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.
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.
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 then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.
* (In Arca a film I made with Sasza Sandur.)
So I found myself on the northern French highways veering off into Belgium on my way to see a clown performance in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. The magnanimous Brigitte Behr was driving Paulette Caron (who had just arrived from Paris) and I to “Festival Clowns In Progress” to witness the antics of Ludor Citrik, a theatrical clown, not to be confused with a circus clown. If you’ve ever seen a version of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, you have a small idea of what a theatrical clown might be.
Now even knowing Godot and having seen a couple of clown plays in past European journeys did not quite prepare me for the full reality of les clowns. These theatrical clowns tend to have mutated into an extraordinarily loud, strange, mentally deranged, existentialist buffoons, for whom there are no taboos in an absurdist parody of life and living. They did not wear the make up that Americans tend to associate with clowns, but rather the additional, usually red, nose was essentially all one needed to cross the line. Some sloppy face paint usually completed the picture, along with badly fitting clothes. But what a line to be crossed. Evidently a European clown school is nowhere you’d want to go if you were at all inhibited by moral strictures or notions of societal decency.
After experiencing some of the unashamed stupidity of the wandering clowns at the very small festival we were ushered into a theatrical space to watch a play featuring the well known clown who goes by the name Ludor Citrik, along with his dense confrere le Pollu. How can I even sum it up? After it was over I discussed the idea of clowns with Paulette. She had explained that this European theatrical clown was supposed to be like an artistic soul, almost ‘attardé mental‘, saying and doing whatever came into his mind. I explained the more current American concept of the evil demon clown and how much the image of the clown has changed in American culture since I was a wee lad. (Thank you John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King, Insane Clown Posse and many others.) And what’s truly strange is that the clown, the very image of fun, has mutated into a satanic creature exactly at the same moment historically when people live for having ‘Fun’. It’s no coincidence.
Well anyhoo, the shenanigans of Ludor Citrik and le Pollu would have probably struck most Americans as being horrifying as well, featuring inchoate screams, loud bellowing, crazed body language, death grips, drugs, as well as Modernist concepts like breaking the fourth wall (the barrier between performer and audience), Beckett like absurdity, and hundreds of empty egg cartons. My feelings after seeing the pair was to react without language, only high pitched vocal contortions.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I was settling into a regular routine of time spent in the Centre de documentation of the Institut International de la Marionnette (the French word for all puppets). I had become a chercheur, a researcher, in the library of books, videos, magazines and other media on puppetry and related arts. There were two other chercheurs in residence also. I couldn’t have asked for a more curiously disparate group, all united by an interest in puppetry.
One was Yanna Kor who grew up in Romania and Moldova only to move to Israel in her young teens with a story as elaborate as a Russian novel while speaking four and a half languages. “Russian, Hebrew, French, English and I don’t speak Romanian so well anymore.”) I have rarely seen anyone who could focus on research so intently, six or seven hours without a break, all the while specializing on French puppetry in 19th Century. She had also been a dramaturge for some of her own plays and had even been involved with puppetry. She was working on her PHD thesis on Alfred Jarry and his famous play Ubu Roi. And if I happened to mention a subject, she would eventually wander over to my table a leave a book on, say, medieval automata, for me to look at.
Quite different was Estefania Valls Urquijo from Guatemala of Catalan and Basque heritage. She had come to research her idea for a series of ceramic puppets she called Muñecas, dolls. She had been working with sculpture and ceramics but had gotten the idea to make puppets and this was actually her first serious attempt to do so. She eventually invited us over to see her puppets, which while needing more work and design, were nevertheless certainly already filled with character.
Later Paulette, Yanna, Estefania and I found ourselves sitting at an outdoor cafe. Estefania discussed life in Guatemala. Houses with bodyguards. Crime and poverty. Her work inside the jails. And here she was working on art. And it made sense. More than once in my conversations with all of these women I found myself considering new perspectives on ideas. And more than once I also realized how far away I was from the United States and Alaska. And that it was a real corrective to consider truly different viewpoints other than those I usually inhabited.
And then there was my own research into puppetry. And it was fascinating to consider the many things I didn’t know, as well as those issues related to puppetry that I did know that no one else seems to have considered yet. Soon I would be meeting the students at the school and giving my presentation.
(But I’ll save that for next time.)
Come back again…
This journey is already different from all of the rest if only for the pure pressure and chaos of my final days in Alaska before departing. Normally the days of preparation in anticipation of leaving have many confusing aspects to them. This time though it was on another level altogether. Unimaginable. This time I had to clear everything from my house, which had been sold, prior to my leaving. I actually thought that I could get everything moved from my house and prepare for the journey without a hitch. O stupid me. I needed another week to do it right. And I needed more help from friends a month ago. And I should have done something about it. But the date for leaving and my time in France was a hard intractable deadline.
I was right about the time it took me to pack my library. I was wrong about the chaos that had grown over the years in the back room. And in the end I paid for it. I won’t go into the details except to say that at the end I felt more like one of those people standing on top of the American embassy in images from the fall of Saigon. I know I left things behind. And there was nothing I could do about it. I had to be on the ferry at 4pm. End of story. And so with the help of several very good friends I took my final load over to Storage Unit 3 and called it quits. Feeling so drained from the two months of packing and dismantling my life that I could barely focus on anything else. Somewhere I had taken some time to prepare for this six month journey, but I fear that I must have left something important undone. (I owe deep thanks to all who helped me in some manner in this Sisyphean task.)
Nevertheless nothing has ever felt quite like stepping foot on the 4 o’clock ferry bound for Juneau. It was like crossing a demarcation from one world into the next. Everything in Alaska was temporarily wrapped up. My life had been put into boxes into a room without windows. But now it was all behind me. And what lay before me? Well I can tell you where I’ll be. And what I’ll be trying to accomplish. But it seems like something much deeper is going on. I wouldn’t even be taking this journey had I not been granted a residency at the International Institute for Puppetry in France. And submitting my application was something I had forgotten about until literally the last hour. And had I not had that residency I would certainly not be taking this journey in light of my housing situation. And yet here I am writing from France in Charleville-Mézières in an apartment of the Institut International de la Marionnette.
The ferry ride, the hotel in Juneau, the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, the inevitable hours spent at Sea-Tac waiting for the Icelandair journey all transpired in the normal manner which doesn’t require any comment. Icelandair was a slightly new experience. Small details stuck out, like having to buy my meal as I crossed the Atlantic, (Oh that’s how the tickets get so cheap!) landing at the Reykjavik Airport and then volunteering to make €200 by switching planes to land in Orly instead of Charles DeGaulle (I’m still waiting…), glimpsing a rather bleak corner of the Icelandic landscape as we then flew south (But I can’t really count that as having been to Iceland.), meeting a pleasant French woman who was a global representative of Christian Dior, as well as a few rather jovially lost Americans who were from Oklahoma and were gleefully happy to say things to the Parisians like “Hi. I’m just an ugly American.” when they gave ample evidence of their naïveté. It was all I could do not to tell them that you don’t need to point it out. They know! They know!
In Paris after helping the Oklahomans get pointed in the right direction (They spent €65 on a five day transportation pass!) I arrived at my usual destination, Hôtel Saint André des Arts, meeting my old friend Fred, for whom I had brought some smoked Alaskan salmon. I found the crepes I craved, noticed that a few stores that I had remembered now closed for business, tried to stay awake for most of Blade Runner 2049 and bought a SIM card for my dumbphone.
And then I repaired to the good graces of my puppeteering friend Lea Paulette Caron’s family in the southern Parisian suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses. Paulette arrived by train later that day to complete the reunion. And again I was overwhelmed by the food selection in the covered market: endless cheeses, cuts of meat unknown in the USA, quails, terrines, patés, and desserts that I can’t mention here for fear of violating the decency standards of WordPress. Haines, Alaska has three nice grocery stores but everything sold there is fairly predictable. This was precisely what I needed to resuscitate my American palate. I looked out at the lushly overgrown backyard of the Carons and realized that I’d always loved the kind of casual clutter of France, in opposition to the strict neatness of Switzerland, which also has a different kind of allure. I stayed for two days waiting for my body to fully catch up to my brain as I found myself still waking at 3:30am.
Finally on the morning of the October 9th I departed by TGV for my residency in Charleville-Mézières at the Institut International de la Marionnette. As the train glided effortlessly across the northern French landscape I couldn’t help but wonder about the next step in this expedition. A few days ago I was watching my life miniaturized in a traumatic blur of excavation and flight. Now I was beginning a six month journey of exploration of both inner and outer worlds.
Next time, puppetry research and clowns in Luxembourg.
I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)
I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.
What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.
Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)
In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.
In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.
Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)
Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.
Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?
So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.
Well 2016 is nearly over. Just a mark on the calendar and yet these dates matter when it comes to taking stock of one’s progress in life. Or in making documentaries. It helps to keep me pushing forward. Or is it to feel mired in delays? Or perhaps to help figure out ways to move Gravity From Above to the next square.
2016 was in many ways a fruitful year, particularly the first part of it. I took another journey through Europe spending three months on the road. I made new contacts, renewed old ones, got a bit closer to winding this project up, and was able to define what exactly needs to happen to finish this documentary. Then there were roadblocks. Most notably the money pretty much ran out and the sometime producers seemed to come to an end of their commitment. Which left me back in Alaska and beginning to search for help with getting this produced. And yes there is a frustration with that. But I didn’t feel it so much. I didn’t wallow in it. I have had interesting options that haven’t materialized. And there is some possibility of having film students help me get a professional looking edit.
More importantly a recent development: When I was in Charleville-Mézières France I stopped in at the International Puppetry Institute and puppet school (ESNAM). There was some talk of a residency grant to help me with research. I weighed the possibility and didn’t really pursue it. A puppet friend, Kevin Tizer, sent me a notice about it on his own, thinking, correctly, that I might be interested in such a thing. But again I put that aside. Until the day the application was due. In fact, until literally the last hour of the day. And then I remembered and thought, ‘Why not?’ I quickly filled out a form and got it in just before midnight Alaska time. I received a message a few days later saying that I didn’t understand a certain part of the requirement. So I did my best to try to rectify it. And that was that.
A few days ago I received word that I had been accepted to spend three weeks there in October with a place to stay and a small stipend. Well I’m not sure where the money is coming from to get there, but I am going. It’s too good an opportunity to pass up. And I’ve got nine months to work on it. And so I will be back in Europe working on Gravity From Above in 2017. Now if I can get the small film crew and extra funds to finish up the filming…. That would be perfect. Let’s just see where it leads.
Meanwhile back in Alaska I’ve decided to start serious puppetry classes for locals to get a few others immersed in puppets. I’ve said I will do it if I get three students. So far I have two. And it will be fairly comprehensive with puppet theory, history, materials, practice and a performance of some sort in May. The cost will be quite fair. (If anyone wants to come up to Alaska to join in I have a couple of rooms and we might be able to work something out.)
Meanwhile I’ve been editing my other project called Arca: A strange film about an alchemist, a box and a dark angel. We shot this back in 2014 but it’s only close to being assembled now. I’ll let you know when there is a way you folks can see it.
Thanks you to all of you who have followed my journey this year. I actually had more visits to the site this year than any other. And that’s heartening.
Meanwhile as 2017 knocks on our door may you find the inspiration to create something real in the midst of overwhelming artificiality. More importantly may you know the intelligence to produce something a lasting value and not mere propaganda based on the fears on the times. And mostly I wish you courage to pursue truth in your art no matter how much you have to face your failings. (S. are you there?)
December 29th 2016
Long Time Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the trip that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the final part. We stop in Salzburg Austria. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
I was awakened in my converted medieval hotel room by bells pealing loud and long enough to wake the dead. I’m not talking jingle bells either. These sounds were deep, rolling, earthshaking. It was Ascension Day in Salzburg, Austria. (Follow the link below to read the whole essay.)
Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the third part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
We walked three floors up to an attic room with a pitched ceiling and exposed beams at l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM) in Charleville-Mézières, France. A Polish student, with the nearly unpronounceable name Przemyslaw Piotrowski, dragged in three scruffily constructed crosses as the room darkened. He also had several nameless placards like the one that read I.N.R.I. hanging above Christ on the cross. He handed one to an audience member with a faint smile foreshadowing death. (Click below to read…)
Readers of GRAVITY FROM ABOVE might be curious about the journey that started it all back in 2005. Here’s the second part. More will follow shortly. (These originally appeared on my other site, The Anadromous Life.)
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005 Part 2- The Unexpected … Back in 2005 when I was traveling across Europe looking for puppet theatres I did not plan on visiting every country. Sadly there would not be time for Sicilian puppets in Italy or a good old English Punch and Judy show. But I […]
And so after an early morning bus to train to TGV run I arrived at Charleville-Mézières with my French friend and translator Paulette Caron. The point of this trip was simply to present the idea of our Gravity From Above documentary to the Director of the Institut International de la Marionnette (International Puppetry Institute), Eloi Recoing, which is also directly connected with ESNAM (l’École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) (The International Puppet School). We arrived fairly around 10AM and met Brigitte Behr who was quite happy to see me again. At that point I also met Eloi (for non-French readers that would be pronounced Ehl-Wa.) And Raphael Fleury, la Responsable du pôle Recherche et Documentation, the woman in charge of research center and the library.
Unfortunately the library was under reconstruction and so was closed. And the students were having rather uneventful classes. But the purpose of this particular journey was twofold: to get permission to film the students and classes as well as teachers later in the year (financing allowing), and to interest the Institut in any possible support for the project. Some of this I had discussed with former Directrice Lucille Bodson back 2012, but one must recalibrate with changes in administration. (A similar situation has occurred with the museum in Lyon.)
Well our official meeting was to be help at 17:00 (5PM for you Americans) and Paulette and I drifted through an afternoon of French meal (I am suffering as you can see), wandering the streets of the charming, yet unexciting, streets of Charleville, performing a few chores and finally ending up at the Musée de l’Ardenne (Museum of the Ardenne region).
For those wandering the puppet trail, the Musée de l’Ardenne actually has a great exhibit dedicated to puppetry, where we encountered a voluble class of students who were being given the museum tour in both French and English. (All of the puppet images here come from the museum.) The exhibit has a very good survey of the history of puppetry in France, not as detailed or thrilling as the Gadagne Museum in Lyon. But certainly worth the price of admission. The rest of the museum has its charm as well with antique guns, paintings and a glimpse inside the Grand Marionnettiste, the giant outdoor clock that is in the shape of a puppet with a little marionette show at the top of the hour. (See our previous trip to Charleville.)
At 17:00 Eloi took us into his office where Paulette had her first real workout translating between French and English. Although I would occasionally surprise myself by understanding more than I realize that I do. I presented the basic idea of Gravity From Above, which should be familiar to anyone who has been following this site for a little while. But just in case, a reminder might be helpful, the point of Gravity From Above is to investigate the art of puppetry in Europe to unveil its meanings in the past and its possible connections to the 21st Century. (I’ve got to watch myself, this is almost beginning to sound like a mission statement.) Eloi found the idea fascinating and was very much in favor of the project. I think also the fact that I had already captured interviews with folks like Jan Švankmajer, Josef Krofta, Henryk Jurkowski, the Brothers Quay, etc meant that I was also seriously interested in archiving this material for future use, which is certainly in line with the purpose on the institute. (Especially since two of those figures have passed away since I filmed them.)
We also breeched the subject of possible financial support for the project. While it wasn’t out of the question Eloi made it clear that he couldn’t promise anything. Yet I had the feeling that this was exactly the kind of project that that he heartily endorsed. And wanted IIM to promote. He talked about his idea of Poétique de la Trace, of a poetry of the traces of the history of puppetry, and of ESNAM & the institute. And the fact that I was already collecting a few those poetic traces that puppetry so naturally leaves in its trail. One of the intriguing aspects of puppetry is its long yet fragmentary and evocative history. And even in the present so much goes undocumented unrecorded.
Raphaele Fleury also made it clear that I could easily submit a proposal to stay for anywhere from a few days up to a couple of months in the apartment building we stayed this time as residency. And so I felt that they were completely aligned with the nature of this project. We will see what develops.
Speaking of the apartment a very odd occurrence woke me in the middle of the night. There had been some noise from students in the late evening, including evidently some singing, perhaps karaoke style of rather pointless French pop songs. These echoed in the classically echoey European building. Eventually I fell asleep but was wakened again at perhaps one in the morning by some other musical sounds. Generally I have a good idea of where any style of music might originate. But not this time. It sounded as if Moroccans had become Pentecostals and were playing eerie repetitious harmonic praise songs with a droning organ and electric guitar. Having described it that way does no justice to the strangeness of the sound and melodies. I drifted off to sleep again and awoke around 3:30 in the morning to more loud strange musical sounds. Were I not sure of what I was hearing I would have assumed it was a dream. Paulette who was in the next studio apartment, slept through the odd part. But it was no dream. I woke up and made a sound recording of my thoughts in a voice that Tom Waits would have envied with shards of the music in the background. Unfortunately, for the sound recording, the music had settled down a bit and is not too clear in the recording. And then I could tell that this interlude was finally coming to a close as the music played a hymn-like dirge at the end. And then silence. I have no explanation for any of this weird event.
But this is why I travel!
After a fond farewell to Brigitte at lunch it was time to depart Charleville; again much too short a stay.
Now on to Brussels…
And so I am in Paris, which was not meant to be a real stop on the trip but more of what the French call as ‘sas’, not really a place in itself, rather a place between places like the double doors with a little space as you enter a bank, or my mud room in Alaska. A place of decompression, an airlock. And that has certainly what Paris for me has been this time around.
I walked around, soaked in the ambiance of the 5th and 6th arrondissements, sometimes soaking in the rain. I rediscovered the French food I had been craving. There is a world of difference between an actual croissant in France and what passes for a croissant in small town Alaska. Then there is the inscrutable working class charm of the croque-monsieur. There are items in the average store that simply aren’t items to be found in the average American establishment, take Saint Marcelin cheese for instance. Or a bottle of Alsatian Gevurtztraminer wine. Both found in a Carrefour Express, the closest thing I’ve ever found to a convenience store here.
Then there are simply the streets. Even the humblest bit of architecture in old Paris is better than the best structure at present in Haines, Alaska. I spent my second morning, far too wakeful to sleep, strolling the still dark Paris winter streets, practically alone, at 7AM. I’ve spent enough time in France over the years, now making only the occasional cultural goof. Like not quite waiting for everyone to get off the Metro before I get on. Old New York habits die hard.
I met my dear puppetry friend, Paulette Caron, who escorted me around the 5th and allowed me to explore the Pantheon, the incredible mausoleum dedicated to the greats of France: Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas, Diderot, Victor Hugo, etc. etc. The crypt below did its work on me. It was low vaulted and labyrinthine in a darkened stone conclave. Meanwhile above, at ground level, the massive vaulted temple itself, the statues and paintings, including a few by Symbolist painter Puvis de Chavannes, had a strange funereal majesty.
I stopped in a couple of odd stores and sat at few cafés with Paulette on a rainy Parisian day. But all was not crepes and cheese.
Several forms of uneasiness all seem to descend on me together. First there was the time zone difference. And I still felt sluggish and exhausted. My body did not know what time zone it was in. And when it did remind me it was graceless. Then I had developed a sore back from all of the crammed sitting in jets. And being as I am no longer a youngster, the pain doesn’t just leave at will. And finally, worst of all, I had been discovered by some French bug that had been going around, which turned my already confused insides to soup. At first I thought it might be the food but then after mentioning it to Paulette she told me that some gastrointestinal infection had been going around.
Meanwhile with Paulette’s help I managed to nail a few more stops down. I will be visiting Charleville Meziérès and the International puppet institute for a conversation on February 2nd and 3rd. And I will be hanging out with guignoliste Pascal Pruvost again February 9th. And to complete a week of Guignolism the Gadagne museum has set up three full days on the 10th, 11th and 12th. But there weren’t many puppets for me yet.
Alas, I did get taken to one theatrical presentation called Lady MacBeth. This was a version of Shakespeare’s MacBeth as told in a one woman show as object theatre. Object theatre is sort of the mutant offspring of puppetry and the avant garde. And so; little crystal glasses represented people, moving curtains evidently represented some sort of sexual encounter and there was no actual stage blood to be seen, or at least that’s what I’m told. I missed the murder scene thanks to the bowel bug. And evidently you do not even dream of leaving mid show in France, even for a bodily nightmare. As, yes, the doors are locked from the outside. And some poor usherette, who could not quite understand why I had to leave and then had to stand outside waiting for me so that she could let me back in. She even poked her head in the restroom at one point to say “Quel’un?” (Anyone there?) I said ‘Allo!’ Unthinkable. But in fact it has to happen at some point. Such is travel.
There were actually a few puppetoid creatures made from a table cloth at one point. That was indeed interesting. But by and large the play did not add anything to Shakespeare’s MacBeth, except a rather facile comment at the end that the real villains were the witches who more or less seemed responsible for Lady M’s actions. Um?
And so I’m in the ‘sas’. Hoping to get settled into European existence as I cross back into England today to visit the Brothers Quay.
So it’s time to give an update on the upcoming Gravity From Above journey back to Europe to look for puppets and other curiosities.
First of all let me get a bit of news out of the way. The Swiss producers, you might vaguely remember them, have with good timing once again stepped back into the scene. And they have found the missing ingredient for applying for Swiss funding, they have actually located a viable director to help me with this project. I have already spent some time talking with him and he has indeed got a decent grasp of what this project means. Now I won’t give you his name yet. And there’s a good reason for that related to our seeking the funds. But I can tell you. He’s on board and we, the director, producers and myself, will be submitting our proposal to the Swiss funding agency in January. Alas we won’t hear back until March or April so they can’t help me too much with the project. But that is good news. (And it does mean if you care to donate to this project through PayPal I would definitely appreciate any support you care to give.)
And since getting the funding isn’t exactly 100% certain yet, though I’d say we are setting ourselves up nicely, I need to continue with my journey as though I were NOT getting any outside funding yet. It would be horrible to delay all of this then to get a rejection. I’d much rather have at least the interviews I’m going to make, though they might be a bit ragged technically, than to continue to have little to show for all of this effort. No matter what the fate of my personal interviews it can’t hurt to get them, they can at least be extras on a DVD someday. (Always my plan.) And I’ve already interviewed a few people I might never have a chance to interview again.
So where am I? Well I’ve connected with my dear puppetry friend Paulette Caron and she will be assisting with on site translations. I’ve contacted Nicolas Géal at Toone Marionette Théâtre and Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, Belgium. And will be setting up a real date in the first ten days of February. The Brothers Quay have already agreed. And I’m waiting to hear back from from the Gadagne Museum in Lyon, they’ve changed directors. Sadly I won’t be visiting Nantes to see the giant puppets of Royal de Luxe. They will be performing a show elsewhere. I’m also still debating whether I should stop in at Charleville-Meziérès to catch up with the International Puppet Institute and the school there (ESNAM). I’m definitely leaning towards doing so. And I’m also going to try to talk to folks at the Little Angel Theatre in London while I’m visiting. Not to forget visiting my guignoliste friends in Paris and few other possibilities.
I also have now definitely arranged a stop at my old stomping grounds in Huémoz Switzerland for a few weeks where I will be giving several lectures. One will be on puppet history and will be a follow up to the puppetry lecture on YouTube that has garnered nearly 9,000 hits thus far. (Not bad for something an hour and a half long!) Other lectures there will include survey of the world of Georgian music and dance, which tends to explode unsuspecting brain cells. A lecture about social networking and what Jacques Ellul called Horizontal Propaganda. And lastly a crazy audio visual display of the new and questionable idea of Conceptual Humanity, which will range from cosmetic surgery to hyper-real dolls and beyond.
Also while I’m in Switzerland I’ll stop into to see “The Swiss”. And discuss the project.
Next after a personal stop in Berlin, which should also include puppets. In March I’ll end up for ten days in Prague and a couple of days in Plzeň in the Czech Republic. This will of course be a serious puppetry stop. But it’s far enough away that I haven’t arranged it all yet.
Likewise I will then fly to Georgia and capture a few puppets in Tbilisi and begin my more serious exploration of the musical culture there. But that’s too far ahead to give many details… but soon. I will then return to Paris in mid-April after three weeks in Georgia.
So what’s definite? I have the airplane tickets from Alaska to Paris and back. I have the plane from Prague to Tbilisi and back to Paris. I have hotels in Paris and Prague. I have places to stay near Paris, in Brussels, London (most likely), Plzeň (most likely), all of Switzerland. Hotels are needed for Lyon, and a few other stops. Lots of food. And the entire Georgian part of the trip is still a mystery… but there are good reasons for that. I still have to buy train tickets and that’s an expense. DO I have enough cash? That’s a good question. I think so but it will probably get tight. But essentially unless something very serious transpires prior to my journey I’m on my way January 18th and will return on the ferry to Haines, Alaska April 21st. How serious? Well back in 2005 when I started these puppet journeys I slipped on the ice and broke my wrist. I was on the plane with a cast in a week. That’s how serious. Follow us here on Gravity From Above. And thanks to everyone who have in many ways, both big and little, encouraged this project.
Keep your eye on this site. (Sign up for emails to your right.) I’m sure that given the problems that plague Europe right now this will be an eye-opening trip.
Good News for Continuing Gravity From Above!
After a period of intense family issues that are now resolved I have discovered just enough extra money to get me back to Europe to continue the project. And I have already committed myself to traveling between January 20th 2016 and April 17th: A good three month stretch. It won’t be 100 percent puppet interviews and exploration. I do need a bit of a break as well. Plus I had promised myself to get to the country (never to be confused with the US state) of Georgia. So my traveling time breaks down something like this. About 45 days on the puppet trail between the UK and Poland. Three weeks in Switzerland visiting friends and giving lectures. And 25 days in Georgia, which will include three puppet theatres and a beginning to my explorations of Georgian music and dance, which have fascinated me for a while now.
None of this is written in stone yet. So my itinerary is somewhat open. But essentially I must go to London interview the Brothers Quay. (By the way Christopher Nolan has recently made a short documentary on the Quays.) I will go to Brussels to visit Toone and Péruchet. I will get back to Lyon. I’m going to try to get out to Nantes in France to see Royal Deluxe. I might go back to Charleville-Meziérès. I will definitely get back to the Czech Republic. And I’m debating other places. In Georgia I will go to see the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre, another puppet theatre called Fingers, as well as visits to the Ballet, Folk and modern dance troupes. And I’m sure I will find more.
So that’s the announcement for now. If you think I really should visit your corner of Europe I can’t promise I’ll get there this time around. But make a good case for something unusual or traditional and I’ll certainly consider it. (Write me at reckoningmotions (a t ) y aho o d ot co m) Meanwhile I’m excited to get back on the road.
This is still not going to finish the documentary. I still need your support. I really need to get a crew with a serious director of photography. I’m going to have to spend more on equipment. And I will be approaching various nonprofits. But any donations made through this page will indeed go to getting me out on the road. I’d like to get help on this trip. But no matter what I’m going back to Europe!
Thanks to everyone who has been following me thus far. You will be hearing from me more regularly now as I prepare for this journey into puppetry and beyond.
Since I have decided to try with all of my energy to get back to Europa next spring to continue the filming of Gravity From Above it occurs to me that this would be a good moment to share with you folks what I actually need to accomplish. At least what I am hoping to get done.
What have I done so far…
First, and most important of all, has been the research. I have been reading puppet history in copious quantities. And more important than how much has been the quality of that understanding. I am nowhere near considering myself an expert on the subject, though I must say I have passed muster with Nina Malíková, editor of Loutkář Magazine, which has been in existence for over one hundred years, with Henryk Jurkowski, the foremost authority on European puppet history living today, and crucially, for my money, the Brothers Quay, with whom I spent a lively afternoon in discussion back in November of 2012. So I’ve learned enough about the homunculi by now to at least ask intelligent questions. And I understand enough to know that no really good and comprehensive documentary on European puppetry exists. So the research is there.
Secondly, I’ve been visiting European puppet theatres since 1996. (Has it really been that long ago?) In 2000 I began my discovery of Czech puppet theatres. 2005 was the first time I spent serious time, several months, investigating puppet theatres in France, Poland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. It was like a visionary experience that really shook up my conceptions of the possibilities of art in the 21st Century. I met puppeteers and other related folks who have remained friends to this day. And it was out of that journey that this project was eventually born, as well as three puppet troupes in Haines, Alaska.
And then in 2012 I raised a few dollars for a preliminary run through Europe with a camera to try to record a few interviews with various puppet folks, especially the aging ones. That is the journey that this site has born witness to. Looking back I am quite astounded by the interviews and the new connections I have made. I even interviewed the elusive Jan Švankmajer, who, along with the Brothers Quay, was in many ways the inspiration and impetus for much of my own explorations into the world of puppetry.
And yet there is so much I could not possibly accomplish in the 2012 trip. First of all my camera skills, which have improved since, were not good enough to film the actual performances. There are two interviews I feel I need to redo. (Fortunately Švankmajer’s was good enough.) And eventually I will need to go back with an actual cinematographer to capture the puppets in motion. But I feel confident enough of my skills now to go back to get more interviews, to redo the faulty ones, and to get more candid behind the scenes footage.
So what am I hoping to accomplish this spring?
Here is a grocery list: Go back to Wrocław, Poland and spend more with Jakub Krofta. Go back to Prague, of course, where there is much to do. Get to Brussels, record and interview Nicolas Géal and attempt to shoot performance footage of the Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Go back to ESNAM to spend some serious time following the puppet students. Return to Lyon for interviews with guignolistes and Guignol historians and to finally capture a Lyonnaise Guignol show. Of course, more time Paris. Switzerland needs a bit of investigating. And crucially get back to London for a serious interview the Brothers Quay. And finally to get myself to the edge of Europe in Georgia to investigate their puppetry, particularly the work of Rezo Gabriadze in Tbilisi. Getting to Georgia is essential to me on several levels, and Gravity From Above will give me a good excuse to get there.
Now beyond that and seriously needing more funds I must get to Italy, Sicily in particular; Moscow, with hope the political situation doesn’t disintegrate; Spain, Catalonia calls out; Austria again to find the Teschner expert, Punch is smashing me over the head in England to get recorded and much more. And I need a film crew. But I can go on at least one more journey by myself if I have to. (I actually like traveling solo. It pops any cultural bubbles that often develop in groups.)
As I mentioned in my last update I have decided to kick off a campaign on the Hatchfund site to raise the funds to get back to Europe for more interviews and investigations. I thought about attaching a “Donate” button here for my PayPal page. But then I realized that it would actually interfere with the coming campaign. A few wonderfully generous souls would probably immediately donate to the cause, which is mighty swell. Except that I do need any contributions to Gravity From Above to be concentrated at the appropriate time and on the Hatchfund.org site specifically between October 15th and November 26th – the day before the American Thanksgiving holiday. (I’d like to be very grateful on that day.) So keep thinking about how you will help out THEN. And after that I will add the PayPal “Donate” button for any stragglers and further supporters.
But whatever I do, wherever I go, I will report in again as I have been doing to include any and all who have an interest in this strangely meaningful world of European puppets.
Come back soon for another update before the campaign.
(Apologies to Samuel Beckett)
It’s time for an update for those of you following Gravity From Above. I had hoped by this time to be able to report that I had some dates for exactly when I would be in Europe filming again. Alas not yet.
My producing allies tell me that we need a Swiss Director to apply for Swiss funding. My Swiss producers Christos and Deena almost had a director for me. Then he was just too busy. Then there was another one, a woman, with whom I participated in a technologically challenged teleconference. I could tell she didn’t quite get the reason for the documentary. But she thought I was an interesting enough specimen to want to do a documentary about me looking for puppeteers. Flattering, but it’s the kind of piece you make after everyone has already digested the main story. Since most people don’t know much about puppetry yet, I’d rather not substitute that for one more ironic documentary about someone following their odd passions.
I believe we do have a solution to the Swiss Director issue but I’d rather not spill it until we have it officially worked out.
Meanwhile I must confess it’s hard sometimes not to get a little frustrated. I had really hoped that I could film the large international puppet festival held once every three years in late September in Charleville-Meziérès, France in late September. But now it looks like I’ll never find the funding in time for that. (My Swiss producers have said whatever I spent on such an endeavor, if I could find the funds, would be reimbursed eventually.) I thought about the crowdfunding USA Projects (or Kickstarter) route again. But as a matter of reality you can only tap on your network friends, etc. once in a great while. And since I did that last year and since that campaign was far more difficult and soul-draining than the actual work of traveling around Europe for 2 months with fifty pounds (25 kilos) of gear trying to interview folks, I have decided to wait to see what happens in Switzerland.
But I do have another deadline. This one is even more important for me. In December I want to cover the third year student performances of the ESNAM puppet school, also in Charleville-Meziérès. This is quite crucial to the story I’m trying to tell. And it won’t happen for another three years. I would hate to miss it. So somehow I’ve got to get something together by then. Hopefully the Swiss will come through by then. But I don’t have a guarantee of that. (If anyone out there has any ideas let me know.)
So that’s it. I’m waiting for the dough. I’m in the inevitable doldrums. The point is not to crack under the inertia. A wind could come up at anytime. And I need to remain focused upon the task at hand. Meanwhile I work long physical hours on the river near Haines. It’s good work. But really I should get back to the puppets!
Thanks for following along…
I jumped off the cheap air flight at the Charles De Gaulle Airport and wormed my way onto an RER train which let go of me back at the St. Michel stop in Paris. I hefted my geared, mercifully minus the few kilos that I had shed back in Aberdeen, over to Hotel St. Andre des Arts, where Fred was waiting to say ‘Bon soir’ once again. It was getting on in the evening and I needed resr as I felt the airborne bug in the plane begin to work on me subtly.
The next day I awoke and considered my options. Fortunately Paulette Caron had contacted me again the evening before. We were going to watch a performance later that evening. Meanwhile I had to get some cash. I had found the one exchange establishment that I could trust over by the Louvre. I made my way there to exchange my pounds and dollars. It was mostly a restful day. I did a little small gift shopping to make sure that my back still had something to complain about. But mostly I kept a low profile and hoped that it, whatever the next installment of Euro-malady might be, would be held at bay. But little sniffles were coming.
That evening, after passing African butcher shops and Middle Eastern fruit stands, I met Paulette and her boyfriend at the Lavoir Moderne Parisien, a performance space up in the 18e Arrondissement. The show for the evening was being performed by a theatrical collective called Scène Infernale and it was based on the works of Bruno Schultz. The title of the piece was ‘La République des rêves’ (or The Republic of Dreams). We waited in a foyer that featured various objects and debris related to the theme of the evening: a little automatic race horse game, many pieces of paper, a few chairs and a shabby bed. We Eventually were seated in seats more appropriate for five year olds on two sides of a performing zone in what felt like it once been an old garage.
The show began: Several performers were massaging the head and body of the full sized mannequin like puppet. It was clear that they were like a Greek chorus of the Fates opening his sleeping mind to dream. Now from what I could gather he dreams about his bad relationship with his rather compulsive father. And in the end the mannequin, our dreamer, is left decapitated on the ground. Things have not gone smoothly in the search for redemption. Now in fact I’m sure I missed a lot since the play was actually quite word heavy. Paulette filled me a little afterwards. Some of the imagery was quite fascinating. Much of it was done in the Object Theatre style, which tends to be an experimental theatre piece with puppets and other symbolic objects, in this case some of those things included bottles, cut out images of birds placed into the bottles with water, and most intriguingly from my perspective was the use of fully working light bulbs and other illuminating devices as objects themselves.
Now I’ve come to see a fairly clear difference between the theatrical use of puppets and the puppet theatre’s use of actors and objects. I felt that François Lazaro’s piece was more of an intellectual puppet show. While the Scène Infernale’s was more on the side of object theatre, the actual play was not as much about the puppet as it was about the father, an actor. Nevertheless it was a fascinating experience and a fitting final piece of puppet related theatre to observe in Europe this time round. I bid farewell to Paulette and company knowing we would be meeting the next morning to discuss the possibility of her coming to Alaska to work on a bit of puppetry while she was visiting her American friends and relatives in March.
On Wednesday December 5th, my last full day in Paris, in France, in Europe, after spending a couple of hours in lively discussion with Paulette, I felt again the need to rest. Since the thing that had been trailing me with more ingredients for a head cold was getting closer to a full manifestation. And yet it was my last day, I couldn’t simply stay in the hotel. I decided to go out into the damp early evening, perhaps around four, to buy the final items on my list of gifts from Europe for various folks back home. That at least was my plan.
But there was still one more person I hadn’t spoken to in Paris yet. And that was Aurélia Ivan, the gifted student I had met back in 2005 at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. I had played a game of tag with her starting in Lyon. Last time I was in Paris she was crazily busy and I missed the opportunity to talk with her. I had heard from her in Scotland, but was pretty much expecting similar results with my two day window of time. But suddenly that afternoon she sent me a message to meet her at the Centre Pompidou. And so I hopped on the Metro and arrived in good time at the center’s massive lobby. And I waited for Aurélia. And I waited. And then I waited some more. She’d said around five. It was getting closer to five-thirty. I wandered around looking for her, in case she had hidden herself in the bookstore or up in the restaurant. Then I noticed a lower level. I thought I saw her looking up at a television screen down there. No such luck. Eventually she sent a text message saying ‘J’arrive.’ And so I knew she was getting close.
She finally arrived in a shiny yellow raincoat, which was covering what looked like predominately black clothes, quite the Symbolist color scheme. (She asked me not to take a photo and seemed a bit perplexed that she might be photographed wearing yellow. Plus you never know who might see such a photo on this damned internet.) At first we greeted each other in a friendly manner. There was a little bit of reservation on both of our parts. I knew she was quite (insanely) busy. And she was a bit uncertain as to what my whole project really was. (The operative word here was ‘really’.) Meanwhile she took a cellphone call that seemed to last an eternity. Finally she was making funny gestures as if to say ‘Finish already’. When the interminable finally terminated we were at last free to talk and she made it a point to blow off the rest of the calls trying to find her.
Now we didn’t actually go anywhere. We stayed in the train station of a lobby at the Centre Pompidou and began to talk. At first it mostly just me trying to explain the project a little… Oh yeah I should mention this Aurelia’s English seems to be on the same level as my French, which is to say not exactly fluent. And so we began speaking in what would eventually be French 85% to English about 13% with the rest being taken up by gesticulations. Now at certain point I was beginning to feel that I was taking up her time and that it was difficult to actually communicate. And so I started to give her excuses to leave if she needed to. And then she suddenly asked me a question about the project. And the question was simply, and I paraphrase, ‘Why are you going through all of this? What is the point of your film?’
Well that question opened the door to another hour of discussion, argumentation, and finally laughter and real friendship. I won’t even begin to summarize the whole discussion. Talking with Aurélia is a bit like… Have you ever seen images of Nadia Comaneci, the famous Romanian gymnast, concentrating on the balance beam in the 1976 Montreal Olympics? It’s an unshakeable focus. Well Aurélia, may live in Paris, and be losing her original language to some degree, but like her fellow Romanian she is unshakeable. At one point we were having an intense philosophical disagreement. And I said ‘Usually, in English, (The key point here!) I can win my arguments.’ She looked at me, simply smiled and said (I can’t do justice to her French phrase.) ‘Well admit it you’ve lost now.’ I laughed. She repeated it as if to say, don’t even try I have a Royal Flush. And we both laughed.
Well we strolled through the wet Parisian streets over to the Châtelet Metro stop. We would meet again in 2013 when her Android play was ready and I could interview her for the film. She grabbed a bus to take her home to Clichy and I walked over to the Metro. I stopped for a moment and looked at the French streets, the Christmas lights, the people. It seemed like a perfect moment.
I jumped out at Odeon and happily waited in line at my favorite crêperie. I talked with Fred at the hotel desk again. And spent my final night in Paris reflecting on the people and events of this journey.
Which I shall unravel next time in the last chapter of this first part of the Gravity From Above Journal.
For more information of Aurelia Ivan’s new show called Homo Urbanicus:
Charleville-Mézières is a medium sized French town near the Belgian border. It is not a place that shows up in travel books about France. For most travelers the larger area is only known for champagne, for Reims, and beyond that is mostly ignored. And that’s a shame because Charleville-Mézières is an interesting town in it’s own right. It has a fine 17th Century ducal square, it has a compact core to the town, it serves fine specialties from the charcuterie – patés and terrines with unusual ingredients, a museum dedicated to local boy Arthur Rimbaud and every three years an international puppet festival. And the reason it hosts Le Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes is related to two other organizations that call the city home: L’Institut International De La Marionnette (IIM) and L’École National Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette or ESNAM for short.
Charleville-Mézières is a very important place for me. It was really the place where I saw that puppetry could speak to the 21st Century. On my 2005 journey through Europe I came here without many preconceived notions of what to expect and watched several student performances that really opened up my notions of what puppetry could be. It was at that point that I met Aurélia Ivan, François Lazaro and Clea Minaker. (For that story click on this and this.)
Upon returning this time I had more of an idea of what to expect from the school even if none of those people were there. But through François back in Paris I did meet Lucile Bodson, la directrice of the school, and so this time that was my entrance. I arrived at the same funky industrial hotel I stayed at last time. (It was the cheapest.) Then made my way over to the International Puppetry Institute. I passed Le Grand Marionnettiste, a performing puppet clock outside the institute, and walked into the building and in my halting, yet slowly improving, French I asked for Lucile Bodson. She wasn’t available immediately but I gave her my cellphone number and asked for a text message. Meanwhile I wandered out into Charleville to sample the wares. Sometime between my journey into the charcuterie and my trip back to the hotel with the patés I found out that I was to drop by the institute around 18:30. Lucile greeted me warmly and we set up an appointment for 9:30 the next morning. I then strolled around the Place Ducale with a freshly made gaufre chantilly and watched as the square was being set up with Christmas stalls and another wonderful old carousel.
In the morning I stepped into L’Institut International De La Marionnette to find la directrice greeting me like an old friend. The idea of the documentary immediately made sense to her and the fact the I had already interviewed Henryk Jurkowski, Josef Krofta François Lazaro and Jan Švankmajer only underscored the seriousness of the project. Lucile also introduced me to Brigitte Behr whose role in the both the institute and the school can best be summarized by simply saying she is the soul of the place. Brigitte is the institutional memory and guardian of the both IIM and ESNAM, being the only person who has been there from the beginning. Later I met Jean-Louis Heckel, the head of pedagogy, and a worthy puppeteer in his own right, who informed me that if Brigitte took a liking to you then you were on the right side of things. And indeed Brigitte did take a liking to me and so I was fixed up with anything I wanted. Between Lucile and Brigitte I was essentially granted the keys to the school and was allowed to watch the students practice, which I considered a very high honor indeed. Lucile spoke with me for about an hour and we discussed the participation of the school in the documentary in 2013. She gave me several good dates to shoot for, the festival was in September and the next round of third year performances was in December. Just enough time to get my Swiss financing together!
Brigitte gave me carte blanche on using the institute’s library and I was given DVD’s of the student performances to watch. Later Brigitte took me a few blocks over to the actual grounds of L’École National Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette. I was introduced to Jean-Louis who took me around the school, it’s workshops and performance spaces and, most importantly, into its puppet closets. I watched the students in there movement class, which today consisted in making their individual puppets, chosen from the puppet warehouse, move in accord with the style they had chosen. Eventually they would all have to learn the different techniques: marionettes, glove puppets, shadow puppets, full sized costume puppets, bunraku style, rod puppets, Chinese hand puppets, etc. etc. They had a couple of instructors critiquing their movements. One girl was working with a headless puppet and supplying the face herself. Another was trying to flip Chinese puppets. Another student was working on her finger exercises. One boy was in a full body suit. One girl had a puppet attached to her like a siamese twin. I was absolutely mesmerized by what I was observing. This was not a large school. (There were only 16 students in this three year promotion.) But ESNAM was a very important one, especially in the art of puppetry.
After finding a midday meal, a burger consisting of viande de cheval haché, I returned to the institute to continue studying student performances on DVD. Brigitte also invited me along for during the evening on a field trip to Reims to a theatre to watch two plays by Georg Büchner: Leonce and Lena, a farce, and his masterpiece, the unfinished and grim, Woyzeck. I also spent time with a local theatrical group loosely connected to the school who were working on a multimedia play, which involved shadows, plastic bottles and a junky little sailboat that roamed the stage on rails.
That evening I found Brigitte who took me to the parking lot where the coach was waiting to take us down to Reims. I also had the honor of being introduced to one of the founders of the school, an older woman named Margareta Niculescu. The plays were quite engrossing. During the intermission I did have a discussion in broken French with one girl Morgane, but mostly the students remained somewhat undifferentiated to me this time. But that’s because I didn’t have a chance to see them perform yet. And I would have that chance in 2013. I was quite curious to see where they would be in their skills and ideas by next December.
As I walked home through the quite streets of Charleville-Mézières at one in the morning I reflected on how full of memories this place was to me from the past. Could my first trip here have only been for two days? Could this visit also only have been for a couple of days? Yet how full the time felt. But that’s because Lucile, Brigitte and Jean-Louis opened their doors to me. Unfortunately when I arrived at the hotel I was locked out. But what did that matter…
Negotiations with the French rail system, SNCF, have led me to conclude that the TGV trains are essentially forbidden for anyone with a French rail pass. At nine in the morning I was told that the TGV (the trains of great speed) would not take me to Paris until six in the evening, when they could sandwich me into the most inconvenient train schedule they could find… plus I’d have to pay a reservation fee. That would put me on the ground in Paris around 8PM and at my hotel around 8:30 or 9PM. To my American brain this was unacceptable. The lady at the desk said that that was my only choice. But did not add ‘if you want to take a TGV train to Paris’. I thought for a moment and then remembering past trips asked if there was a TER (slow regional train) or two connecting the dots. Why yes, there was. She was not going to volunteer this information. I guess the French thought was ‘Why would anyone purposely take a slow train when one could spend more money for the TGV?’ My cheap American mind, however, leapt at the opportunity. Yeah it was a five hour ride but it got me to Paris at 6PM and saved me endless hours sitting around the train station guarding my luggage (lockers being non-existent since the late nineties when several terrorists used such convenient means to cause panic and destruction). And my pass would work for no extra money at all! (Note to self: In the future do NOT buy a French rail pass. Buy all of the separate tickets online ahead of time, even for the TGV, it will save time and money.)
And so that evening I arrived back in Paris for the sixth time. I checked into the Hôtel Saint André des Arts where I have stayed at least 3 times before. Fred at the front desk remembered me with enthusiasm. (Who says Parisians are cold?) And over the course of my sojourn we had several animated conversations about technology, puppets and the current state of humanity on the streets of Paris. I walked around Boul Mich, Odeon, and on the rues I felt at home in. I stopped at the stall beneath the statue of Danton and order ed a ham, mushroom and cheese crêpe, which hit a spot so nostalgic that I felt a wave of deep contentment. I was indeed back in Paris.
It was now time to reconnoiter and arrange my puppet visits, not forgetting however that I was in Paris and that other needs must also be attended to. There are many observations I could make about the seeming multitude of images and events that I encountered in my wanderings around Paris that had nothing to do with puppets at all. I will try to summarize so as not to load the entire essay with the wonderful minutiae of my strolls around Paris. I did enter the Musée d’Orsay to spend time with the Symbolist works of Redon, Puvis de Chavannes and others, which meant I steadfastly ignored the Impressionists, which would’ve have given me far too many images. (I’ve been here before.) Many people have this odd notion that you should always see everything in a museum. I don’t. I have a good idea of my internal capacity to really pay attention to works of art. It is limited. On another day I also visited for the second time the Musée Gustave Moreau, also another serious Symbolist painter from the second half of the 19th Century. And was quite taken by the strange attempt by the more spiritual Symbolists to get beyond the growing materialism of the Realists and Impressionists. They failed in many ways, in their darker modes leading to an occult interpretation of the world, yet in their more redemptive inclinations go back to the Catholic Church. Nevertheless I’ve been fascinated by the era for a while now. And there’s nothing like standing in the physical presence of the art or in Moreau’s case his actual studio to give one a time machine back to a moment now lost to us.
But you see I’m doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do. I’m getting lost in Paris. So maybe I shouldn’t spend much time mentioning my first meal in a Georgian restaurant eating lamb kinkhalis, the full chamber orchestra at a Metro stop, the quantities of accordions on the subway trains, about the gold ring scam, or how an elderly Parisian woman stopped an onrushing highway full of traffic by bravely walking into the road alone with one hand up in defiant gesture.
Let’s get back to les marionnettes shall we?
One of my chief reasons to come back to Paris was to see a couple of folks I’d met on my 2005 trip through European puppetry: Aurélia Ivan and François Lazaro. I’d been in communication with Aurélia via the usual social networking channels. She had told me that the Clastic Theatre, François’ theatrical institution, was performing a Beckett piece, Acte sans paroles I (Act Without Words I), for which she had devised the scenario, out at Le Théâtre aux Mains Nues (Theatre of the Naked Hands) in the 20e arrondissement. And so on Thursday I hopped on the Metro and missed the performance by 15 minutes, because the French don’t allow anyone in whatsoever if you are late. Well at least I knew where the place was now and they would be repeating the show the next evening.
And so I arrived in plenty of time Friday evening and sat in the petite theatre. A strange figure in a gunny sack mask comes out in absolute silence. He is shaking fine dust out of his handkerchief. He then cautiously walks over to a chalky white table and moves a small mummy-like dummy with the precision of a lathe cutter in a series of abstract and absurd motions in relationship to its being caught in a desert of talc without water which descends from heaven yet remains constantly out of reach. The play is actually a play within a play, the masked man being trapped himself. Pure Beckett. And an eloquent and pitch perfect example of puppetry in its most philosophical state.
The burlap faced man was played by François Lazaro. Other strings and things were manipulated behind the stage by Paulette Caron. Unfortunately Aurélia was not there. François easily recognized me. He introduced me to Paulette and the lighting girl Vickie. And he also fortuitously introduced me to Lucile Bodson, la directrice of l’Institut International de la Marionnette and l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM), who was quite interested in the Gravity From Above project and invited me to see her at the school, which I had planned to do after Paris. When the bulk of the audience had cleared out, François and I discussed the documentary film and agreed to meet before the show the next evening for an interview.
Saturday I arrived in plenty of time for the interview before the last performance of Acte sans paroles I. I had an excellent interview with François Lazaro. He explained the importance of the text for puppetry. It is a permanent temptation for puppeteers to improvise. It is also a permanent temptation to craft half literate works, since most puppeteers are not writers. His concept was to find other texts, works, and to seek to remain faithful to them. Thus the importance of Beckett, who actually wrote several works perfect for puppet adaptations.
This time I tried to filmed the performance. I was not entirely successful. Nevertheless I captured enough of the spirit of the work. And resolved to get a filmed version of this piece on the documentary later, when I could bring a real cinematographer. François said he could set it up at his atelier. And so we left it there, for a future shoot.
I also had several interesting discussions with Paulette Caron, who had an American mother and spoke American English quite well. On Sunday evening I interviewed her too for the perspective from a younger marionnettiste who had only been active in the art for a couple of years. And again I found the same thoughtfulness I seemed to find in puppet folks everywhere.
Unfortunately I did not get to see Aurélia Ivan, who was quite busy building her android and on other projects. However connecting again with this very philosophical and very French strain of puppetry energized my perspective for the second half of my trip.
But I wasn’t done with Paris and puppets yet. I now had to ricochet to the other extremity. It was time to spend some quality time with Guignol!