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.
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…
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…
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…