderfully odd, even a little edgy. Or Marina, the normally serious Russian, who not only proved to have a slyly comic style, but also revealed a fantastic singing voice, almost by accident. And I realized that this little school to train marionnettistes must have had some peculiarly intriguing characters over the years.
Meanwhile Emma and I were given a chance to make presentations to the first year students. Emma showed a short documentary that had been made about her doctoral project, Pupa. It revealed to me just how complex her thinking on the subject of puppetry and disability is. And no, she’s not seeing puppetry merely as a therapeutic device. Puppetry for her is a way to tell stories that we might otherwise not hear. And especially told in a manner that is directly related to the disability in question. And she had a bit of an epiphany at one point that broken or incomplete puppets could be an excellent way of convey ideas that perfectly made puppets never could.
I, on the other hand, showed the students a short art film that I had been working on for years. They immediately let me know everything that was wrong at first. (Fortunately these European students don’t have that doctrinaire attitude of compliments before criticism. Which I’ve often seen as false.) But interestingly enough they then spent quite a while pleasantly trying to figure out what it was about. I took note of their best suggestions and decided go back and re-edit the film a bit. Since they were in many ways an ideal audience their ideas carried weight with me. Even though I knew I needed to retool the film I was heartened that they found many points to discuss, which is all I really ask out of anything I do.
One person I had remembered good discussions with last year was Coraline Charnet. I hadn’t come across her yet. But soon that would be rectified. On a quiet Monday afternoon we hunted down a café in the rain. It was easy to renew our acquaintance and talk about issues of texture and life at ESNAM again. Coraline is thoughtful and committed to trying to understand how to live. Sometimes too much so. I appreciated her honesty and integrity. With regard to certain obstructions I reminded her of the wisdom of picking one’s battles wisely. An excellent conversation overall.
I had another reason for being here. I had hopes of finding support for my documentary Gravity From Above. (You know the thing that this whole site is dedicated to.) I had a pleasant lunch with Raphaèle and the new director Philippe Sidre. And without going into any details I’ll say this. Yes there is some support there, not quite what I was hoping for, but enough. But I am quite grateful for what is there. But it turns out a have a longer way to go and more funds to seek. When I go to Prague I will be investigating more avenues. And in Tbilisi as well. But the good thing is that, as a result of good prompting from Raphaèle I now had a very detailed budget of my expenses over the years and a detailed catalogue of my many hours, over 30 (!) of interviews. (Getting them transcribed will be another expense.) There are other things I realized about what this project will need. But I will save that for another essay down the road. Meanwhile I feel good about things, even if this does raise new questions. But I am quite satisfied that Philippe, Raphaèle and the Institute are behind me in various important ways.
Finally my time here at Charleville was winding down. Emma left before my last week and was not replaced by a new chercheur, though an American was supposed to come. They were setting up the Noël Marché in the Place Ducale, but it wasn’t quite ready when I left. The scent of freshly cut Christmas trees did waft through my olfactory glands. It was at last time to make my rounds to say farewell to Aurelie, Delphine, Raphaèle and Brigitte. To say farewell to Emily, and the other students staying at the Villa: Sayeh, Valentin, Manon, Adria, Camille, Rose, Raquel and Tereza, who gave me an impromptu performance with her puppets made from the remnants of real fox and ferret stoles, while explaining how she cut the furs and sewed them back together and told me adamantly to ask the other Czechs I would meet in Prague why she was the first Czech student, and why weren’t Czechs coming to perform at the International Puppet Festival next year.
In the morning I arose early, vacated my apartment, said farewell to Charleville-Mézières once again while musing what an important place this has been in my life. Now all I had to do was to find the SNCF TER train to the TGV in Champagne-Ardennes and get myself up to Northern Germany. But I knew I wasn’t done with the Institut International de la Marionnette yet. I would be back again.
Strasbourg, France (waiting for the TGV to Frankfurt)
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. Film rights are an issue. But really there are dozens of other needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
Part One of this visit to Charleville here.
Earlier visits to the International Institute of Puppetry below.
I first visited the Institut International de la Marionnette in late March of 2005. On that journey I really had no expectations. Though the internet had been around for long enough for me to divine that some sort of theatrical event was occurring here, the translation tools of the time and my insufficient French didn’t really convey an accurate impression of what it was I would find. So I arrived in Charleville-Mézières with no real idea of what I would find or even what the International Institute of Puppetry really was. All I knew is that there would be a few student performances. And I didn’t know why but I thought they might be interesting to watch. And that was saying the least of it. Not that the performances were completely professionally realized shows. Rather there was something in the earnest intensity of the students (les élèves) and the creativity of their work that struck a deep nerve in me. And that moment was certainly one of the pivotal moments in turning me towards puppetry as an art.
And one of the performances that most intrigued me was that of Aurélia Ivan. Her piece used pruned grape branches, sand, an old drawer and walnuts. And so while I was in Paris I decided to look her up again, this time bringing an interpreter, Julien Caron (Paulette’s brother) with me. Without going into the details I’ll just say it was a warm meeting and I think we were finally able to communicate more clearly with each other than at anytime in the past. Aurélia granted me permission to conduct an interview in mid-December on my way back through Paris. And seeing her again reminded me of why the Institute played such an important part in my outlook. I had been back three more times since then and this would be visit number five.
And so on the 6th of November I arrived effortlessly at the Charleville-Mézières gare (train station) and walked directly to the Institute. What once so hard to find now seemed to me only a few short blocks to Place Winston Churchill. I simply walked in passed the entrance straight up the stairways where Aurelie Oudin greeted me like an old friend and I was back. She gave me the keys to the Villa d’Aubilly and I settled in that morning returning after lunch to resume my studies as a chercheur (researcher) at the Institute. I greeted Raphaèle, Brigitte and Delphine and embarked upon four solid weeks of research, studying, putting Gravity From Above into proper order, as well as eventually meeting the new Director Philippe Sidre.
On my second morning I met my fellow chercheur, a dark haired Irish woman named Emma Fisher, who had recently completed her doctorate in puppetry and disability. Emma didn’t speak as much French as I did, so I became her impromptu guide to some of the practicalities of life as a researcher here in Charleville at IIM. Her residency was scheduled for three weeks. Thus our time would completely overlap.
Emma had been in a bicycle accident at the age of nine that ended up leaving her left arm underdeveloped and severely weakened. Through much of her life she had simply tried to be just like everyone else. But in the last few years there had been a change in her outlook. She now saw that rather than avoid the subject she would embrace her disability and incorporate it into her puppetry. In fact puppetry and disability had so wedded themselves together in her mind that she now saw it as a way to express her essence, and not only for herself, but as a path for anyone with a disability. And so her doctoral thesis had been to create a puppet show with others of various disabilities and resourceful abilities, and to write a paper on her project and the ramifications of it. She called the project Pupa. It was fascinating for me to meet someone formulating puppet theatre from that perspective. Also the fact that she was Irish was curious to me especially considering that Ireland isn’t that renown for its puppets. And of course the fact that she was Irish also meant that she enjoyed conversation quite a bit over a ‘cuppa’ or at a pub sampling the Belgian beers. And thus we became good friends.
And then there were les élèves. My first chance to reacquaint myself with the students came that Tuesday evening. Brigitte Behr had invited Emma and I to accompany the students to travel by bus down to Reims to watch a performance directed by an Iranian man of what might called body art, since it wasn’t quite dance or any specific genre of theatre. It was an odd piece where four athletes (I prefer this to ‘dancers’ or ‘actors’) made vaguely sports-like motions of body tension, lifting, movement etc, in a small circus ring as lights and noise increasingly became more important to the proceedings. At times it seemed like it was a series of individual struggles and leading perhaps to more of collective resolution before chaos and failure eventually descended upon all. That’s as much of a narrative as I can give. I don’t think it was a particularly strong show. But it only set me back six euros.
In the large comfortable bus on the way to Reims and back I sat with various students. Cassiel from last year remembered me well. As did Eve, Zoe, Sayeh and Valentin. But besides the students from last year there was a new crop as well. In the last few ‘promotions‘ ESNAM had been trying something different. They would have a new group of les élèves start during the third year of preceding class. It is a three year course through the school. So I had a new batch of students to meet, another 13 or so. Including Raquel (Hakeo) from Brazil, Marina from Russia, Adria from Spain (Catalonia to be precise) and Tereza, believe it or not, the first Czech to ever attend the school. And the rest were mostly various types of French: Camille, Coralie, Rose, Manon and the others. We shared simple and goofy jokes on the bus ride back. Later I would bump into several of them in the Villa where many of them stayed. I would also have a chance to see them practice, going through what are called ‘repetitions‘. But we’ll come to that later.
The next day I had a chance to watch two students from the third (final) year class give a ‘presentation‘ on their artistic influences. Emily and Tristan both spoke articulately. Emily spoke about five women in movement and dance who had affected her, which included such dancers as Pina Bausch, Isadora Duncan and the much more obscure Loïe Fuller, creator of the serpentine dance. She showed clips and sparked further interest in the other students. Tristan gave a much more intellectual presentation, explicating books and theories that influenced him as well as clips from a few films. Interestingly enough these presentations were not simply given and praised. The French students all seemed ready to give their opinions vocally at the drop of a hat. And not just saccharin, isn’t that cool, praise. At the end I spoke with Emily for a while. We ended up a few days later with a visiting friend of hers talking about puppetry dance and art on a floating barge and pub called La Péniche moored on the River Meuse.
Meanwhile Emma had to take a long weekend to return to Ireland for a seminar on puppetry. And so I wandered alone through Charleville to the Saturday marché to find more French food than I could possibly prepare in my cramped quarters at the villa. I renewed my acquaintance with the hiking trails in the park across the river and the Place Ducale. And I prepared to get back to study at the library.
At the beginning of the week I was pleasantly surprised to run into hand puppeteer Brice Coupey, whom Paulette Caron had introduced me to in 2016. He was teaching a two week course at ESNAM and didn’t mind at all if I dropped in on his classes to observe and record his pedagogical techniques. And so with Natalie Elain as our escort Emma and I were allowed to watch the repetitions.
But I’m going to save that for the next part of my ESNAM and IIM story. Meanwhile though I will share a few images of the repetitions of the puppeteers.
Come back soon.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. Film rights are an issue. But really there are dozens of other needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
While I am traveling through Western Europe on my way to Tbilisi Georgia to work on the puppet and doll museum I have been thinking about the project ahead of me in the next few years. And one reminder of that task is that I have the stunning new book of the Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum (თბილისის სათამაშოები და თოჯინების მუზეუმი). This is a large chunk of the collection I will be working with when I eventually start my job. And it is a curious eye view into the world of Georgian tojinebi (plural of tojina which can mean dolls or puppets) The book is a fascinating look at the history and art of Georgia tojinebi.
Interestingly Georgia doesn’t have a deep historical tradition of popular dolls the way France or England does. And just as intriguingly Georgian dolls have not descended into the overly cute and sweet commercial playthings that have developed in the West. Not that bad baby dolls can’t be found in bargain shops. Or that Barbies are nowhere to be found. In fact it was the Soviet Union, in one of their rare enlightened decrees, who decided that Georgia needed dolls. And so the museum collection was started in 1937 by Tinatin Tumanishvili (1892-1966)
Tumanishvili in her role as secretary of (in typical soviet speak) The Children’s Toy Committee of the People’s Commissariat of Education who originated The Children’s Toy Museum. At this point there was no official style of popular doll that came from the Georgian traditions so, like puppetry in various corners of the Soviet Empire, dolls were decreed into existence. And so Tina Tumanishvili began an ethnographic search through the country to seek inspiration. And then she commissioned several dolls to be created by artists.
And for me the most startlingly unique dolls are also the most primitive. The most traditional folk dolls, called fork and spindle dolls, traditionally were made simply and beautifully with sticks, cloth and sometimes corn silk or even human hair. The dolls had an unusual aura to them, with the face made abstractly out of cloth, buttons, and thread or yarn with an X or a cross for a face. Often the cloth for the figure was embroidered with designs. The faces alone are enough to give the puppeteer in me many ideas for figures not yet imagined.
These primitive tojinebi also connect back to a not so distant past where these figures were used in rain making ceremonies. There was one ritual of making the doll, or is it a puppet since these were also moved with simple strings at times, in the form of the biblical Lazarus. Getting the doll wet was an important part of the various rituals. And Lazarus was beseeched ‘Humidify and wet us.’ During the Gonjaoba festival a figure called the Gonja was thrown into the water, while saying ‘We do not want hard dried clods of earth anymore. God, give us the mud.’ More fearfully there was another festival the Berikaoba, which is still occasionally celebrated, with strange masks that used to be made from animal skins, particularly pig faces which were particularly used to offend the various Muslim overlords. There was also a ritual of a person or figure riding a donkey backwards who was then thrown into a river at flood stage. A form of this can be seen in Tengiz Abuladze’s film The Wishing Tree, where a very symbolic figure is seen riding a donkey backwards. And it isn’t a good thing. These festivals, like Mardi Gras end at the beginning of Lent.
(Click to Enlarge)
There is another folk style involving stitching a simple expression on tightly pulled cloth. This technique as well as its extensions in design become through Tumanishvili and her artists, especially Nino Brailashvili, eventually become the inspiration and beginnings of serious doll making in Georgia. Thus Georgian doll making moves also most instantly from primitive ritualistic images straight to art, skipping the centuries of popular doll making in between. There is another worthwhile, and quite hard to find west of Russia, (in Russian and English) book featuring some of these primitive dolls and lavishly illustrated Nino Brailashvili, from her journeys into Georgia villages. It is called Ethnography In Georgia. It is well worth seeking out.
Inevitably Georgia costume design also holds an important place in the art of the tojina. Embroidery, thread and yarn all capture the elaborate patterns to be found in Georgian traditional dresses. The texture and detail of the fabric is just as important as the materials used to make the dolls. And again almost instantly created small works of art out of the tojina, blurring the line between the private fantasy of the doll and the storytelling skills of the puppet. And book of the museum’s collection shows this over and over again.
As far as tojinebi makers in the catalogue go (and there are many newer doll makers not in the catalogue) Irma Kaadze is the real discovery here. Her work figures quite strongly in unusual textures of natural cloth and fabric as well as various papier maché techniques. Her work is filled ornate designs in fabric ranging traditional figures that have faces with expressions like Byzantine mosaics. She also makes angels again with archaic faces. And an absolute gem of a puppet of a bedouin on a camel with more texture and creativity than seems legally possible. (Puppeteers take note.)
The work of Tamar Kvesitadze are also miniature statuary in a melange of materials, creating, as Kaadze does, miniature tableau vivant.
Besides the Georgian tojinebi the catalogue features mechanical toys, an automaton that blows bubbles, unknown dolls from Germany, a gift of dolls from Japan and other fragments of Georgian creative history. Also included in the book is artwork from the collection by such important Georgian artists as Elene Akhvlediani, Lado Gudiashvili, Natela Iankoshvili and others.
Tinatin Tumanishvili started with a toy collection and created a haven for tojinebi as well. The Tbilisi Dolls and Toys Museum has been housed in several locations before being packed away from its last location near the Gabriadze Theatre and packed away securely at the Union of Museums offices on Agmashenabeli in Tbilisi. And they will lie in boxes until a new home is constructed for them. Which is where I come into the picture. (But that will be another story altogether and the immovable tojinebi will find new movable companions when that happens!)
Oh by the way a word about this book: It is a large gorgeously printed 288 page tome. Only 500 were made. It is predominantly written in the beautiful but indecipherable Georgian script yet with plenty of English to give one a very intelligent idea of what the book is about. A reader of this essay might find themselves desperate for a copy. Getting one sent to you will not be an easy thing, but… it is possible. The actual cost of the book is mercifully not that much. But shipping? It weighs a couple of kilos (a few pounds). That will cost you more dearly. If you are one of those people curious to own it you can contact Nini Sanadiradze at the Union of Museums in Tbilisi. She can tell you how to obtain one. It cannot be found in any country other than Georgia.
You can go to this page.
At the bottom of that page there is a place to send email massages. Do so. And you should be able to get the information you need. The Union of Museums also has a Facebook page.
Well next time we discuss life at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France. But for now we’ll just say Au revoir and Nachwamdis.
It occurred to me as I was arriving by train at the Aigle Gare looking for the bus up to Huémoz Switzerland that it was pretty much exactly 40 years since I first arrived at this same spot to find this remarkable Christian institution called L’Abri (the Shelter). During the current two weeks I would be here I would certainly be crossing the threshold of that anniversary. Yet I couldn’t check it exactly since my journals were buried in a storage unit back in Alaska. And just as certainly the Rhone Valley did not look the same on this day as it did back in 1978 when I first set eyes on Suisse, being so mesmerized by the effect of the bus ride ascending endlessly, it seemed, up to arrive at what was then an unknown future. The weather now was unusually hazy on this warm mid-October day obscuring both the valley and the great line of mountains usually dominating it. Curiously enough that first journey was also the last time I bought a one way ticket to Europe and did not have any clue about what I would find when I got there. Ever since I have always had well planned trips with distinct return dates to return to my American life. But that time, like this, I was stepping into the unknown. And that journey was ultimately responsible for this one in dozens of ways.
Since I had last visited about a year ago in 2017 I didn’t have any specific set of emotions to bring to my own table this time. Last year I was coming off of an emotional time, having just moved all of my belongings into Storage Unit 3. Last year I had pains in my heels from recurring bursitis that dogged me through most of my Western European trek last year. Last year felt like an act of assertion that I had much more to do in life. But this time we would see.
I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. No one official seemed to be around. But I had a fairly good idea that I would be staying in Chalet Les Mélèzes again. A student, a dancer as it turned out, named Heather showed me the way. Eventually Steve Bullock found me and everything was confirmed. I was sleeping in exactly the same bed as last time. And Sunday dinner was at 7pm down at Chesalet. Per-Ole and Amelia were preparing the meal and I was introduced to more students. I was particularly glad to run into L’Abri’s tech worker, the Dutchman Folkert, who liked to give long rambling retellings of famous books. (Later in the week he would unspool half of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.) Word got around that I was the ‘puppet man’ and was introduced to Julie a puppeteer who had brought her own carved Czech style marionette named Peter, who was treated as a celebrity by Per-Ole and Amelia’s young children. P-O read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale after the meal. It was as if I never left.
I was due to give two lectures while I was there. As I told students the subject of the first, Texture, I tended to get inquisitively puzzled looks. What would I say about that? What would anyone say about texture? And in fact that was exactly the reason for my choice. Last year while visiting the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières I gave a presentation on Gravity From Above and the work achieved so far. I contended that puppetry was an antidote to much of the contemporary sterility in the design and ambience of the age. And I particularly contrasted the texture and tactility of the puppet with the flatness of the screen. That caught the attention of a few of the folks there. I had assumed that puppeteers were well aware of the contrast between the smooth modern surfaces and the rougher features of the puppet. But in reality not much thought had gone into it. As I searched the archives of the Institute I found very little on the subject. Maybe a book on fashion. Then as I extended my search I discovered very little indeed had been written on the subject at all. And as I pondered it I realized that the the transition from a deeply textured world to the flat junky plastic textures surrounding us at every step had largely been accompanied by no fanfare whatsoever. No one realized what they were getting rid of when they moved from, say, natural fibers to synthetic or from wood to vinyl siding. And so I had decided to dig a bit more deeply into the fallow ground. The lecture went well sparking several thoughtful comments that helped me look in new directions.
But my second and related lecture on the Need for Beauty was even more provocative. As I assumed it would be. Especially the hot and touchy subject of human beauty. It was my contention that we had created an increasingly ugly world with art, commerce and philosophical underpinnings all joining in. And the worst culprit of all being kitsch, all of that cute cuddling tacky shite that seems to infest our lives at every turn from household decorations to geekdom. I quoted Andrei Tarkovsky concerning beauty in art, Jordan Peterson on how true beauty is actually frightening. And then there was this quote from Roger Scruton’s book Beauty – A Very Short Introduction : “Simply put, kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.” Indeed I think the hottest part of the talk is when I mentioned that there must be a connection between appearances and the interiors. I think many people have been so conditioned to say that everyone is equal that to point out the physical beauty of a person was tantamount to saying that such obvious disparities could only be a form of bigotry. No one said as much, but the thought hung in the air. Per-Ole, an artist himself, made an astute observation that beauty just might be found in the truth behind those appearances. And later as P-O and I discussed it we both agreed that it was a thorny and needed subject for discussion.
I made the rounds meeting old friends Richard and Karen, Gian (A friend for 40 years!), Greg and Lisby, Steve Bullock whom I had met once before. Katrina and Aaron were new workers. Katrina I had met before, since she was Gian’s granddaughter, and was glad to spend more time getting to know her better. Her husband Aaron was a welcome addition to the mix as well. Marnie from New Zealand was also a new worker lending a bit of Kiwi pizazz to the affair.
I was impressed by the students. I was a little curious about how the polarizations of modern life would be reflected by them. And fortunately the answer was very little. They seemed largely open to discussion and only a couple of times did I hear any vaguely political or partisan language. And even then not with the kind of vehemence one finds in other settings. Though I suspect if one scratched the itch too much it might bleed. But most of the current crop of students I think had been affected less by the rhetoric of the times than by the desire to transcend it. I had good conversations with Paul, a Brit with Ghanian roots, Kate, a Dutch/American cellist, Melody from Germany, Tasha from Australia Dukjoo from Korea and especially Folkert. It was also excellent to come across another writer with similar interests in Lee Pryor, currently a ‘helper’ at L’Abri. And I had a heart to heart talk with Per-Ole before it was time to leave.
I did take my favorite cogwheel train ride from Bex to Gryon with Paul and Kate. Then ambled along in fine discursive form until we arrived in Villars where we sat outdoors at a patisserie sipping tea and eating opulent desserts. And I joined most of L’Abri on an outing up to Bretaye at 1,806 m (5925 ft) by another cogwheel train, where we all shared a simple picnic by a small glacial lake on the last nearly summery day of the season. Snows descended on the higher elevations of the Grand Muveran and the rest of the Alps the next day. Eventually it was American Halloween, which was celebrated in the casual guess-what-I-am style common in many US colleges. Jack-O’Lanterns were carved. We even had two young trick-or-treaters with bags coming through the students quarters. And I had a chance to show a few short European puppet films for the curious.
Eventually it was time to drift down to Aigle on the 9:07 bus and as I waited a few souls saw me off in fine L’Abri style. And as I rode the sharp winding road down to the Rhone Valley floor I pondered upon this visit. It was a memorial of sorts to my many treks back to this place over the years. And it was the first trip to Huémoz that I took knowing that my home was not ‘back there’ somewhere but ahead of me. The next stop was back in Charleville-Mézières in France where I had been granted a month long residency. But first I would have to sling shot my way through Paris briefly again.
More to come.
The Centenaire of the Armistice of 1918
And hey! While finances are not a problem. I’ve been looking more seriously at the cost of the few film rights I’ll need for the film. Let’s put it this way. Every financial gift will help. I still don’t know the status of my support from the International Institute of Puppetry. But I suspect I should have made the budget higher than I did. Also I have a medical bill that has managed to surprise me and follow me. Again PayPal is a great way to send me contributions. And thanks to the gift (you know who you are) that recently came through as I’ve been traveling. It really helps.
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
Feel like helping out? I can certainly use it. (Thanks for the recent contribution!) Contribute through PayPal today. Click here!
And so my journey commences, Alaska is behind me as I sit at the Juneau Airport having just suffered the serious indignities of the TSA, while watching an elderly woman so infirm she could barely move her wheelchair get patted down for five minutes as a threat to national security. It’s strange that Juneau, a place I seriously doubt anyone is going to ever use as an entrance for international skullduggery, usually has the worst security checks. Much worse than JFK, Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle. And since September 11th 2001 it’s always been that way. The only thing I can think of is that being so far removed from any aspect of terrorism, being so completely unable to imagine real terrorism, having only experienced these things through television and the internet they have succumbed to a dread paranoia of whoever ‘they’ might be. My dear departed mother whose body had been regularly infused with replacement parts was usually detained for the same treatment that the woman in the wheelchair had been. Which must explain the severe irritation I feel at the guards invading the propriety of the aged or handicapped who couldn’t possibly have ill motives nor the wherewithal even use the restrooms, let alone carry out an attack. And if you point this out to them, you will be suspect yourself, and pulled over to the side. Thus we submit. This is life in 2018.
Okay. Sorry. I just had to get that off of my chest. What am I doing here? Oh yeah I’m waiting to board a plane to get to Europe to continue my Gravity From Above journey and to end up in my new life in Georgia. So I suppose what I need to do is let you know my itinerary. And if anyone wants to meet me along the way contact me.
So yes… though I am moving to Tbilisi Georgia, I won’t get there until December 15th. So what will I be doing in the meantime?
Here is my itinerary.
October 6th through October 20th staying with friends in Paris and doing more puppetry and cultural research.
October 21st through November 2nd L’Abri in Huémoz Switzerland
November 2nd through November 4th Back in Paris
November 5th through November 30th Residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France
December 1st and 2nd Luneberg Germany visiting friends
December 3rd through December 9th Prague Czechia (I liked the Czech Republic as name much much better. There just aren’t enough places you get to say ‘the’ before the name.)
December 10th through December 14th Paris one last time
December 15th Tbilisi Georgia to live.
And so I leave Alaska with too many mixed emotions to share here. Alaska will always be a part of me. Yet I know it is time to leave. The finger points east to Europe, even further east to Georgia. I will try to finish up this everlasting Gravity From Above documentary project as soon as I can. Editing will take time. Distribution longer. Yet Alaska will stay with me. Just as New York stays with me. California stays with me. The faces, the events, the ineffable.
I’ll be reporting more about my adventures through this Gravity From Above site, and of course I’ll keep writing my ideas over at The Anadromous Life. But eventually I’ll have to start a new site (I can’t bring myself to call what I do blogs. It is such a slobby sounding word.) about my Georgian life… but it’s certainly not going to be called My Georgian Life. I need to come up with a name.
Stick around. It’s sure to get interesting.
Feel like helping out? I can certainly use it. Contribute through PayPal today. Click here!
Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.
Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.
Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.
But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)
And so what am I doing once I leave?
On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.
At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.
Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.
When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.
Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.
And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.
Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!
And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!
And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.
But thank you so much for helping me get this far.
August 26th 2018
And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
And so I took off from Tbilisi to stopover at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport for a quick transfer to another Lot plane to Paris. At least that was the plan. I knew I was in trouble when the flight was delayed a little to begin with. And I only had 50 minutes originally to get make my connecting flight. 50 minutes to get get through the European Union passport control and walk the endless building. Which had been whittled down to 15 minutes by the time we landed. But they let me get through customs rather quickly. But then I turned a corner to run smack dab into another airport inspection. And while no else was there yet, they held me up a precious five minutes, to go through my stuff thoroughly. And I guess because I was looking hurried and sweaty they decided I needed extra security procedures. So they tested my hands for ballistics and looked carefully at my laptop etc etc, all in the time honored tradition of Polish paranoia, a tradition I refused to accept as an inheritance from my mother.
Then, finally, at last, I was allowed through and now I raced blindly, stupidly, down what seemed like an endless terminal just to watch my plane back away from the gate. And so I was stuck at the airport for another 6 hours. I’ve got to figure out these crazy connections someday. This wasn’t the first time I had been flustered by this particular Lot connecting flight. Warsaw’s Chopin was quickly joining London’s Heathrow as one of my least favorite airports. Well I tried to make the best of it. Lot did give me a voucher which didn’t quite cover a whole meal. And I sat and wrote one of my many essays about this journey. Eventually I was aboard another flight. I sailed through French customs and the train, eventually exiting a bus back in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern suburbs of Paris, back at the Caron’s house, where Gilles and Lori were waiting for my arrival along with Paulette’s brother Julien.
One of the things that I had arranged while back in Georgia was to visit along with puppeteer friend Paulette Caron, a performance of Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. Paulette had been working as a guignoliste in Lyon and the Lyonnaise and Parisian style differ quite a bit. I contacted my friend Pascal Pruvost to see if we could come with him to his show in the banlieue of Paris. We hadn’t been able to make it work in late 2017 but now schedules seemed to align. We woke up early and took the train and metro out to the 20th Arrondissement to meet him at his studio near Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Paulette and I stood quietly on the slowly awakening street. After a time Pascal arrived. We eventually roused his co-guignoliste Bernard from a bed not to far away. And then we were off through the unsightly parts of Paris that most tourists never get to. We arrived at Parc des Chanteraines, still in a wintry mood. I had been here before in 2012. This time I would record their show from a different perspective. Meanwhile Paulette talked with Pascal about his show and techniques. Pascal, all skin and nerves, would not be an American’s first choice of a puppeteer for children. And yet here in Paris it seemed perfect that he and Bernard, his rather surreal confrere, would be performing for les enfants. One wants quirky people in charge of the traditions of a culture.
Soon it was time for the children. Pascal apologized a little because the age of the kids was quite young, between four and five years old. But that was fine for me. And while an older group might have been wilder, this group took Pascal’s cues quite nicely and responded enthusiastically. When someone got beat up they laughed. (Oh no! That’s not nice! Yeah, but that’s kind of the point.) Cheers went up from the petite children, who thoroughly enjoyed the show, adding to the catalogue of attributes that make up Frenchness.
On the drive back Pascal, who worries a lot about the effect of the cascades of recent immigrants on France, drove us passed a squat in the divider of a highway where an encampment of the migrants lived in squalor in ramshackle tents. They had created a small realm of trash bags and debris and were living in it. It was hard to understand why they living in the middle of the highway overpasses. I didn’t really have an opinion. But clearly Pascal and Paulette both had many thoughts on the subject. And it was clear that there was something brewing here that would not simply go away. As an outsider to French (or any society) I’ve learned to not spew my own opinions about things I don’t really understand, especially when based on the shallow reporting of the American media.
The next day was Saturday, Passover and Western Easter weekend. And I was invited over to Paulette’s boyfriend Simon’s mother’s house not far from her parents house for a Pesach (Passover) Seder. I was quite fascinated to go since I had never attended one before. And this seemed like a good choice, since while they were Jewish they were not strict Orthodox Jews, and thus my faux pas would be over looked. We arrived at her cozy little house and settled in. When the rest of the gathering had arrived we slowly worked our way through about half of the meal while reading from a booklet in French, which contained the famous phrases and answers like “Why is this night different from all others?” I surprised myself by actually reading my portion in French without a hitch, a small milestone for me. We ate the unleavened bread (matzo) and drank wine and bitter herbs and other traditional foods. I was struck by how much the Christian communion had been adapted from the service. This along with my first Georgian supra, also not the full affair, but close enough, were two new traditions that I felt honored to be able to share in one year.
Eventually, after warm farewells at the Carons, punctuated with French cheese, it was time to leave Paris and to take my Icelandair flight back to Seattle and then the Alaska Airlines flight to Juneau. I began to suspect things weren’t going to go smoothly when I arrived to an overcrowded Charles De Gaulle terminal, where all Iceland flights were being delayed because of severe snow back in Reykjavik. And so my flight was delayed by over two hours in Paris which then had an immediate ripple effect. This created another hour delay once we arrived in Iceland, and this meant I would missed my connection from Seattle to Juneau, causing me to stay overnight on the airlines tab in Seattle. And that then meant I would miss my ferry to Haines, causing me a two day delay in Juneau, where fortunately friend and erstwhile clown (!) Roblin Gray Davis put me up until I could get the early boat to Haines. And finally I arrived back in Haines where dear friend Martha Mackowiak met me and drove me to my dead car, where Scott Hansen was performing yeoman’s duty to resuscitate it. At last I entered the very cold house of my Haines Belgian friend Alain d’Epremesnil, who was still out of town counting tortoises in the Mojave Desert, to kick the wood stove to life. I was back in Haines.
Within two weeks of my arrival the old Quonset Hut I had lived in for 21 years had been razed to the ground and turned into an empty lot. It seemed to me to be a final message that it would soon be time to move on. But not before working through the summer season here in Haines and bidding a proper adieu to the land that has nurtured and taught me too much to describe here.
But I’m not quite done writing about this truly life altering journey. Next time I’ll give a brief summary of what I have been through and what it means to me at this juncture in time. Come back then…
And so don’t forget you can still help with the project, and we will be moving everything to Tbilisi Georgia. Donate here through PayPal.
I’ve discovered a lost world just this week.
And I mean that. I’m not talking in hyperbole.
I was ushered into a room that had the puppetry equivalent of King Tut’s treasures in it. Collecting the dust of years. Made by a name seemingly opaque to the world of puppets, puppet films, puppetry animation, never mind the big world. More than once my jaw was firmly resting on the floor with the miniature spectacle being revealed to me. I found a lost world this week, the world of forgotten Georgian puppet animator Karlo Sulakauri.
I originally visited Tbilisi Georgia in March of 2016. One of the tiny museums I tried to get into was what the Georgian Museums site called the Animated Puppet Museum. I had dutifully, eagerly hunted it down, going so far as to navigate the cryptic bus system to end up at 23 Amagleba Street. All I found was a locked door, the most paint cracked door imaginable, with an old rusty plaque on it that read ‘Karlo Sulakaure – Puppetton (?) Animation Doll Museum’. A ringing of the bell and knocks on the door produced no sound. Trying to peer into the windows proved impossible. The other puppet folk in Tbilisi didn’t even know of the existence of this place. I wrote to the email addresses listed on the Georgian Museums page. Silence.
I wrote a note to the Quay brothers about it. They immediately saw the extreme possibility of what might lay behind that door. They wrote back: “The plaque of the Puppet Museum is very moving and poignant. Somebody probably walked out, locked up, and then passed away and that person had the only key and he/she was buried with it, and the museum as well. But you must try to get into it.” I took that as a command. But to no avail. Like the spectral house in Shirley Jackson’s Daemon Lover, no one ever came to the door. Whenever I mentioned it to people who might know something they just looked at me with a puzzled hopeless expression. And so I left Tbilisi and all I had was the mysterious plaque in a photograph.
I arrived back in Tbilisi in late December of 2017 for an extended three month stay. I would meet more people. Occasionally I asked about the museum. No one knew anything. Then at the beginning of February, reflecting on the older photo, I thought again about the museum and then remembered the Quays command. I thought let’s give it one more try. So I wrote to the email addresses still listed on the museum website.
A few days passed.
And then I received a response from someone named Daro Sulakauri. Originally I thought it was a man, but it is hard to tell male and female names apart in Georgian. Tako is girl. Toko is a boy. Daro proved to be the granddaughter of Karlo Sulakauri, who had made animated films from the 1950s until the 1980s in the old Soviet Union. The little museum featured his work exclusively. Daro would be happy to open the door to the ‘Puppetton Animation Doll Museum’ and to give me a private showing. I had no idea what to expect. But it would take longer than I expected to get in. Daro is a photojournalist who works for international magazines like National Geographic or Georgian Journal, etc and she was often out on assignment. I had to wait. But what else is new? This is Georgia. I’m getting used to it.
Eventually Daro’s schedule proved favorable to a visit. And so I took the bus up to Amagleba Street and stood again at the decaying door. I pressed the doorbell. No answer. But I assumed that she would be coming from somewhere else. I was wrong though. Shortly before the appointed time a pleasant curly haired young woman wearing glasses opened the door with a friendly smile. She didn’t know I was there. The doorbell didn’t work. I should have knocked.
But as I stepped in I was suddenly presented with a very tactile colorful artistic stairway leading up to the first floor. But we stepped under it and back passed piles of stored boxes and other debris. Daro opened up a door and flipped a light switch. I was sidetracked by some art on the wall. And then I turned my attention to the room. And as we entered I must have gasped. I had expected some children’s puppetry. It turned out that Elene at Budrugana Gagra did know about this place. In fact they used to practice underneath in the basement, in what is now a restaurant. (This happens all the time here. Someone says they don’t know what you mean. Then it turns out they know much more than they said.) Elene had shown me a couple of pages in a book on Georgian animation. A thick book! And it seemed like pleasant work. But none of those images prepared me for what I was about to discover. Karlo Sulakauri wasn’t just an animator, he was an artist with a complete aesthetic vision. And no one seemed to know anything about him.
But Daro knew a lot. We spoke as she pointed things out. I waited a moment before beginning to photograph the collection. I was just trying to take it all in. Once my eyes adjusted I began to see images of creatures and people that I had never seen before. There was an old man in a wagon. I saw strange assemblages on the wall made many years ago that looked like they could have been found in a Soho gallery today. There were strange figures with even stranger lips. A tree man, I think, made of of wood. Look again and that old man had a strange grin. There were old posters of puppet shows from the mid-20th Century. Photos of Karlo and his film crew. Deformed asymmetrical puppets. A wicker figure. A large spider with a weird painted abdomen. A wooden flute with insectoid notes emerging from it. And most impressively, even eerily, of all I was struck by an insect/bird/moth/fairy that was battered with age and set against a ragged aquamarine background.
And as I spoke with Daro fragments of Karlo’s life began to revealed. And I soon recognized an absolutely dramatic story in the telling. And later I would hear even more of the tale from Daro’s father, Karlo’s son, Dato. Meanwhile I began to discuss even more with Daro, which eventually settled upon the topic near and dear to many Georgians – music. Then Daro introduced me to her husband, an electronic DJ, Giorgi Kancheli. And soon we were sitting in his studio listening to music and discussing the vinyl LP, of which he had a respectable collection. And I realized that there was something in the way Georgians talk that is at once open to new ideas, yet simultaneously respectful of traditions. Meanwhile I was smitten by the art all over the house. Much was by Dato. One wall tapestry arrested me for its use of textures. This was made by Daro’s mother, Nino Kipshidze. Then Daro pointed out a portrait of her mother in her youth as drawn by the famous Soviet Era filmmaker, Tbilisi born Armenian, Sergei Parajanov. In fact the creativity of this lineage of human beings was quite something to behold. And soon I would see just how much more there was.
Daro drove us through the back streets of Tbilisi until we arrived at a building not too far from Rustaveli Square, yet complete hidden. A gently aging ornate wooden house similar in color to the paint behind the moth fairy. We were met at the door by Dato Sulakauri, who it turns out is a very respected painter in his own right, and his wife Nino Kipshidze, who actually runs the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art that I described in my last essay, and does fantastic patchwork art of her own in tapestries, based on traditional Georgian motifs. And the part of me that is desperate for texture really connected to one of her works back at the museum / Daro’s house. But it was Dato’s work here that caught me. His work too was often inspired by Georgian themes. And his encaustic (waxed based) ikons were beautifully rendered, being both primitive (you could see ancient Roman art in his paintings), contemporary (technique, style, intensity) and yet there was gratefully no trace of postmodern irony. I was so impressed that Dato noticed and eventually handed me a copy of a book of his work.
But I was here to discuss his father, Karlo. But not until Nino laid a small but wonderful table setting of wine, tea, cookies and jam. Eventually it was time to set up the camera and train the lens on Dato, who then through Daro, an excellent interpreter due her time spent in the USA. (But that’s a long story better left for another time.) Then came the story of Karlo Sulakauri, which touched me in its complexity, heartbreak, drama and epiphany. How can I possibly do it justice? Perhaps a few details.
Karlo left Georgia to work in puppetry under the great Sergei Obraztsov. Obraztsov soon recognized his talent and sent him back to Tbilisi to work on animation films. He made a series of animated films including Soviet childhood classic Bombora, Salamura (a serious and impossible to classify hour long film based on the work of poet E. Kipiani), Dolls Laugh, and a unique film whose title translates into Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale. Sadly the only copies of these films available for anyone to see are muddy copies on YouTube in the Georgian and Russian alphabets and certainly no subtitles. Supposedly at least some of the films still exist in vaults in Moscow, but who knows in what condition. (I’ve linked Salamura and Fairy Tale Within A Fairy Tale which are highly worth watching even in this form.)
But that’s only the beginning of the issues surrounding these films. The Soviet apparatchik producers were playing a strange game with the puppets, which involved destroying the figures in front of Sulakauri at the end of production in order to embezzle the money needed to produce more puppets. Sulakauri was able to smuggle out duplicates of many of the puppets. But many precious originals were cut in half before his eyes. And then there was a fire that swept through the Tbilisi studio. Sulakauri actually risked his life to rescue the puppets that now live in this museum. There were strange issues with the censors. Sulakauri would put in ambiguous images like a red Kremlin shaped building that was filled with clowns. Hmmm. What kind of symbolism could that contain? When asked, he waved away their correct suspicions by saying it was just the clown house. They made him paint it white. But the point was still being made. In another episode Sulakauri put a subliminal image of St. George. But they caught it when they happened to freeze frame the film accidentally in that exact spot.
After the end of the Soviet Empire, in the early 90s, when Georgia was independent but caught in an internal civil war, fighting spread to the streets on Rustaveli Avenue. Sulakauri watched on helplessly. The main body of his work was finished. Yet he was inspired to make a new piece. He worked on it for over a year. He wanted the strife to end. This was to be his masterpiece. When it was finished he took it to be developed. As it was running through the developing machine the electricity suddenly failed, as happened often in Georgia in the 90s. The entire film was ruined. Sulakauri was devastated. He gave up on filmmaking, never to make another film. His depression was serious. It was the birth of his grandchildren that brought joy to his final days. He died in the year 2000.
And so his collection has remained pretty much where he left it ever since then. Collecting dust. Awaiting rediscovery. This small museum was occasionally open. But not for some time. And it was his granddaughter Daro, now living in that house, who opened the door for me to see these treasures. I told her that I was absolutely stunned and honored to be able to see these things. I also told her that puppet animation history needs to be rewritten to include Karlo Sulakauri. My time with the Sulakauris was deeply moving on many levels. And I felt grateful to be allowed a step into their world.
When I arrived at my apartment on Vazha-Pshavela Avenue I did a little online homework. I accessed the archives at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. Not a mention of Sulakauri. Nothing on Wikipedia. He is listed as Carlo (sic) Sulakauri in IMDb. I guess someone thought he was Italian. There was very little information there. Not even his dates (1924 – 2000). I was more convinced than ever that others, especially animators, need to know who he was. And so this essay along with my photos is a first step to informing the rest of the world about him.
There was one final thing that Dato told me that said me everything about his father. When he was just a six year old boy a traveling puppet troupe had come through his village. Later the family realized that Karlo was missing. Everyone searched the village. Karlo was nowhere to be found. The whole village was worried. Eventually it was discovered that young Karlo had stowed away to join the traveling puppet show.
Many more discoveries are awaiting. So come back again soon. (Or stop now and read our past encounters with European puppets, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and more.)
For more information about Dato Sulakauri’s art:
For more information about Daro Sulakauri’s photojournalism:
I’ve written more on the unique world of Georgian artists here:
And remember we are still funding this project from the bottom of very shallow pockets and can still use all the help we can get. We are grateful for recent PayPal contributions that really meant much more than can be expressed here. If you wish to help out please feel free to make a contribution. You can also share this story with others. Thanks for the continuing encouragement.
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
My primary reason for coming to Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy was not to see the mysterious hanging corpses of the Catacombes Dei Cappuccini (though I confess that was quite high on my list of reasons) but rather to see some other antique pendulous figures, Opera Dei Pupi, the Sicilian Marionettes. Whose lineage goes back perhaps 250 years to the late Eighteenth Century with versions being referred to in both Naples (Napoli) and Sicilia. Now stringed marionettes as we usually think of them go back much further. But the Sicilian versions developed in a very specific way that continues down to this date.
Opera dei pupi does not mean ‘puppet opera’, they certainly aren’t performing Verdi with these marionettes, then again as Enzo Mancuso pointed out, marionette isn’t the right word either. The Italians have the word marionette and they have other words for puppets too, burratini are hand/glove puppets, fantoccini are trick puppets. In fact the word for all types of puppets considered together is burratini. But pupi are the puppets that are specific to this Sicilian style. They have a couple of strings, real marionettes can have nine or more, and they also have a metal rod attached to the head and often to one hand. This is quite similar to the puppets at Toone in Brussels, whose style is derived from Sicily, although no one can quite point to exactly when and how. Possibly through a wandering puppeteer. But another feature, and this is similar to Toone as well, is the size of the pupi. They are one third scale, one third the size of a human being. And since there is wood involved, this makes the pupi quite heavy. Then there are major differences between the Toone style and the pupi, obviously the Belgians didn’t quite get the whole recipe for their pupi influenced marionettes.
One difference is that the pupi are almost always heavily armored, which, while the metal is light, adds even more to the weight, I didn’t see any women behind the scene hefting these weighty figures, unlike in Brussels. Next the pupi often perform feats that require much more mechanical invention. So both Toone puppets and Sicilian pupi will feature decapitation during a fight. But for the Toone puppets to pick up a sword or any other objects is a lovably clunky affair. The pupi on the other hand simply reach down to the scabbard pull out a sword and then have a hard clanking fight with it. And then they put it back with ease. And all of this happens gracefully, seemingly in one motion. Also not only do the pupi lose their heads, but their faces are slit in half, whole bodies sliced down the middle, legs separated from torsos, arrows launched into the knights and much more. During their plays there has to be a big battle scene. One brave character, usually Orlando, stands against all comers.
And then there is the noise, like Palermo itself, these are loud puppet shows. One young girl brought to an evening show kept her hands over her ears from the moment she entered the theatre until about two thirds of the way into the show when she finally just gave in and went with it. And the puppeteers wears a special wooden shoe to make even more noise on the wooden stage. And other special devices are used backstage to create more sounds. And finally it is all topped off with a special hand cranked player piano device that was obviously created over a hundred years ago and gives the action a charming antique chaos as pupi clash while the actors’ voices are histrionically exaggerated with vocal quavers and taunts. And when you get a whole room full of children who laugh and cheer at every act of violence and special mechanical trick you get the full dissonant catastrophe. All in all quite a spectacle!
My first stop was at Il Museo internazionale delle marionette (the International museum of puppetry), one of the best puppet museums I’ve yet discovered. (Someday I should list the various puppet museums I’ve visited.) Naturally one assumes that they will have a very thorough display of Sicilian pupi, and they most certainly do. Along with hand burratini, featuring commedia dell’arte figures and many other classic European puppets. But beyond that they had quite a full representation of puppets from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Africa. Plus a few Modernist puppets. All in all a worthy collection complete with a pupi theatre. And an interesting selection of books for sale. Now the difficulty with the museum from my perspective was that it was difficult to communicate with the front desk staff because English is simply not well spoken in Sicily. Eventually I bought a ticket and looked to find someone who could help me. I did find a woman who spoke a bit of English. She then introduced me to Monica Campo who was fluent. They told me that I could come back the next day at noon and would be granted an interview with the director. Well that was good news. And I would certainly return.
On the following day, Monica greeted me, I had come early to set up my tripod and camera. And to get a feel for the light. Eventually I was introduced to Rosario Perricone, il direttore. Rosario was a man in his prime, several days growth of stubble, a trend down here, and obviously a very intelligent and vigorous man. When I first started Monica translated line for line. Then Rosario had another idea. He would speak for a while and she would summarize. And so he began. It was like turning on a fire hose. He spoke in lightning speed for about 15 minutes. Probably containing 40 minutes worth of any other interview I’ve done. Surprisingly I was able to follow the general tone of what he was saying. I knew enough Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, plus theatrical and puppetry words to hear a variety of concepts being addressed. When he finished I turned to Monica with a smile as if to say ‘Well?’ She smiled back. Rosario left the room for a while as I discussed the impressions I had of what he had said. Then Rosario returned and we did this a couple more times. I also got an answer to a question I’ve had for a while: What is the oldest continual puppet theatre in Europe? And the answer technically still is the Toone theatre in Brussels. But there has been a family with a longer history in Sicily, going back to the late 18th Century. (I would have to get the interview translated to tell you the name.) At one point I asked about the point of puppets in the 21st Century, when we have so many other kinds of entertainment and art mostly coming at us through screens. Uncharacteristically he struggled for his words and then carefully said a couple of sentences. We could all tell that something worthy of the subject had been said. Even Rosario asked for a copy of his statement. I won’t give my impression of it now, except to say that, yes, we do in fact need puppetry in this time. (Monica will help translate this for me later.) All in all it was an excellent interview and prepared me to see a real show of the opera dei pupi.
One teatro dei pupi had responded to my translated messages, Opera dei Pupi teatro Carlo Magno Enzo Mancuso. I stumbled around near the docks until I came upon the teatro on a narrow side street festooned with graffiti.I had been supposed to come earlier, but that was at the exact same time as the interview the Rosario Perricone. So I had to honor my earlier commitment. That was fine. Enzo and crew were happy to have me no matter what. I attended two performances, the first an evening show, which was sparsely attended. The next morning at 10 a show packed with children between about 7 and 10 years old. The shows were similar. The audiences were not. The children howled and squealed with delight. Though their guardians shushed them, sometimes making more noise than the children in doing so.
But in both cases we were treated to the legendary exploits of Orlando, who fought off the Moors near Poitiers in France around the time of Charlemagne. This was about as gleefully politically incorrect in this age of hyper-sensitivity as you could want. And as relevant. Many folks have forgotten how close the Islamic invasion was to sweeping into all of Europe. And these stories keep that fact alive. And as far as I could tell the Islamic side was treated fairly in these legends as portrayed in these Sicilian narratives. In the past the story of Orlando Furioso was done as a long continuing saga. Some versions had over 300 parts. With a heavy reliance on cliffhanger endings. But as Rosario explained to me by the 1960’s the Opera Dei Pupi was pretty much dead. People just didn’t want these old fashioned things anymore. But there was a revival ironically through left wing political sources, just as they had been behind the folk music revival in America. And one of the things that happened was that the plays became self contained. No more endless cliffhanging, no more long drawn out legends. The same stories of Orlando and Renaldo would be told. And there were many different stories. But now they resolved. Slowly also they attracted a tourist audience as well. And they were played for school children. As I witnessed.
Now one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s show was that Enzo, a swaggering burly guy capable of lifting the heavy pupi and making a lot of noise, introduced the show by explaining to the children the difference between history and legend, and about the time of Charlemagne. Now when I say that he introduced the show, please do not imagine someone getting up to talk for a few minutes and then saying ‘Okay let’s watch the show!’ Oh no. His introduction lasted easily a half an hour. And he asked the bambini questions and they asked him questions. And he poked fun at them. And they poked fun at him. All the while he went into great detail about opera dei pupi. And after the rip-roaring show he came out again and showed us many of his special effects and devices, how the swords were done, the strange sounds they made. It was absolutely fascinating. And once again I realized that how you deal with children says so much about the culture. Watch the pupi was in fact a step on the road becoming Sicilian. And in the incredible battles and over the top noise and wild language there was something deeply Sicilian in all of this. And one thing you can say, Sicily is not a society for wimps. And Orlando is incredibly furioso.
Enzo and his co-performer Giovanni Battista Rappa didn’t speak much English but they were magnanimous and welcoming all the same. I was treated well as a fellow puppeteer and as someone who had entered another country with it’s own rules. Not Italy. Not Sicily. Not even Palermo. But the Opera dei Pupi. And I was extremely grateful to have entered this strange, unique, utterly human world of puppets and puppeteers.
On the train to London from Paris
And sometimes you just have to make observations apropos of nothing. Travel does that to you. You see things that puzzle and intrigue you, amaze and amuse you. And so in no particular order here are a few dispatches from the road.
First of all there’s that moment when you enter a new country with a language you don’t understand. And that happened this time in Italy. I decided to break my tradition of avoiding it (for reasons of humility) and get myself down to Sicily, which I’ll write about soon. But here’s the confusing part. So I take a train from Switzerland to Italy. (I was really expecting the tunnel through the Alps to be longer.) I get out at Milan, which was just going to be a train transfer on my way to Genoa (Genova), where they still are quite proud of Cristoforo Colombo. I see that I have arrived early enough to jump on an early train so I don’t have to wait at the Milan train station for two hours. So far so good. An hour ride deposits me at Genova Centrale. I have a map, or rather a Google page, that is suppose to guide me. I get out of the station carrying my backpack load. And I start walking the direction I think I should be going. But it doesn’t feel right. I walk a bit further and nothing is resolving. Then I realize I should have gone another direction. So I go back to station and try another road, which doesn’t feel right either because its straight up hill. And supposedly I’m near the Mediterranean. At this point I just wanted a real map made out of paper. Finally I give up and go back to the white taxis I saw near the station. I use my few words of Italian and then find out my short ride is going to cost me 15 euros. Almost $20. And this is for a ride about five minutes. But the taxi driver indicates it’s ‘standard’. And so we take off. And then I get a shock. I was completely turned around. I was walking the absolutely wrong direction. And so I became grateful for my expensive little ride.
Another thing worth discussing here is sickness. Let’s just face it. If you aren’t on a slick two week package tour you are going to eventually get some foreign illness you’ve never had before. In 2012 I received two different strains of the local cold. In 2016 I had gastroenteritis so bad I was bleeding. And if I didn’t know what it was I would have been very worried. And this year I received a whopping fever. And here’s the point of all of this. In each of these cases the culprit seemed to be the Paris Metro. And specifically holding the metal poles, the perfect conductor of germs and bacteria. And I always forget to bring hand sanitizer. I also get the feeling the Europeans aren’t nearly as germophobic as we Americans are. So there’s not much to do but get sick.
And when you are sick travel changes immensely. New foods that might have seemed interesting to try now seem unappetizing. The customs of the locals seem all wrong. Does no one ever cover their face when they sneeze or cough? And they never have the kinds of things you want when you have a cold. But that’s okay there really isn’t anything you can do but rest, drink liquids and build up your body’s immunities.
On the subject of food I’ve been pushing it further this time. Of course there is French food, which I love. And yet I always have to get used to the fact I’ll be on a largely bready diet while in la francophonie. But also there are so many wonderful things that I can scarcely contain my desire to try as much as possible. There is a guy who sells cheese at the Sunday market in Les Häye les Roses where I stay while in Paris. And I am sure that this man alone knows more about cheese than everyone in the state of Alaska put together. And I have eaten cheeses that are so good I just want to cry.
And I have tried new things mate. In Brussels the central Carrefour had kangaroo meat! And since I actually had cooking facilities for once. I decided to give a try. Not bad actually. Tastes a bit like beef, without the heavy fatty feel and it had a bit of a tang to it. I didn’t get to the zebra meet sitting next to it though. But I cook up a little horse in Switzerland.
Also in Belgium I finally had Belgian frites, the original French fries. And here’s what I have to say. Astounding! They are thicker, with an amazing crust. And a wonderful flavor which I’m told comes from frying them twice in beef fat!?! Which is about as healthy as injecting pure cholesterol. But oh my! It was worth it. They actually had a big health issue over this. But the traditional frites makers argued that this is the tradition. And they won. And God bless them. Just don’t eat les frites too often.
And does everyone have annoying music on their phones in Italy? And do they ever use their earbuds? Why do I need to hear the pointless video you are watching on the bus? (Gripe number 326.) And no one seems to care. And then there is the ubiquitous presence of terrible electronic dance music, especially the excrescence know as nightcore, which involves taking old pop songs and adding new music to a vocal track sped up to chipmunk speed. This just strikes me as the most anti-musical notion I’ve ever heard.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I forgot to mention my time spent in the Museum of the Ardennes. I had been there before, but the second time was just as enlightening. And I was able to get better photos this time. And I had a chance to watch the marionette clock work from the inside!
Speaking of museums? Yeah, I went to one of the greatest museums on earth, the Vatican Museum. I’ll save my thoughts about the contents for later. But let me get a couple more gripes off my chest about tourists. Two things drove me crazy this time round. It’s happened before but this time I’ve got to say something. Are we done with smartphones yet? These things are really polluting reality. You enter the Sistine Chapel, which clearly is marked No Photos. Guards are saying ‘NO PHOTO’ over and over. And still people can’t stop. Someone really needs to invent a phone jammer. And smartphone selfies? I have no end to my disquiet over those who can only experience something by putting themselves in front it. Once in a while. Okay. It proves you were there. All the time? It proves you weren’t. Period.
Next: Tour groups following people with flags. Does this mean you do not have to pay attention to anything at all? A whole group just stops and blocks walking traffic. No one can get around them. They look at no one. And in a place like the Vatican? (I’ve heard that that the Tokyo trains are less crowded.) My advice when you travel: Do not take a tour group anywhere that is already crowded. Period. To take a tour group when you are the only ones in the building? Exceptionally great idea. But a tour group (or thirty) with five thousand others swarming you. Stay home. Or come alone. You are just in the way.
And finally there are just the inexplicable things. In Brussels early in the morning, around 6, twice I heard this strange mysterious piping. 5 or 6 notes. High shrill. Discordant. Played at irregular intervals out in the near distance. It was not a bird. It sounded like a piccolo, even higher. But it wasn’t. It reminded me of the mad piping of the blind idiot god in H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories… and that’s something I’m not about to discuss here.
Instead let me end this praising Sicilian, more specifically Palermo, Palermitan, street food and a mention of two items in particular, stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat guts) and pane ca meusa (a spleen sandwich). Wow! I’m just impressed. I’d say one of the top three reasons to get down to Sicily is the food. (There is something for everyone.) End of essay. Go!
But we’ll discuss Palermo and Sicily next time. Stick around for that one. It’s about life and death. And that’s no metaphor.
From Rome, the Eternal City
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive and now broken glass on my laptop screen. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful.
One thing that now stands out as I travel Europe investigating puppetry is that popular culture is now nearly synonymous with geek culture, Geekdom. Trying to find a film genuinely made for adults is getting harder than five year aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Somehow Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk slipped through the maw into the light of summer, of all times. But these days we are inveigled, assaulted and seduced by a digital overload from the Marvel or DC Universes, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pixar, etc. and a host of lesser lights in the firmament. In Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Institute of Puppetry, all I could find media-wise on the streets was a video game store. I’m old enough to remember when genuinely mature fare was a ready part of the diet of normal college students. I remember walking into films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky, with audiences expectant to see the latest work from a master filmmaker. Even in the 90’s one could walk into a film like The Piano or Silence of Lambs and expect to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, challenged by the proceedings. Later in the 21st Century films by Scorsese or especially a masterpiece like Polanski’s The Pianist seemed like the final hours of dying art, remnants of an age now departed. Except of course among film geeks!
But I know what you are thinking. Cranky older guy misses his youth. Not really. I don’t mind living now at all. The Seventies were dark as pitch. The Eighties as plastic as a Fischer-Price toy. Each age has its splendors and agonies. But Geekdom is something that truly worries me. This neotenic refusal to mature. This vice of cynical cuteness. The smirking cultic know-it-all attitude about what truly amounts to nothing at all. And please don’t assume that I have stayed above the fray, never dived into the deep end of the nerd pool, oh I have. But not once in my life would I ever consider myself a geek. And no one has ever dared accuse me of such a thing. You see I know the actual etymology of the word geek. It was a word I used freely as it crawled up that last step from the sludge heap to arrive on the steps of pop culture in the 80’s. Back when the geek was the carny who would swallow anything for a buck. I knew this word inside out before its current usage. And how do they relate? I believe it is this. Today’s geek will quite literally swallow anything related to her specialized fan province. And most pop culture today, nitro-charged by the internet, has taken on the gustatory perceptions of the geek, the real one.
Now one of the fascinating things about my explorations into puppetry is that generally puppeteers are not geeks at all. There is no model for what constitutes a puppeteer, at least in Europe. In America there is one kind of puppet that inspires complete geeky dedication. And that is the Muppet. With their soft bodies and loopy childish features they act like clever nursery rhymes come to life. (We can thank Sesame Street for that.) But they are a rare case. Most puppets do not inspire the sectarian devotion that anime or video games do.
Well this actually is a complex question. On the surface the puppet has many of the same features that attract the geek: They sometimes have big eyes. They are often associated with children. They wear odd clothes and can talk strangely. Yet even among the most durable of European puppets, Guignol, Spejbl, and Punch, no large fandom has ever manifested itself. Yet one could easily imagine such a thing developing. Well not with Punch… he kills children after all! And though the Lyon city government has tried, Guignol remains a childhood friend more than another geek speciality. And Spejbl, being Czech, is much too eccentric for most people and has only really spread into Germany, an old story.
And that’s the ironic thing… puppets are genuinely obscure culturally. And the geek would rather be ahead of the curve by liking some game or film that most people haven’t really heard of yet… but not too far ahead. Or behind. Most animation geeks love film styles like Anime. (Yet most have never heard of Alakazam the Great.) And they love Pixar or Claymation. (Yet would look at you quizzically if you mentioned Emil Cohl or Charley Bowers. And then say ‘Ooh but that’s old.’) And what does that make me for being able to pull these historical roots out at every juncture. King Geek? Oh man just hand me that chicken and let me bite its head off now!
But age is exactly the problem here. The vast majority of geeks (except again film geeks) are stuck in a time loop between here and Star Wars, to affix an obvious marker. The geek needs the prefabricated structure of the commercial product, or the thing they are betting on to become the next big thing. The geek thinks about costumes, learning the languages (I forgive you Tolkien for every hack who thought they could cook up a fantasy language. Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban excepted.), and postulated what would happen if…. (In a geeky badly drawn online comic I would have a dark black scribble in my thought balloon right now.) In Geekdom the commercial image system, including fan art, is everything. It is an extreme fetishization of the some of most commercial and technological products ever made. It also breeds a sad intolerance for the real, the unique, the profound.
Nabokov somewhere said that mediocre readers identify with the characters, great ones look for the author’s intentions. C.S. Lewis, currently spinning in his grave over the rising of Christian Geekdom (someone actually has a site called Thy Geekdom Come which I’d better not discuss since I might jump off the train I’m riding in a fit of nausea… Everything can be justified by the clever.), made similar points in his crucial book, an Experiment In Criticism, where he said that the reading of the many was often a means to construct egoistic sandcastles for themselves, where the reader is “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women.” Whereas the reading of a few was different, something else was happening. Geek culture too often demonstrates Lewis’ sandcastle building par excellance.
And this brings us back to puppets. Most puppets are resistant to Geekdom for a very good reason. Each one is a physical object. Each one is made individually. Each one shows signs of aging. They are not endlessly repeatable commodities. They remind us that to be human is to have weight and mass. And most importantly they have a mystery to them, which becomes very evident if you stand in a puppet museum with dim light. Geeks have a real problem with mystery. The unresolved kind. The thing that won’t leave you alone and keeps you up at night. The thing that reminds you that you too are created. The thing it’s hard to be cynical about. Geeks want to explore every possibility with their prefab characters. Including the dorky and the sexual. Have you ever heard of ‘shipping’?
When I entered the room to give my presentation to a few students in Charleville-Mézières at the International Institute of Puppetry. Many of them immediately got what I was trying to say. Fantastic creatures though they are, puppets are resistant to flattening deadness of this age and nowhere is the more evident than in Geekdom, for whom the physical surfaces of the world are so contaminated, in Gnostic sense, that they have retreated up the ladder to escape from it into the virtual world, only to discover that rather than ascending into a new form of consciousness, they have found the slide that whisks you down past the level of the clowns. (But that’s another story isn’t it.)
Meanwhile I continue to explore the tangible and tactile and pray that others do as well. In the end nothing virtual will save us.
On a train to Geneva Switzerland
So I took the Ouibus to Lyon. Buses are the cheapest way to travel in France, though I much prefer the train. But in the interest of economy I booked with an official SNCF spin off called Ouibus (Yes-Bus). Entering or leaving a big French city like Paris or Lyon is a start stop affair that continues for several kilometers before or after the actual city. Don’t plan on getting anything done during this period. And I do mean simple things like using the bus’ toilet. I nearly cracked my skull open as we entered Lyon on the highway to the beginnings of the start stop scenario. But I was greeted by the friendly face of Paulette Caron who would be my host for five days in a small apartment not too far from the old town and the Guignol theatre where Paulette performs.
Now interestingly the fact that Paulette lives in Lyon now and performs with Compagnie Coulisses at the Théâtre Le Guignol De Lyon is indirectly related to our last visit to Lyon and the help she gave me as a translator for my interviews for Gravity From Above. So now that she is performing for a small contemporary troupe of guignolistes in Lyon has something to do with our friendship, which goes back to my 2012 journey.
But before what I could see what she was doing I was asked to help document a more traditional Guignol show by a related troupe, who works out of the same théâtre, Compagnie MA (pronounced like the name Emma). And so the second day I was there I went down to the theatre to take photos and shoot footage backstage as the show was happening. Which involved moving like a dancer to stay out of the way. But they trusted me to do it so I did. Now as the show continued I noticed something different. The middle school aged kids in the audience weren’t reacting the way French kids normally do. No shouting, no talking back to Guignol. Only one outbreak of laughter. To me the show seemed ridiculously funny at times. And yet…
But it turns out that they were German students on a field trip to understand French culture. And the only time they laughed was when one of the puppets said ‘Ja wohl!’ once. Nevertheless they were very appreciative at the end and eagerly went backstage, a Lyon Guignol tradition, to look at the puppets.
Then I was allowed to watch Compagnie Coulisses practice their show Monsieur Choufleuri, an Offenbach Operetta farce done with both live actors and and opera singers. The opera singers weren’t their for the rehearsals. There is a pecking order here and puppeteers aren’t on top. But the puppets were mirroring the opera singers and so could practice without them. I would watch a full show the next day.
While I was staying at Paulette’s apartment I soon discovered it was like waiting at a bus stop with people getting off and on visiting often. I stayed in the living room on a couch that opened up and I claim about a meter’s worth of space for myself. The view from that room was antique cliff face and ancient stairs going to who knows where. The view from toilette was one of the nest I’ve ever had. Though predictably the actual mechanics of throne was as funky as I’ve ever encountered in France. My theory, the French care about food on the way in but don’t make a big deal about it on the way out. We Americans are just the opposite.
While there I spent more time enjoying the company Paulette’s friend Simon. Then there was Alexandre-David, who’s occupation remains a mystery. Then came the girl they kept calling Mary, but who was clearly Marie. She came as I was sitting alone writing in the living room. I heard the door opened. And I knew that she was due to arrive. Paulette said that I would like her. And indeed I did, from nearly the first moment when I emerged from the living room we started a conversation by turns and funny and meaningful, which is decidedly not finished. Then there were the people at the theatre, Paulette and Simon’s family members. And one things struck me again was how physical the French were. Than touching each other and talking was as natural as breathing. And it was curious to me that while there was the presence of the usual technological suspects, at least among these people you rarely saw it interfere with real life. (And if you are one of those folks who say things like “But what is real life?” you probably don’t have one.)
I finally got to watch the entire Monsieur Choufleuri complete with opera singers. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would take the light operetta. But surprisingly I was thoroughly engaged. And somehow transported back to the 19th Century when this was a real night’s entertainment for the bourgeois. The music was far catchier than I had expected it to be. Offenbach is known mostly for the Can-Can in Gaiety Parisienne. And so except for one problem it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
And that one thing was this: Somewhere, most likely back on Paris Metro on a stainless steel pole that I was forced to hold for far too long, I had contracted a bug. It’s first manifestation was as a very occasional dry cough. But by the night of Monsieur Choufleuri, it had become a full blown fever. So weak was I by the time the play was over that I simply begged out of the post show gathering and walked home. I trudged up the stairs. My joints ached. My head throbbed. I was bone tired. And when I arrived near the top of the dark twisty stairway I discovered that the key was not not under the mat. But I was too drained to walk back. To sick to even concentrate on typing Paulette a message on my dumbphone. And so I sat there for 15 minutes before Alexandre-David and a friend arrived to let me in. I would have stayed there hours if needed.
The night was feverish and then sweaty. But curiously the next morning Marie, who knew that I was ill, chose to kiss me on the cheeks rather than worry about contracting the grippe. And I thought the French are so entwined with each other that no wonder so many died in the Black Death. Seriously though I was moved by that.
I spent the day exhausted and slept. I didn’t eat anything until around 6pm and the it was just a couple of eggs. I did trudge off in the morning briefly because I needed to go the bank and also get plenty of liquids. And cold peach tea was the thing my body was most grateful for. Looking back I think it had something to do with the loss of electrolytes in my system. But whatever it was, nothing has ever tasted as good as cold bottled peach tea did.
Eventually it was time to leave. I enjoyed my stay in Lyon. And as always it was deeply meaningful to spend time with my good friend Paulette Caron again. And to make new friends through her. Even with a fever. (Sadly the photos I took of these new friends were accidentally erased.)
I felt well enough to travel to Switzerland and so I left early in the morning towards the Swiss phase of my journey.
Written on board La Superba in the Mediterranean on the way to Palermo.
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
I was whisked from Brussels back to Paris on the TGV. Sitting next to me was a young woman in sloppily dyed greenish/blondish hair reading Russian. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that Olga worked for one of the three larger media conglomerates in Moscow and within a few moments she revealed to me the depth of the state control on all the media outlets there. I don’t think writing this will get her in trouble since Olga is an extremely common name (though the green tint not so much), and she didn’t act particularly worried about it, and besides I suspect that these essays are on no one’s radar. She was taking a break to come look for art in Paris and was quite curious about the Symbolist museum I’d visited in Brussels. She was also going to see a progressive metal concert in Paris the same night I was scheduled to catch up with the Gabriadze Theatre’s performance of Ramona. I helped her get situated at Gare de l’Est and the continued on by metro and bus to L’Häye Les Roses in the southern banlieue of Paris to stay with Paulette’s parents Gilles and Lori Caron.
This was my home base on my journey through Europe and I would be breaking bread and sharing good conversation with them off and on until I finally took a plane to Georgia in late December. I also was getting to know Paulette’s younger brother Julian, who is an avid gamer and is aware that his chosen field is a battleground of sorts. He is working on a theses concerning the sociology of gaming. And was aware the some aspects of gaming had an extremely addictive quality built into them by the designers (MMORPG’s for instance). He himself was actually working on games to be played in real time, without computers, roughly based on the old Dungeons and Dragon model. He could see the importance of not being disconnected from living breathing humanity. A worthy discussion was had all round.
Since I was only in Paris for a few days I decided to make the best of it. After a day off, working on practical chores, I decided go to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to see the Christian Dior retrospective. It was quite crowded but I’m quite glad I waded through the humanity to see Dior’s fashions. Part of my reason for coming was in my continuing to think about texture and its affect upon us. And indeed there was much food for thought here. (I thought of several friends who would have feasted on this exhibition.) Now I won’t say that everything in the show caught my eye. Occasionally there were the kinds of clothes that seemed too fashionable, too haute couture, for my tastes. But when confronted with actual items made of a vast variety of textures I was smitten by the way texture changes everything. And how so many clothes today (T-Shirts with slogans, yoga pants, gray sweat shirt material, various polyblends) see so lifeless by comparison. The weave of a fabric changes its texture, changes its meaning. While we, American’s are particularly bad at this, seem to have only one criterion left, comfort. But I was certainly converted to a more truly beautiful aesthetic by my stroll through this gargantuan exhibit.
Finally on the same November evening I took a bus over to Le Monfort théâtre in the 14th Arrondissement to see the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre’s production of Ramona. And this proved to be one of the best puppet shows I’d ever seen in my life. The story concerned two trains in the old USSR, one named Ramona, who are separated by the socialist call to duty during World War II. The trains are given character and the supporting cast of puppets were made largely of various socialist functionaries. The trains are constantly separated from each other by war, circumstances, and communist decrees. And in the end both trains are scrapped. And in the heartbreaking twist they are both melted down together to form one essence.
The puppeteers performed largely on a tabletop dressed in black faces exposed. Related to, but unlike, bunraku style. I approached one of the puppeteers after the show to introduce myself. He did speak English yet didn’t know exactly what he could do for me. But then as I turned to walk away the puppeteer called me back. He told me to wait while he called a man over to meet me. Rezo Gabriadze is no longer traveling with the troupe due to his age. But I was introduced to his son Leo and he was glad to meet me. And I will indeed be visiting them again in Tbilisi in 2018.
I also met another Russian, Irene, who was an actress come down from Saint Petersburg who had two months to try to get involved with French film or theatre before her visa expired. And something in her manner struck me in that elusive manner that only the Russians can generate; part mystery, part tragedy. All in all this little interlude proved to be evocative on many levels. And inspired many new thoughts and ideas.
Next stop: Lyon, France.
Besides revisiting Nicolas Géal I also had made a friend in Dimitri Jageneau along with his mother Biserka at Théâtre Royal du Peruchet and so I decided to take a bus out to see them as they performed a play based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child from The Jungle Book.
So I say I decided to take a bus. But finding out how to get there was really a work of serious deduction. Brussels’ bus and tram lines have baffled me before and in both of my trips out to Peruchet this time I was completely stymied. I wasn’t taking the method I had last year, because I couldn’t find a record of how I did it looking over my online records. The problem the first day was that the train for the second part of the trip was not due for 45 minutes after I arrived. And that spoiled my attempt to get there early. It also occurred to me that I might need another ticket for the train, that the one ticket for all might not include the train lines. (This is the problem with Google directions.) Fortunately no one asked nor were they likely to. So having figured out a way to make things work the first day you’d think I’d breeze through it again. Except for one big problem. It was November 1st, All Saints Day, or All Hallows, a date that means very little in America, (but the night before it does!) but in de-Christianized Europe it still survives as a major break on the calendar, much like Ascension Day. And I have been caught by this one before. And so the bus and train schedules were radically different from the day before. Eventually, with a great deal of exasperation, I managed to arrive in good enough time on both days, having allowed myself the grace to leave earlier than I needed for just this reason. Planned disarray?
Dimitri Jageneau feels like an old friend already. He has helped me with my crowdfunding and has taken me out in Brussels in early 2016 to a pub with puppets hanging from wall to wall. I enjoyed the time I spent here last year. So when we met it seems that we simply resumed our discussions about puppetry, in which I am very much the student still. He explained that theatre Peruchet is one of the few children’s puppet theatres still featuring marionettes, as opposed to glove/hand puppets. And they occupy a unique situation within the puppetry world, one he is keen to keep. But the problem is one of getting the help. His mother Biserka is his number one puppeteer, and she is getting older. Yet given the income of the theatre it is hard to train another puppeteer to take over the slot. He had a few younger people helping him, including Fernando and Velina. But neither were really puppeteers in waiting and they worked the door. Yet I did have good discussions with them.
I had a fascinating experience at one point I decided to take a few photos of their fantastic puppet museum again. This time I decided to leave the lights off and capture the puppets in the shadows. And this changed everything. I wished I could do that in every warehouse or museum featuring puppets. Dimitri kept coming in and asking if I needed light. But I didn’t. The way the darkness enveloped the puppets gave them even more of a sense of life than normal, which in turn gives me more ideas for possible ways of presenting puppets.
Eventually it was time for the show. Biserka came out to greet the children and to introduce the show which was going to explain once and for all how the elephant got his trunk. The marionettes were all flat made out of board, except for the elephant who seemed like a plush toy fallen on hard times. The story takes place on the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” And all manner of animals come round to discuss the insatiable curiosity of the manic little elephant. Finally shortly before the intermission the elephant child is caught in a struggle between the crocodile and the python when the curtain comes down. I’ve noticed in Belgium it is standard to have an intermission for selling refreshments and showing of a museum in even a short puppet show. Following the break Biserka rings the bell and then has a bit of a raffle and finally introduces part two for les enfants. And naturally, voila the elephant’s nose is now the long lovable hose we now know. Yet the young elephant doesn’t believe it looks oaky. The Peruchet puppet shows are certainly there to teach the children little lessons. And the Belgian children certainly like it. These shows have some give and take with the children, including singing songs mid-performance, but the Belgian style does not push the kids over the edge as the Parisian Guignol shows do. Though there is plenty of physical action.
When the children left the second show I showed Dimitri, Biserka and the others a sample of my trailer for Gravity From Above. They laughed when they saw themselves and were glad that it looked like I would be getting financial assistance from the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières. A visit to Peruchet in Belgium is to visit friends in puppetry. When in Belgium go find them and enjoy the show for yourself.
PS. Now we’ve had a crashed hard drive! Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne