We stood in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) of Old Lyon in the rain, where we were told to go, then to call Jean Paul Tabey, who would then appear somehow to show us into the chambers of Les Amis de Lyon et de Guignol (the Friends of Lyon and Guignol). Paulette Caron called on her cellphone to receive no answer. The rain continued and shelter near the Mairie was thin. We waited a few minutes and tried again. Voilà! Monsieur Tabey answered, then descended from within the Mairie to escort us to the small room of special historical documents related to the Canut (silk weaver) of Lyon. Tabey was an affable man who was proud to relate his own interest in Guignol which stretched back more than 40 years. M. Tabey was also largely responsible for providing much of the impetus and input for the show at the Gadagne Museum, Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre.
We filmed a discussion about the history of Guignol for over an hour. Several things emerged from the conversation, including Tabey’s concern that Guignol had been turned into a mascot of the tourist department of Lyon. There was a store that Paulette and I had walked into chock-full of Guignol tchotchkes: cups, posters, cards, games, etc. The concern was quite real. Not only that, the depiction of Guignol as a cute little figure was likewise troubling. As well as the fact that Guignol was becoming a universal character, more like a French Mickey Mouse than in his lyonnais original rascality. Guignol originally started as distraction from the howls of tooth pulling dentistry. If you get folks laughing hysterically they don’t tend to care so much about the screams on the other side of the canvas. And the shows were never intended for children to begin with. One of the differences between the Parisian and Lyonnais versions is that Lyon style can still be for adults sometimes and in Paris its pretty much exclusively for children.
Jean Paul Tabey said much more, but this gives you a flavor of his thinking. Like Daniel Streble he was convinced that Guignol was first and foremost a local personage of Lyon and should be speaking with lyonnais slang. But that wasn’t the only view to be had and we were about to meet a group of guignolistes with a very different perspective.
Le Collectif ZonZons began in 1994 and immediately staked out the territory of tradition mixed with modernity. In two different sessions we interviewed five different members of the troupe. Interestingly enough they were the same building as the Mairie. Stéphanie Lefort greeted us. Unfortunately their theatre was being renovated so we could not see one of their shows. (A quick visit to YouTube will unearth reduced versions of some of their work however.) Nevertheless we were taken into their atelier and had a chance to see their many marionnettes à gaines (glove puppets). They do children’s theatre, but also more serious dramas and farces. And the subject matter goes as far as having characters with burqas, and getting inside that loaded figure of recent French fear and mythology. In short they do indeed take the Guignol show and push the boundaries. And they have no problem with making Guignol universal.
Stéphanie Lefort, the Directrice of ZonZons not only agreed to be interviewed but set us up with five interviewees altogether. In my conversation with them it soon became clear that they wanted their puppets to speak to contemporary times, as Guignol often has done before. Julie Doyelle picked up the Muslim burqa woman puppet and began to voice her gentleness and voicelessness. A very still presence, overturning the many images of bomb smuggling Middle Eastern women that have permeated the news over the years. Alexandre Chetail came to life with a crazy looking puppet. Filip Auchère, one of the founders of Collectif ZonZons was thoughtful, philosophical and obviously ready for absolute Guignol craziness at the drop of a hat as well. Stéphanie saw puppetry as a means of real communication, but… there was a darker shadow. Filip pointed out the Spanish puppeteers who were arrested for doing an edgy show featuring Don Cristobal, the Spanish Punch. And in today’s nervous times, real political dialogue could lead to dangerous terrain.
All through this I surprised myself by understanding more than I thought I could, but Paulette was there to get me out of trouble and to clarify many points of confusion. Eventually we would separate so that I could continue on into Europe and she could get back to her regular life. But we would meet up again later in Prague. We ate one last meal in Lyon together, which I let her pick out, since French restaurants still slightly intimidate me. The large ferris wheel spun around in the square near the restaurant. Lyon and our many hosts had been quite good to us. I look forward to returning again someday. Hopefully to film Collectif ZonZons and the Gadagne Museum and to visit with the guignolistes once again.
For more on our visits to Lyon and on Guignol: