I first visited the Institut International de la Marionnette in late March of 2005. On that journey I really had no expectations. Though the internet had been around for long enough for me to divine that some sort of theatrical event was occurring here, the translation tools of the time and my insufficient French didn’t really convey an accurate impression of what it was I would find. So I arrived in Charleville-Mézières with no real idea of what I would find or even what the International Institute of Puppetry really was. All I knew is that there would be a few student performances. And I didn’t know why but I thought they might be interesting to watch. And that was saying the least of it. Not that the performances were completely professionally realized shows. Rather there was something in the earnest intensity of the students (les élèves) and the creativity of their work that struck a deep nerve in me. And that moment was certainly one of the pivotal moments in turning me towards puppetry as an art.
And one of the performances that most intrigued me was that of Aurélia Ivan. Her piece used pruned grape branches, sand, an old drawer and walnuts. And so while I was in Paris I decided to look her up again, this time bringing an interpreter, Julien Caron (Paulette’s brother) with me. Without going into the details I’ll just say it was a warm meeting and I think we were finally able to communicate more clearly with each other than at anytime in the past. Aurélia granted me permission to conduct an interview in mid-December on my way back through Paris. And seeing her again reminded me of why the Institute played such an important part in my outlook. I had been back three more times since then and this would be visit number five.
And so on the 6th of November I arrived effortlessly at the Charleville-Mézières gare (train station) and walked directly to the Institute. What once so hard to find now seemed to me only a few short blocks to Place Winston Churchill. I simply walked in passed the entrance straight up the stairways where Aurelie Oudin greeted me like an old friend and I was back. She gave me the keys to the Villa d’Aubilly and I settled in that morning returning after lunch to resume my studies as a chercheur (researcher) at the Institute. I greeted Raphaèle, Brigitte and Delphine and embarked upon four solid weeks of research, studying, putting Gravity From Above into proper order, as well as eventually meeting the new Director Philippe Sidre.
On my second morning I met my fellow chercheur, a dark haired Irish woman named Emma Fisher, who had recently completed her doctorate in puppetry and disability. Emma didn’t speak as much French as I did, so I became her impromptu guide to some of the practicalities of life as a researcher here in Charleville at IIM. Her residency was scheduled for three weeks. Thus our time would completely overlap.
Emma had been in a bicycle accident at the age of nine that ended up leaving her left arm underdeveloped and severely weakened. Through much of her life she had simply tried to be just like everyone else. But in the last few years there had been a change in her outlook. She now saw that rather than avoid the subject she would embrace her disability and incorporate it into her puppetry. In fact puppetry and disability had so wedded themselves together in her mind that she now saw it as a way to express her essence, and not only for herself, but as a path for anyone with a disability. And so her doctoral thesis had been to create a puppet show with others of various disabilities and resourceful abilities, and to write a paper on her project and the ramifications of it. She called the project Pupa. It was fascinating for me to meet someone formulating puppet theatre from that perspective. Also the fact that she was Irish was curious to me especially considering that Ireland isn’t that renown for its puppets. And of course the fact that she was Irish also meant that she enjoyed conversation quite a bit over a ‘cuppa’ or at a pub sampling the Belgian beers. And thus we became good friends.
And then there were les élèves. My first chance to reacquaint myself with the students came that Tuesday evening. Brigitte Behr had invited Emma and I to accompany the students to travel by bus down to Reims to watch a performance directed by an Iranian man of what might called body art, since it wasn’t quite dance or any specific genre of theatre. It was an odd piece where four athletes (I prefer this to ‘dancers’ or ‘actors’) made vaguely sports-like motions of body tension, lifting, movement etc, in a small circus ring as lights and noise increasingly became more important to the proceedings. At times it seemed like it was a series of individual struggles and leading perhaps to more of collective resolution before chaos and failure eventually descended upon all. That’s as much of a narrative as I can give. I don’t think it was a particularly strong show. But it only set me back six euros.
In the large comfortable bus on the way to Reims and back I sat with various students. Cassiel from last year remembered me well. As did Eve, Zoe, Sayeh and Valentin. But besides the students from last year there was a new crop as well. In the last few ‘promotions‘ ESNAM had been trying something different. They would have a new group of les élèves start during the third year of preceding class. It is a three year course through the school. So I had a new batch of students to meet, another 13 or so. Including Raquel (Hakeo) from Brazil, Marina from Russia, Adria from Spain (Catalonia to be precise) and Tereza, believe it or not, the first Czech to ever attend the school. And the rest were mostly various types of French: Camille, Coralie, Rose, Manon and the others. We shared simple and goofy jokes on the bus ride back. Later I would bump into several of them in the Villa where many of them stayed. I would also have a chance to see them practice, going through what are called ‘repetitions‘. But we’ll come to that later.
The next day I had a chance to watch two students from the third (final) year class give a ‘presentation‘ on their artistic influences. Emily and Tristan both spoke articulately. Emily spoke about five women in movement and dance who had affected her, which included such dancers as Pina Bausch, Isadora Duncan and the much more obscure Loïe Fuller, creator of the serpentine dance. She showed clips and sparked further interest in the other students. Tristan gave a much more intellectual presentation, explicating books and theories that influenced him as well as clips from a few films. Interestingly enough these presentations were not simply given and praised. The French students all seemed ready to give their opinions vocally at the drop of a hat. And not just saccharin, isn’t that cool, praise. At the end I spoke with Emily for a while. We ended up a few days later with a visiting friend of hers talking about puppetry dance and art on a floating barge and pub called La Péniche moored on the River Meuse.
Meanwhile Emma had to take a long weekend to return to Ireland for a seminar on puppetry. And so I wandered alone through Charleville to the Saturday marché to find more French food than I could possibly prepare in my cramped quarters at the villa. I renewed my acquaintance with the hiking trails in the park across the river and the Place Ducale. And I prepared to get back to study at the library.
At the beginning of the week I was pleasantly surprised to run into hand puppeteer Brice Coupey, whom Paulette Caron had introduced me to in 2016. He was teaching a two week course at ESNAM and didn’t mind at all if I dropped in on his classes to observe and record his pedagogical techniques. And so with Natalie Elain as our escort Emma and I were allowed to watch the repetitions.
But I’m going to save that for the next part of my ESNAM and IIM story. Meanwhile though I will share a few images of the repetitions of the puppeteers.
Come back soon.
And finally, for reasons that I won’t elaborate upon, finances remain challenging if I want to get this documentary finished. Film rights are an issue. But really there are dozens of other needs which will be surfacing early next year. If you feel helpful or generous remember me out here. If you wish you can give through PayPal. It’s the easiest way. It works internationally. And they don’t take as much as a crowdfunder does.
And then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.