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. Yet this journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part three of six posts. Bon Courage!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten yards away from us against a rough textured pale stone wall and against a tall brunette girl who was dressed in a white robe. Her hair was minimized being pulled back. She appeared to us almost as a statue from classical antiquity. Written words scrolled horizontally on the wall, against her human form. She began to speak in a clear burning voice. From what I could gather with my faulty French she was speaking about war and about what kind of people we are in relationship to war and to fear. The projection and the lights vanished. In the utter dark she held a wooden box that was then opened in a way loosely reminiscent of Pandora. Light shone from the box. She moved spectrally towards us asking questions as she paused to place broken puppets on nearly invisible black boxes. Where does war come from? She advanced closer and closer to us with her crippled marionettes. All were white or dirty beige, and while missing limbs, they were clearly homunculi, though none had defining features, hair, clothing, even color. She continued speaking about war and fear as she little by little drew nearer and nearer to us.
She stopped directly in front of us before two waist high felt covered platforms. Transfixing our eyes she removed the last two puppets from the box. Though, like the others, they were both featureless and white they were also both completely intact and quite clearly male and female. I say they were featureless but this was not true of their faces. While hairless and unclothed, like unfinished dolls off an assembly line, their faces were genuinely distinct, even riveting. This may have something to do with their eyes, which caught the light and reflected it back. The puppeteer then began to speak through the female form. She turned to look at the male puppet and she began to ask him about fear and war and life. The robed girl then changed positions slightly and began to articulate the male figure in more defiant gestures and to speak his voice. Basically he said that there is no reason to fear, these things are all just a part of life. You have to be strong, get used to it. The female continued to plead with him to help her understand. He became more incensed, more frustrated. She in turn was pleading now too much, too pitifully and he in turn was now frighteningly angered. The puppeteer, though directly before us the entire time, so inhabited the characters, that she had disappeared into each of them by turns. Finally she posed them each in their habitual attitudes: the female homunculus in a supplicating position, the male in defiance. The white robed specter finally turned away from them repeating her questions about war then sadly proclaiming all that remains is the blood. The lights were then extinguished.
The small audience applauded the riveting performance with vigor. The program notes explained that Julia’s piece was an extract of a longer work by Perrine Griselin, entitled ‘Si le vent le dit’ (If Spoken by the Wind). The program notes also explained that all of the solos had to be collaborations with contemporary authors, that each piece was to be seven to ten minutes in length and that marionnettes (the French word for all puppets not just hanging string puppets as our similar word suggests) were optional. People casually began to leave the room. I stood there almost in shock. My thinking processes were now on a high state of alert. Where did war come from? Indeed. I wasn’t expecting this, not to be engaged so directly. I was beginning to get a glimpse of something, a possibility, a fork in a road not taken. But I still didn’t have the time to mull it over. The dark haired woman with the ponytail was beckoning us further along. There wasn’t much I could do but follow.
We scaled perhaps three or four floors worth of steps to arrive at a converted attic. The ceiling was angled like its roof directly above it. We sat in two slanted rows in simple chairs. An aisle divided the seating arrangement in half. The room’s lighting was muted though not black. A cabinet of sorts cobbled together out of scrap wood lay to our immediate left. Further in the wooden floor was strewn with carpenter’s dust and debris. And off to the right was a hastily constructed cross standing on a small wooden base. We sat in the dimly lit room awaiting whatever would come next. There was a dragging, scraping sound behind us. From the center aisle a tall young man with sandy brown hair and a face I immediately recognized as Polish dragged three crosses in on his shoulders. He also had a collection of little placards on bits of rope. If you wanted you could hang one around your neck. The placards were more than strongly reminiscent of Christ’s I.N.R.I. placard featured in so many works of art, but these were merely blank pieces of old wood. He turned slowly towards us as he passed. He stopped, then handed one of the placards to a man sitting in the audience. He gave the now condemned man the slightest and slyest of knowing smiles. He dispensed one more in a like manner then he dragged his cargo over to the center of his ‘stage’.
He began to speak as he set up the three extra crosses. He spoke of the names on the blank placards, names only he would know. He hung them on each of the four crosses. Olga’s name made him smile wistfully. But when he read one man’s name and as he hung the placard upon his crucifix he suddenly grabbed the cross in such a manner that he was transferred into the crucified man himself and he writhed and bellowed suddenly in a tortured voice. He continued on with a dialogue between crosses and the crucified. Unfortunately I did not pick up all of the nuances of his words, but it was clear to me that he was the crucifier and that all of these stories intersected at different points, and that the greatest harm had been wrought upon Olga. But then the story began to plumb a deeper level of questioning: why evil, why torture, why death. Yet our executioner could not escape his own culpability. He stretched out his hands in a gesture of both crucifixion and supplication. The lights dimmed to black. Then a thick beam of light radiated from the homemade cabinet, or was it a confessional. He crawled along through the nails and sawdust and other carpenter’s refuse towards the light in the box. He knelt before a small window and prayed earnestly in Polish. A strange cobweb textured blank white mask emerged from the dark. No words were spoken. Then it was submerged back into the void. Something was wrong. He investigated the cabinet. He pulled out a chair with the mask connected to it. He picked up the mask, looked through the back of it, placing it over his face. He turned it over in his hands, finally facing it, then holding it as a doubting Hamlet before the skull of Yorrick he studied it in silence. At last he said that perhaps it would be best if we didn’t go any further and just leave this where it is. The lights were then killed.
Applause, naturally, as before, and a head, mine, that was assembling puzzle pieces together at a furious rate. Then a quick check to the brochure: Polish all right, with a name nearly unpronounceable in the English tongue, Przemyslaw Piotrowski. This too was based on a text by Thierry Panchaud. Besides the fact that I wanted to engage the actor in a long conversation about the existence of God, my memory was also taking detailed notes of every element I observed. Having left my camera and audio recorder at the hotel I itched to put this experience into a bottle somehow, which is probably why I have such a good recollection of these performances. I have discovered that in life there is such a thing as ‘new time’. New time is present during experiences that are absolutely without precedent in one’s life; firsts in most categories – a first trip to Europe, a first day on a new job or a first kiss. With new time experiences we are completely present, taking in far more detail than normal. I can still vividly remember the first day of my initial visit to Switzerland back in 1978. All of the strangeness of the new thing colonizes our memory with powerful primary impressions. That is what was happening to me here at Charleville. I could sense that I had entered a zone that was completely distinct from anything else in my experience. However, before I could even acknowledge that, even as these things were being stenciled into me, I had to move yet again, back down the stairs, back through the wood shop, all the way beyond the felt covered hall of Julia Kovacs’ performance where I began to hear a woman’s voice piercing the air with haunted declamations recited in a tone of sad finality.
At the end of the long black hall we turned a corner into what was now another long room that felt like the brown dead leaves of autumn. Yellowing shafts of light illuminated the walls, which were covered in brown paper with handwritten words listed upon them. Tombstone rows of walnuts in sand were arrayed on the floor beneath the scrolls. Further back into the room was a shadowy forest of dangling signs. Even further back along the nethermost wall there were dead branches. Looking up at the wall a woman dressed in an ornate pale antique blouse and a floor length black skirt held a dark brown basket of walnuts while reading from the scrolls. Her voice was strong, prophetic, plaintiff. It was hard to believe that this was the same petite unassuming soft-spoken raven-haired girl who had ushered us into Julia Kovac’s presentation not even an hour before. Yet indeed it was, and the transformation had been accomplished without an extra milligram of make up. She had just thrown some sort of interior switch and voilà.
Her voice intoned what I assumed to be a history of an important man named Jean (John). She read aloud the noble attributes of his public life in a rhythmic tone. At last she knelt down and picked up a lone walnut and presented to us the personage of ‘Jean le mort’ (John the Dead). She turned and walked away from us further into the room. She stopped behind a table upon which rested an empty dresser drawer filled with sand. We followed her into the autumnal chamber and stopped in front of the table. To the sides of the sandbox were square wooden boxes filled what looked like twisted roots with round white faces. They were made of dead grapevine branches and simple little plaster faces; actually direct tributes to artist Jephan de Villiers and his sad world of Arbonia. She picked one up, a straight ‘root’; held it face up and very carefully moved it towards us, towards the edge of the drawer. As she did she imbued it with a personality, speaking its thoughts. She then planted it in the sand, leaving it there rooted in the earth. She took up another more twisted root-creature and likewise, yet in a different voice, she moved it next to its companion. Then she did it again and again and again; different shapes, different voices, now quizzical, now cooing, now serious, now childlike; until at last their seemed be nearly twenty of them in the box, in the sand all hungry, all digging in, looking for the human food. She paused. She picked up her basket again and walked us further into her strange autumnal labyrinth through a forest of signs made of brown cardboard or wood with handwritten French phrases that were too poetic for me to quite comprehend. She read from a few of them. When we arrived on the other side of the hanging signs she raised her hands across a couple of elaborately twisted grapevines, now representative of walnut trees, and she too had lights in her palms. Yet rather than use them for illumination, this time they were used for animation as the shadows of the dead branches now grew and grew against the last wall by her art. She approached a door off to the side. She rapped once and it opened. She bid us to step through into the light of day. As we passed she handed us each a walnut, a reminder of death, the fruit of our decomposition, an emblem of hope.
The sky has never seemed so blue.
After the last of our small cluster of wanderers had emerged from that autumn chamber the petite raven-haired girl stepped out behind us. As we stood in a lazy semicircle we clapped our hands. The girl, Aurelia Ivan, smiled sweetly as she resumed her unassuming status. The piece was an extract from Valére Navarina’s longer dramatic work, La Chair de l’Homme (The Flesh of Man). My head was exploding by this time with ideas both creative and intellectual. Still I couldn’t take the time to sift these things out. There was yet one more performance to take in to finish off the set. But this one was much more of a straight theatrical meditation on the Marilyn Monroe image of femininity by Morana Dolenc, based on a text by Eddy Pallaro. Since it was presented in a standard theatrical venue, without much that would connect it to the world of puppetry or object theatre, it didn’t set off many fresh alarm bells in my head, although it did contain an interesting mobile of small mirrors. That was probably just as well. My brain was requesting a teensy bit of time for vital reflection or philosophical musing, whichever came first. But that would have to be delayed a little while longer. Before I could even eat lunch, nay dinner, I still had one more thing to do; one more place to be.
28 / 6 /2020
Coming Soon: Hands in the Dark #4 – Missing Pieces
Or go back to the earlier sections
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
Greetings from Tbilisi! It’s been too long since I’ve written here on Gravity From Above. And given the current strictures of these pandemic times I shouldn’t have an excuse. And I don’t. Nevertheless I do have an answer. My video channels have been distracting me quite a bit as well as my observations of the moment. And I have some videos to share.
Tbilisi Georgia has actually turned out to be a very good place to be. Only 626 cases. Almost half now recovered. Just 10 deaths. And the reason the numbers are quite low for this country of about 4 million is that the government took the advice of their medical staff and put things into quite a serious lockdown, which given the touchy feely nature of Georgians in general is quite a blessing, lest we repeat the nightmares of Italy or Spain. Meanwhile there have been moments when the one and half million population capital has felt like a strangely muffled ghost town. Particularly around Georgian Easter.
I won’t spent too much more time telling you about the lockdown here. If you are curious watch some of my videos posted here. It will give you glimpses of desolation that should satisfy your apocalyptic soul.
I guess one thought I’ve had is about puppetry during this pause. I have noticed on Facebook that many puppeteers have been heroically doing little impromptu live video shows to keep up morale for others and for themselves. Actual puppet filmmakers whether animated or live certainly haven’t had enough time to assemble anything too elaborate yet. They are I am sure doing what they’ve always done. They remain hidden in studios moving little inanimate yet highly symbolic objects around to create the images they have often made. But who knows maybe a few puppeteers have decided to dabble more in actual cinematic dramaturgy?
Meanwhile I’m sure that most puppeteers the traditional and the experimental have been itching to get back to the place that they long to be, in their theatres, or on the streets, or in their castelets. And puppets are in a unique place in this worldwide pause that we will be emerging from. They are objects, objects reminding us of the material texture of the world and of actual presence on the stage. Too many people now are feeling the effects of the glut of virtual imagery. Like a lethargy of the mind, too many stories, too many images following on quick succession, without recourse to the physical stuff that dreams are made of, it produces a strange heaviness. Life becomes a series of visual binges, without the tactile sense of daily life, of exploration in the material that makes up our own stories, nor the discussions we use to ruminate over our little discoveries. And so the puppeteer can, upon the reawakening of physical life, bring the object back to the starved folk willing to partake. Yet some will not come because the virtual opioid addiction will be too hard to break. Yet many sensing the unreal rickets of the soul developing in their marrows will want the vitamins of tangible puppetry and theatre as an antidote. And so my suggestion. Get your shows ready. Spend this time developing ideas.
And for inspiration I’m going to pass on a couple of videos I haven’t shown you here yet.
First I present to you Giorgi Apkhazava, theatre director and puppeteer here in Tbilisi. Georgia has gone through tough times particularly from 1989 until 2008. And Giorgi came of age during this time and sees puppetry as a way to fight the virtual disease of which we now being given a mega-dose. I have given you his entire interview because I feel like it is important to understand the meaning of puppetry during these dark abstract times.
Next on a more practical nuts and bolts level I present to you a couple of Czech carvers Lenka Pavlíčková and Mirek Trejtnar who show us more about the actual art of carving wood into puppets. So take heart. Make a puppet. It doesn’t have to be wood. Follow your own muse. But sometimes just watching another creator gets the little gray cells working.
Meanwhile if you you wish to support this endeavor use the PayPal link.
I have 40 hours of interviews and time but I need to get backing to finish Gravity From Above. But I’ll discuss that at a later time.
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
Well I will be back soon with more…
10 / 5 / 2020
First the joke. You might not see the humor in it. But I do.
I came to Georgia to work on a doll and puppet museum. But recently I have realized that it would be an impossibility. I don’t wish to elaborate. But let me compare it to an event that occurred several years back in Alaska.
I moved from New York City to Haines Alaska. In Manhattan I lived somewhat close to Chinatown. And so I availed myself of the many flavors of Chinese groceries and cuisine. On the other hand, Haines is probably one of the few towns in North America without a Chinese restaurant. One summer day I heard a rumor that a Chinese takeaway place had opened up in an RV park near the edge of town. So I expectantly drove over to sample the wares. Pitiful. That’s all I will say. And I wondered why? The chef was Chinese. He seemed to have woks and knew what to do. But soon I was told the reason. The RV Park owner had brought the chef to town, like an indentured servant. Then he prohibited him from using Chinese ingredients. The owner actually bought the ingredients himself for the Chinese chef. And you can see him lingering over a food supply catalogue on the phone withe the dealer. “Okay so fifteen number 10 cans of that sweet and sour stuff with red food dye. Oh and what’s the cheapest rice you have?” Ad nauseum… The place closed in another two weeks. The RV park is now a field used for storing pipes by the state road crew. And that’s that.
Read between the lines and you’ll figure out what happened to me here.
And the joke? It’s not on me. It’s with me. So yeah Gravity From Above is stalled. My work in museum Georgia has dried up. Far too much cash has flown the coop. But you know what? I’m in Georgia. And had I known half of what I know now I would certainly have stayed in Alaska. But I can’t help feeling that this ruse, played upon me by God no doubt, got me here.
Recently my dear friend Silva Morasten and her boyfriend Honza stayed with me. Several things happened then to really renew my sense of purpose here in Georgia. Summer quite frankly had been tough. I expected it. But the heat drained me. (Next year time in the mountains. The museum work evaporated. Finances got wobbly. (I finally solved that by applying early for my retirement money. Which I still won’t get till the end of November.) Computers broke down. Etc. etc. But more than anything else a vague sense of failure hovered directly over my head.
On the good side I did get a temporary residence permit. Which isn’t going to last too long, but will look good next time I apply. And even if I don’t get another right away I can stay here if I cross the border once a year. So I’m not worried about getting chased out.
But with my friends here we drove up into the mountains and I finally had a chance to really get out of the city. I discovered this singular little village called Sno made out dark moody and very sharp rock walls. I walked into the Caucasus briefly, enough to give me a sense of mystery and enticement. I drove through the lush vineyards of the Alazani valley. Silva had a chance to sing her gorgeously dark songs at a museum. (To hear her music follow this link.) I also took Silva to meet my friends at Budrugana Gagra. And seeing them again reminded me of what I love most about Georgia. Likewise a trip to watch Erisioni practice had the same effect. I also stopped in a couple of times to see Giorgi Apkhazava’s work on his little theatre. (I have a whole interview that I need to edit and upload here!) And Giorgi was quite kind to me. And these people were all a part of what energizes me about being in Georgia. And so having resigned the museum project today I feel lighter already.
And so I am laughing at my great fortune, a fortune not connected to the local currency.
This is one of my first videos on Georgian Crossroads (Watch it & Subscribe.)
And another thing, back in February, when I was informed about the actual ‘salary’ I would be receiving I immediately realized I needed to get something together to staunch the pecuniary wound. I also felt it should be something that would grow, not some stopgap measure. And so I started a couple more YouTube channels. One for my ideas – The Anadromist. The other for my observations about Georgia – Georgian Crossroads. It was a wise decision. For even though the income from them is a slowly increasing trickle, that trickle has allowed me to breathe easier. More importantly I have found a few people receptive to my curious investigations. And the truth is I have been sitting on far too many explorations that need to finally see the light of day.
Hey if you are here for the puppets you should watch this.
And so with all of this in mind, I recently found myself watching Todd Phillips’ new film Joker, with Joaquin Phoenix giving an astounding performance. And as I watched it I realized I was present for a moment in film history likened to Psycho or Star Wars. That is a complete game changer for the direction of cinema. Psycho opened American filmmaking up for what would eventually be the New Hollywood of the Seventies. Star Wars opened the door to the unfortunate blockbuster era that has enveloped us ever since. But Joker is something different. Joker, an extremely dark realistic vision based on the Batman villain. It has become a roaring success at a time when the hollowness of the mainstream world has become almost impossible to ignore. Also it wasn’t lost on me that the Joker is a clown, at a time when scary clowns have surfaced as a source of fear instead of fun. Which is quite ironic considering how devoted this age is to the teleological concept of Fun. I also saw the connections to Punch, the smiling psychotic hand puppet. And so I felt compelled to make a video on the subject. Not a review, but a search for the origins of this mythic imagery historically and presently. So I present that here for your consideration.
But there are other subjects I have dealt with on my new sites that might intrigue you as well. Particularly one series on Time and the other on How We Got Here.
And you should just watch this no matter what your motivations!
Anyway this has been a report on my activities here in Georgia. Deep gratitude to those who have helped out. And I hope to add more substance to these pages soon.
October 11th 2019
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And so I stepped onto the České dráhy train bound first for Berlin then to Köln (Cologne) then to Paris. I would arrive back around 8 in the evening. At least that was the plan. We arrived at Děčín, the last Czech station before Germany, where we were informed that everyone had to exit the train. Deutsche Bahn, the German railways, had decided to go on strike. But only for two hours. Strange. How nice of them to ask for more money to show they weren’t being appreciated enough. I mean I personally appreciated the gesture. As I’m sure the rest of Germany did too as all trains were sent into a tizzy of lines and confusion. I tried to figure out which way to go next. Two hours changed everything. Yes eventually the next train from Prague to Berlin came by two hours later. But now none of my connection would work at all. And when I did arrive in Berlin I was delayed again. Another hour. So whither Byrne? A train to Dusseldorf then another to Karlsruhe through Strasbourg, France, a TGV into Paris. which allowed me to walk through the Carons door about 11:45 that night after a metro and bus ride through the dark streets. But at least I had made it back. I came very close to missing that last Strasbourg train, which would have delayed me until the next day.
The next day it was time to visit Paris. Something had happened while I was gone. Paris was in the middle of the most serious popular revolt since May of 1968. People wearing yellow safety vests, les gilets jaunes, were protesting Emmanuel Macron’s fuel taxation policies. But it wasn’t just that. This cauldron had been boiling for some time. I had actually seen Macron back in Charleville-Mézières about a week and a half before I left. Well I didn’t see his face, but from above him in the International Institute of Puppetry I did see his hands on the other side of the limousine waving at folks on the street. But I also remembered something from that day as well. There were gilets jaunes in Charleville too. They were just beginning their protest. But the gendarmes had shoved them off out of the way before Macron entered his car. Now Paris was erupting, particularly on the weekends, with anger from all across the political spectrum from far right to far left, with many apolitical workers in between. I was curious as to what I would find when I returned to Paris.
And so the next day I wandered out to find out what Paris looked like. I had spoken with the Carons’ house guest Ugo Jude who had given me the idea that gilets jaunes had moved to the fringes of the city during the weekdays. So I didn’t expect much in the way of activity. Nevertheless I decided to venture out. I arrived near the Opera and decided to walk towards the Champs-Elysées. I began to noticed a few windows with cracked glass every now and then. Then I would see a large piece of plywood in another window. I passed Galeries Lafayette, the most extensive and chic department store in Paris. Next door was Printemps, another huge classic French department store. And at first I was struck by their elaborate Christmas windows because they featured puppet automata. But then I looked again and noticed that instead of glass their windows were huge sheets of plexiglass, with glue in the middle holding them together. And I could guess why. A pizza restaurant had broken glass. Clothing stores had been attacked. Every bank from there to the Champs-Elysées was boarded up completely. The police and military presence was everywhere and toting serious ordnance. They were ready for whatever came next.
Eventually I arrived at the Champs-Elysées. I slowly made my way up the grand boulevard. More boarded windows. Stores with freshly glazed glass. And people were out shopping for Noël. In fact if you didn’t know better you would swear it was a normal day. Only the gendarmes with their guns, the broken windows and the darkened skies made it feel different. I didn’t go all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I felt I knew what it would look like. The weekends had already become ritualized protests. But most people were talking under there breath about a Sixth Republic. Would this movement overturn Macron’s globalist technocratic agenda? Winter was coming and it was hard to say. People don’t like to protest during the holiday season. But no matter what, this was yet another sign of Europe’s fraying political situation.
The next day I had an appointment to meet Aurelia Ivan again this time for our official interview for Gravity From Above. My friend and translator Julien Caron was unable to come because he had acquired the local Europe illness which had been circulating in Germany and the Czech republic as well. I had felt a sting in the back of my throat, but my immunities must have been strengthened by the four various colds and fevers I had picked up on my last trip. Aurelia wanted to meet at the cafe of the La Halle Saint-Pierre, a museum dedicated to exhibitions of art brut (outsider art). The museum was located between the seedy Pigalle district and the gleaming white domes of Sacré-Cœur, and that seemed just right.
In spite of not having a translator we had a warm meeting and a very good interview. Aurelia, originally from Romania, had been living in Paris ever since she graduated from ESNAM in Charleville in 2005. I had kept an eye on some of her projects over the years. She has also been teaching courses of practical puppetry at the Sorbonne. Aurelia is obviously a woman with many ideas. We discussed the direction of her work as well as her thoughts about the nature of puppetry. At one point she had commissioned an android to be made for a show where she asked essentially what we are doing to ourselves. She certainly understands the tactility of puppetry, charmingly refusing to type out the name of her shows on my laptop, which I had brought with my translated questions. She did that not to reject technology, she certainly uses computers. But to maintain her contact with the physical world. And she definitely understands, as so many puppeteers do, that we are losing out connections to the material objects of this world. After I had finished asking her thoughts we talked a little longer. At one point she looked at me and then realized that I had already formulated answers to many of the questions that I had posed. She smiled broadly. I admitted that I didn’t simply want to say it myself. I wanted puppeteers to say what I knew they already felt for themselves.
Yeah I know what I think. We are heading into dangerous times. And not for the usual political reasons. It’s because we are living in the abstractions of technology and our screens. And if we don’t turn back to the real world… reality will come for us.
At last it was time to say farewell to Aurelia, to the Carons, to Paris, to Western Europe, and to travel by plane to Georgia. It would require the usual 9 hour wait at the Warsaw Airport so that I could arrive in Tbilisi at 5:30 in the morning. I spent that time writing. Reflecting. This journey to Europe had been a diet of many potent memories. But now all bets were off. I really had no idea what to expect next. What would happen when I arrived in Georgia… to stay?
December 30th 2018
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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.
It occurred to me as I was arriving by train at the Aigle Gare looking for the bus up to Huémoz Switzerland that it was pretty much exactly 40 years since I first arrived at this same spot to find this remarkable Christian institution called L’Abri (the Shelter). During the current two weeks I would be here I would certainly be crossing the threshold of that anniversary. Yet I couldn’t check it exactly since my journals were buried in a storage unit back in Alaska. And just as certainly the Rhone Valley did not look the same on this day as it did back in 1978 when I first set eyes on Suisse, being so mesmerized by the effect of the bus ride ascending endlessly, it seemed, up to arrive at what was then an unknown future. The weather now was unusually hazy on this warm mid-October day obscuring both the valley and the great line of mountains usually dominating it. Curiously enough that first journey was also the last time I bought a one way ticket to Europe and did not have any clue about what I would find when I got there. Ever since I have always had well planned trips with distinct return dates to return to my American life. But that time, like this, I was stepping into the unknown. And that journey was ultimately responsible for this one in dozens of ways.
Since I had last visited about a year ago in 2017 I didn’t have any specific set of emotions to bring to my own table this time. Last year I was coming off of an emotional time, having just moved all of my belongings into Storage Unit 3. Last year I had pains in my heels from recurring bursitis that dogged me through most of my Western European trek last year. Last year felt like an act of assertion that I had much more to do in life. But this time we would see.
I arrived on a late Sunday afternoon. No one official seemed to be around. But I had a fairly good idea that I would be staying in Chalet Les Mélèzes again. A student, a dancer as it turned out, named Heather showed me the way. Eventually Steve Bullock found me and everything was confirmed. I was sleeping in exactly the same bed as last time. And Sunday dinner was at 7pm down at Chesalet. Per-Ole and Amelia were preparing the meal and I was introduced to more students. I was particularly glad to run into L’Abri’s tech worker, the Dutchman Folkert, who liked to give long rambling retellings of famous books. (Later in the week he would unspool half of Tolkien’s Silmarillion.) Word got around that I was the ‘puppet man’ and was introduced to Julie a puppeteer who had brought her own carved Czech style marionette named Peter, who was treated as a celebrity by Per-Ole and Amelia’s young children. P-O read Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s Nightingale after the meal. It was as if I never left.
I was due to give two lectures while I was there. As I told students the subject of the first, Texture, I tended to get inquisitively puzzled looks. What would I say about that? What would anyone say about texture? And in fact that was exactly the reason for my choice. Last year while visiting the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières I gave a presentation on Gravity From Above and the work achieved so far. I contended that puppetry was an antidote to much of the contemporary sterility in the design and ambience of the age. And I particularly contrasted the texture and tactility of the puppet with the flatness of the screen. That caught the attention of a few of the folks there. I had assumed that puppeteers were well aware of the contrast between the smooth modern surfaces and the rougher features of the puppet. But in reality not much thought had gone into it. As I searched the archives of the Institute I found very little on the subject. Maybe a book on fashion. Then as I extended my search I discovered very little indeed had been written on the subject at all. And as I pondered it I realized that the the transition from a deeply textured world to the flat junky plastic textures surrounding us at every step had largely been accompanied by no fanfare whatsoever. No one realized what they were getting rid of when they moved from, say, natural fibers to synthetic or from wood to vinyl siding. And so I had decided to dig a bit more deeply into the fallow ground. The lecture went well sparking several thoughtful comments that helped me look in new directions.
But my second and related lecture on the Need for Beauty was even more provocative. As I assumed it would be. Especially the hot and touchy subject of human beauty. It was my contention that we had created an increasingly ugly world with art, commerce and philosophical underpinnings all joining in. And the worst culprit of all being kitsch, all of that cute cuddling tacky shite that seems to infest our lives at every turn from household decorations to geekdom. I quoted Andrei Tarkovsky concerning beauty in art, Jordan Peterson on how true beauty is actually frightening. And then there was this quote from Roger Scruton’s book Beauty – A Very Short Introduction : “Simply put, kitsch is not, in the first instance, an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith. Kitsch begins in doctrine and ideology and spreads from there to infect the entire world of culture.” Indeed I think the hottest part of the talk is when I mentioned that there must be a connection between appearances and the interiors. I think many people have been so conditioned to say that everyone is equal that to point out the physical beauty of a person was tantamount to saying that such obvious disparities could only be a form of bigotry. No one said as much, but the thought hung in the air. Per-Ole, an artist himself, made an astute observation that beauty just might be found in the truth behind those appearances. And later as P-O and I discussed it we both agreed that it was a thorny and needed subject for discussion.
I made the rounds meeting old friends Richard and Karen, Gian (A friend for 40 years!), Greg and Lisby, Steve Bullock whom I had met once before. Katrina and Aaron were new workers. Katrina I had met before, since she was Gian’s granddaughter, and was glad to spend more time getting to know her better. Her husband Aaron was a welcome addition to the mix as well. Marnie from New Zealand was also a new worker lending a bit of Kiwi pizazz to the affair.
I was impressed by the students. I was a little curious about how the polarizations of modern life would be reflected by them. And fortunately the answer was very little. They seemed largely open to discussion and only a couple of times did I hear any vaguely political or partisan language. And even then not with the kind of vehemence one finds in other settings. Though I suspect if one scratched the itch too much it might bleed. But most of the current crop of students I think had been affected less by the rhetoric of the times than by the desire to transcend it. I had good conversations with Paul, a Brit with Ghanian roots, Kate, a Dutch/American cellist, Melody from Germany, Tasha from Australia Dukjoo from Korea and especially Folkert. It was also excellent to come across another writer with similar interests in Lee Pryor, currently a ‘helper’ at L’Abri. And I had a heart to heart talk with Per-Ole before it was time to leave.
I did take my favorite cogwheel train ride from Bex to Gryon with Paul and Kate. Then ambled along in fine discursive form until we arrived in Villars where we sat outdoors at a patisserie sipping tea and eating opulent desserts. And I joined most of L’Abri on an outing up to Bretaye at 1,806 m (5925 ft) by another cogwheel train, where we all shared a simple picnic by a small glacial lake on the last nearly summery day of the season. Snows descended on the higher elevations of the Grand Muveran and the rest of the Alps the next day. Eventually it was American Halloween, which was celebrated in the casual guess-what-I-am style common in many US colleges. Jack-O’Lanterns were carved. We even had two young trick-or-treaters with bags coming through the students quarters. And I had a chance to show a few short European puppet films for the curious.
Eventually it was time to drift down to Aigle on the 9:07 bus and as I waited a few souls saw me off in fine L’Abri style. And as I rode the sharp winding road down to the Rhone Valley floor I pondered upon this visit. It was a memorial of sorts to my many treks back to this place over the years. And it was the first trip to Huémoz that I took knowing that my home was not ‘back there’ somewhere but ahead of me. The next stop was back in Charleville-Mézières in France where I had been granted a month long residency. But first I would have to sling shot my way through Paris briefly again.
More to come.
The Centenaire of the Armistice of 1918
And hey! While finances are not a problem. I’ve been looking more seriously at the cost of the few film rights I’ll need for the film. Let’s put it this way. Every financial gift will help. I still don’t know the status of my support from the International Institute of Puppetry. But I suspect I should have made the budget higher than I did. Also I have a medical bill that has managed to surprise me and follow me. Again PayPal is a great way to send me contributions. And thanks to the gift (you know who you are) that recently came through as I’ve been traveling. It really helps.
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 journey commences, Alaska is behind me as I sit at the Juneau Airport having just suffered the serious indignities of the TSA, while watching an elderly woman so infirm she could barely move her wheelchair get patted down for five minutes as a threat to national security. It’s strange that Juneau, a place I seriously doubt anyone is going to ever use as an entrance for international skullduggery, usually has the worst security checks. Much worse than JFK, Heathrow or Charles De Gaulle. And since September 11th 2001 it’s always been that way. The only thing I can think of is that being so far removed from any aspect of terrorism, being so completely unable to imagine real terrorism, having only experienced these things through television and the internet they have succumbed to a dread paranoia of whoever ‘they’ might be. My dear departed mother whose body had been regularly infused with replacement parts was usually detained for the same treatment that the woman in the wheelchair had been. Which must explain the severe irritation I feel at the guards invading the propriety of the aged or handicapped who couldn’t possibly have ill motives nor the wherewithal even use the restrooms, let alone carry out an attack. And if you point this out to them, you will be suspect yourself, and pulled over to the side. Thus we submit. This is life in 2018.
Okay. Sorry. I just had to get that off of my chest. What am I doing here? Oh yeah I’m waiting to board a plane to get to Europe to continue my Gravity From Above journey and to end up in my new life in Georgia. So I suppose what I need to do is let you know my itinerary. And if anyone wants to meet me along the way contact me.
So yes… though I am moving to Tbilisi Georgia, I won’t get there until December 15th. So what will I be doing in the meantime?
Here is my itinerary.
October 6th through October 20th staying with friends in Paris and doing more puppetry and cultural research.
October 21st through November 2nd L’Abri in Huémoz Switzerland
November 2nd through November 4th Back in Paris
November 5th through November 30th Residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France
December 1st and 2nd Luneberg Germany visiting friends
December 3rd through December 9th Prague Czechia (I liked the Czech Republic as name much much better. There just aren’t enough places you get to say ‘the’ before the name.)
December 10th through December 14th Paris one last time
December 15th Tbilisi Georgia to live.
And so I leave Alaska with too many mixed emotions to share here. Alaska will always be a part of me. Yet I know it is time to leave. The finger points east to Europe, even further east to Georgia. I will try to finish up this everlasting Gravity From Above documentary project as soon as I can. Editing will take time. Distribution longer. Yet Alaska will stay with me. Just as New York stays with me. California stays with me. The faces, the events, the ineffable.
I’ll be reporting more about my adventures through this Gravity From Above site, and of course I’ll keep writing my ideas over at The Anadromous Life. But eventually I’ll have to start a new site (I can’t bring myself to call what I do blogs. It is such a slobby sounding word.) about my Georgian life… but it’s certainly not going to be called My Georgian Life. I need to come up with a name.
Stick around. It’s sure to get interesting.
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Well I’ve been quiet for a little while, catching up with my writing and catching my breath between journeys to Europa. Mostly preparing to leave Alaska permanently. Being back here has been tinged with a kind of nostalgia already. I am doing things that I know I will probably never do again: Picking spruce tips for tea, harvesting devil’s club, drying morels, puffballs and boletes to rediscover in over a year when my container is finally sent to Georgia; Taking people on tours to float down the Chilkat River or to see bears on the Chilkoot; Meeting friends to discuss my plans; Stopping others to let them know that my farewell event will be coming up on September 8th at the ANB/ANS Hall. Plus remembering the things I won’t miss here. Everyplace has its curses. In New York City it was crime, rats , roaches, ultra hipness. Here in Haines it’s small minded pettiness, bovine tourists and other forms of myopia. But there is much goodness and many friends that I will indeed miss.
Meanwhile on October 4th I leave for good. And there has been much to consider. Fortunately last summer’s insane moving crunch has left me in perfect position to move. Everything I own is in unit number 3 at S & W Storage. And I have gone through it all to remove things I won’t need in Tbilisi: lamps, waffle irons, heaters, microwave ovens, anything that simply plugs in and gets hot. Also I’ve put the finishing touches on my boxes and reorganized everything into the most efficient shape. And finally I’ve gone through the last of my mother’s things and mailed off the items connected more to my stepfather Mike’s family. And so my life here seems nearly completely closed down. Only a few final details left. They could be finished in a day. My storage unit is paid through October 2019.
Then there are the more complicated problems associated with my departure. New passport? It arrived last week after being rejected once for too much shadow in my photo I assume, but they didn’t specify. Airline tickets to Paris? Yes. But I still need to buy my December tickets from Paris to Tbilisi. I’m waiting for my funds to resolve a bit first. Train tickets for the Western European portion of my journey? Yes. Though I have to wait until I get to Europe to buy my specific reservations. A rental in Prague for a week? Yes. Though I am reminded how much hotel prices have risen since my first visit to Prague in 2000. Letters to friends in Paris, Switzerland and Germany? Yes and they are waiting for me. My apartment for the first three months in Tbilisi? Yes. Same place. (Thanks Mariam.) Continuity is a good thing.
But there is much I am struggling to get done. I have been working a lot to try to get the money I need to survive until my European money kicks in, which won’t be until early 2019. So after all of this summer’s traveling expenses, which also includes new clothing, a daypack, medical check up, car repairs so that I can sell it in good shape before I leave, and many other sundry things I am hoping my funds will hold to get me through the valley. (You can help out below through PayPal.) And I am trying to get my little book of puppet plays ready to sell before I leave. There are so many other things that I had hoped to finish before I leave. Because once I get to Georgia everything will change. (Mail is terrible there, which is a major problem.)
And so what am I doing once I leave?
On October 4th I leave on Alaska Marine Lines’ ferry for Juneau. I’ll spend a night at the Best Western Hotel then ricochet from Juneau to Seattle to Portland to Reyjavik to Paris. Then I’ll spend a couple of weeks in Paris with the Carons decompressing from all of my summer finalities. I’ll then spend two weeks at L’Abri in Switzerland where I hope to give two lectures: one on rediscovering beauty; one on the meaning of texture. Then I have been granted a four week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières France.
At that point several things will happen: I will give a presentation on the state of this Gravity From Above documentary project. And then there is an important moment for both the life of the project and my own future. I don’t know how they will decide. (There have also been changes in the leadership since I was last there.) I will also interview more students for the project as well as do more research on the project especially for older imagery and cinematic images. All in all it looks to be a time to keep an eye on.
Then at the beginning of December I will travel up to northern Germany to visit good friends and then slingshot over to Prague for my final Gravity From Above interviews and images. Then I will return to Paris to wrap things up to go to Tbilisi, Georgia on December 14th.
When I arrive in Georgia I will immediately go to work getting ready to edit Gravity From Above on professional equipment. I will also check in with Nini Sanadiradze at the The Union of Tbilisi Museums at start to prepare for a tojina conference in late January. And thus my new life begins.
Watch this to be mesmerized by the dancers at Erisioni that I saw last March.
And so is this the finish line for Gravity From Above? Maybe. Or close to it. The end is in sight though. I still have to get my translations done. I still need to get music composed and recorded. I’ll probably need a few shots that I forgot about. I will need to get the films and their rights. But that’s what I’ll be working on from October to January. And how much of what gets done depends on what the International Institute of Puppetry provides.
Oh! And then there is trying to get the thing seen!!!
And so maybe there is more left than I thought. But we are certainly closing in on something!
And dear readers, friends and puppeteers I still need your support. The challenge isn’t over.
But thank you so much for helping me get this far.
August 26th 2018
I had been watching Erisioni practice their singing and dancing for nearly two months, taking photos, shooting video, when Otari Bluashvili, the company manager, invited me to travel with them on a short tour into the nearby rolling mountains to watch them perform a partial show at a retreat center called Bioli. This would be a chance to see them in full costume, which thus far I had not had a chance to witness. The date, March 24th, the last weekend of my three month sojourn in Georgia, it would be a good final event to end my stay in Tbilisi.
I arrived in the early afternoon at the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue. Dancers, singers and musicians were milling around. There was good natured vibe to the milling crowd. But not everyone was there. Several dancers were not needed because the performance area was not that large and the show only half as long. A car had arrived and the performers were taking the traditional Georgian garments and carefully placing them in it, especially the women’s dresses. As I looked around I noted Irakli the dancer and Irakli the garmoni (Georgian accordion) player, Toko and Lasha, a couple of the very high voiced tenors, the dancers Nina, Gvantsa, Neolina and Mari were there. Also present was Levan the male choreographer, Eka the women’s choreographer, Shermandi the choirmaster, Otar the manager and Jemal the Chief Conductor, who was really the head of the organization, whom I remembered from the original Georgian Legend DVD, where I first learned of Erisioni.
Eventually a massive white modern bus pulled up and we entered, all forty or so folks. Several dancers and musicians had to stay back since it was a small show, otherwise the number would be over fifty. I sat near the front and looked back on the troupe, took a few photos and we drove up into the rolling mountains south of Tbilisi to Bioli a ‘Medical Wellness Resort’. The mood on the bus was like a high school field trip. They hadn’t done a show for a while so it was a chance to get out into the world again. The journey covered about 15 kilometers and took about a half an hour, all up hill, as we ascended from Tbilisi’s 450 to 760 meters (1,500-,2,500 ft) to Bioli’s 1,200 meters (3,930 ft). At last the sign for Bioli emerged along the road and we drove down their dirt road to a rather futurist looking set of structures.
The Erisioni folk seemed to know where they were going so I tagged along. The women were give a large golf cart vehicle to travel in. I entered the domed main building. Evidently tonight’s performance was to be punctuation for a business awards ceremony of some sort that I never did fully comprehend. But I wasn’t there for the proceedings, except as it pertained to the Erisioni troupe. Before changing into their costumes they practiced briefly in order to ascertain their ability to move. The performance space was actually small considering the expansiveness of the dances. Sophiko Khachidze and Tornike Gelashvili danced gracefully in their street clothes. Others moved around them. It was tight but it would work.
I then followed the performers into the back dressing rooms, which of course were far too small for so many people. But no one was complaining. Every dancer, singer and musician had traditional clothes. This was the first time I had actually seen them wearing them. The clothes were expensive and needed to be protected from excessive wear. So rehearsals were always done in their black dance garments. But now for the first time I was seeing the Georgian finery I had seen in videos and photos. Most of the men wore variations on the chokha, the distinctive coat with cartridge sleeves lined across the front. These now mostly carried ornamental cylinders. Male dancers however usually had several various regional costumes to change into during the course of the evening. The women’s dresses were even more elaborate, often featuring regal caps and flowing veils. They too changed during the evening to represent the regions of Georgia. All in all quite the sartorial spectacle.
Another interesting aspect was the makeup applied by the women to emphasize their eyes, heavy eyelashes and strong cosmetics. This of course was to communicate across the distance from stage to audience under hot lights. And when they did this they became almost unrecognizable transforming into ikons of Georgian culture, as did the men in their way, shaggy wool hats, swords, special boots for jumping on their toes, etc. Fascinating to observe. Before the performance we ate some lobiani, a flat bread filled with beans, a light snack for energy but certainly not a full meal. But soon it was time.
They went through a couple of songs then paused for presentations and awards. This continued through out the evening. Their were several professional photographers and videographers there. I left them to capture video of the show. They were much more aggressive than I. And besides I was interested in something else. I care more about the personalities and their process to become these incredible dancers and singers. And so I turned my camera mostly on the backstage between numbers, the quick changes the tired bodies and the characters of many people who were, even without language becoming friends. All the time I couldn’t help but feel honored to be with them as one of the crew, not merely as this guy from the outside, from another country.
When the entertainment was over I looked down the undulating hills to lights of Tbilisi glowing from a distance. We drove back in the dark, Somewhere in the back a few singers were singing a song together. And everything was good.
In two days on Monday I went into the Erisioni studios on Rustaveli Avenue to say farewell. I wasn’t sure if I would film or not. But I did. There were Turks there who wanted to see them for a tour. So I had a chance to watch the full performance one more time. This may have been the best show I had seen yet. And I was much more able to follow their movements with my camera. Although I am still kicking myself, because although I was able to follow the sword dance perfectly, and thought the footage would be my best. I then looked at the camera, I had forgotten to press record. I shook it off and captured the finale. (Which can be seen here.)
At the end, before everyone left, I asked Otari to allow me to say farewell to the troupe. He spoke and more than fifty pairs of eyes looked at me. And I realized how meaningful this experience had been and how in so many ways I had become close to these musicians, singers and dancers who put so much into their art. I tried to speak but choked up. And they loved that! They burst into applause. I tried to speak again and it proved quite difficult. And again they cheered and clapped loudly. Otar at one moment leaned over to me and said “They think you are one of us.” It was because I had shown deeper emotion. Finally I told them how much it meant to spend time with them and that I was actually going to be moving to Tbilisi within a year. And they applauded rhythmically for some time. I was overcome with joy.
Before leaving I managed to get a few photos of all of us together. And then as they left I received many kisses on the cheeks and not only from the girls. I had gone past being a stranger and was warmly embraced in a farewell gesture that I have never experienced before. I felt privileged to spend time with this incredible collection of musical artists. When they put on their costumes they became mythic representations of their culture. But you know I think I prefer watching them in rehearsals because then I see Tornike Akhalaia spinning like a top and landing on his knees and springing back, Lika Tsipuria practicing her delicate turns over and over and Lika Chikhelidze dancing like a swan, Shota Gongadze effortlessly cool as he struts out to dance and play the drum, the male singers shaking the walls with the force of their sound, choreographer Levan Kublashvili suddenly breaking into a dance just because the music strikes him. I am impressed to see them practice because I see the humans behind the mythic symbols of Georgia and I am amazed to be counted as a friend.
But I was hardly finished with my farewells to my friends in Georgia. I will finish this story next time.
One of the puppet theatres I had most wanted to contact was the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I had seen them perform in Paris and then again in Tbilisi and yet I never quite made contact. It was a disappointment since Rezo Gabriadze was one of the puppet directors I had most wanted to interview and Ramona one of the best puppets shows I had seen. But alas, one doesn’t get everything one wants.
Click on these for larger images.
I did however discover that there was another place in town, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre (TSPT), which has existed in one form or another since 1934. And so I late February I found a Facebook page for them and and sent them a message. I was contacted by Ana Sanaia, an actress and their manager. She was happy to have me come see them. I found them in an old factory building called The Silk Factory, where they had a small theatre. I was let in on a day when there was an art exhibition in an adjacent gallery. The Silk Factory was used for a variety of purposes including a production studio that I was shown, which might be a place where I can edit the final version of Gravity From Above.
I was enjoying a conversation with a woman named Salome Berikashvili when Ana Sanaia came in. She was very glad to meet me. The show for the day was a short version of Tbilisi’s history done through allegorical imagery. The play called Sakartvelo (Georgia) featured a modified bunraku style not too different from the Gabriadze Theatre. They performed mostly on a table top, with performers in black moving the figures from behind. The main figures were a wooden donkey and a bird. But whether cotton balls for clouds or flat cutout dancers or pails filled with sand and turned upside down, then lifted up to represent an older Tbilisi, the sense of invention was continual. The main director Nikoloz Sabashvili had come from the theatre but was bringing to the puppet stage a wider grammar. I was especially impressed when the sandlot Tbilisi was set ablaze, some inflammatory accelerant laced into the sandcastles and then the sandcastles were destroyed. The donkey and the bird were seeking a butterfly, Suliko, who represents the soul of Georgia. Suliko is also a Georgian song, which is heard several times in the piece. But just when it seems like the butterfly will return it is crushed by the frightening boot of Communism. But, and this was a similar theme to Budrugana Gagra’s Isn’t This A Lovely Day, the donkey ascends in a ladder into the clouds to find the butterfly in a heavenly place. And then everyone sings a song. And that’s a happy ending in Georgia. Looking forward to eternal life, rather than the life in this embattled world. I find I am often impressed by the deep longings, often thwarted, in Georgian stories.
The song Suliko ends with these lines:
Ah, life has meaning once more now!
Night and day, I have hope
And I have not lost you, my Suliko
I shall always return to you, I know now where you rest.
Watch this now… It’s only 5 minutes of your life.
I also attended a children’s show on another day. The narrator was essentially a large khinkali. Let me try to explain what I mean. Khinkali is one of the national dishes of Georgia. It is a ravioli-like dumpling stuffed with ground spicy meat or selguni cheese. So what I’m saying is that the narrator of this children’s show was a large dumpling. The story, which I must confess I didn’t quite follow, my Georgian language skills can best be described as infantile, but it did involve love, a journey of sorts, farm animals and an ogre. Or was that a demon? The children were as noisy as the French kids, happily clapping and singing along when there was a moment. And the house was so crammed full that I felt guilty for taking up one of the seats.
A couple of weeks later in March I was invited by Ana to see the actual studios and rehearsal space of the TSPT. I met her in the Marjanishvili Square area. While waiting for her I bumped into Nino Namitcheishvili who was directing a puppet show based on Antoine Exupery’s The Little Prince over at the Marjanishvili Theatre. I told her I would go in a week. Ana came along after Nino had gone and had also met her on her way to see me. Artistically Tbilisi is not a very big town. Most people seem to know each other or at least about each other. Ana took me into a strange old modernist building that I had seen from a far but never seen close up. The building felt partially deserted partially unlit. We took an aging elevator up about seven floors. I entered the ramshackle hall on the floor that was used mostly by the puppet troupe. I was allowed to visit the rooms where craftsmen worked making dolls. I also met a few women working on clothing and other artistic aspects of puppet creation. It was a suitably crowded and thriving hive of activity. In another room the various puppeteers were gathering to work on improvisations and scripts. I also saw old rare posters for past shows sitting in a huge pile. At one point a puppet of Woody Allen was brought out. Evidently Georgians have a fondness for the neurotic New Yorker. Although it was hard to imagine what a Georgian would sound like imitating Vudi Aleni.
I was sitting in a moody dimly lit office with Niko Sabashvili watching a video he had directed in a theatrical manner that told a tragic Georgian political story of recent vintage. Ana Sanaia was there. She was also a potent actress within the film. Niko had to work on rehearsals when Salome came in. I told the two women about what had happened before this trip even started, losing my home of more than 20 years, receiving the backing of the International Institute of Puppetry in France at the beginning of this journey. As we spoke I also conveyed that I was starting to wonder if maybe I should relocate to Tbilisi. I had had several conversations that pointed me in that direction. They both looked at me seriously and told me at different moments: “You are supposed to be here.” There was something eerie about it. As though some direct word from above was coming through them. If I had been tilting towards the idea 60/40 when I walked in, I was even more thoughtful about the possibility when I left.
So while I was ruminating over these things it was clear to me that puppetry it turns out is very much alive in Tbilisi. There is much more to say though. Next time as we will visit the Marjanishvili Theatre and celebrate World Puppetry Day with the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre.
Come back soon!
I had found the location of Erisioni, the traditional Georgian music and dance troupe as I was walking down Rustaveli Avenue (see this story). I stopped and read the word on the side of a wall where I had a vague idea that they were located. I knew just enough of the Georgian alphabet to slowly read the script. It looked like this: ერისიონი. The official office was closed but I knew that this was the place. And I knew to return someday closer to noon. So at the beginning of February I came back. I readied myself to be misunderstood and to misunderstand as I tried to get passed the language barrier. I entered the darkly lit building and carefully stepped up the paint cracked stairs where I could hear music joyful filling the building. Accordions (called garmoni in Georgian and tuned in a natural state) were releasing the expressive melodies to the pounding of the doli, a handheld Georgian tom-tom drum. Instructors were calling out to dancers from behind an old door in the ornate cavernous building. (For a look inside another section of this incredible structure read this.)
I had been told that the offices were on the 3rd floor by a girl speaking broken English in my first trip. And so I continued on up the aging stairs. One problem, if this was a European reckoning of the floors then the ground floor was the not the first floor. But suddenly I was at the third floor in America and the second floor in Europe. And the stairs ascended no further. And so I stopped at the top. Incredible male voices rang out from behind one massive door. Then there was another old door opposite. I cautiously entered. I said Gamarjoba (Hello, but literally Victory!), then tried to let the woman at the desk know that I spoke English. She then allowed me to enter the heavy dark wood door behind her. And I was greeted in halting English to Jemal Chkuaseli, the venerable Chief Conductor and head of Erisioni, a man I remember seeing on the Erisioni ‘Georgian Legend’ DVD, which had been recorded in 2002. He was pleased to meet me and shake my hand. Soon I was joined by another man Otari Bluashvili, the General Manager of Erisioni, and the man who really handled the day to day affairs of the troupe. Otar spoke English well. And so I explained that while I was currently working on a documentary about puppetry in Europe I had an idea about eventually doing a documentary about Georgian music and dance. They were pleased to hear it. And they graciously gave me open access to the practices and rehearsals.
They immediately walked me across the hall to where 15 or more men were just beginning a second practice session for the day. The men greeted me and then Jemal conducted them in an ancient hymn, a song so profound that I could feel the hairs on my arm raise. Eventually they sang more songs affiliated with the actual show. Jemal let his son the actual choir leader Shermandi Chkuaseli resume his duties. The strength of their voices overwhelmed the emptiness of the large room. It was a sound that physically effected my body as well as my essential being. No performance on a stage could be as powerful. There were no microphones here. Just an oceanic swell of vocal vibrations. It was an excellent introduction to a few of the people who would inhabit my world for the following two months. The next day I would beyond that door hiding the musicians and dancers.
I arrived to meet Otar. I told him that I would not be trying to photograph or film the practice yet. I just wanted to take it in without putting something between myself and the experience. I am appalled when I find people at a concert or some other unique event and they are present yet hidden behind devices to capture poor video of something that they will look at only briefly and then never again. One is only present in reality once. And this is a principle I try to follow as often as possible, even when visiting puppet theatres. Even when I am recording it I try to watch the real show more than the my little screen. Or else what is the point?
Thus I was invited through the door where I would spend many hours in the subsequent two months. The dancers were stretching and and leaping, twirling and jumping in preparation for the rehearsal. Musicians were playing short bursts of well known tunes. They were about to run through a complete hour long version of the show. And I was sitting directly in front of the center of the hall. The nearest dancer would land a less than a meter away. A few other people were also watching this with me. Otar was sitting next me to explain a few things. Soon it was showtime.
The performance was like an explosion of dynamic rhythm and melodious charging sounds. It was a ritual I would watch many times. And eventually I was able to understand the order and rhythm of most of the dances. Though occasionally they would switch one dance for another that I hadn’t seen yet. An official live concert would run to more than an hour and a half. All of the performers would be in traditional dress. The men in chokhas, the women in the many complicated styles of regal dresses with headdress and scarves. But here they were dancing in their black practice clothing.
Lines of men and women swarmed the stage. Shota the dancing drummer came out. Male voices filled every cornice of the grand hall. Three garmoni played a bold tune as drums and a bass guitar hit a driving beat. Suddenly there were sharp turns of melodic structure, fragments of harmonic dissonance. The male voices sang songs like yodels, songs that seemed to emerge directly from the earth, Songs like locomotives building steam as they careened down the tracks. Eventually there were numbers that featured the women, who seemed to float across the studio, men who stamped and jumped and spun. One man seemed to be able to turn like a spinning top all the while jumping on his toes. Another young wiry dancer named Tornike seemed to spin off into the air and land on his knees then coil up again from his knees and back down again like a slinky toy. The men danced with a ferocity and daring that had obviously been developed in years of warfare as Georgia has been the endless target of invaders for millennia. Meanwhile the women seemed to be on another plane altogether, which fairly sums up my observations of Georgian culture. The women were grace and beauty incarnate. And one interesting point in all of this. Though the men and women dance together in this show, they rarely, if ever touch. And that again says something rather instructive about Georgian culture.
I would come back over and over again. I would watch individual dances repeated and repeated. I would hear the songs the shook the room. One singer Ilia had a voice that could shatter glass. Eventually Shota the drummer came up to me and asked for a photo. So did Tornike. And in fact most of the singers became curious about what I was doing. Nina spoke more English and was able to talk with me a little eventually more and more dancers and musicians approached me. And when I made an online album of about 200 photos I became everyone’s friend. Eventually Otar would ask me to come along on the bus with them for a small version of the full dress performance. But I’ll save that story for another time.
Meanwhile I’ll say this, if this had been my whole experience with Erisioni I would have considered myself extremely fortunate. Yet there was indeed more to come!
დიდი მადლობა ერისიონის ყველა ჩემს მეგობარს.
1 / 4 /2018
Meanwhile deep thanks to those who have contributed to this journey along the way. It would sound like a cliché to say I couldn’t have done it without you, but it’s the absolute truth! Anyone wishing to help out too can easily using the PayPal link below. Thanks, Byrne
Light and dark. Illumination and shadow. These are the most primal elements of visual experience. Everything we see reflects this. Even colors are essentially shadow shows with degrees on a spectrum of light and how they are reflected back to us by different materials. But black and white is the key. And black and white are the primary images in shadow puppetry. And the most basic of all entertaining shadows is silhouette of the hand. Hands and figures are the elemental tools. The shadows cast upon a wall by a light source creating rabbits or birds or perhaps just the shape and personality of the human hand itself. Thus making the hand the original puppet. And from that simplicity comes the complex artistry of Budrugana Gagra in Tbilisi, Georgia.
‘Budrugana’ is a Georgian word that means a carriage, particularly the kind of carriage that might open up in a small village in the Caucasus Mountains and produce a puppet show. ‘Gagra’ is the name of a town now cordoned off from Georgia in the breakaway region of Abkhazia. There was strife in the 1990s in Abkhazia. There was bloodshed. There were refugees. Hundreds of thousands. Most of them were Mingrelian Georgians (or Megrels, მეგრელები Megrelebi). And they were housed in strange places, like the huge old Soviet Intourist Hotel, now the considerably more swanky Radisson Blu not far from Rustaveli Square.
Budrugana had existed as a hand shadow puppet theatre in a previous incarnation without the word Gagra attached to it. Gela Kandelaki (whose name actually means candle holder in church) a film director, producer, and actor once, wrote and directed უბედურება (Ubedureba) a very realistic film based on a play by David Kldiashvili. Directing work was not steady under the Soviet system. (Tarkovsky only directed 7 films in his fights with the authorities.) And so in the early ’80s Kandelaki came upon the idea of bringing the old art of hand shadows, which was still performed in small villages up in the mountains by parents for their children, into a new form. He created a unique shadow puppet troupe. Kandelaki began working as a director with hand shadows in the 1980s, which was a time of cultural ferment in the loosening grip of the faltering Soviet system. Interestingly enough they practiced in the basement of the Karlo Sulakauri’s house/museum. (See the previous essay.) Budrugana officially came into being in 1991 at the International Festival of Manipulations in Paris. In 1992 they were designated a ‘state theatre’. In 1993 they flew all the way to the International Puppetry Festival in San Francisco.
Meanwhile the situation in Georgia became more unstable as the 1990s continued. Civil War, separatist movements, financial collapse, political uncertainty, electrical failures, along with the growing internal refugee crisis, created a difficult moment for the arts. But as the dust began to settle in the roller coaster of the Georgian ’00s it seemed appropriate to Gela to start the hand shadow theatre again. There were many available Megrelebi with creative talents who needed something to do. Several of the shadow puppeteers are Megrelebi. And so the name Gagra was added to Budrugana as a tribute to the formerly beautiful resort town that was ethnically cleansed of its many Georgian residents.
So Budrugana Gagra under Gela Kandelaki’s directorship has been making hand shadow art for many years in one way or another. When I first noticed their work in 2016 I was impressed by the dedication that the hand shadow puppeteers have to their work. The motions are balletic, which Gela attributes less to any direct influence of dance than to the essence of certain aspects of Georgia folk culture. The movements of the hands are incredibly precise. And they have to be in order to communicate the shapes of animals or the much more subtle waves of the ocean. Kandelaki, who does not perform the actual hand shapes himself, works out the forms with the owners of the hands. And different hands have different suggestions of presence and movement. And these shapes often correspond to the character of the puppeteers. Zuri, with big hands will often play larger or move immovable objects. Shorena and Mariam have the most pliant and supple arms and are used more for the grace and delicacy of there movements. Elene plays the duck in one story and she is more humorous.
And there are essentially two styles that Budrugana Gagra works with. One is a more accessible comic style with hands making ravens, spiders, giraffes, elephants, ducks and above all bears. And the other is much more abstract and ethereal and often is set to the music of Bach. Most recently they have been working on a multi-part series of abstract vignettes to Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion. It will in the end have more than 15 sections and be performed to a recording, complete with orchestra and voices. Yet the way the work is unfolding it is by no means a literal transforming of the Gospel material into directly symbolic forms. There are no hand shadows making crosses for instance. And yet…
One thing has occurred to me as I have watched several performances. Even in the animal based images there is something going on beyond the obvious. In the piece ‘Isn’t This A Lovely Day?’ a hand shadow bear lip-syncs the words of Louis Armstrong from a live performance. (Sadly Louis Armstrong is probably better remembered in Georgia than in America. A live puppet film from back in the Soviet Era, called the Dreams of the Kojori Forest, also features a puppet of dear Louis.) Other animals play musical instruments. Another hand bear becomes the great Jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. The Louis bear falls in love with the Ella bear and then loses her. In the end he dies. And the sad processional music of a New Orleans jazz funeral creates a moment of sorrow and tension. An angel takes him to heaven. But the joyful jazz marching music of the return journey from the cemetery brings him back in a resurrected form. It is not a simple nor ironic comedy. The Louis Armstrong bear is not a silly cartoon character of the great jazz musician. The disappearance of the Ella bear is a moment of genuine loss. (Louis and Ella never had any sort of romantic relationship in real life.) The death is truly sad. The resurrection genuinely joyful.
I asked Gela about the spiritual content of his work. The Saint Matthew’s Passion, though abstract, is loaded with suggestions of pilgrimage, prayer, deep beauty amidst struggle. He confessed in my interview with him that though he also said he was not always the most Christian man, something does come indeed through… I think he was being modest. His work has a depth that is quite hard to ignore. And the more I have spent time watching his unique shadow theatre the more I am inspired to push the boundaries of what can be said and felt through this medium. Especially in the realm of shadows and light.
Budrugana Gagra has in many ways been like a creative home for me here. I feel that I can drop in at any time. And even if the puppeteers present don’t speak English very well I always feel welcomed and accepted. Gela, who is in his late 70s, looks at me as ‘young’ visitor. At one point he told me told call him Bidza Gela, Uncle Gela. An honor indeed. Gela actually stopped me at one point when I mentioned that it my home away from home. He said “No! It’s just your home.” I had told him of what had happened in Alaska. (Click this to read that.) I replied “Then it’s my Georgian home.” He laughed and agreed with that. I will continue to visit my friends at Budrugana Gagra. They play about once a month in the ‘small room’ at the Rustaveli Theatre. If you ever come to Tbilisi, and I highly recommend that you do, then you must seek them out. (Links below.) And then you will understand the beauty and meaning of shadows and light.
20 / 3 2018
And here is Budrugana Gagra’s website. Go visit them!
And you can read about my first visit with Budrugana Gagra here.
PS. If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above and our current journey then please feel free to give through PayPal. It is easy and safe. Several supporters have done so already. And their gifts have been truly timely beneficial. This kind of exploration is in no way a luxurious adventure. So yes do feel free to give.
One of the things I’m attempting to do while in Georgia is to explore the culture to understand where the music, the dance and the puppetry comes from. In order to do this I find myself haunting some fairly out of the way locales. And that means finding museums that are not only ‘off the beaten path’ but almost abandoned. It’s weird to find yourself being the only person in a museum for over an hour. And these are ‘national museums’ and certainly listed as such. And yet when I arrive it seems that the main job of the friendly museum staff is to care for the treasures that they are sitting on. I’m also imagining that in the summer they get a bit more traffic than I’ve seen so far. And I hope they are getting school field trips and other purposeful visits as well. And yet as I open these cabinets of curiosities I am frankly entranced by what I find. And when I pay a few lari more I can get a personal guide to walk me through the collection and explain everything to me in the most knowledgeable ways.
The Quay Brothers once told me that it wasn’t simply that they were attracted to puppets, rather it was the discarded things found at the fringes of art and society, the cultural marginalia, that inspired them. And I seriously understand this. To say you’ve been to Europe and that you’ve seen the Mona Lisa means almost nothing. Especially when you’ve entered the Louvre along with thousands of other visitors only to stare for a few moments at the small painting ensconced behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by endless quantities of tourists taking videos and selfies of the experience rather than actually seeing the thing itself. I get the same feeling when someone tells me they love films, then go on to list popular fantasy and science fiction films that quite literally 90% of earth’s population has seen. It all becomes part of what Walker Percy describes as a preformed symbol complex, making it nearly impossible for the average person to actually see the Grand Canyon or the Colosseum, even while standing before them. Thus those who really are able to grasp meaning from art or culture are not those who will wait for hours at the most recent super show at the Met, rather it is those who can stop and gaze at the patterns of embroidery on a regional costume. Those able to see through the musty scratches of an old silent film. Or those willing to find arcane treasures in forgotten museums.
In some sense every museum in Tbilisi, Georgia, is already obscure by the standards of present day art and relic consumption. How many Americans could tell you who Niko Pirosmani is? And he is the most important artist from Georgia. Not to mention Lado Gudiashvili or Davit Kakabadze? Few indeed. But then again how many of my fellow citizens could even name a living artist? So even the most prestigious galleries and museums in Georgia are, by definition, marginal outside of Georgia. But I will save a discussion of the art for another essay and will only incidentally mention it here. (For more on Georgian art and culture follow this link.) (And since I have already written about my encounter with the Stalin museum elsewhere I leave aside that visit here.)
So let’s dive off the edge!
One of the most consistent features of these strange little Georgian museums is the fact that they are rarely advertised or even well advertised, even on the buildings they inhabit. Consider the most recent museum I discovered: The State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments. Sounds pretty interesting no? Especially if music interests you. So I walk up a street out of the way off the main tourist route. I’m looking for a sign. I see a little sign. So I turn towards the sign. Nothing. I walk a little into a passageway. What would you expect if you were looking for a museum? Not what I found. I basically entered a backyard, descended steps, and did not feel at all that I was about to enter anything resembling a museum. (See photo below.)
I enter the building to find what I always find in these odd museums. Police guards. Who seem to be on the most boring duty imaginable. No one else. Nothing that immediately suggests museum. Just police. It was the same at the silk museum, and at the various small art museums. They must be there for a reason! But they usually look at you as if to insinuate ‘What are doing here?’ When I say something like ‘Museum?’ they point further back into…. what? I never know. I don’t know which way to turn. I am obviously the only person there who isn’t being paid something by the state. But then this is where the interesting stuff starts to happen. I find a closed door with people behind it. I motion at them. I hate to disturb them. Then they look at me as if to say ‘Did you want something?’ I say ‘Gamarjoba’ (‘Hello’ but literally Victory!). And ask if they speak English. Then offer to pay the entry fee. Which sometimes leaves them scrambling for something resembling change. Am I the first person today? And it’s an hour and a half until closing time! The fee is usually about 3 to 5 lari; less than two dollars. This time they asked if I wanted a guide. And this time I said Yes! And so they asked for 5 lari more. And so at the State Museum of Georgian Folk Songs and Musical Instruments my guide was a friendly and knowledgeable woman named Eka.
She started to walk me through the exhibits explaining to me the various instruments, how old they are, where they are from, and what they do. And then she is pleasantly surprised to discover that I am not your average tourist. But then again what on earth would the ‘average’ visitor to this museum be like? Nevertheless it is clear that I already know more about Georgian music than 99.9999% of all non-Georgians. So she gives me even better information than I was expecting. And then she stops and plays an old 78 rpm record of the song Tsintskaro on an ancient wind-up Victrola. Later she starts the mechanism of a street barrel organ, opening it to show the barrel and pin as it plays. Eka even sits to play an ancient Georgian church melody on an antique wheezy German foot pump church organ. Now that is five lari well spent!
I also managed to locate the Georgian State Museum of Folk and Applied Art in the old town. Again I enter it takes fifteen minutes to make change for 20 lari. They did let me start looking at the museum as they were sent into a spiral of questions amongst themselves. (Am I the day’s only visitor again?) But soon I find myself drifting through Georgian carpets, traditional costumes, intricate parasols, and beautiful porcelain tea cups. And they were featuring a special exhibit of primitive paintings by random Georgians of Shota Rustaveli and Queen Tamar from the Golden Age of Georgia’s Medieval Period. Fascinating stuff. (Click on the photos to open up the images.)
By far one of the most unusual experiences I had was at The State Silk Museum. First of all read that title again: The State Silk Museum. What could that be? Are they showing silk fabric? Well yes. But you see Georgia was a major stop on the Silk Road. And like Lyon, Tbilisi was a silk manufacturing town. And so not only was this a demonstration of fabric… It was also a display of silkworms! And all things sericulture. This is the kind of place Guillermo del Toro could only dream of. The lights were off in the cold museum and they turned one on and told me how to turn the rest of them on. Half of this museum was dedicated to silk cocoons, silk caterpillars in glass, and strange devices for silk harvesting, all in dark wood and aging glass cases from the museums opening over 125 years ago. And there was a whole room dedicated to mulberry shrubs, the silkworm diet. And did you know that silk quality depends on the mulberry quality? I didn’t. But my faithful guide Mariam did. She knew more obscure facts about silk than I could possibly ask. But somehow we ended up talking about music. It is Georgia after all. And not only is she conversant sericulture but she is a musicologist as well. And as our conversation veered from Jimi Hendrix, to Bach, to John Cage, to Bernard Herrmann she kept up eagerly with all of the twists and turns. I can’t even begin to tell you how many discussions about music I’ve had here. Worth all five lari I spent on the day!
Oh and speaking of obscurities, while visiting the musical troupe Erisioni (Be patient for that one!) I met a former BBC, NBC, etc cameraman, documentarian, an Australian of Ukrainian heritage named Vladimir Lozinski, who would later fill me on the turbulent politics of Georgia’s post-Soviet history. He had heard that there was a locked door in the building Erisioni rehearsed in. So he managed to get the room opened up while I was there. And we entered. This was genuinely a surprise. The vast chamber had been a movie theatre prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. Ornate designs were encrusted on the walls. But in the 90’s the Georgian Civil War, raging on the streets of Rustaveli Avenue below us, had destroyed it. The floor was dirt and debris. But the walls remained magnificent. We were allowed to take all the photos we wanted. And I could only hope that someday this along with many other structures would be restored… And not removed by the powers that be to build some hideous postmodern monstrosity.
And of course the most mysterious museums of all were the ones I most want to see. The puppet museums! A few days ago I sought for the illusive Tbilisi Puppet Museum, which supposedly was not too far from the Gabriadze Marionette Theatre. I didn’t find it. Today my friend Elene Murjikneli from Budrugana Gagra explained why. One day it was simply emptied out. Then the building was torn down. And now in its place stands sterile contemporary architecture housing a hotel. And what happened to the puppets? No one knows. The puppeteers didn’t know. Were they stolen? Hidden? Buried? Sold?
And finally there is the most mysterious museum of all which I discussed in my first visit to Tbilisi in 2016. The Animation Puppet Museum. Does anyone know that Georgia used to make puppet films in the Soviet Era? All I ever found was a corroding sign on the door. But!!! Now I have good news. The daughter of one of the animators has contacted me. And will open the doors of the museum soon… Just for me.
Speaking of the marginal and magical: Really I don’t need anyone else to come find me here. I’m fine. I’m happy with empty museums in this mysterious place.
But do come back soon to read my next adventure.
16 / 2/ 2018
PS. The way things are going I’m pretty sure I’ll be counting my tetri (Georgian cents) in March. The financial losses I took at the beginning of my journey are starting to become apparent. If you are appreciating this reportage from the other side of the world then you can be a part of it by using my PayPal account to contribute. It’s safe and easy to do and anything would be helpful. Thanks! Byrne
My primary reason for coming to Palermo on the island of Sicily in Italy was not to see the mysterious hanging corpses of the Catacombes Dei Cappuccini (though I confess that was quite high on my list of reasons) but rather to see some other antique pendulous figures, Opera Dei Pupi, the Sicilian Marionettes. Whose lineage goes back perhaps 250 years to the late Eighteenth Century with versions being referred to in both Naples (Napoli) and Sicilia. Now stringed marionettes as we usually think of them go back much further. But the Sicilian versions developed in a very specific way that continues down to this date.
Opera dei pupi does not mean ‘puppet opera’, they certainly aren’t performing Verdi with these marionettes, then again as Enzo Mancuso pointed out, marionette isn’t the right word either. The Italians have the word marionette and they have other words for puppets too, burratini are hand/glove puppets, fantoccini are trick puppets. In fact the word for all types of puppets considered together is burratini. But pupi are the puppets that are specific to this Sicilian style. They have a couple of strings, real marionettes can have nine or more, and they also have a metal rod attached to the head and often to one hand. This is quite similar to the puppets at Toone in Brussels, whose style is derived from Sicily, although no one can quite point to exactly when and how. Possibly through a wandering puppeteer. But another feature, and this is similar to Toone as well, is the size of the pupi. They are one third scale, one third the size of a human being. And since there is wood involved, this makes the pupi quite heavy. Then there are major differences between the Toone style and the pupi, obviously the Belgians didn’t quite get the whole recipe for their pupi influenced marionettes.
One difference is that the pupi are almost always heavily armored, which, while the metal is light, adds even more to the weight, I didn’t see any women behind the scene hefting these weighty figures, unlike in Brussels. Next the pupi often perform feats that require much more mechanical invention. So both Toone puppets and Sicilian pupi will feature decapitation during a fight. But for the Toone puppets to pick up a sword or any other objects is a lovably clunky affair. The pupi on the other hand simply reach down to the scabbard pull out a sword and then have a hard clanking fight with it. And then they put it back with ease. And all of this happens gracefully, seemingly in one motion. Also not only do the pupi lose their heads, but their faces are slit in half, whole bodies sliced down the middle, legs separated from torsos, arrows launched into the knights and much more. During their plays there has to be a big battle scene. One brave character, usually Orlando, stands against all comers.
And then there is the noise, like Palermo itself, these are loud puppet shows. One young girl brought to an evening show kept her hands over her ears from the moment she entered the theatre until about two thirds of the way into the show when she finally just gave in and went with it. And the puppeteers wears a special wooden shoe to make even more noise on the wooden stage. And other special devices are used backstage to create more sounds. And finally it is all topped off with a special hand cranked player piano device that was obviously created over a hundred years ago and gives the action a charming antique chaos as pupi clash while the actors’ voices are histrionically exaggerated with vocal quavers and taunts. And when you get a whole room full of children who laugh and cheer at every act of violence and special mechanical trick you get the full dissonant catastrophe. All in all quite a spectacle!
My first stop was at Il Museo internazionale delle marionette (the International museum of puppetry), one of the best puppet museums I’ve yet discovered. (Someday I should list the various puppet museums I’ve visited.) Naturally one assumes that they will have a very thorough display of Sicilian pupi, and they most certainly do. Along with hand burratini, featuring commedia dell’arte figures and many other classic European puppets. But beyond that they had quite a full representation of puppets from China, Japan, Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Africa. Plus a few Modernist puppets. All in all a worthy collection complete with a pupi theatre. And an interesting selection of books for sale. Now the difficulty with the museum from my perspective was that it was difficult to communicate with the front desk staff because English is simply not well spoken in Sicily. Eventually I bought a ticket and looked to find someone who could help me. I did find a woman who spoke a bit of English. She then introduced me to Monica Campo who was fluent. They told me that I could come back the next day at noon and would be granted an interview with the director. Well that was good news. And I would certainly return.
On the following day, Monica greeted me, I had come early to set up my tripod and camera. And to get a feel for the light. Eventually I was introduced to Rosario Perricone, il direttore. Rosario was a man in his prime, several days growth of stubble, a trend down here, and obviously a very intelligent and vigorous man. When I first started Monica translated line for line. Then Rosario had another idea. He would speak for a while and she would summarize. And so he began. It was like turning on a fire hose. He spoke in lightning speed for about 15 minutes. Probably containing 40 minutes worth of any other interview I’ve done. Surprisingly I was able to follow the general tone of what he was saying. I knew enough Italian, Latin, French, Spanish, plus theatrical and puppetry words to hear a variety of concepts being addressed. When he finished I turned to Monica with a smile as if to say ‘Well?’ She smiled back. Rosario left the room for a while as I discussed the impressions I had of what he had said. Then Rosario returned and we did this a couple more times. I also got an answer to a question I’ve had for a while: What is the oldest continual puppet theatre in Europe? And the answer technically still is the Toone theatre in Brussels. But there has been a family with a longer history in Sicily, going back to the late 18th Century. (I would have to get the interview translated to tell you the name.) At one point I asked about the point of puppets in the 21st Century, when we have so many other kinds of entertainment and art mostly coming at us through screens. Uncharacteristically he struggled for his words and then carefully said a couple of sentences. We could all tell that something worthy of the subject had been said. Even Rosario asked for a copy of his statement. I won’t give my impression of it now, except to say that, yes, we do in fact need puppetry in this time. (Monica will help translate this for me later.) All in all it was an excellent interview and prepared me to see a real show of the opera dei pupi.
One teatro dei pupi had responded to my translated messages, Opera dei Pupi teatro Carlo Magno Enzo Mancuso. I stumbled around near the docks until I came upon the teatro on a narrow side street festooned with graffiti.I had been supposed to come earlier, but that was at the exact same time as the interview the Rosario Perricone. So I had to honor my earlier commitment. That was fine. Enzo and crew were happy to have me no matter what. I attended two performances, the first an evening show, which was sparsely attended. The next morning at 10 a show packed with children between about 7 and 10 years old. The shows were similar. The audiences were not. The children howled and squealed with delight. Though their guardians shushed them, sometimes making more noise than the children in doing so.
But in both cases we were treated to the legendary exploits of Orlando, who fought off the Moors near Poitiers in France around the time of Charlemagne. This was about as gleefully politically incorrect in this age of hyper-sensitivity as you could want. And as relevant. Many folks have forgotten how close the Islamic invasion was to sweeping into all of Europe. And these stories keep that fact alive. And as far as I could tell the Islamic side was treated fairly in these legends as portrayed in these Sicilian narratives. In the past the story of Orlando Furioso was done as a long continuing saga. Some versions had over 300 parts. With a heavy reliance on cliffhanger endings. But as Rosario explained to me by the 1960’s the Opera Dei Pupi was pretty much dead. People just didn’t want these old fashioned things anymore. But there was a revival ironically through left wing political sources, just as they had been behind the folk music revival in America. And one of the things that happened was that the plays became self contained. No more endless cliffhanging, no more long drawn out legends. The same stories of Orlando and Renaldo would be told. And there were many different stories. But now they resolved. Slowly also they attracted a tourist audience as well. And they were played for school children. As I witnessed.
Now one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s show was that Enzo, a swaggering burly guy capable of lifting the heavy pupi and making a lot of noise, introduced the show by explaining to the children the difference between history and legend, and about the time of Charlemagne. Now when I say that he introduced the show, please do not imagine someone getting up to talk for a few minutes and then saying ‘Okay let’s watch the show!’ Oh no. His introduction lasted easily a half an hour. And he asked the bambini questions and they asked him questions. And he poked fun at them. And they poked fun at him. All the while he went into great detail about opera dei pupi. And after the rip-roaring show he came out again and showed us many of his special effects and devices, how the swords were done, the strange sounds they made. It was absolutely fascinating. And once again I realized that how you deal with children says so much about the culture. Watch the pupi was in fact a step on the road becoming Sicilian. And in the incredible battles and over the top noise and wild language there was something deeply Sicilian in all of this. And one thing you can say, Sicily is not a society for wimps. And Orlando is incredibly furioso.
Enzo and his co-performer Giovanni Battista Rappa didn’t speak much English but they were magnanimous and welcoming all the same. I was treated well as a fellow puppeteer and as someone who had entered another country with it’s own rules. Not Italy. Not Sicily. Not even Palermo. But the Opera dei Pupi. And I was extremely grateful to have entered this strange, unique, utterly human world of puppets and puppeteers.
On the train to London from Paris
After getting lost in Genoa I ended up on La Superba, a massive ferry the size of cruise ship run by the Grandi Navi Veloci (GNV) on what was supposed to be a 17 hour run down to Palermo in Sicily and ended up in, what I later discovered was typical Italian style tardiness, at 21 hours. I shared a room with a rugged and overly clean Italian truck driver. (I counted three showers during our voyage.) He slept most of the trip, except for the 3 hours spent playing arcade shooter games. And at one point he said to me, almost in disbelief, “You no sleep?” But apart from the usual 8 hours of sleep I am accustomed to, I did not sleep. Instead I wondered around and explored the vessel. And I ate a long meal for lunch and wrote.
But I did have one big worry. The Wi-Fi (say ‘wee-fee’) did not like my credit card. And having had problems in the past with my cautious bank back in Alaska suspecting fraud, even when I’ve been merely over the border in Canada, the thought of having the money spigot turned off mid-trip was not pleasant. And so task number one upon our late arrival in Palermo, was to get a few more euros from a ‘bancomat’ and to determine my financial state. Thusly I was suddenly, without much of a clue, on a warm, what to my Alaska blood felt like mid-summer, December evening thrust into the traffic maw of Palermo. But then I noticed something curious, as I tried in very broken Italian to communicate my need, that the Sicilians were indeed quite friendly. Though I met very few Palermitanos that spoke English I always received help when I gesticulated, and hand gestures are the order of the day, since Italians are fluent in that. And yes, I did still had a connection to my bank. I could breathe easier. All I had to do was find the B & B La Fenicia and to get there I had to find a bus, a sweaty proposition, and when I did hail a bus the driver waved me off when I tried to pay and took me straight to the station, which was near my gracious and friendly hosts Nadia and Ninni at the B & B. And so I after indulging in a spleen sandwich from a vendor in a cart across the street from La Fenicia I settled down for the night happy to be in Sicilia (See-cheel-ya) and with no idea what I would find.
Well after far too organized Switzerland to have one’s next town be Palermo Sicily is to all at once be slapped in the face by trash on every street and the noisiest city I think I’ve ever been in, and I used to live in New York City. Yet what a lively town! And made up of some of the most talkative people on earth. Renown for it’s street food, pane ca meusa (spleen sandwich) was just the beginning. And pizza? Yes! This was real Italian style pizza. One individual pizza averaged about 4 euros ($5). And fresh? Like the tomatoes were growing yesterday. And when I told my hosts Nadia and Ninni about the American penchant for putting pineapple on pizza at first they were uncomprehending. And then they laughed at the joke. After 16 years in New York I’d been too bitten by the Italian (Sicilian) bug to do anything but concur. And that’s the thing. In New York City most Italians are Sicilians and so this culture did not seem that foreign to me. And I was happy to see the Old Country.
And so then there was exploring the town. I walked through Ballarò Market area, which was fantastically labyrinthine and exotic, filled with marzipan in the shape of fruits, unbelievably long light green Italian zucchinis and Mediterranean seafood of all descriptions. All being hawked by a chorus of street vendors chanting their wares. Then I just rambled aimlessly for a while. And Palermo is a great town to just come upon some forgotten cobble stone street corner decorated by the statue of a saint under dilapidated buildings.
And that’s what I found so intriguing about the town. That beneath its layers of grit there was a vitality few towns have: Loud Palermitanos yelling from balconies to each other. Children playing on a safe bustling street corner in the evening. When they saw my camera they all wanted me to take a photo! And this same liveliness certainly extended to the puppet shows I saw. There were a few tourists there. But certainly not like Rome or London. And plenty of obvious recent immigrants. But then again Sicily has always had people dropping in (or invading) from all parts of the Mediterranean world, and beyond. Normans, Moors, Romans and the ancient Greeks have all left their mark. But in the end, those that stay become Sicilians. Sicily if just too much itself to be colonized and digested by the outside world. Where else would you see gangs of guys and girls with scooters (Vespas!) and small motorcycles hanging out behind the McDonald’s at the only mall in town, popping wheelies and coming their hair back in 2017? It’s an infectious culture. Everything is a lengthy conversation, backing the car into a parking space or discussions about the contemporary state respect for la famiglia.
On another journey through Palermo after trying to get my shoes repaired and being so tempted by a new pair of Italian boots that just felt so comfortable, while being unable to justify the cost, or the weight of lugging around my Doc Martens, and after I passed the Quattro Canti, the four way divider of the old town, I came upon the Pretoria Fountain, where strange animal heads spouted water amongst what originally were scandalous nude statues below a homemade banner that denounced the mafia. And in the midst of this scene a fashion spread was being shot featuring a willowy brunette model moving with curious rhythms on the steps. Somehow this mixture of archetypes captured an aspect Palermitan life for me. And so I stuck around to try to use the contradictions to create something for myself.
By far what made the strongest impression of my five day sojourn in Palermo was a visit to the Catacombes dei Cappuccini. A true city of the dead. Back in 1500s the Capuchin monks started to hang and dry the corpses of their dead brethren. Eventually the custom was adopted by many others as well and continued until approximately 1920. 8,000 corpses now hang in this underground mausoleum. Not skeletons, but desiccated humans in their finest. Palermitanos used to come in and point to a spot and say “I want to hang there.” And so I came to have a look, to confront my own mortality in way.
Descending into this dark world after paying my 3 euros I soon found myself engulfed in dried bodies. They surrounded me from above and below. I carefully peered into their faces. I found myself often passed by others who were obviously just walking through the place as quickly as they could. But I wanted to see. Some bodies were more or less skeletons. Others had a layer of shrink wrapped human leather covering their faces. Often there was the indignity of that expression that comes in time as the gases of the body leaving through the mouth creating the appearance of howling. There were bodies behind fences, bodies in boxes, bodies in vaults, in the marble floor below, bodies standing in alcoves, bodies reclining. And sometimes, when I really began to take it in, I would look up and see the skull of a cloaked figure, sockets without eyes, glaring down on me. Then look away directly across from the glaring skull to find a leathery figure gaze cast off into heaven as if to plead to God on behalf of the human lot.
And then came the inexplicable things. One section was for young children only. The dark sorrow here was beyond measure. Each of these children had been accompanied by mournful Italian wailing as they were placed here. Lives ended too soon. In another hall there was a nearly animated preserved young boy in a glass case. The monks had perfected a kind of embalming technique. Then there was a chamber for virgins, at the beginning of a hall for women. This too had a great sorrow attached to it. Girls in white. Hanging on a wall. Nothing of them left in the world but these remnants of their physical bodies.
And then looking further down the hall of women I would occasionally be arrested by the appearance of a woman, whom in her day must have truly been a stunning beauty. You could tell by the structure of her face, the parched skin clinging to her features, how this woman must have stopped hearts as she walked down the street. And yet here she is, just a lifeless doll on a shelf. And I thought about this: someday everyone I know will be this way. We shall all be stiffs in the ground. (Unless you escape up the crematorium’s smokestack.) Right now my mother looks like this. All of my good friends will end up like this. I will become death myself. My bones leeched of their essence. The howl of indignity on what is left of my visage. And so…
And so we live today. Not foolishly. Not addictively. Not proudly. But humbly, knowing we only have an allotted time to walk around. And then we shall be no more. (I’m not dealing with afterlives right now.) Then we too shall be corpses in the ground. But I can hear those folks who say “But I want my ashes to be scattered to the wind.” Yeah fine. But you might be doing this because you can’t face the meaning of the skeleton. But that’s one reason I came to Palermo. I knew this was here. I wanted to face death and consider my own. Which really means to consider the point of one’s life. And that I did. A frightening proposition.
But reason number one for coming? L’opera dei pupi. The Sicilian marionettes. One of the oldest styles in Europe. And my adventure among the pupazzi was just beginning. But first give me another arancine followed by a fresh cannoli!
Life and death indeed!
On the Rome to Milan train
Special thanks for the PayPal donation that came in this week. It really makes a difference. And if you are interested in helping me out along the way with the myriad of unforeseen expenses that inevitably arise. Use this link to contribute to Gravity From Above as we are on the road. Click here.
One thing that now stands out as I travel Europe investigating puppetry is that popular culture is now nearly synonymous with geek culture, Geekdom. Trying to find a film genuinely made for adults is getting harder than five year aged Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Somehow Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk slipped through the maw into the light of summer, of all times. But these days we are inveigled, assaulted and seduced by a digital overload from the Marvel or DC Universes, Star Wars, Star Trek, Pixar, etc. and a host of lesser lights in the firmament. In Charleville-Mézières, home of the International Institute of Puppetry, all I could find media-wise on the streets was a video game store. I’m old enough to remember when genuinely mature fare was a ready part of the diet of normal college students. I remember walking into films by Fellini, Kurosawa, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky, with audiences expectant to see the latest work from a master filmmaker. Even in the 90’s one could walk into a film like The Piano or Silence of Lambs and expect to be intellectually, as well as emotionally, challenged by the proceedings. Later in the 21st Century films by Scorsese or especially a masterpiece like Polanski’s The Pianist seemed like the final hours of dying art, remnants of an age now departed. Except of course among film geeks!
But I know what you are thinking. Cranky older guy misses his youth. Not really. I don’t mind living now at all. The Seventies were dark as pitch. The Eighties as plastic as a Fischer-Price toy. Each age has its splendors and agonies. But Geekdom is something that truly worries me. This neotenic refusal to mature. This vice of cynical cuteness. The smirking cultic know-it-all attitude about what truly amounts to nothing at all. And please don’t assume that I have stayed above the fray, never dived into the deep end of the nerd pool, oh I have. But not once in my life would I ever consider myself a geek. And no one has ever dared accuse me of such a thing. You see I know the actual etymology of the word geek. It was a word I used freely as it crawled up that last step from the sludge heap to arrive on the steps of pop culture in the 80’s. Back when the geek was the carny who would swallow anything for a buck. I knew this word inside out before its current usage. And how do they relate? I believe it is this. Today’s geek will quite literally swallow anything related to her specialized fan province. And most pop culture today, nitro-charged by the internet, has taken on the gustatory perceptions of the geek, the real one.
Now one of the fascinating things about my explorations into puppetry is that generally puppeteers are not geeks at all. There is no model for what constitutes a puppeteer, at least in Europe. In America there is one kind of puppet that inspires complete geeky dedication. And that is the Muppet. With their soft bodies and loopy childish features they act like clever nursery rhymes come to life. (We can thank Sesame Street for that.) But they are a rare case. Most puppets do not inspire the sectarian devotion that anime or video games do.
Well this actually is a complex question. On the surface the puppet has many of the same features that attract the geek: They sometimes have big eyes. They are often associated with children. They wear odd clothes and can talk strangely. Yet even among the most durable of European puppets, Guignol, Spejbl, and Punch, no large fandom has ever manifested itself. Yet one could easily imagine such a thing developing. Well not with Punch… he kills children after all! And though the Lyon city government has tried, Guignol remains a childhood friend more than another geek speciality. And Spejbl, being Czech, is much too eccentric for most people and has only really spread into Germany, an old story.
And that’s the ironic thing… puppets are genuinely obscure culturally. And the geek would rather be ahead of the curve by liking some game or film that most people haven’t really heard of yet… but not too far ahead. Or behind. Most animation geeks love film styles like Anime. (Yet most have never heard of Alakazam the Great.) And they love Pixar or Claymation. (Yet would look at you quizzically if you mentioned Emil Cohl or Charley Bowers. And then say ‘Ooh but that’s old.’) And what does that make me for being able to pull these historical roots out at every juncture. King Geek? Oh man just hand me that chicken and let me bite its head off now!
But age is exactly the problem here. The vast majority of geeks (except again film geeks) are stuck in a time loop between here and Star Wars, to affix an obvious marker. The geek needs the prefabricated structure of the commercial product, or the thing they are betting on to become the next big thing. The geek thinks about costumes, learning the languages (I forgive you Tolkien for every hack who thought they could cook up a fantasy language. Anthony Burgess and Russell Hoban excepted.), and postulated what would happen if…. (In a geeky badly drawn online comic I would have a dark black scribble in my thought balloon right now.) In Geekdom the commercial image system, including fan art, is everything. It is an extreme fetishization of the some of most commercial and technological products ever made. It also breeds a sad intolerance for the real, the unique, the profound.
Nabokov somewhere said that mediocre readers identify with the characters, great ones look for the author’s intentions. C.S. Lewis, currently spinning in his grave over the rising of Christian Geekdom (someone actually has a site called Thy Geekdom Come which I’d better not discuss since I might jump off the train I’m riding in a fit of nausea… Everything can be justified by the clever.), made similar points in his crucial book, an Experiment In Criticism, where he said that the reading of the many was often a means to construct egoistic sandcastles for themselves, where the reader is “the hero and everything is seen through his eyes. It is he who makes the witty retorts, captivates the beautiful women.” Whereas the reading of a few was different, something else was happening. Geek culture too often demonstrates Lewis’ sandcastle building par excellance.
And this brings us back to puppets. Most puppets are resistant to Geekdom for a very good reason. Each one is a physical object. Each one is made individually. Each one shows signs of aging. They are not endlessly repeatable commodities. They remind us that to be human is to have weight and mass. And most importantly they have a mystery to them, which becomes very evident if you stand in a puppet museum with dim light. Geeks have a real problem with mystery. The unresolved kind. The thing that won’t leave you alone and keeps you up at night. The thing that reminds you that you too are created. The thing it’s hard to be cynical about. Geeks want to explore every possibility with their prefab characters. Including the dorky and the sexual. Have you ever heard of ‘shipping’?
When I entered the room to give my presentation to a few students in Charleville-Mézières at the International Institute of Puppetry. Many of them immediately got what I was trying to say. Fantastic creatures though they are, puppets are resistant to flattening deadness of this age and nowhere is the more evident than in Geekdom, for whom the physical surfaces of the world are so contaminated, in Gnostic sense, that they have retreated up the ladder to escape from it into the virtual world, only to discover that rather than ascending into a new form of consciousness, they have found the slide that whisks you down past the level of the clowns. (But that’s another story isn’t it.)
Meanwhile I continue to explore the tangible and tactile and pray that others do as well. In the end nothing virtual will save us.
On a train to Geneva Switzerland
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.
Besides revisiting Nicolas Géal I also had made a friend in Dimitri Jageneau along with his mother Biserka at Théâtre Royal du Peruchet and so I decided to take a bus out to see them as they performed a play based on Rudyard Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child from The Jungle Book.
So I say I decided to take a bus. But finding out how to get there was really a work of serious deduction. Brussels’ bus and tram lines have baffled me before and in both of my trips out to Peruchet this time I was completely stymied. I wasn’t taking the method I had last year, because I couldn’t find a record of how I did it looking over my online records. The problem the first day was that the train for the second part of the trip was not due for 45 minutes after I arrived. And that spoiled my attempt to get there early. It also occurred to me that I might need another ticket for the train, that the one ticket for all might not include the train lines. (This is the problem with Google directions.) Fortunately no one asked nor were they likely to. So having figured out a way to make things work the first day you’d think I’d breeze through it again. Except for one big problem. It was November 1st, All Saints Day, or All Hallows, a date that means very little in America, (but the night before it does!) but in de-Christianized Europe it still survives as a major break on the calendar, much like Ascension Day. And I have been caught by this one before. And so the bus and train schedules were radically different from the day before. Eventually, with a great deal of exasperation, I managed to arrive in good enough time on both days, having allowed myself the grace to leave earlier than I needed for just this reason. Planned disarray?
Dimitri Jageneau feels like an old friend already. He has helped me with my crowdfunding and has taken me out in Brussels in early 2016 to a pub with puppets hanging from wall to wall. I enjoyed the time I spent here last year. So when we met it seems that we simply resumed our discussions about puppetry, in which I am very much the student still. He explained that theatre Peruchet is one of the few children’s puppet theatres still featuring marionettes, as opposed to glove/hand puppets. And they occupy a unique situation within the puppetry world, one he is keen to keep. But the problem is one of getting the help. His mother Biserka is his number one puppeteer, and she is getting older. Yet given the income of the theatre it is hard to train another puppeteer to take over the slot. He had a few younger people helping him, including Fernando and Velina. But neither were really puppeteers in waiting and they worked the door. Yet I did have good discussions with them.
I had a fascinating experience at one point I decided to take a few photos of their fantastic puppet museum again. This time I decided to leave the lights off and capture the puppets in the shadows. And this changed everything. I wished I could do that in every warehouse or museum featuring puppets. Dimitri kept coming in and asking if I needed light. But I didn’t. The way the darkness enveloped the puppets gave them even more of a sense of life than normal, which in turn gives me more ideas for possible ways of presenting puppets.
Eventually it was time for the show. Biserka came out to greet the children and to introduce the show which was going to explain once and for all how the elephant got his trunk. The marionettes were all flat made out of board, except for the elephant who seemed like a plush toy fallen on hard times. The story takes place on the “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River.” And all manner of animals come round to discuss the insatiable curiosity of the manic little elephant. Finally shortly before the intermission the elephant child is caught in a struggle between the crocodile and the python when the curtain comes down. I’ve noticed in Belgium it is standard to have an intermission for selling refreshments and showing of a museum in even a short puppet show. Following the break Biserka rings the bell and then has a bit of a raffle and finally introduces part two for les enfants. And naturally, voila the elephant’s nose is now the long lovable hose we now know. Yet the young elephant doesn’t believe it looks oaky. The Peruchet puppet shows are certainly there to teach the children little lessons. And the Belgian children certainly like it. These shows have some give and take with the children, including singing songs mid-performance, but the Belgian style does not push the kids over the edge as the Parisian Guignol shows do. Though there is plenty of physical action.
When the children left the second show I showed Dimitri, Biserka and the others a sample of my trailer for Gravity From Above. They laughed when they saw themselves and were glad that it looked like I would be getting financial assistance from the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières. A visit to Peruchet in Belgium is to visit friends in puppetry. When in Belgium go find them and enjoy the show for yourself.
PS. Now we’ve had a crashed hard drive! Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) 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
Bruxelles or Brussels in Belgium is a weirdly polyglot city where you never know exactly what language to speak. My French is almost always met with English. And you stroll around the central tourist district near the Grand Place and over hear multilingual discussions in Spanish, Japanese, German, Italian, Chinese, Russian, French, British English, Arabic, African tongues, unplaceable accents, anything. And central Brussels is crowded it seems all the time. And as you stroll through the area an unusual kind of loneliness grips you. It seems like the world is too big, filled too many people, all hoping to do something with their lives, (or at least have ‘fun’) while the majority seem to be constantly fidgeting with some device in their hands. A selfie next to the Manneken Pis. Making a reservation for a museum. Talking to someone thousands of miles away. Welcome to travel in the 21st Century.
Not that Brussels is without sites. If you go to the remarkable Grand Place during the rain most of the tourists stay away and it takes on a moody atmosphere. And this time I discovered the National Museums, which are also certainly worth a few trips. But the crowds are everywhere and the only way to escape is walk off the tourist trail into a kind of no mans land in search of books and cheese.
Fortunately I wasn’t here to see the sites. Once again I was here for the puppets and to specifically to visit the Théâtre Royal de Toone and the Royal Theatre Peruchet and to visit my friends. (They are called ‘Royal’ because they actually have the blessings of the royal Belgian monarchy.) This time, after what should be easily the worst night of my trip at the Hotel La Madeleine, (the details are not worth the effort here) I was able to spend a week as a guest of Nicolas Géal and Toone on the 4th Floor (5th for Americans) in an old renovated building right next to the theatre. This gave me a quiet place to use as a fulcrum for my time in Brussels. Well usually quiet. One night I heard lots of chanting and shouting one night. I opened the window to find a sloppy hazing ritual afflicting a crowd below me.
Bruxelle does have it’s own bruxellaire culture of strange accents and attitudes. It is glimpsed between Jacques Brel songs and the narrow winding streets. People once spoke the Flemish Dutch here mixed with French words. Now they speak Walloon French with Dutch words and phrases thrown in. Belgium if seen in dim light could be seen as France’s Canada. People constantly and with a sense of humor saying we aren’t French. Or Dutch? Or do we even like each other, French and Dutch? It’s a place where bright yellow and purple meet. And they can barely be seen next to each other, they clash culturally so strongly. Yet here they are in Bruxelles.
Now I’ve been here before. And I’ve visited the theatres last year. But I decided to try to get a bit more footage for the documentary. And so on the first night I scampered over to Toone where Nicolas Géal was is old swaggering self. Or is it a bruxelaise thing. He greeted the audience in French, Dutch and English to introduce a very bizarre comic version of Dracula. Which included such odds and ends as Dracula’s interest in the Brussels dialect, a large plush rat, puppets being decapitated, some repulsive but unexpectedly seductive female puppets, and Dracula ugly yet chic or else in polka dotted undershorts or else burnt to crisp. The audience loved it. And for all four shows I saw it was nearly a full house. Kids would walk out, imitating the count, saying Kriek! Krack! Kronch! (Kriek is a Belgium sour cherry beer, which the count loves because the color reminds him of blood.
Now the marionettes in Brussels are loosely based on the kind of Sicilian marionettes that I will be encountering on my first trip to Italy at the end of November. They are heavy, one third human size and are passed across the essentially Baroque style stage by a team of eager younger puppeteers. Meanwhile Nicolas Géal performs every voice himself. And what a job he does! The Brussels accents is broad, with extremely explosive gargled R sounds and a flattened intonation. The main charter Woltje (pronounced Woal-Cha) is a somewhat sarcastic Bruxellois in a check cap and pants. He is in every play somewhere. As is his friend Jef Pataat, following a large nose that precedes him by about two minutes that can’t be described in polite society, speaking in a severely nasal voice swallowing sound and a kind of stupid braggadocio. The puppets look like they been bashed around because they are. There’s a lot of slapstick comedy and sly in jokes for the audience.
Toone is a special place because it seems to be the oldest continuing puppet theatre in Europe, starting around 1833. It has been in residence in several different structures be landing here directly in the center of the town. And each new puppeteer is named after the first Toone, Antoine Genty. And so Nicolas Géal is Royal Toone VIII. While his father José was Toone VII. And luckily José for the first time and he consented to an interview, and this was a coup for me since José was in his late 80’s and I wasn’t sure if he’d feel up to an hour long interview. But! He was. And near the end of my stay in Brussels he met me at their gallery, in the same building I was staying and I was filled in with much more Toone history. He said that when he first saw the Toone theatre as a child there were only a handful of people in attendance. And years later the theatre was actually being closed down and the puppets being sold off, inappropriately it turned out, that he finally, after working for years in stage and early television puppetry, became Toone VII and then basically turned the theatre into the living institution it is today.
I originally heard about the Toone theatre from an interview with the Quays. They had seen the theatre during the reign of Toone VII. José and I also discussed avant garde playwright Michel de Ghelderode, who wrote several plays for puppets. The theatre still puts on his curious Nativity play during each December as well as Ghelderode’s Le mystère de la Passion in the spring: A strange Passion play that mixes the sacred and sacrilegious, somewhat like Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where the farce revolves around Judas and his wife while there is a real Christ who dies for humanity. And next on their schedule is a Toone marionette version of Aristophanes – Peace. (?) Toone remains a unique puppetry institution. It is not modern ye somehow it manages to connect with people still.And I sense that this is because, besides their humor, they these strange figures with weird faces that somehow convey and antique yet timeless quality of surreality. When in Brussels go see them. And tell Nicolas I told you to go.
Next time we discover how the elephant got his nose.
On the Bus to Lyon, France
For more on Toone start reading our 2016 series here:
And then our first visit to Toone here in 2012:
PS. Without going into all of the pecuniary details let’s just say that my final week back in Alaska was filled with many unforeseen costs and though I had excellent news about helping my film financing from the International Institute of Puppetry (read the last post) 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
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.
So here is a vague idea of my itinerary on this mammoth adventure from October 3rd 2017 through April 3rd 2018. This only gives you the geopolitical references not the reality of my expectations for each place. Suffice it to say that this will be a serious undertaking. And as I review my expenses, after far too many last minute hidden unexpected major payments, I will indeed be counting coins by the end. (So feel free to help out with that PayPal button on the right. I can’t tell you how much that could help.) I won’t mention my expenses again for quite a while and unless I get in deep waters but do keep me in mind in your ponderings. Meanwhile I am going nuts trying to literally store my entire life of 21 years into one storage room and haul the rest away. (Garbage costs!!) In three more days! So I haven’t got anymore time to fill you in about the journey. If you need more information, read the last few entries. If you want to know why on earth I am doing this then go back to the three essays I wrote as a history of the project. (Click This Spot.)
This journey is a strange mixture of exploration, exile and mission for me. I’m not exactly sure what I’ll find this time, but I really don’t have another choice but to go. So next time I write it will be from Europe. Hopefully I will have settled everything back here in Haines. Wish me well. I can use prayers too. Good thoughts if that’s what you can spare.
Back to work!
And thanks for your support in this.
October 3rd Haines to Juneau, Alaska
October 4th & 5th Juneau through Seattle and Reykjavik to Paris, France
October 5th – 8th Paris
October 9th – 27th Charleville-Mézières, France – International Institute of Puppetry and ESNAM
October 27th – November 5th Brussels, Belgium Time spent with the Toone and Peruche tMarionette Theatres
November 5th – 7th Paris
November 8th – 13th Lyon Various Guignol related activities
November 13th – 24th Huémoz, Switzerland – L’Abri Fellowship (Giving two music lectures)
November 24th – Train to Genoa, Italy then 17 hour ferry to Sicily
November 25th – 30th Palermo, Italy – Sicilian Marionettes
December 1st – 5th Rome, Italy – Commedia dell’arte style puppets
December 5th – Overnight train to Paris
December 6th – 10th Paris (More puppet related activities including Guignol)
December 11th – 14th London – The Quays & meeting filmmaker Matty Ross
December 14th – 21st Paris More puppet and cultural activities
December 21st – 22nd Plane through Warsaw, Poland to Tbilisi, Georgia
December 22nd, 2017 – March 28th, 2018 (!) – Tbilisi, Georgia Guesthouse stay for a few days then three months in a studio apartment – Much more research into Puppetry and the unusual music and dance of Georgia.
March 28th – Plane from Tbilisi, Georgia through Warsaw to Paris
March 29th – April 1st – Paris
April 2nd – Plane from Paris through Reykjavik to Seattle to Juneau, Alaska
April 3rd – Juneau to Haines, Alaska