And so I have been working to discover what other puppeteers think of this subject. One person I truly wanted to meet was Jan Švankmajer, whose work inspired Gravity From Above, my exploration of puppetry in Europe. His work is filled with textures, purposely distressed surfaces, rough fabrics, objects rendered impenetrable by his tampering with them. During the period when the Czech communists refused to allow him to make films he began to experiment with tactility, going as far as to make boxes that one put one’s hands into as portraits of individuals. His wife Eva never was able to put her hand into the box he made for her. These were not safe textures. Yet it shows his commitment to the tangible and tactile which informs all of his work.º
Likewise the films of the Brothers Quay are filled with physical features that impede the rapid consummation of their art. And this emphasis on texture comes from their immersion into puppets and their connections with older puppet traditions like the Toone Marionette Theatre in Brussels and the early puppet films of Ladislas Starewitch. They also understand the importance of textures in life whether it be lacemaking or furniture. That somehow in ways we don’t fully understand we are fed by textures in a way that flat sterile surfaces cannot do.
My interviews for Gravity From Above have led me to conclude that often puppeteers are more sensitive to these tactile worlds. They raise questions about the nature of digital representations versus the tangible realms of the puppet theatre. In discussing these things in Warsaw in 2012 with the late Polish puppet historian Henryk Jurkowski he told me that: “I think that this, what is on the screen, I mean on TV and on film also, it is not real: Puppetry is real. It’s a reality. And I believe that the puppet with this ambiguity of its existence and non-existence, belongs to my reality, to my world. I can invest some belief in it. I can play with it. I can admire it, but it’s something real. I can touch it. I can even touch it. I think that puppets, and some kinds of sculpture, are real. They are speaking to us. And we can, vice versa, answer.”*
Think of that reaction to puppetry as opposed to the kind of endless fanatical devotion that the products of big budget science-fiction films and video games engender. The puppet leads us into physical reality, the tactile four dimensional universe where things are affected by the passing of time. The puppet is completely mixed up with tactile reality. As Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppets wrote some years ago: “Puppet theater is does not only consist of things – it is overwhelmed by things and lives in this obsession. In its practices it knows the typical otherworldly qualities of things and in its productions it remains indebted to them. And indeed the soul of things does not reveal itself so easily. What speaks out of a puppet’s gesture is mostly uncontrollable and in any case not suited for the specific targeting with which modern audiences get bombarded.”§
Thus the puppet as a material object contains in its essence a contradiction to this world of endless digital imagery, of the flatness of the new commercial world to which we seemingly have little redress. That is why I have often said that puppetry is an antidote art, and antidote to the fixations of this strangely empty 21st Century. In a time when human communications have been reduced to ‘memes’, or to social media, what Jacques Ellul called horizontal propaganda, to multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbusters, to computer games where, as Alexis Blanchet wrote, “the player is only a puppet manipulating an avatar.”• The tactile, tangible, multidimensional puppet made of textures performed in real time offers a humble resistance to the epic spectacle of our age.
A younger French puppeteer, Paulette Caron, in discussing the issues related to this new virtual age: “But live performance is different! And you can go and see the same show twice, and it won’t be the same. You can feel the objects breathing. Actually seeing the tension inside of someone, between someone and the object, whether it be a puppet officially or not. What happens between the two? What happens inside the puppeteer? It’s something that you don’t really see on film, I think. Because you have a certain point of view that’s given to you. And your eyes aren’t free to focus on what the puppeteer will tell you to be focused upon.”*
And that ultimately is the question for today’s puppeteers. What will you focus upon? And what will the puppet mean in the 21st Century? Will it end up as one more digital obsession? Will it simply add to the arsenal of various propagandas? Or will the puppet point, as it naturally does, to the meaning of being an embodied creature in a world of real things?
When I gave this lecture Puppetry and Texture was already on my mind.
Thanks for reading along… Do let me know what you think.
November 3rd 2019
Puppetry and Texture Part 3 coming within the week.
And hey we could really use your support in our continuing effort to try to get this documentary finished. Use PayPal from anywhere you are and contribute to Gravity From Above: A Journey Into European Puppetry
* – Interviews conducted in 2012 by Byrne Power for the forthcoming documentary film Gravity From Above ©2017
– Touching and Imagining: An Introduction to Tactile Art by Jan Švankmajer © 2014 International Library of Modern and Contemporary Art
§ -The Old Art of Puppetry in the New World Order by Peter Schumann ©1993 Bread + Puppet Theater
• – La vie filmique des marionnettes Ed. Laurence Schifano ©2008 Presses Universitaires de Paris 10 (L’avatar vidéoludique, nouvelle forme de marionnette numérique? by Alexis Blanchet)
After a mercifully uneventful but brutally efficient series of journeys from Haines, Alaska, to Juneau by ferry, and then by air from Juneau to Seattle, Washington to Portland, Oregon (!), to Reykjavik, Iceland to the Orly Airport South of Paris I arrived in France worn but alert at the Caron’s house in L’Häy-Les-Roses on October 6th. It was good to see the family of marionnetiste Paulette Caron again and to decompress and allow my body to adjust to a time zone ten hours earlier than the one I started in 40 hours earlier. After a summer working long hours in Alaska, taking people to go rafting or looking for bears, I purposely didn’t have much planned for the first couple of weeks of my permanent epochal passage from North America to Europa.
But that didn’t mean I was just going to sit around. It had been over 30 years since I had been to the Louvre. It was time to go again and the first Sunday of each month was free. And so I pushed myself through whatever jet lag I was feeling and hopped on a bus to the Metro to the Louvre the next morning just in time to stand in a modest line, modest by Louvre standards, with 25 minutes to spare. By the time the line moved forward however the line had swelled by to incredible lengths, lengths I would have surely avoided had I arrived 20 minutes later. At length they let us through the doors, in frantic waves. I decided I would quickly walk over to the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) to simply check out the insanity. Evidently I wasn’t alone. Although the Louvre had just opened its doors the Mona Lisa was already a zoo. But what I had come to see was NOT the famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. I had come to see the insanity, which over the years had grown far worse than I had remembered it back in 1987 due to the advent of the smartphone.
Watch this now before you read on. It’s short.
And what I witnessed over and over was the following. Crowds blocking the view. Most with phones in their hands. They would line up the shot and then walk away. Literally never actually seeing the painting. They were ticking off the Mona Lisa. Done that. Next. Then they would post their photo on social media. Get a host of ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’. Feel the mini dopamine rush. Then tell their friends how they ‘saw’ the painting. They didn’t see anything. I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to get some images for my documentary. Because I needed images to show people how deceived we have been by the illusion of extended sight through our devices. And here they were like pigeons with a bag of popcorn. Gathering the image frenetically. Heads bobbing. Seeking the next kernel of art. It was utterly hollow and bereft of any of the human experience of art. And each photo taken only proved that the taker had been present in the room and was too stupid to realize that any book or postcard for sale at the museum gift shop would have given them a better reproduction. (But not if I can get a selfie with it!!!)
And ironically if you stepped out of that room there were couple more Leonardo Da Vinci paintings that I considered to be just as powerful. And neither was subjected to the pigeon cluster. And so I was able to look for ten minutes. Although eventually the pigeons did start to gather. Phones came out. Apps with explanations and more digital reproductions. Of the works you were looking at! And the feeding frenzy continued.
I stepped away into the only slightly less psychotic room for the French masters of the Revolution and early 19th Century. David, Delaroche, Delacroix, Chasseriau, Géricault and other French Romantic painters who emphasized emotion and national feeling over intellectual or supernatural themes. It was a fascinating era to spend time exploring. And even with the increasing humidity of the throngs, and the weather outside was warmer than Alaska had been all summer, I apprehended something about France and and its art that superseded the myth-making of the French Revolution or Les Miz.
I learned long ago not to try to take in the entirety of large museums like the Louvre. Instead I spent a little time with the two Botticelli frescos, which I had fondly remembered then while passing the Winged Victory left to find the small Musée Eugene Delacroix in the sixième arrondissement before finding my way home by Metro and bus.
Click to expand.
While in Paris I watched less than a handful of films, wandered through the streets and found the crepes I had been craving. I also visited the Musée Luxembourg to see a fairly thorough exhibit on Czech Art Nouveau artist Alphonse Mucha. Again it was crammed with tourists and I wished I had had the time to come at the right time of day or month too avoid the congestion. (I’m appreciating those sparsely populated museums in Tbilisi even more now.) But alas. All the same I picked up further appreciation for Mucha, an artist I have already spent a fair amount of time with. Besides his famous posters I was able to see many sketches and paintings I had never seen before. I also visited Pierre again at the obscure store Heeza where I picked a couple of animation DVDs and was also introduced to a stop motion paper animator named Camille Goujon.
While in Paris it was time to drop in on Pascal Pruvost again with les Petits Bouffons de Paris at the Parc des Buttes Chaumont before a highly excitable audience of les enfants and their parents. I was able to get decent wide angle shots of both Guignol and the children interacting together outdoors. Pascal at one point asked “When did you first come to see me here?” I told him 2005. He smiled and said “That’s a long time.” And indeed it is. Pascal was the first puppeteer I spent time with on that journey that changed so much of my life. And he wasn’t alone. There were others who still figured in some way into this story.
Yet one person was an entirely new addition to my sphere, a 16 year old puppeteer named Lyes Ouzeri. He had gotten in touch with me through Facebook. And while I had to miss his Punch and Judy performance in late September I was still curious enough about him to set up a meeting. He found me at the Metro entrance for Parc Monceau. His father, Mehdi, came along. He showed me his puppets, some quite marvelously homemade. And I interviewed him for posterity. I was impressed by both his youth and the maturity of his commitment to puppetry, especially the most traditional of puppets: Punch, Judy, Guignol, Pulcinella, even Polichinelle. It was clear that he had already found his metier in life and could see the value of these tangible creatures in this age of the digital distractions.
Back at the Carons I enjoyed the quiet, the food and conversation. And especially enjoyed the conversations with house guest Ugo Jude, whom I had met last March. Although Ugo was an atheist and a serious old school political Marxist and I a Christian of doubtful political leanings, we nevertheless enjoyed a strong heartfelt rapport. And that is how it should be in these polarized times.
Finally on the morning of October 21st, Gilles and Lorraine drove me through a secret maze of Parisian back streets in their rusting 1962 Peugeot 403 over to the Gare De Lyon for the my TGV train to Switzerland. I will pass briefly by Paris again before this journey is over but now on to the little village of Huémoz in the canton of Vaud in the Alps.
On the TGV to Lausanne
For more on my experiences with Guignol read these:
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And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
And so I took off from Tbilisi to stopover at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport for a quick transfer to another Lot plane to Paris. At least that was the plan. I knew I was in trouble when the flight was delayed a little to begin with. And I only had 50 minutes originally to get make my connecting flight. 50 minutes to get get through the European Union passport control and walk the endless building. Which had been whittled down to 15 minutes by the time we landed. But they let me get through customs rather quickly. But then I turned a corner to run smack dab into another airport inspection. And while no else was there yet, they held me up a precious five minutes, to go through my stuff thoroughly. And I guess because I was looking hurried and sweaty they decided I needed extra security procedures. So they tested my hands for ballistics and looked carefully at my laptop etc etc, all in the time honored tradition of Polish paranoia, a tradition I refused to accept as an inheritance from my mother.
Then, finally, at last, I was allowed through and now I raced blindly, stupidly, down what seemed like an endless terminal just to watch my plane back away from the gate. And so I was stuck at the airport for another 6 hours. I’ve got to figure out these crazy connections someday. This wasn’t the first time I had been flustered by this particular Lot connecting flight. Warsaw’s Chopin was quickly joining London’s Heathrow as one of my least favorite airports. Well I tried to make the best of it. Lot did give me a voucher which didn’t quite cover a whole meal. And I sat and wrote one of my many essays about this journey. Eventually I was aboard another flight. I sailed through French customs and the train, eventually exiting a bus back in L’Haÿ-les-Roses in the southern suburbs of Paris, back at the Caron’s house, where Gilles and Lori were waiting for my arrival along with Paulette’s brother Julien.
One of the things that I had arranged while back in Georgia was to visit along with puppeteer friend Paulette Caron, a performance of Les Petits Bouffons de Paris. Paulette had been working as a guignoliste in Lyon and the Lyonnaise and Parisian style differ quite a bit. I contacted my friend Pascal Pruvost to see if we could come with him to his show in the banlieue of Paris. We hadn’t been able to make it work in late 2017 but now schedules seemed to align. We woke up early and took the train and metro out to the 20th Arrondissement to meet him at his studio near Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Paulette and I stood quietly on the slowly awakening street. After a time Pascal arrived. We eventually roused his co-guignoliste Bernard from a bed not to far away. And then we were off through the unsightly parts of Paris that most tourists never get to. We arrived at Parc des Chanteraines, still in a wintry mood. I had been here before in 2012. This time I would record their show from a different perspective. Meanwhile Paulette talked with Pascal about his show and techniques. Pascal, all skin and nerves, would not be an American’s first choice of a puppeteer for children. And yet here in Paris it seemed perfect that he and Bernard, his rather surreal confrere, would be performing for les enfants. One wants quirky people in charge of the traditions of a culture.
Soon it was time for the children. Pascal apologized a little because the age of the kids was quite young, between four and five years old. But that was fine for me. And while an older group might have been wilder, this group took Pascal’s cues quite nicely and responded enthusiastically. When someone got beat up they laughed. (Oh no! That’s not nice! Yeah, but that’s kind of the point.) Cheers went up from the petite children, who thoroughly enjoyed the show, adding to the catalogue of attributes that make up Frenchness.
On the drive back Pascal, who worries a lot about the effect of the cascades of recent immigrants on France, drove us passed a squat in the divider of a highway where an encampment of the migrants lived in squalor in ramshackle tents. They had created a small realm of trash bags and debris and were living in it. It was hard to understand why they living in the middle of the highway overpasses. I didn’t really have an opinion. But clearly Pascal and Paulette both had many thoughts on the subject. And it was clear that there was something brewing here that would not simply go away. As an outsider to French (or any society) I’ve learned to not spew my own opinions about things I don’t really understand, especially when based on the shallow reporting of the American media.
The next day was Saturday, Passover and Western Easter weekend. And I was invited over to Paulette’s boyfriend Simon’s mother’s house not far from her parents house for a Pesach (Passover) Seder. I was quite fascinated to go since I had never attended one before. And this seemed like a good choice, since while they were Jewish they were not strict Orthodox Jews, and thus my faux pas would be over looked. We arrived at her cozy little house and settled in. When the rest of the gathering had arrived we slowly worked our way through about half of the meal while reading from a booklet in French, which contained the famous phrases and answers like “Why is this night different from all others?” I surprised myself by actually reading my portion in French without a hitch, a small milestone for me. We ate the unleavened bread (matzo) and drank wine and bitter herbs and other traditional foods. I was struck by how much the Christian communion had been adapted from the service. This along with my first Georgian supra, also not the full affair, but close enough, were two new traditions that I felt honored to be able to share in one year.
Eventually, after warm farewells at the Carons, punctuated with French cheese, it was time to leave Paris and to take my Icelandair flight back to Seattle and then the Alaska Airlines flight to Juneau. I began to suspect things weren’t going to go smoothly when I arrived to an overcrowded Charles De Gaulle terminal, where all Iceland flights were being delayed because of severe snow back in Reykjavik. And so my flight was delayed by over two hours in Paris which then had an immediate ripple effect. This created another hour delay once we arrived in Iceland, and this meant I would missed my connection from Seattle to Juneau, causing me to stay overnight on the airlines tab in Seattle. And that then meant I would miss my ferry to Haines, causing me a two day delay in Juneau, where fortunately friend and erstwhile clown (!) Roblin Gray Davis put me up until I could get the early boat to Haines. And finally I arrived back in Haines where dear friend Martha Mackowiak met me and drove me to my dead car, where Scott Hansen was performing yeoman’s duty to resuscitate it. At last I entered the very cold house of my Haines Belgian friend Alain d’Epremesnil, who was still out of town counting tortoises in the Mojave Desert, to kick the wood stove to life. I was back in Haines.
Within two weeks of my arrival the old Quonset Hut I had lived in for 21 years had been razed to the ground and turned into an empty lot. It seemed to me to be a final message that it would soon be time to move on. But not before working through the summer season here in Haines and bidding a proper adieu to the land that has nurtured and taught me too much to describe here.
But I’m not quite done writing about this truly life altering journey. Next time I’ll give a brief summary of what I have been through and what it means to me at this juncture in time. Come back then…
And so don’t forget you can still help with the project, and we will be moving everything to Tbilisi Georgia. Donate here through PayPal.
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
So I took the Ouibus to Lyon. Buses are the cheapest way to travel in France, though I much prefer the train. But in the interest of economy I booked with an official SNCF spin off called Ouibus (Yes-Bus). Entering or leaving a big French city like Paris or Lyon is a start stop affair that continues for several kilometers before or after the actual city. Don’t plan on getting anything done during this period. And I do mean simple things like using the bus’ toilet. I nearly cracked my skull open as we entered Lyon on the highway to the beginnings of the start stop scenario. But I was greeted by the friendly face of Paulette Caron who would be my host for five days in a small apartment not too far from the old town and the Guignol theatre where Paulette performs.
Now interestingly the fact that Paulette lives in Lyon now and performs with Compagnie Coulisses at the Théâtre Le Guignol De Lyon is indirectly related to our last visit to Lyon and the help she gave me as a translator for my interviews for Gravity From Above. So now that she is performing for a small contemporary troupe of guignolistes in Lyon has something to do with our friendship, which goes back to my 2012 journey.
But before what I could see what she was doing I was asked to help document a more traditional Guignol show by a related troupe, who works out of the same théâtre, Compagnie MA (pronounced like the name Emma). And so the second day I was there I went down to the theatre to take photos and shoot footage backstage as the show was happening. Which involved moving like a dancer to stay out of the way. But they trusted me to do it so I did. Now as the show continued I noticed something different. The middle school aged kids in the audience weren’t reacting the way French kids normally do. No shouting, no talking back to Guignol. Only one outbreak of laughter. To me the show seemed ridiculously funny at times. And yet…
But it turns out that they were German students on a field trip to understand French culture. And the only time they laughed was when one of the puppets said ‘Ja wohl!’ once. Nevertheless they were very appreciative at the end and eagerly went backstage, a Lyon Guignol tradition, to look at the puppets.
Then I was allowed to watch Compagnie Coulisses practice their show Monsieur Choufleuri, an Offenbach Operetta farce done with both live actors and and opera singers. The opera singers weren’t their for the rehearsals. There is a pecking order here and puppeteers aren’t on top. But the puppets were mirroring the opera singers and so could practice without them. I would watch a full show the next day.
While I was staying at Paulette’s apartment I soon discovered it was like waiting at a bus stop with people getting off and on visiting often. I stayed in the living room on a couch that opened up and I claim about a meter’s worth of space for myself. The view from that room was antique cliff face and ancient stairs going to who knows where. The view from toilette was one of the nest I’ve ever had. Though predictably the actual mechanics of throne was as funky as I’ve ever encountered in France. My theory, the French care about food on the way in but don’t make a big deal about it on the way out. We Americans are just the opposite.
While there I spent more time enjoying the company Paulette’s friend Simon. Then there was Alexandre-David, who’s occupation remains a mystery. Then came the girl they kept calling Mary, but who was clearly Marie. She came as I was sitting alone writing in the living room. I heard the door opened. And I knew that she was due to arrive. Paulette said that I would like her. And indeed I did, from nearly the first moment when I emerged from the living room we started a conversation by turns and funny and meaningful, which is decidedly not finished. Then there were the people at the theatre, Paulette and Simon’s family members. And one things struck me again was how physical the French were. Than touching each other and talking was as natural as breathing. And it was curious to me that while there was the presence of the usual technological suspects, at least among these people you rarely saw it interfere with real life. (And if you are one of those folks who say things like “But what is real life?” you probably don’t have one.)
I finally got to watch the entire Monsieur Choufleuri complete with opera singers. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would take the light operetta. But surprisingly I was thoroughly engaged. And somehow transported back to the 19th Century when this was a real night’s entertainment for the bourgeois. The music was far catchier than I had expected it to be. Offenbach is known mostly for the Can-Can in Gaiety Parisienne. And so except for one problem it was an immensely enjoyable evening.
And that one thing was this: Somewhere, most likely back on Paris Metro on a stainless steel pole that I was forced to hold for far too long, I had contracted a bug. It’s first manifestation was as a very occasional dry cough. But by the night of Monsieur Choufleuri, it had become a full blown fever. So weak was I by the time the play was over that I simply begged out of the post show gathering and walked home. I trudged up the stairs. My joints ached. My head throbbed. I was bone tired. And when I arrived near the top of the dark twisty stairway I discovered that the key was not not under the mat. But I was too drained to walk back. To sick to even concentrate on typing Paulette a message on my dumbphone. And so I sat there for 15 minutes before Alexandre-David and a friend arrived to let me in. I would have stayed there hours if needed.
The night was feverish and then sweaty. But curiously the next morning Marie, who knew that I was ill, chose to kiss me on the cheeks rather than worry about contracting the grippe. And I thought the French are so entwined with each other that no wonder so many died in the Black Death. Seriously though I was moved by that.
I spent the day exhausted and slept. I didn’t eat anything until around 6pm and the it was just a couple of eggs. I did trudge off in the morning briefly because I needed to go the bank and also get plenty of liquids. And cold peach tea was the thing my body was most grateful for. Looking back I think it had something to do with the loss of electrolytes in my system. But whatever it was, nothing has ever tasted as good as cold bottled peach tea did.
Eventually it was time to leave. I enjoyed my stay in Lyon. And as always it was deeply meaningful to spend time with my good friend Paulette Caron again. And to make new friends through her. Even with a fever. (Sadly the photos I took of these new friends were accidentally erased.)
I felt well enough to travel to Switzerland and so I left early in the morning towards the Swiss phase of my journey.
Written on board La Superba in the Mediterranean on the way to Palermo.
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive. Though I had excellent news about my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry, none of that funding will affect me at all for at least a year. So if you are wondering if I need anything or if you can help out? The answer is yes. You can put some coins in my PayPal account. And I can assure you anything would be practical and useful. Thanks Byrne
I was whisked from Brussels back to Paris on the TGV. Sitting next to me was a young woman in sloppily dyed greenish/blondish hair reading Russian. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that Olga worked for one of the three larger media conglomerates in Moscow and within a few moments she revealed to me the depth of the state control on all the media outlets there. I don’t think writing this will get her in trouble since Olga is an extremely common name (though the green tint not so much), and she didn’t act particularly worried about it, and besides I suspect that these essays are on no one’s radar. She was taking a break to come look for art in Paris and was quite curious about the Symbolist museum I’d visited in Brussels. She was also going to see a progressive metal concert in Paris the same night I was scheduled to catch up with the Gabriadze Theatre’s performance of Ramona. I helped her get situated at Gare de l’Est and the continued on by metro and bus to L’Häye Les Roses in the southern banlieue of Paris to stay with Paulette’s parents Gilles and Lori Caron.
This was my home base on my journey through Europe and I would be breaking bread and sharing good conversation with them off and on until I finally took a plane to Georgia in late December. I also was getting to know Paulette’s younger brother Julian, who is an avid gamer and is aware that his chosen field is a battleground of sorts. He is working on a theses concerning the sociology of gaming. And was aware the some aspects of gaming had an extremely addictive quality built into them by the designers (MMORPG’s for instance). He himself was actually working on games to be played in real time, without computers, roughly based on the old Dungeons and Dragon model. He could see the importance of not being disconnected from living breathing humanity. A worthy discussion was had all round.
Since I was only in Paris for a few days I decided to make the best of it. After a day off, working on practical chores, I decided go to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs to see the Christian Dior retrospective. It was quite crowded but I’m quite glad I waded through the humanity to see Dior’s fashions. Part of my reason for coming was in my continuing to think about texture and its affect upon us. And indeed there was much food for thought here. (I thought of several friends who would have feasted on this exhibition.) Now I won’t say that everything in the show caught my eye. Occasionally there were the kinds of clothes that seemed too fashionable, too haute couture, for my tastes. But when confronted with actual items made of a vast variety of textures I was smitten by the way texture changes everything. And how so many clothes today (T-Shirts with slogans, yoga pants, gray sweat shirt material, various polyblends) see so lifeless by comparison. The weave of a fabric changes its texture, changes its meaning. While we, American’s are particularly bad at this, seem to have only one criterion left, comfort. But I was certainly converted to a more truly beautiful aesthetic by my stroll through this gargantuan exhibit.
Finally on the same November evening I took a bus over to Le Monfort théâtre in the 14th Arrondissement to see the Rezo Gabriadze Marionette Theatre’s production of Ramona. And this proved to be one of the best puppet shows I’d ever seen in my life. The story concerned two trains in the old USSR, one named Ramona, who are separated by the socialist call to duty during World War II. The trains are given character and the supporting cast of puppets were made largely of various socialist functionaries. The trains are constantly separated from each other by war, circumstances, and communist decrees. And in the end both trains are scrapped. And in the heartbreaking twist they are both melted down together to form one essence.
The puppeteers performed largely on a tabletop dressed in black faces exposed. Related to, but unlike, bunraku style. I approached one of the puppeteers after the show to introduce myself. He did speak English yet didn’t know exactly what he could do for me. But then as I turned to walk away the puppeteer called me back. He told me to wait while he called a man over to meet me. Rezo Gabriadze is no longer traveling with the troupe due to his age. But I was introduced to his son Leo and he was glad to meet me. And I will indeed be visiting them again in Tbilisi in 2018.
I also met another Russian, Irene, who was an actress come down from Saint Petersburg who had two months to try to get involved with French film or theatre before her visa expired. And something in her manner struck me in that elusive manner that only the Russians can generate; part mystery, part tragedy. All in all this little interlude proved to be evocative on many levels. And inspired many new thoughts and ideas.
Next stop: Lyon, France.
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.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
The season changes. The unknown beckons. It’s been a short time since I wrote to delineate the developments in our Gravity From Above documentary and the coming major journey. And there have been several good reasons for that.
First of all last I wrote it was mid-fundraiser. And I haven’t wanted to keep writing after going through the endlessly necessary and annoying task of pleading for donations. It was time to give you all a break. Now on the sidebar here I have written to thank everyone, as I have through Facebook, for helping us to achieve our modest goal for this trip. In a nutshell, we received enough money through Indiegogo to let you know that we took home about $3,700 after they took their cut. Besides that we received more money through a live fundraiser in Haines and another $1,100 through donations on my PayPal account through this site here. (Hint. Hint.) bringing us over $5,000 for this site. The PayPal contributions here are actually more beneficial since they only take 3% away versus Indiegogo’s 8.5%. So if you choose to add to our funds as we travel then please feel free to do so. I can say this with absolute conviction we are traveling on the cheap here and will be counting our pennies, cents, centimes and tetri.
The second reason for the delay is that I have also been packing my entire life into boxes and taking them over to a nearby storage facility. And this will involve as many as five hundred boxes. Acquaintances will often commiserate and tell me how they know that moving takes a while. They mean well. I usually don’t disabuse them of the difference between what I mean when I say moving as opposed to what they mean. I will simply say this: When I moved up to Alaska 20 years ago my library weighed over 10,000 lbs (over 4500 kgs). That is most likely on a different order than what most people mean by the minor difficulties in moving. It takes two months simply packing everyday.
Thirdly… Oh yeah, I’ve been planning for what is now a six month journey into Europe. And that requires plenty of planning all by itself. I’ve been writing back and forth to puppeteers and friends. I’ve been trying to stay with people as much as possible and trying to reduce my costs as much as possible. I’ve been wrangling with Polish airlines and hotel booking sites and the inevitable mistakes that arise in undertaking such an intense endeavor. And since I am effectively in a form of exile during this time I must fill up my entire schedule. Returning for a month for Christmas and New Year isn’t an option. So there have been plane and ferry tickets, several hotel rooms, an apartment in Georgia for three months, and train reservations to make all requiring serious expenditures and much forethought. There are calendars to fill, itineraries to write, schedules to consult, maps to study, researches to follow, guide books to read. How do I travel from the train to the hotel? From the hotel to the puppet theatre? A journey this vast takes serious thought and time to construct. Especially if I want to have a meaningful trip and not just a series of random encounters. (Sometime soon I’m going to write about my traveling philosophy and how I really do manage to have such meaningful experiences.)
And now the good news… With the funds raised recently through my crowdfunding campaign I can now add Italy to my itinerary for the first time ever. (By the way without friends acquaintances and former supporters I would have made almost zilch from interested parties with whom I have had no previous contacts. Please prove me wrong! I have in the past been the recipient of a few very generous strangers’ largess. But not this time.) And I am very excited to finally get down to Italy. I will be going to Sicily to see the Sicilian marionettes in Palermo as well as a great puppet museum. And I will be going to Rome for the first time ever to see a puppet theatre with figures based on the commedia dell’arte. These two styles are some of the most foundational in European puppetry and I am privileged to finally witness them.
I will also get to spend more time in Brussels with the Toone and Peruchet marionette theatres. And this time I will be lodged with Toone. So I’m really looking forward to that. I will be able to visit Pascal Pruvost and Guignol again in Paris. And spend time with a new troupe in Lyon with my dear friend Paulette Caron. Plus I’ll be staying with her folks in the Paris area which will help save funds and allow me to dive more deeply into French culture. Plus there is the three week sojourn in Charleville at the International Puppetry Institute, which is what kicked this whole journey into gear in the first place. I’ll see the Quays again in December. Stay at L’Abri in Switzerland for a couple of weeks in November where I’ll give a couple lectures. And then there is the huge three month chunk of time in Georgia, which I know will produce cultural experiences that I can’t even begin to measure; puppetry, music and dance. And there will be much more. There will undoubtedly be more puppetry experiences, particularly in France. And there will be surprises. There will of course also be illnesses, stomach problems, sore feet, strange scenarios, missed connections, frustrations, misunderstandings and the usual headaches of real travel. These things come. You just bite the bullet and accept it.
But I can’t wait. Except for around two hundred more boxes to pack, some furniture to sell, serious cleaning up to do, a work season to finish up and too many last minute tasks to mention, except for that I’m ready! I’ll be writing much more regularly now. So stick around and travel with me. And thanks to all those who have helped me with this journey… And those who will help in the months to come.
To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.
And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.
In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)
And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)
And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.
Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.
And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)
So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:
“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”
What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)
You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.
(Loading up my storage room)
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.
Time for a little disheartening news. After my long journey to Europe this year to gather more interviews I find myself at a serious temporary roadblock. It’s not the first it won’t be the last. But this time it’s particularly frustrating since I’m much closer to the finish line than I’ve ever been before. I can see it ahead. But that pesky old devil, money, stands in the way.
What happened? Well I heard from the Swiss folks that the Swiss funding sources liked the idea of a puppet documentary but would rather have it focused on one person or troupe trying to accomplish “something”. Now this is precisely what I haven’t wanted to do. The whole point of Gravity From Above has been to introduce people to puppetry by showing what it is through a cornucopia of European sources. There is no way a documentary about one person, group, stop motion animator, etc. can show the spectrum. And it is the spectrum of puppetry that most folks need to see. Now I’ve let the Swiss producers know that I will certainly help get this smaller idea accomplished as per our agreement. But I’ve also let them know that this isn’t Gravity From Above, which remains as a title and a concept fully in my control. So we’ll see.
The way I look at it, a documentary about one puppet troupe, while certainly a noble idea in the abstract, is like a documentary about Field Marshall Rommel, when nobody knows anything about World War II. I’m sure it would be fascinating, but what’s this larger war they keep alluding to? What’s that about? That sounds even more intriguing. Well there is no World At War for puppetry? There is no serious introduction to the breadth and depth of the subject. And THAT has always been my goal. Europe was my focus because it was compact. A documentary on Švankmajer, Toone Marionette Theatre, Buchty a Loutky, the Brothers Quay, Josef Krofta, etc are all quite worthy subjects. But I’m interested in what holds all of their work together. So I’m left with no choice but to go back a couple of paces and try to find another source of financing. I’m now looking at whatever I might do in relationship to my Swiss contract as a gun for hire. But I need to make Gravity From Above.
So what needs to happen next? First of all I need to find either a producer or financial backer who gets what I’ve been trying to do for the last ten years. Someone who will either comprehend the project enough to go to bat for me, or someone who will invest enough money to allow me hire the film crew to shoot the performances, to edit, to pay for film rights and commission the music. That’s still a sizable chunk. And I’m not releasing anything until I can get this done as it should be.
The problem with the film industry at any moment is that they get stuck on one model of how things should be done and won’t consider other ways. At the moment the only way to make a documentary is to focus on “someone” trying to accomplish “something”. With the drama being squeezed out of whether they succeed or not. Now good documentaries have been done in this mode. But to say that’s the only way to do a documentary is purest unrefined bullshit. Off the top of my head I can think of dozens of documentaries made in other ways. Some are pure research (Children Underground about Romanian street kids), or biographies (the list is endless here) or about a subject (Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers, Les Blanc’s film about garlic) or about genres (only think of Martin Scorsese’s documentaries about film) or historical eras (does the name Ken Burns ring a bell).
Well Gravity From About is a documentary about European puppetry. Too big a subject? That’s what I’m told. Well it’s an introduction to the meaning of puppetry with enough examples from European puppetry and interviews to make the point. It’s exactly the documentary that I want to see. And I suspect I’m not alone. That’s what my readers here and fellow puppeteers want to see. That’s what people have been supporting.
So I’m asking you folks, whether puppeteers, filmmakers or interested readers, to see if you know anyone who can help get Gravity From Above finished. The interviews are pretty much done. Now I need a very small film crew and backing. Do you know producer who can help finish this thing? If you do get in touch. If you have any ideas get write me. Though I started this on my own, and 99% of the financing thus far has come from my own shallow pockets, I can’t finish it on my own. The two things I need right now are a producer who will believe in this project and backing or a backer or two. (Crowdfunding isn’t going to be an option again for quite a few years. See my older posts on that.)
Well I had an amazing journey last winter and spring. And I know that I will finish this, hopefully soon. Thanks to all of you have followed me on my journeys. And especially those who have dug a little deeper in one way or another. I do have a PayPal button here. Think about that. But more than anything help me to find the people I need to bring Gravity From Above to fruition.
From a pleasant sunny autumn day in Alaska
With gratitude and courage
Wang Jue from near Shanghai found me through the video of my lecture on Puppetry as Antidote Art. (Evidently there’s not that much done in a serious manner about puppetry on YouTube.) She’s a composer, whose main task at the moment is to find a way to make avant garde music for children. Quite a task when you really ponder the idea. Anyway she had convinced the Chinese educational authorities of her proposal to make music from objects, somehow puppetry fit under that rubric. So she was also exploring the world of Czech homunculi, though for very different purposes than myself. She found me through the usual internet means and thus met me at my first Buchty a loutky (Cakes and Puppets) performance, a children’s piece called Norská Pohádka (A Norwegian Fairy Tale). She was accompanied by three students who were taking part in a two week puppetry workshop. We met after the show and I introduced them to B + L, who were glad to see me again and happy to meet a few future puppeteers. Radek, Vit and Zuzana were performing this particular piece, which did indeed feature Vit dressed up as a polar bear. The story involved a girl trapped by weird creatures in the fjords with dreams of a polar bear who is actually a prince, or so I understood it.
After the show Jue, the puppet students and I ambled towards what felt like a communist era eatery where the food was cheap, plentiful and bland, served in a smokey cafeteria style. We discussed puppetry and I told them to come back to see Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded, their demented take on Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Sadly they all missed it.) Each of them seemed to intuitively grasp the need for puppetry to speak tactile reality into the abstract virtual present.
I showed up a couple of days later at the Buchty studios where Marek and the gang greeted me warmly. (I suspect it makes a difference that I keep coming back.) And they allowed me to wander around the take photographs and watch as they began work on a new piece. They joked at the beginning as they sat around, saying “This is often how we work.” Don’t be fooled. They have created dozens of shows over the years, traveling around the country and beyond, once getting in trouble in Canada for some un-PC Czech sort of thing. The Czechs don’t really get being PC. If you have a culture largely based on dark humor much of what you do is going to be problematic in a friendly politically correct place like, say, Canada. And you wonder why I don’t dive too deeply into North American puppetry?
The next Buchty a Loutky event was entitled Pět ran do čepice and involved the Czech rock band, Už Jsme Doma. I went there with French puppeteer Paulette. (I covered this in the essay immediately preceding this one.)
And then next night I ended up at some weird place called Cross Club, that reminded me a bit of the old New York City club Gargoyle Mecanique on Avenue B. Only it was much much bigger and so labyrinthine that I arrived at the Buchty a Loutky’s Psycho Reloaded ten minutes late because I got lost in the building. And I knew I was in trouble when I entered a room with five young dudes standing around Clockwork Orange droog style in old 19th Century Oom-Pah-Pah garb. Fortunately I had already experienced Psycho Reloaded before, back in 2012. And had taken a few shots, though I didn’t waste anytime getting more. Nevertheless they had actually dedicated this performance to me and I was lost in the old building escaping the Czech Sousaphone Society upstairs. Certain aspects of the show seemed crazier, then again this was NOT a children’s show… ever. But by the time you get to the big reveal that the dead mother is actually a stuffed weasel… okay let me say that again… that the dead mother of Norman Bates is actually, indeed literally, not exaggerating, this is a real taxidermy project, a dead weasel… It doesn’t matter too much that Norma has fallen in love with Marion Crane, who is still alive, as is Arbogast… well if you know Hitchcock’s Psycho you probably realized by the time that two of the Buchtys dressed as Mother start stabbing each other with violins while Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shrieks are set on a loop, that this was a comic version!!!
After the show Radek gave me a DVD copy of his new puppet film Malý Pán (Little Man), which proved to be a minor masterpiece, and which I’ll review separately in May. I helped Marek, Radek and Vit load the Buchty-mobile and then, after an animated ride through the parts of Prague tourists never see, was dropped off, in the same near to Nerudova Street, where I was staying. I said my farewell’s Radek, who wouldn’t be in my last show with them on Sunday and then trundled up the cobblestones to my temporary abode, the Residence Green Lobster.
Finally on Sunday afternoon, my last official day in Prague, I returned to the Švandovo one more time for my 4th and last B + L show, Perníková Chaloupka, the Buchty version of Hansel and Gretel. Their version spends quite a bit of time with the woodsman father before the kids go traipsing off towards the gingerbread house and the evil old lady. But when she does appear? Watch out. She’ll feed you sweets… But oh my don’t eat them.
After the show I bid my fond farewells to Zuzana, Vit and Marek, promising to return yet again and hopefully with a real film crew, and disappeared into the evening; satisfied that I had gotten the most I could get out of my time in Prague for this edition of Gravity From Above. I had wondered if I really needed to go back to Prague this time. In truth, once the ball started rolling I was busy everyday.
But there are a few more Prague stories next time and a little side trip to Plzen before I depart the Czech Lands. Won’t you keep reading and maybe even share these glimpses into Europe and puppetry with your friends?
Tbilisi, Georgia (Just wait till I tell you about Georgia!)
April 1st 2016
So my French marionnettiste friend Paulette Caron dropped into Prague for a couple of days on her way to play at Greek puppet festival. And Nina Malíková gave us free entrance to a theatre/puppet festival for children at Divadlo V Celetné (The Celetné Theatre). We braved the swarm of students of various ages to see a play called ‘Kapela jede! aneb Není pecka jako pecka’ (The band rocks! There is or isn’t a pit.) We were give a couple of the last seats in the crowded house. The lights were lowered and the raucous students came to a point of stillness. And then the play began.
Now imagine children’s theatre? Really what do you expect of the stage and the puppets? Do you see bright little muppety glove puppets singing songs? Do you see cute faces and happy performers? Well what about this? The scene opens on a bar. Oh oh! We are already a thousand miles from any performance for a mixed group of children, anything you could imagine in “age appropriate” America. This wasn’t France either. A man lies with his head resting on a mug of beer. This IS the Czech Republic. A bartender stands in a darkened corner. A cleaning lady walks in. There is some sort of maintenance man as well. They go through the motions of waking up through a precise set of motions all of which results in the man with a new glass of real beer and his head sleepily falls into it again. Lights out. Lights come up again on the same scene and a repetition of the exact same motions, only slightly faster. Lights out and up again on the exact same scene now playing in manic speed. And eventually in all of this the first puppet appears, a small red devil. Evidently this is Czech Hell. And the devil is there to show our beer swilling loser something. Now in the end some much needed Czech moral appears, thankfully not AA, but certainly not pro-drunkenness. Along the way there is a surgical operation deep in black humor of full-sized devils pulling out the man’s diseased liver in a near Grand Guignol performance. Not only was this not a children’s show in America, it was getting a little to sketchy for the American adults. (‘Really! Hmph! I come to the theatre to be entertained!) But the Czech kids ate it up. And considering the drinking and car crash statistics perhaps the devils’ warning was crucial. And it was a great theatre experience.
Later I introduced Paulette to Nina Malíková, former Editor in Chief at Loutkář, the oldest puppetry magazine in the world, and they were able to converse more easily in French than English. One of the things we discussed was the fact that puppetry was being swallowed up more and more by a puppetless media theatre, exactly Jurkowski’s fears. And it wasn’t that puppets couldn’t exist in different environments. But I sensed that technology itself was part of the problem. There was just so much of it.
That evening we dropped in on the Black Light Theatre’s show called Antologia, which did contain elements of puppetry, but were put on for the tourists. Black theatre is a technique for lighting in such a way that figures dressed completely in black are invisible and able to cause objects to float or spin without any obvious support. It was a collection of mildly comic skits and clever effects. Black theatre had drifted over the years from real absurdity in the best sense to coy inoffensive humor. There was something quite Czech about the whole thing that I wanted Paulette to absorb. In her own words “I didn’t hate it as much as I thought I would.”
The next day we took the tram out to the Dejvice section of Prague to the Divadlo S + H to encounter Spejbl and Hurvinek the classic puppets originally created by the brilliant Czech puppeteer Josef Skupa. Hurvinek is the rascally son and Spejbl the thick-skulled father. (Spejbl & Hurvinek were actually arrested by the SS in World War 2, along with Skupa himself.) We were there to see a production loosely called How Mr Spejbl dusted ‘Jak pan Spejbl prášil’, which is also a play on words for the Czech version for Baron Munchhausen. And it was a crazy trip with Spejbl turning into a Munchhausen-like figure taking Hurvinek and co. from one fantastic scenario to another, including a trip to the moon. It was fascinating to compare the Czech children’s responses to the show and compare them to the children at Guignol shows. The Czech kids will laugh at pure words devoid of slapstick. Yet will often be very quiet until a time for laughter. French kids go nuts during the more frenetic parts of a Guignol show. French children will also talk back to the puppets. One gets the feeling that the French enfants are learning to be critics, while the Czech děti are developing a kind of absurd humor.
The last of the shows I saw with Paulette was an unusual Buchty a Loutky gig entitled Pět ran do čepice (Five rounds into the hat) on the larger stage of the Švandovo Divadlo along with the Czech prog rock band Už Jsme Doma. We stopped up at their crowded studio above the theatre before the show. Paulette by this time was beginning to get a sense of the very different puppet world in the Czech Republic. The Buchtys made us feel at home. The performance was done as a contest to have the audience of children vote for the best creature, mostly puppets, to join the arguing creatures, who were also the band Už Jsme Doma, to settle a bet. Or at least that’s something of what I was told. Again another example of absurd Czech humor for the kids. After Buchty a Loutky’s Marek Bečka tallied the votes at the end Vit, also from the Buchtys, came out in his polar bear costume and stole the election. A few of the Už Jsme Doma tunes were left stuck in my head.
In two days we watched four puppet plays. Only in Prague would this be normal. And the least interesting performance cost the most and was done for tourists. Real travelers who want to experience puppets should use a bit of skill in locating real Czech puppetry. But if you do you will be rewarded. My suggestion? Head over to the Švandovo Divadlo (Švandovo Theatre) and see Buchty A Loutky, even if it’s one of their children’s shows… But more about B + L next time.
We stood in front of the Mairie (Town Hall) of Old Lyon in the rain, where we were told to go, then to call Jean Paul Tabey, who would then appear somehow to show us into the chambers of Les Amis de Lyon et de Guignol (the Friends of Lyon and Guignol). Paulette Caron called on her cellphone to receive no answer. The rain continued and shelter near the Mairie was thin. We waited a few minutes and tried again. Voilà! Monsieur Tabey answered, then descended from within the Mairie to escort us to the small room of special historical documents related to the Canut (silk weaver) of Lyon. Tabey was an affable man who was proud to relate his own interest in Guignol which stretched back more than 40 years. M. Tabey was also largely responsible for providing much of the impetus and input for the show at the Gadagne Museum, Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre.
We filmed a discussion about the history of Guignol for over an hour. Several things emerged from the conversation, including Tabey’s concern that Guignol had been turned into a mascot of the tourist department of Lyon. There was a store that Paulette and I had walked into chock-full of Guignol tchotchkes: cups, posters, cards, games, etc. The concern was quite real. Not only that, the depiction of Guignol as a cute little figure was likewise troubling. As well as the fact that Guignol was becoming a universal character, more like a French Mickey Mouse than in his lyonnais original rascality. Guignol originally started as distraction from the howls of tooth pulling dentistry. If you get folks laughing hysterically they don’t tend to care so much about the screams on the other side of the canvas. And the shows were never intended for children to begin with. One of the differences between the Parisian and Lyonnais versions is that Lyon style can still be for adults sometimes and in Paris its pretty much exclusively for children.
Jean Paul Tabey said much more, but this gives you a flavor of his thinking. Like Daniel Streble he was convinced that Guignol was first and foremost a local personage of Lyon and should be speaking with lyonnais slang. But that wasn’t the only view to be had and we were about to meet a group of guignolistes with a very different perspective.
Le Collectif ZonZons began in 1994 and immediately staked out the territory of tradition mixed with modernity. In two different sessions we interviewed five different members of the troupe. Interestingly enough they were the same building as the Mairie. Stéphanie Lefort greeted us. Unfortunately their theatre was being renovated so we could not see one of their shows. (A quick visit to YouTube will unearth reduced versions of some of their work however.) Nevertheless we were taken into their atelier and had a chance to see their many marionnettes à gaines (glove puppets). They do children’s theatre, but also more serious dramas and farces. And the subject matter goes as far as having characters with burqas, and getting inside that loaded figure of recent French fear and mythology. In short they do indeed take the Guignol show and push the boundaries. And they have no problem with making Guignol universal.
Stéphanie Lefort, the Directrice of ZonZons not only agreed to be interviewed but set us up with five interviewees altogether. In my conversation with them it soon became clear that they wanted their puppets to speak to contemporary times, as Guignol often has done before. Julie Doyelle picked up the Muslim burqa woman puppet and began to voice her gentleness and voicelessness. A very still presence, overturning the many images of bomb smuggling Middle Eastern women that have permeated the news over the years. Alexandre Chetail came to life with a crazy looking puppet. Filip Auchère, one of the founders of Collectif ZonZons was thoughtful, philosophical and obviously ready for absolute Guignol craziness at the drop of a hat as well. Stéphanie saw puppetry as a means of real communication, but… there was a darker shadow. Filip pointed out the Spanish puppeteers who were arrested for doing an edgy show featuring Don Cristobal, the Spanish Punch. And in today’s nervous times, real political dialogue could lead to dangerous terrain.
All through this I surprised myself by understanding more than I thought I could, but Paulette was there to get me out of trouble and to clarify many points of confusion. Eventually we would separate so that I could continue on into Europe and she could get back to her regular life. But we would meet up again later in Prague. We ate one last meal in Lyon together, which I let her pick out, since French restaurants still slightly intimidate me. The large ferris wheel spun around in the square near the restaurant. Lyon and our many hosts had been quite good to us. I look forward to returning again someday. Hopefully to film Collectif ZonZons and the Gadagne Museum and to visit with the guignolistes once again.
For more on our visits to Lyon and on Guignol:
Arriving in Lyon off of a six hour bus ride from Paris was a new experience for me. I am used to trains. But I haven’t spent much time on European buses before. They do not ooze seediness like Greyhounds do back in the old USA. Rather they are quiet efficient, rides. Uneventful, though the mandatory roadside stop halfway certainly reminded me of an American rest stop, complete with fast food and restrooms. But that parking lot was so much cleaner. But enough about European bus travel, which will remain a cheaper oddity for me, it was time now to look for Guignol in the city of his birth, Lyon.
I was accompanied again by friend and French language translator Paulette Caron. After settling into the hotel we had to scurry uphill on the a special train to go find Daniel Streble, whom Pascal Pruvost back in Paris had recommended highly, as did the folks at the Gadagne museum. Streble worked out of small theatre called Guignol Un Gone de Lyon. This was to be a children’s show and yet it was more. Streble turned out to be a voluble man with reams of data to unspool regrading this very French, nay practically the soul of Lyon, vrais lyonnais, character. We watched the show – La Fille Guignol a Disparu (Guignol’s daughter is lost). It was an enjoyable lark seeking to find and free Guignol’s daughter. Near the end the evil man was rather brutally beaten by our rascally hero. In fine French style the children present entered into the proceedings with many vocalizations and cheers.
After the show Daniel Streble graciously showed us many original handwritten Guignol plays dating from as far back as the early 19th Centuryincluding versions of Romeo and Juliet and Faust. These were truly museum pieces that were still living. Streble even accidentally torn one of the pages. But his position was that these artifacts were still alive, not ready to be embalmed in a museum. And one had the feeling that for Streble that they would never be ready for a pleasant burial. Streble then spoke with enthusiasm and eloquence about the meaning of Guignol as a character, a presence in Lyon. For him turning Guignol into a universal French character was impossible, Guignol was first and always a representative of the culture of Lyon.
I discovered Lyon for the first time back in 2012 when I came searching for more information about Guignol. I roamed the old town and discovered hidden traboules (dark passageways connecting the old buildings to protect the silk produced here from the elements). Paulette had been here before but never entered one, so she was properly introduced to the dark labyrynths. We also had a few truly representative French meals, which always seemed to include the tastiest imaginable versions of meats Americans usually did not even touch, cow lips, tripe, kidneys, etc. There was also the possibility of going to a French performance one evening, but when we found out that it featured only nude actors, even Franco-American Paulette had to bow out of that one.
But there was indeed more Guignolism to uncover. On the second day we had an appointment with Clair Deglise the new Directrice of the Musée Gadagne. We did wonder if she would be amenable to the project. We had received questions from her office about whether we had insurance or not before filming anything at the museum. Evidently someone thought this was a big production. The museum was winding up an exhibition entitled Guignol 14-18 Mobiliser, survivre (Guignol 1914-1918 Mobilize for World War I and survive). It was a fascinating exhibition featuring much material on the use of Guignol as a propaganda character in puppet shows and illustrations to foster local support for the Great War. Interestingly Guignol was often enlisted in the service of nationalism. Guignolistes performed at the trenches. And evil Germans were added to Guignol’s repertoire of figures to smack around. Although at other times Guignol was also hijacked by the Left as well.
Clair Deglise proved to be quite sympathetic to Gravity From Above and encouraged us to return later with the crew to film puppets. With hope, and Swiss money, I plan to return either in the fall or in Spring of 2017 to capture some of the puppets at the Gadagne Museum, for this is indeed the national repository of French puppetry. Meanwhile since this show was coming down at the end of February I was given permission to photograph a bit. The glass cases and bright lighting discouraged filming.
However I would soon being meeting one of the historians who helped to put this show together. As well as members of the more postmodern troupe of guignolistes, Le Collectif ZonZons. But more about them in the next installment of our journey.
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.
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:
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!