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…