A Journey Into European Puppetry

Polish Puppets

Hands In The Dark #5

I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. This journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This is part five of six posts. Explore puppetry!
Charleville-Mézières, France
March 23, 2005

Recapitulations and Introductions

51 Aurelia Byrne

With Aurélia Ivan after her performance.

I stepped back onto Avenue Jean Jaurés acutely aware of three things: first, that I was desperately hungry; second, that everything seemed to be closed already and third, that within a half an hour I would have to be back at the institute to catch up on the shows I’d missed. When I had run off to get my camera, I had already been warned by Clea that the town shut down at 6PM. I had found a closing pâtisserie and had purchased a couple of meat paté pastries. I had eaten one on the dash back to the hotel and left the other there for later. Now it was nearly twenty to seven and I didn’t see anything that appeared to be open in darkening Charleville. I walked passed the institute to see if I could find a restaurant to eat in later. I did see one promising place two blocks away. I decided to return to it after the performances. As I thought about it I realized that I didn’t need to sit through all of the shows again. I would watch the two I hadn’t seen and perhaps approach a couple of the other students after their presentations had finished to take a few photos. I turned and walked back to the institute. It was about ten to seven. I still hadn’t had a chance to actually digest the events of the day.

36 JuliaK

Julia’s little woman questions the meaning of violence.

I entered the foyer of the institute. Aurelia Ivan, the Romanian girl who had left such an impression with her grape branch puppets,  quietly sat alone waiting. I was thinking of approaching her earlier. So I decided to go ahead and say something now. “Excusé moi. Parlez vous Anglais?” She replied that she did speak a little English. Fine that meant she’d had a few years of college level courses. I explained that I had come from Alaska and was working on a possible magazine article about puppetry and was wondering if I could take a few photos of her after her presentation. Her English was not completely fluent, but she certainly understood what I was asking and agreed easily. I would leave any further discussion until later. I hung back and waited until fifteen to twenty people crowded the little waiting room. A little after seven we were taken to our first performance. I had been thinking that the shows would proceed in exactly the same order as they had been given that afternoon, but I was wrong. I knew that in order to photograph one of the performers I would have to wait until after their presentation, which would mean missing the subsequent shows. Thus I would be photographing Aurelia during Morana’s piece. But now Morana was performing again thus I realized that even if everything else were the same I would still be missing one of the students I hadn’t seen earlier. When that show was finished we climbed up a few flights of stairs to the top floor of the institute. We entered a room that had heavy wooden crossbeams slicing through it. And we watched a presentation by Clément Peretjatko that was more of a dance performance involving a very long piece of purple fabric that entwined around the beams with a video of the same. The piece began to repeat itself like an Escher print. It was interesting but because it was so exclusively dedicated to words I lost much of it.

47 Aurelia Cemetary

Aurelia and her grapevine sandbox.

This might be a good time to explain why the actor’s theatre does not quite get my attention the same way that puppet theatre does. First of all, the Theatre does indeed call actively to my imagination. Shakespeare, for example, is so important to me that I determined that I couldn’t leave New York City until I had collected all of his plays on vinyl record albums – a daunting task. Moliere, Beckett, Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Christopher Marlowe all call loudly to me. The first play I was taken to when I was a kid was Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author at San Francisco’s ACT. And while I lived in New York City I saw my share of plays, musicals, dance performances and avant-garde theatre. Thus I am not exactly a theatrical philistine. But only the revivals consistently hit home. I also have to admit that I haven’t seen a new play that has actually meant much to me in years. So I’m not a professional ‘theatergoer’. I’m sure that I have missed quite a few performances that might have been profoundly memorable. Then again at the usual New York rates of fifty to a hundred dollars a pop (1980’s and 90’s rates) for the special theatrical occasion I could and did find plenty of other cultural outlets for my hard-earned cash.

30 Aurelia Julia

Julia et Aurelia.

I’m aware that in Europe theatre contrasts differently with this assessment. But I suspect that many of the same issues exist there as well. And one issue that really irks me is the writing. It’s gotten so that I can smell contemporary theatrical writing a mile away. I didn’t need to be shocked with a cattle prod to realize that the television movie ‘Wit’ starring Emma Thompson was a play. It follows exactly the arc of so much current playwriting. The themes are usually set up rather quickly through a use of language one would never encounter in life. Resolutions are usually obvious and politically correct in extremis, while retaining just enough existential angst to qualify as thought provoking and just enough sympathy to qualify as compassionate. Ibsen does have a lot to answer for here. Musicals I will leave to lounge near the Lloyd Webber pool. And I see avant-gardism as a spent force: Beckett was thought provoking, Artaud a fascinating theorist. (The French do ‘do’ insanity better than anyone else on earth.) But I haven’t seen any modernist or postmodernist pieces in some time that have done more than bring a knowing smirk. (I’m leaving performance art from the late Eighties and early Nineties out of this discussion for the moment.)

Theatre people are probably hunting down my address as I write this to explain all that I missed while I was having my ears bludgeoned at CBGB’s. Granted I haven’t seen many of the theatrical performances I should have. Nor have I witnessed any effective works of recent dramaturgy in any of the Performing Arts. But why? And why has theatre become a backwater for most of American culture? The situation is a bit different in Europe, but what does the average Euro-kid think of theatre these days? Yet here’s the interesting question: Why does Shakespeare remain potent? And then there is a personal question for myself, a question that motivated me deeply enough to take this journey into the world of puppetry. Why puppets? And why now? And can the ancient art of puppetry speak to the issues of the 21st Century in a timely manner? These were precisely the questions being answered for me in Charleville on this day.

It was now night as our group rounded the corner on our way to Julie Trezel’s second performance of the day. The courtyard was dark. The underground chamber seemed even more gloriously claustrophobic; her descent down the stairs even more elongated. This time she had taken a different plastic figure in place of the broken one, which she then filled with sand. Overall the whole performance seemed twice as intense. And then in the dank little room, a woman started coughing; and coughing not in polite little spurts, but dry raspy coughing that echoed in that empty place with the sound of sickness. The unfortunate woman seems to have contracted some sort of allergy to the dust of the dungeon. I was torn between feeling for the hacking woman or for the struggling performer. Poor Julie, she soldiered on bravely through the distraction. The woman took a good two minutes or more to exit the chamber. The coughing could be clearly heard even in the next room, a place that was too dark for her as she scrambled noisily up those stairs. One of the members of our band had to guide the woman out. The bleak basement had quieted again before the piece was over. Yet I felt so bad for Julie; it really was an intense piece that deserved one’s full attention. I had thought about perhaps approaching her for a couple of photos but I knew this wasn’t a good time. Again she seemed emotional and pained. I was to find out later exactly how frustrating the day had been for her. Ironically it was her intensity and brilliance at creating a mood that set the tone for my experience at Charleville.

32 Julia

Julia Kovacs manipulating her fighting figures.

I wandered in the night on the French streets with the straggling group over to the site of Julia Kovacs’ performance; Julia was Hungarian, therefore her name was pronounced ‘Yulia Kovach’. I had really wanted to capture her voice on my teensy digital audio recorder for reference, but I became so caught up in her puppet dialogue, which was, unbelievably, much stronger this time round, that I completely forgot to press the record button. When her piece was finished she received a very strong ovation. After she had been congratulated by various people I approached her to ask her about photography. She was gracious and happy to comply, but she said perhaps later after Aurelia’s piece was finished, she had really wanted to see Przemyslaw’s piece and had to work Aurelia’s lights. After she had changed back into her street clothes she led me back up the stairs to the dark attic. I sat down with her as we all watched the Pole’s presentation. Again it was powerful and I caught more of the nuances this time, as it was with each of the repeat performances. When it was finished Julia preceded the group to run Aurelia’s lights before we arrived. And so we followed along until we came to Aurelia’s autumnal lair.

Again I was bowled over by Aurelia’s entire demeanor and the mood she had created. Now the place had taken on the weight of the encroaching night. I remembered to record a fragment or two of her voice to jar my memory down the road. But I didn’t need to worry; my memory was operating on New Time. She led us through the forest of hanging signs this time subtly directing most of us to read them aloud. At one point she looked at me and within a half a second had thought of having me read one, realized that it wouldn’t work and then flashed me the faintest of smiles without breaking her character in the least. At last she passed us our walnut (I now had two!) and sent us this time in to the night. She stepped out to join us. After appreciative applause and after most of the others had wandered off to the last performance, the one I missed entirely, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice “ It’s more magical at night.”

Julia came over to us. I asked her if it would be possible to put her white robe back on to let me photograph her duet with the male and female puppets. She asked if that was all I had wanted to see. She was game to do the whole thing over for me if I wanted. But I felt that the dialogue was the heart of it. I asked Aurelia if she needed to go first. No she didn’t. It would be better for Julia to go now. Julia agreed. It would take her a few minutes to get ready.

Meanwhile Aurelia and I began to talk. She had been at the school for the last few years. I casually mentioned that I been to Romania, Bucharest, back in 2000. “What did you think of it?” She asked. Diplomatically I replied. “It wasn’t like anyplace I had ever been to before. It was unforgettable.” She didn’t press me any further. She didn’t have to; she knew what I was talking about. Aurelia began to ask me a few questions of her own. What magazine did I write for? I explained the freelance concept to her. Where was I planning on going from here? I gave her an idea of the trajectory of the trip. How did I know to come here? I related a little about the website and my poking around on the Internet looking for some clues about puppetry. I also told her a little of my own interests in puppetry and other arts. I revealed that I had made a few odd little videos. If she wished I could send her a DVD I had made about a girl exploring an abandoned house. I told her that I felt that there were several possible connections to her own art in my imagery. “It’s only fair.” She replied. “You’ve seen my work. I should see yours.” At a later point when I asked Aurelia how she had gotten involved with puppets she cryptically replied that it was a long question “the story of a life”. I couldn’t even begin to imagine what sort of tale was buried beneath that remark. The conversation was becoming truly interesting when Julia finally appeared to be ready for her photo shoot.

50 Aurelia

Aurelia in a contemplative mood in her forest of signs.

Using the term “photo shoot” might be stretching the concept. I certainly don’t want to conjure up images of shutters clicking away at the speed of light, puppets fluttering through the air, anything that might suggest the presence of a photographic professional. I was borrowing a 35-mm camera from a friend back home and was only slowly learning its peculiarities. Not only that I was struggling with a good left hand and a half useful right that still sent pain signals to the brain when asked to put in a moment of routine work like holding a camera. Julia repeated her puppet conversation verbatim completely giving me a chance to capture her from a couple of angles. I also took a few pictures of Aurelia and Julia together, figuring that if they were helping each other with their lighting that they were probably friends as well. Standing by as I took photos of Julia a French gentleman a touch older than myself was helped out with the occasional translation of some word into English or French. He politely lingered about on the sides of the conversations. Julia had to go as soon as we were finished. She gave me her email address so that we could keep in touch. Then bid adieu to the other two. After Julia left it was Aurelia’s turn. I took shots of Aurelia at different stages in her course, with special attention given to her sandbox of root creatures. She repeated the entire multi-character monologue for me. The photo session ended by having the Frenchman take a photograph of Aurelia and I, just so that I could prove to myself that I had been here.

I continued talking with Aurelia. We exchanged email addresses as well and she still expressed serious curiosity about how someone would show up in Charleville who had come all the way from Alaska. I told her that I felt that there was something about puppetry that made it a perfect fit for the times that we were moving towards.

52 Lazaro

François Lazaro pondering the imponderable.

At some point in the conversation she stopped, pointed at the short-haired man who had been standing there all along and said, “Do you know who this is?”

Of course I didn’t.

This is François Lazaro. He is an important puppet master in France. He taught at the school for fifteen years and runs his own puppet theatre in Paris.”

The man bore a faint imperturbable smile.

Oh!” I said. “I guess I should be interviewing you. Would that be possible?”

He tilted his head slightly and shrugged, “Okay.”

When?” I resumed.

Meet me tomorrow at noon in front of the church next door.” He passed a quick word to Aurelia in French. “Is that good for you?”

Uh Yeah.” I concurred. “That would be excellent.”

The hour was getting late and I said my farewells to François and thanked Aurelia for her time and especially for the performance. She smiled humbly and thanked me. Then I bid them both ‘Bonne nuit’ and drifted through the night back to my hotel along the quiet Charleville streets.

Meanwhile we still need to conclude this lost chapter in our next installment of Hands In The Dark.

Byrne Power

Tbilisi, Georgia

July 27th 2020

…..

Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #6 -The Element of Surprise

Go back to the essays below to start at the beginning:

Hands in the Dark #1 – One of Those Days

Hands in the Dark #2 – A Procession of Puppeteers: Part 1

Hands in the Dark #3 – A Procession of Puppeteers: Part 2

Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces

…..

Don’t forget our Gravity From Above YouTube channel with lots of puppet videos.

Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.

Georgian Crossroads

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