I wanted 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 one small part of my story with you. This is part six of six posts. The concluding section. This is the meat of the piece. Profitez!
March 23, 2005
The Element of Surprise
And now my head was exploding! I had hardly eaten all day but that scarcely mattered at the moment. I would find a few scraps of cheese or an apple in my packs and I still had the other paté back at the hotel. But my mind was racing. One of the serious questions that had triggered this entire undertaking had related to understanding whether puppets could really be used to communicate serious messages for adults. That question was thoroughly laid to rest and satisfied so completely that I was then forced to pursue an entirely new train of thought. I had suspected that there might be more to puppets than I knew, but I wasn’t expecting what I had seen this day in Charleville. And it wasn’t that I was completely overwhelmed by the messages of the pieces. This wasn’t a case of philosophical agreement. But it was the approach to the art that left me with a brain operating at 30,000 rpm. Suddenly doors opened that I had not seen before, and I wasn’t even sure if the students presenting their works or their teachers knew what possibilities had opened before them. Did they still see it as a branch of theatre? Or did they see the new thing being delivered at their doorstep?
You might reasonably be asking yourself about now, what in the name of all that’s meaningful did I actually experience out there in this obscure school in an untouristed Francoville? Did I see something besides the little performances I attended and described above? No. I didn’t. I have noted pretty much everything that happened to me on that day in March. Then what’s the big deal about a few artistic student performances, with or without les marionnettes? Allow me to explicate. Keep in mind that what you see anywhere depends on what you bring to it. I have stood at an unremarkable drainage ditch in Alaska and had the life cycles of salmon and toads explained to me by a biologist who knew exactly what this forgotten trough meant in the natural order of our local environment. Up until that point the drainage ditch was merely a drainage ditch in my thinking. My observations of the presentations of les élèves at Charleville were, of course, through eyes different than yours. Maybe you would have been much more struck by the museum next door to the Institute or the architecture of the Place Ducale in the town square. Or possibly you wouldn’t have noticed anything at all and tried to get yourself to Paris as soon as possible. So how do I give you a hint of my perspective? I suppose the best way apart from an actual conversation is to tell you to do exactly what you are doing right now: Just keep reading.
What did I see in Charleville on March 23rd 2005? And through what eyes? To begin with you should know that I have done my time researching popular culture, thirty-plus years, with special emphasis on popular music and film and forays into art, comic books, fashion, 20th Century history, and how technology has affected all of these areas. One of my conclusions relates to the mutation of the arts into a hive of alienation through its separation from tangible reality and also in its deep commercialization. Music was once commonly made by people in a casual social milieu, now it is largely consumed passively in an increasingly isolated environment, via headphones or in cars. The people who actually invent our music these days rarely just sit around and make music together. You don’t find musicians playing on the front porch very often these days. They are usually holding rehearsals in soundproof studios at full concert volume. Visual imagery likewise has been set at several removes from us, though we are entirely surrounded by its facsimiles. How many people have actual paintings on their walls? How many people have much of a relationship to non-mass produced images who aren’t themselves artists? Likewise how many people watch dance performances who aren’t connected somehow to the dance world? How many people read or listen to poetry with any regularity who aren’t poets? I know all of the arguments that tell us that recorded music, movies, television, video games and the lot constitute our new folk culture.
In point of fact, none of these things provide the meaning that a folk culture actually supplies. Does a prerecorded disc played at a funeral provide the needed release that a true human voice does? I’m not saying that it gives us nothing, in this case something, playing the beloved’s favorite song, is far better than no ceremony at all; but in so many human situations some needed element is missing, reducing the proceedings to a strange intangible inadequacy. It would be like living life with books and tape recorders and having no actual face to face discussions with anyone at all. It would be hard to explain what’s missing with this set-up, but it would be worse than deficient. And thusly we find ourselves in relationship to most of the arts and increasingly much of our own lives. We are surrounded by screens and thus we find our own thoughts being reduced to two-dimensional simulacra. In this flatland Propaganda and Advertising reign supreme. Meanwhile the puppet hangs there as a tactile, even weird object. It comes from a tactile world of the senses. But beyond that, in the right circumstances, it calls us out of our artificially inseminated daydreams and raises more profound questions concerning the nature of the reality surrounding us… when we can scrape our gaze away from our screens long enough to even raise a question or two. It was with these thoughts that I embarked upon this journey. And it was in this attitude that I arrived in Charleville-Mézières looking for the Institut International de la Marionnette and ESNAM.
And so indeed what did I see?
Above all I was struck by the element of surprise. I have been exposed to enough art and media by this time in my life to have become completely jaded if I so chose to be. Nonetheless I was deeply surprised. And it is the element of surprise that makes real dialogue possible. If you and I have a discussion and we each know, or think we know, exactly what the other person is going to say it won’t be much of a conversation. The same goes for our participation in the arts. If I jam a DVD into my machine and then watch yet one more predictable Hollywood action package, while it might make me temporarily feel like the king of my sandcastle, the pseudo sumptuousness of the banquet of imagery is enough to guarantee a heavy feeling afterwards, like having eaten too many hamburgers. It might taste good in the beginning, but soon it induces a lethargy, like a mental sedative. Yet when something real breaks through it sharpens the mind, even if just for a moment. If I go to a rock concert these days I know what to expect. People are essentially simply going through the motions. It doesn’t register in the brain as a surprising experience. It easily degenerates into a predictable ritual. Don’t get me wrong here. There are good musicians out there, who play good shows. Pauline Croze’s show in Paris was a solid performance that certainly made me glad to have attended. Then again a French concert is a kind of a surprise to me. But I mean to go to a real rock concert: The rituals, the headbanging, the stage diving, the rock club ennui, etc., etc. Yet here at the institute I found myself not only surprised, but actually engaged, awakened to new thoughts, entering into a dialogue of new possibilities. And it wasn’t that I was simply an interloper happening upon something formulaic for its neophyte practitioners. You could sense that the students were surprised themselves by what their art could achieve.
And it was the elements that created those surprises that were most important. First there was the act of walking, the ancient act of procession, from place to place. This immediately threw off my standard expectations. And within the pieces the processional effect was doubly strong: Julie Trezel’s tour through the underworld or Aurelia Ivan’s course through her autumnal museum. Then there was an unorthodox use of space. Again Julie’s dungeon was incalculably more effective than seeing the same presentation on a stage. Likewise being in Aurelia’s dark lair or watching Julia Kovacs come closer and closer to us through the long black hall were far more effective statements than seeing these things through a standard theatrical proscenium.
I was reminded of a job that I had once held delivering works of art. We had taken our van out to South Brunswick New Jersey to pick up a sculpture by the great Pop artist George Segal. He walked us through his chicken coops to find the right piece. They were filled with white plaster casts of humans in various poses and actions. Having seen them installed in galleries I was not prepared for the power of seeing them in his long dark wooden chicken coops. Here you could see exactly what they were meant to be, these ghostly white fragments of humanity in room after room of failing natural light. In a way George Segal had stumbled upon the same principle that they had in Charleville, that the change in context is everything. It was in the simple journey from image to image in a subtly breathing environment that the real artistic potency accrues. No walk through the dead embalmed space of an art gallery or museum would ever be so moving. The procession then was of profound importance in the surprise of this new discourse, however there was another crucial factor: Texture.
The textures of the objects used were extremely important in the creation of this effective surprise: the tactile quality of the rounded stones, twisted branches, broken puppets, wooden crosses, dark basements, carpenter’s debris and especially of the walnuts. Even Clea Minaker’s use of the most obvious commercial product containers was a bid to cause you to see these invisible products in a new mode. And then there was the textural quality of the puppets: a shadow puppet in a terrarium, dead grapevines with little plaster heads attached, a blank mask with odd lines in it, and the unfinished, yet rough hewn, male and female puppets from Julia’s performance. And these features are not primarily theatrical; they are taken from reality, from nature, from vegetation, from entropic decay and from basic tactile human creativity. And in the 21st Century, a world a flat surfaces, hard angles, molecular deconstructions and digital recombinations, these textures, once the obvious organic matrix of imagination, now strike me as surprising.
What dawned upon me so compellingly was that one could, with a subtle combination of atmosphere, objects and text, create a place where it would be possible to speak to even the most exhausted postmodernist. Now the content of that communication is a much vaster subject. And I’m not looking to see my own viewpoints represented ad nauseum. Dialogue, communication, open and free speech: these are crucial matters in our world of propagandized polarities. And at the Ecole Superieure National des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville they have uncovered a principle that has deep implications that go far beyond theatre. But there would be much more to learn before I could assemble my conclusions.
Standing on the balcony, looking out over Charleville, illuminated by the glaring red neon sign immediately above me that read “Hotel Les Cleves”, I picked up the little audio recorder to narrate the course of my day into it. “It’s been just one of those days.” I laughed and spoke again into the machine. “No! This has been the day,” one of the very few, an irreplaceable day, one of the best in my life. And this was only the first day of two in Charleville; the next would certainly add new colors to the picture.
(But alas I never wrote the next day…)
August 5th 2020
Go back to the essays below to start at the beginning: