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…