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.
I had planned to write a book of my 2005 journey through European puppet theatres. I wrote several chapters in 2006. I sent a proposal in, but it went nowhere. This journey cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will part two of six posts. Profitez!
March 23, 2005
A Procession of Puppeteers
There, a little ways down the road where it curved on Place Winston Churchill, stood a three story tall golden figure of a puppeteer, le Grand Marionnettiste. In his midsection was a small stage, that later I saw open up on the hour as marionettes performed for the passerby or for the children who came to sit on the benches facing the clock. To the right of the statue was the entrance to the Institut International de la Marionnette and the Ecole Superieure National des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). I entered the door and found the reception desk. A diligent French woman was sitting behind a wooden counter. “Parlez vous Anglais?” I asked. “Non.” Came the reply. I summoned up a bit more of my tentative French and asked if anybody else there did? “Une moment.” She picked up the phone to ask if a woman could come down to the office. In a minute a brunette woman with a formal manner and a conservative style came down. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. I briefly explained the purpose of my visit and asked if it would be possible to conduct an interview with any of the teachers. Alas no, the teachers had all just viewed the student presentations and would be engaged with meetings discussing the progress of les élèves for the next two days. Fair enough. There was no point in trying to worm my way in any further. I had taken my chances in coming here, thus it was. But were the student performances open to the public? Yes they were. But I had missed the first rotation. The students gave their presentations twice. The first half had done their first shows the night before and had already finished up with the second round that morning. The last half was now presenting their first set and would be repeating it again at seven that evening. “C’est parfait.” I replied. And would I like to be signed up to attend? “Absolutement.”
Just then a group of perhaps ten people opened a door to the theatre behind us and walked through the building. A woman carrying a few papers stepped into the reception area. The formal brunette woman spoke rapidly to the dark haired woman in her thirties. The dark haired woman pleasantly agreed to something I didn’t quite catch; then she left to join the small group of people as they walked passed our window. The woman I had been speaking with said. “You can go with them now if you want. They have room for you.” “What about the shows this evening?” I asked. “You are signed up for that too. It’s the same rotation, but now you will miss two of the shows. But you should go now.” I thanked her in a beaucoup manner and left the building with haste. They were just rounding the corner. I sidled up to the back of the informal line and joined the procession. I had no idea where we were going.
The small group was staggered along the sidewalk as we proceeded down the street. A few people were speaking in French to each other, while several people like myself were simply quiet and strolling. The dark-haired woman leading the leisurely little parade turned back to see me and smiled politely. She handed me a simple program with titles and names listed on it. The march continued. Amongst the other voices I thought I could recognize a familiar accent. It sounded North American. A woman in her late forties or early fifties was talking to an older man.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“I’m not quite sure”, she replied. “The presentations are held in different places.”
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“I’m From British Columbia.”
“Oh! I’m from just up the coast in Southeast Alaska.” Almost a thousand miles away but in northern Pacific coastal geographic and cultural terms a next door neighbor.
“Really”, she remarked, “how did you hear about the school?”
“I’m traveling around Europe looking for puppet theatres. I’m collecting information for a possible magazine article. What are you doing way over here?”
“My daughter is enrolled here. My husband and I came to see her presentation.”
“Has she performed yet?”
“Yes, twice, last night and this morning.”
“So I guess I won’t get to see her then.”
“No. Unfortunately she’s already finished her piece.”
“How long has she been here?”
“This is her third year.”
“What’s it like for her?”
“She loves it. But I think it was harder for her in the beginning.”
“It was different than she was expecting.”
“Will we see her today?”
“Yes. She should meet up with us.”
“If you could introduce me to her I’d like to ask her about her experiences here.”
“I’m sure she won’t mind talking with you.”
Overall we walked perhaps four city blocks before we turned to the left and continued at least another block north towards our final destination. The Canadian woman, Gerri Minaker, and I entered into a discussion concerning her last name and a similarly named family back in my rural Alaskan town, typical small town talk, the kind of thing that keeps people up at nights wondering about the strange coincidences in life. At last the dark-haired woman with a ponytail stopped before a large brown door made to fit in an arched stone corridor. She pulled out a skeleton key and jiggled it a bit in the lock. The door heaved open and she bid us to step inside. A couple of other students caught up with us, bringing our contingent up to perhaps fifteen people. One of the students seemed to be Gerri’s daughter. We stood quietly in a loose line-up in a compact antique gray courtyard waiting for the door to be closed behind us. All the while we were being patiently observed by a pair of probing eyes – the presentation had already begun.
A woman in her mid-twenties stood across from us in the ramshackle court gazing intentionally, directly at us. She neither asked for silence nor prepared us with an introduction; she didn’t need to. Her presence was potent enough to give us the message. She was attired in a simple black dress that wouldn’t have been out of place at a semi-formal New York dinner gathering. Her hair was pulled up giving her face not severity but a piercing quality nevertheless. Behind her, resting on rusted iron machinery and pipes, were a plethora of scarves: beige, brown and black. She chose a beige scarf, held it up somewhat and deliberately walked up to one the members of our party. She placed the scarf around his neck, all the while staring directly into his eyes. She said that the word, la parole, brings mirth. Then she turned silently and walked back to the hanging scarves. She carefully selected a brown one. She then turned and walked up to the next person, a woman, saying that la parole brings sorrow. She then repeated her actions with each person. The word is left or right, she spoke. And as she placed a beige scarf around my neck, I understood her to say that the word is the way to silence. I knew that the gist of the piece was going to revolve around the failure of dialogue in a relationship. After that she did not speak, but methodically placed scarves around the remaining necks. Finally she turned and walked back to the remaining scarves and drew them aside like curtains and bid us to descend into a darkened underground chamber. The cluster of watchers slowly began to move down a short narrow flight of stairs. They had to bend down under a rusted piece of metal to enter. There was a momentary delay, but at last we all made the descent.
We had entered a darkened place that to these American eyes could only be compared to a dungeon; a European might have just seen an old empty basement. The murky texture of the medieval stone walls was rough all the way athwart the low rounded ceiling. I had to hunch over along the edges of the chamber and never did feel comfortable fully erect. In opposite corners of the unlit room were dim lights that just barely cast our profiles in a heap of silhouettes along the dry dingy walls. We waited in a huddle, bunched together mostly in the center of the room all the while awaiting the next phase of our expedition. Gradually a pair of black shoes came down the steps. Her dress followed as she descended cautiously her arms above her body. She slid along the curved walls, a lithe somnambulist, a female Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, without the paint or makeup. Light beams emanated weakly from her palms from tiny light bulbs as they traced the stone and mortar. Along the floor lay a trail of water worn rounded stones the size of a person’s fist. She came to a strange contraption resting on a platform at the end of the confined room. The machine resembled a homemade meat grinder. She placed a few stones into it and cranked the handle.
Next she tipped over the other side of the stone grinder, sand drained out of it: the rocks breaking each other to atomic nothingness, the dissection of a discussion to infinitesimal matter. She continued her creeping along the row of stones arriving at a place where a broken doll-like creature exuded sand. Then she opened an iron door into an even darker chamber. She beckoned us further; confessing that what might seem to us like serenity was actually mortal silence in her reckoning. We squeezed ourselves into an awful claustral tomb of a room. She knelt on the floor beneath us, where seemingly random clusters of curved stones were stacked in fives. She slowly picked them up one at a time. She spoke almost simplistically as she unraveled the pattern hidden before us, a spiral, which she then followed to a final ‘stage’. A dimly lit ant farm shaped terrarium glowed weakly before us with a humanoid shadow figure lodged in the midst of a faded orange background. She slowly suffocated it with the sand, the details, the minutia, the abstractions of dialogues pulling the meaning of words apart.
At last she stepped away from us into a black chamber. She picked up one last larger stone shaped like a potato. After a poetic discourse with the stone on the nature of la parole, the word spoken, she finally said or asked for la dernier parole. To which the stone said nothing. She stepped into the darkness and disappeared.
After a moment of stunned silence we all applauded. And then she reappeared and took her well-deserved bows. I looked down at the program notes; her name was Julie Trezel. The piece was entitled Félicité, after a text by Thierry Panchaud. We climbed up another set of stairs. She greeted us as we passed. Her eyes filled with water, the intensity of the piece had taken its toll upon her. And there were other reasons that I would discover later. To say I was impressed was to say the least, but before I could really begin to confront my own impressions I found myself whisked off out of the door again on my way to the next performance.
More strolling ensued. The British Columbian woman spoke with her daughter this time round. I was preoccupied with new puppet contemplations. We eventually passed the front of a grand Catholic church: our contingent then turned to walk behind it. We entered a school or church building and stopped in a well-lit workshop. Two circular saws stood in obvious evidence. By this time I was expecting the saws themselves to be a part of the next performance. A petite black-haired girl wearing a long dark dress emerged from a doorway and with an unaffected smile softly explained to us that the show would be ready in a couple of minutes. We relaxed our stances. Some individuals took this opportunity to use the sanitation facilities. Gerri eventually introduced me to her daughter Clea, a serious red haired girl with an amicable sense of humor and a definite sense of artistic mission. She agreed immediately to allow me to interview her. I asked her what sort of piece she had done. She asked if I wanted to see it. Sure, I replied. She told me to come with her after the shows were finished to the performance space that she had used and she would give me an idea of what her presentation had been. The diminutive black-haired young woman returned and told us that Julia Kovacs was now all set to perform. She ushered us into a long hall that had been smothered in black felt. She sat most of us down on a few wooden benches. I chose to stand to get a better view. The raven-haired girl sat on a stool behind me and dimmed the lights to black.
22 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
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 was seen as being an obscure subject, especially since I wanted to narrate parts of the trip that had little to do with puppetry as well. This was the journey that cemented my fascination with puppets. It changed my life. My short one day visit to Charleville-Mézières was the first crux of the journey. I’ve decided to share my story with you folks. This will take six posts. Enjoy!
“One of Those Days”
March 23, 2005
I spun around instantly. All of a sudden I realized that I didn’t have my coat anymore. And that was terrifying news. My coat’s secretive zipped compartments, in lieu of a money belt, contained my money, credit cards, passport and rail pass. If I didn’t find that coat soon the trip would be well over. With adrenaline coursing through me I picked up my weighty black backpack with my one good arm, thrust my broken braced wrist through the strap and picked up the rubber handle of the other pack while my eyes darted to and fro. The sweat was instantaneous.
It wasn’t exactly an auspicious commencement to a day that didn’t have much promise attached to it as I scanned the Gare de l’Est: perhaps le plus louche train station in Paris. Although I would have to admit that the sleaze factor was far below that of, say Frankfurt, Germany. And neither of these locales would even register a blip on the old American sleaze-o-meter. In America I could be fairly certain that my coat would be in another state by now. Memories of one night waiting at the Baltimore bus terminal, heck any Greyhound bus station in the U.S. of A., are far more indelibly tainted with apprehension than any time spent in any train station in old Europa. Nevertheless, that being said, I wouldn’t want to take a stroll around this vicinity at two in the morning on a Wednesday looking for the nearby Gare Du Nord. Fortunately for me it was only about 09:45 and most of the station’s shiftiest denizens were probably just getting tucked into bed with a comforting bottle of vin table. Well most of them but not all, I did glimpse a few suspect insomniacs in one of the darker recesses of the building. I frantically and physically retraced my immediate past quickly hitting the points like a silver ball in a pinball machine. Bingo! There was my coat. I had taken it off at a stand-up table where I had consumed some narcotic pastry. Evidently the French edible had fully put me into a trance state so deep that I would be willing to sacrifice my whole journey for a seductive combination of flour, butter, salt and sugar. This could never happen in the Czech Republic. But now I had lost my comfortable seat and was forced to stand for the next half-hour as I waited to find out which voie the train to Charleville-Mézières would depart from. Inauspicious indeed.
“You ever have one of those days?” Yeah I know it’s a cliché of the highest order. But we all say things like that: “It’s just one of those days.” And that’s how I was beginning to feel about this one. I had arisen at 7:00 AM and had left the Hotel St. Andres des Arts around eight. The sun was shining a little too brightly for this March morning and I was already beginning to regret wearing my wintry dead-moss-green coat. As I rode the Metro from Odeon to Gare de l’Est I tried to remember everything I could about my day’s destination. I was attempting to find the Institut International de la Marionnette (Marrionnette is the French word for puppet.) in the twin towns of Charleville-Mézières in the Ardennes region of France. The guidebook information was spare. I had no map of the town. (This was 2005 and I had no cellphone yet.) I did not know where the Hotel Les Cleves was located in relation to the train station. Therefore I had no idea what kind of brutal walk I might have to endure with my hefty packs. Nor did I have any idea where the institute might be vis-à-vis the hotel or even the town for that matter. My attempts to contact the institute via email had produced one reply, which had told me to write to the email address of a woman who never replied back. On the town’s French language website I had discovered that there were going to be student mid-term performances, although I would be arriving only in time for the last of three days worth. I knew precious little about the school. I was just hoping that this might be interesting in some degree and accessible. In other words, I was going into this situation nearly blind. Thus I didn’t hope for much. But I took my chances rather philosophically. At worst I figured I’d be in another French town, with yet another medieval center and a fair possibility of obtaining some species of decent cuisine. Still it wasn’t the best recipe for a sojourn. And nearly losing my coat didn’t put me into a buoyant mood.
My qualms seemed to be confirmed a little later on when I read that our train would not even be completing the route to Charleville-Mézières. There was an ominous little note on the board saying something about a bus continuation from Rethel onward. I was not too surprised therefore when we were asked to get out of the train and to transfer ourselves to two waiting buses. A poor Japanese fellow, who spoke neither French nor English, wandered back and forth between the two buses like a comedian from a silent film. I tried to point him in the right direction, either bus, and he eventually chose the opposite bus from me: a sage move no doubt. As we moved through the undulating French countryside we passed the railroad workers out on the trackers who had blocked our passage. Within a half-hour we arrived at the Charleville-Mézières Gare.
At the station I vainly searched for a local map. As I stepped outside I noticed an enlarged fiche with a good-sized map of the town. I studied it. It turned out that of the two towns of Charleville-Mézières I was in Charleville; I never did get to Mézières. There was Hotel Les Cleves about three blocks off, though I did not see any listing for the institute. I started off across a narrow green park in the general direction of the hotel, until I saw the streets, those baffling European streets. I skulked back to the little billboard with the map on it. I studied it much more thoroughly. This map problem would dog me through much of my trip. And it’s not that I have trouble reading a map. I don’t. I collect maps. I’m an excellent map-reader, well at least an excellent American map-reader. But American towns generally don’t have four or five streets all crashing into one intersection at cockeyed angles. American maps generally don’t list alleys the size of two car driveways as destinations. Maybe it’s just a lack of subtlety on our part; I wouldn’t want to speculate. But finally I felt I had interrogated the map’s graphic particulars long enough to stake my claim to a course of action. I hefted my debris two blocks up the main drag. The street names being europeanly obscure, of course, I then ventured upon one rue that seemed to be the appropriate place to make a left-hand turn. Eureka! Not only did I see the hotel but also just above my head was a friendly white sign shaped like an arrow pointing my direction and stating quite clearly, “Institut International de la Marionnette”. Voilà, two birds with one stone. Maybe it wasn’t “one of those days” after all.
As I waited for the maids to finish with my room I realized that it was nearly 3 o’clock and that I should get myself out into the town to locate the institute. This would be the only day I would have to observe any of the student presentations. I left the hotel casually without bringing my camera or my little digital audio recorder. I assumed that whatever would be happening wouldn’t occur until the evening. I stepped out onto the street again and soon saw another reassuring sign pointing the way for me. Yet as I tried to follow it I wandered around for several blocks seeing nothing that resembled an institute for puppets. At last I admitted defeat and retraced my steps back to that sign. Aha! European arrows point at things slightly differently than American ones. Once I adjusted my route accordingly I marched up the street two blocks and then saw another sign pointing right. I turned. No doubt I’d found it. Before me stood a large golden figure of a marionnettiste buried in the side of a wall.
(Next section: A Procession of Puppeteers)
16 / 6 /2020
Also check out my YouTube channel called Georgian Crossroads.
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
If you wish to contribute to Gravity From Above please do so. There are dozens of needs which will be surfacing in 2019. 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. Thanks for all of your help over the years!
Watching the first year students at the Institut International de la Marionnette practice their repetitions is a fascinating experience. I can’t imagine many (if any) puppet teachers in the USA going through the kind of discipline and rigor that les élèves do. In a way it almost becomes a form of dance. Body movement is held in the highest regard. Brice Coupey, a renown artistic hand puppeteer works with the Guignol style puppet. In my interview later it was obvious that he saw Guignol as an astounding creation, though he himself never went to Guignol shows as a child. His parents put much more emphasis on sports. Which is a curious thing to think about as we watched the exercises. And they were exercises. One of the repetitions consisted of holding the puppet up high and then slowly turning it. Brice would do this until the students were visibly worn out from holding there arms up over their heads. And just when they began to groan he would the return his hand around using a different set of muscles. Then they would truly begin to moan. But holding the puppet over the head like this serves a real purpose. In a real show you have to do exactly that for sometimes an hour. Not always up but often enough to feel it. And what he was doing was getting them ready for the difficulties of performance. There is no groaning during a show.
Another exercise had each student hold the marionnette a gain (glove puppet) aloft while five or six of them walked in and out of each other in a more cramped space behind the castelet (the puppet stage). They would do this for five to ten minutes arms up… and not bumping into each other. Quiet a feat.
Emma Fisher, the Irish puppeteer and I got to watch as they also played various theatre games. Some games were played at the beginning to limber up. The rules of some of these games were frankly a bit of a mystery to me. Some I understood as I continued to observe them, a game where half the puppeteers would stand behind the castelet and choose a leader, while the other half would watch their movements and try to guess which one was the leader.
A stranger game consisted of everyone, about 15 students, standing in a circle and passing around a series of rapid comical bowing to words like ‘hi’ and ‘heeya’ and then suddenly someone would say something random like ‘samba’ and everyone would start shimmying around while vocalizing a funny tune together. That almost made sense. But then a girl said ‘James Bond’ and the girls on either side of him would act like fawning devotees. It was funny, but certainly left me scratching my head.
When it came time for les élèves to take turns doing little solo performances then the transformations occurred. Why were these students wanting to become marionnettistes (the French word for any kind of puppeteer not just those with strings)? There were girls who were obviously a bit comical and theatrical, for instance Czech Tereza or Manon. (And the ratio of girls to boys was quite high.) But then there were quieter ones like Camille, Coralie, or Alika, who emerged from their shells to be completely and wonderfully odd, even a little edgy. Or Marina, the normally serious Russian, who not only proved to have a slyly comic style, but also revealed a fantastic singing voice, almost by accident. And I realized that this little school to train marionnettistes must have had some peculiarly intriguing characters over the years.
Meanwhile Emma and I were given a chance to make presentations to the first year students. Emma showed a short documentary that had been made about her doctoral project, Pupa. It revealed to me just how complex her thinking on the subject of puppetry and disability is. And no, she’s not seeing puppetry merely as a therapeutic device. Puppetry for her is a way to tell stories that we might otherwise not hear. And especially told in a manner that is directly related to the disability in question. And she had a bit of an epiphany at one point that broken or incomplete puppets could be an excellent way of convey ideas that perfectly made puppets never could.
I, on the other hand, showed the students a short art film that I had been working on for years. They immediately let me know everything that was wrong at first. (Fortunately these European students don’t have that doctrinaire attitude of compliments before criticism. Which I’ve often seen as false.) But interestingly enough they then spent quite a while pleasantly trying to figure out what it was about. I took note of their best suggestions and decided go back and re-edit the film a bit. Since they were in many ways an ideal audience their ideas carried weight with me. Even though I knew I needed to retool the film I was heartened that they found many points to discuss, which is all I really ask out of anything I do.
One person I had remembered good discussions with last year was Coraline Charnet. I hadn’t come across her yet. But soon that would be rectified. On a quiet Monday afternoon we hunted down a café in the rain. It was easy to renew our acquaintance and talk about issues of texture and life at ESNAM again. Coraline is thoughtful and committed to trying to understand how to live. Sometimes too much so. I appreciated her honesty and integrity. With regard to certain obstructions I reminded her of the wisdom of picking one’s battles wisely. An excellent conversation overall.
I had another reason for being here. I had hopes of finding support for my documentary Gravity From Above. (You know the thing that this whole site is dedicated to.) I had a pleasant lunch with Raphaèle and the new director Philippe Sidre. And without going into any details I’ll say this. Yes there is some support there, not quite what I was hoping for, but enough. But I am quite grateful for what is there. But it turns out a have a longer way to go and more funds to seek. When I go to Prague I will be investigating more avenues. And in Tbilisi as well. But the good thing is that, as a result of good prompting from Raphaèle I now had a very detailed budget of my expenses over the years and a detailed catalogue of my many hours, over 30 (!) of interviews. (Getting them transcribed will be another expense.) There are other things I realized about what this project will need. But I will save that for another essay down the road. Meanwhile I feel good about things, even if this does raise new questions. But I am quite satisfied that Philippe, Raphaèle and the Institute are behind me in various important ways.
Finally my time here at Charleville was winding down. Emma left before my last week and was not replaced by a new chercheur, though an American was supposed to come. They were setting up the Noël Marché in the Place Ducale, but it wasn’t quite ready when I left. The scent of freshly cut Christmas trees did waft through my olfactory glands. It was at last time to make my rounds to say farewell to Aurelie, Delphine, Raphaèle and Brigitte. To say farewell to Emily, and the other students staying at the Villa: Sayeh, Valentin, Manon, Adria, Camille, Rose, Raquel and Tereza, who gave me an impromptu performance with her puppets made from the remnants of real fox and ferret stoles, while explaining how she cut the furs and sewed them back together and told me adamantly to ask the other Czechs I would meet in Prague why she was the first Czech student, and why weren’t Czechs coming to perform at the International Puppet Festival next year.
In the morning I arose early, vacated my apartment, said farewell to Charleville-Mézières once again while musing what an important place this has been in my life. Now all I had to do was to find the SNCF TER train to the TGV in Champagne-Ardennes and get myself up to Northern Germany. But I knew I wasn’t done with the Institut International de la Marionnette yet. I would be back again.
Strasbourg, France (waiting for the TGV to Frankfurt)
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.
Part One of this visit to Charleville here.
Earlier visits to the International Institute of Puppetry below.
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.
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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And so my six month long journey is over… or at least at a stopping point until October. And I feel the need to summarize something about it. To look for a pattern in the ineffable. Without a doubt this journey was quite different in many regards to many trips I have taken over the years. It can’t be an accident that journeying to Europe has, over the years, often been the catalyst for great change in my life. I have been to Europe on nine different occasions. And three of those times have brought monumental alterations in my life’s direction. Europe certainly hasn’t been the only proving ground for me. And every visit hasn’t had the same kind of effect upon me. But this was indeed one of those demarcation points for me, beyond which I am forced into the next square on the chessboard. And that is quite clear.
For one thing this moment comes at a time when my life seemed at a crossroads. In 2015 my mother had passed on after having lived ten years in Alaska. This brought me to a point of questioning many things and of reaching out artistically into new zones, whether successfully or not remains to seen. Something seemed to be coming to an end by June of 2017. I felt I was looking out at the universe through a microscope instead of a telescope. And yet I couldn’t see that I was in the wrong or a terrible place. But I saw that I had to simply continue to walk on down the trail laid before me however uncertain. By early July I had been informed that my life in the Quonset Hut where I lived for over 20 years was over. The previous December I had been accepted for a three week residency at the International Institute of Puppetry in Charleville-Mézières, France. And the only thing I knew for certain was that I had to get there. For a few minutes I thought about doing the practical and safe thing, to start looking for another place to rent and setting up a new situation for myself in Haines. But I realized two things instantly. One was that doing so would by necessity mean radical changes in my life in order to make the money to do that. And two, if I wanted to get anywhere playing it safe was definitely out of the question. And so I gambled on getting myself to France, closing my life in Haines down as soon as possible and putting everything into storage.
By October I had passed through one of the most tense periods of my life to find myself flying to France once again to try to do something with this ragged documentary that quite frankly I have been working on for far too long. By the middle of the second week in Charleville I was told potentially good news by the Institute. Very good news indeed, news that I had not been planning on. And thus many things occurred to me at once. I immediately knew that my decision had been the right one. If I had done the obviously ‘responsible’ thing and stayed home to organize my life anew I stood a good chance of dragging Gravity From Above out to the point of absurdity, and probably at the cost of my own sense of purpose. I also knew that this had happened far too early in this excursion, this exile, to be the deeper reason for the journey. This stroke of fortune had to be the hors d’oeuvre not the main course. I had planned on also visiting more puppet theatres and countries and then ending up for three months in Tbilisi, Georgia. And so maybe, I thought, something was awaiting me in Georgia.
Meanwhile as I moved on I can’t say that everything was simply a photo album of great moments of puppetry. That sense of muffled unease that had surfaced in June followed me around as well. I won’t belabor it or the specific reasons why here. But it was a serious concern that would pop up from time to time. And in a way I suppose I was also reflecting on my own mortality, and whether I had accomplished much at all in this strange life of mine. Sometimes it’s easy to see the cracked shards of endeavors to produce something of worth. I’m not one to be satisfied with cheap tokens of positive esteem. I am not looking to be validated by Facebook ‘Likes’. And so one of the places I most wanted to go was to the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo. A place with over 8,000 desiccated corpses on display. I wanted to look into the face of death and to both accept it and to gather my courage for the next chapter of my life. This questioning was not about feeling self pity. It was about seeing clearly what it means to be human in this dark world. It was about finding new resolve in face of personal dead ends and failures.
And I was having excellent conversations along the way with Lori, Gilles, Julien and my dear friend Paulette in Paris, with Māra Uzuliņa, Estefania Urquijo, Yanna Kor, Coraline Charnet and Raphaèle Fleury in Charleville-Mézières with Nicolas and Jose Géal, Dmitri and Biserka in Brussels, Mary and Simon in Lyon, the Quays and Matty Ross in London, with Per Ole, Greg, even Ellis Potter showed up in Switzerland and L’Abri students like Jessica, Jim and Sophia. And so many more.
And then there was art. I saw the artwork of Italy for the first time Palermo and Rome. I noticed the statues everywhere. I was particularly sensitive to the meaning of beauty in the museums I passed through. In Brussels, in Paris, in London, and in Rome. Tarkovsky had been right. “The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as an example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” And so did so much of what I saw, the elaborate effort put into so much art. To see a Bernini or Michelangelo statue is to weep over the loss of beauty in contemporary art today. To realize how much work has been put into expressing that which is always just beyond our grasp is to look back at our cheap broken fragments today, the big eyed cute fanart kitsch, the postmodern ugly uselessness, with a sense of utter loss. And yet to see the wonder of the paintings and sculptures of the past is to marvel, to truly dream, to hope in something that we could achieve were we not running away from meaning at every turn in this virtual age. I found myself stopped by Michelangelo’s Pieta, tears came to my eyes as I beheld the holy sense of comfort exuding from his depiction of Mary, young face, old hands, holding her dead son. It spoke to me of everything missing in life. Of sacrifice beyond our comprehension. Of tenderness, a tenderness I’ve certainly never known, that must exist somewhere.
And of course there were puppets… And puppets to me seemed to speak of humility in this tawdry shallow world of geeky images and toy electronic music. As I watched the politically correct failure of the most recent Star Wars film I contrasted the massive budget and expert special effects with the hand shadow ballets I saw in Georgia at Budrugana Gagra. The one was an overpriced over-hyped film franchise with plenty of agenda, yet without a soul. The other could literally be made for free. And yet the dedication of the low paid performers to the perfection of their movements spoke of deeply spiritual longings in the deepest sense of the word. Everything missing from our shiny, noisy screens.
Guignol, Woltje, Gnafron, Orlando, Punch and clowns (!) seem to follow me around. As did much more mysterious creatures, like those found in the films of the Brothers Quay. And somehow there was a continuity between the puppets found in the Palermo and Brussels and Tbilisi museums, the statues in Italy, France and England, the skeletons and corpses of Italy. And the textures (another big theme) found in exhibitions about Christian Dior and Balenciaga, the dresses in the V & A and the many traditional costumes of Georgia. Artistically everything seemed of a piece.
And yet none of this was what I suspected might happen.
And the first few weeks in Tbilisi Georgia were good yet curiously uneventful. It was the holiday season that lasted until the eastern New Year celebration around mid-January. A few connections were made but particularly around January 1st I seriously began to wonder what I was doing there. But then there was a shift which I can date to a conversation on January 3rd which began to change my perceptions of what I was doing in Georgia. It wasn’t a big revelation, just a subtle recognition that there were people I could really talk to. Later after the second New Year everything began to open up again. And more conversations opened up more doors. There was the art I was discovering in museums. There was my time with Budrugana Gagra, the Tbilisi State Puppet Theatre, the National Folklore School, the Marjanishvili Theatre, and especially my time with Erisioni that convinced me beyond a doubt of the artistic inclinations of the Georgians, which was important for me. And it was in conversations with Nini Sanadiradze, Ana Sanaia, Salome Berikashvili, John Graham, Eka Diasamidze Graham, Vladimir Lozinski, Elene Murjikneli, Gela Kandelaki, Tinatin Gurchiani, Natia Vibliani, Mariam Sitchinava, Koté Khutsishvili, Nata Zumbadze, Otar Bluashvili, Daro Sulakauri, Giorgi Kancheli, and especially Nino Vadachkoria, that I realized that I had the potential of having true friends in this country as well as the infrastructure of a community to help me navigate my way through this new landscape. I was nearly convinced of moving there when Nini Sanadiradze offered me the job of helping to design and create the puppet and doll museum from scratch.
And that was it. That was the real point of this journey in the end. I had often thought I might end up in Europe for the last chapter of my life. Yet I had no idea it would be a place like Georgia, which I had no real idea even existed before 2012. But now I will be returning there to set up a new life. I made sure I explored some darker corners of the town before I left. That I had a clear eyed idea of the place. (And I recently explored this theme here.) But now this small country in the middle of the world was to become my home. Talk about a dizzying beautiful experience. And the farewells were warm and meaningful. And more importantly I felt I was coming to a place where my gifts would mesh with the environment. Unlike New York, which always felt too embattled. Unlike Alaska, where most of my talents lay under wraps. Now I would be coming back to Europe to finish my documentary and then to stay. And that’s an incredibly large event in one’s life. This wasn’t going to be a temporary experiment. This would be me shedding my last skin to see what kind of creature this life has made of me. We will have to see.
Immediately after my time spent with the Brothers Quay (see my last essay) I was scheduled to meet a young British filmmaker, Matty Ross, who has made short films and was now filming a video for a well known musician in London. Matty had found one of my lectures on puppetry on YouTube and contacted me about helping him visualize a puppetry segment for a longer film he was developing. We had chatted through Skype but this was our first personal meeting. When I came down the stairs at the hotel I found him waiting for me inside the lobby. (Do not imagine anything grand here. It was a hole in the wall establishment near Saint Pancras Station.) We walked and talked and ended up at a cafe a few blocks away and began working on his project which involved puppets swimming and an episode in an ambulance. Matty was quite animated in his enthusiasm for the story. Obviously this was quite personal for him. And so I tailored my comments to help him bring out what he most wanted to say. He felt that I had helped to clarify a few things. Matty thanked me graciously. And we would be seeing each other again in the future.
I was free to explore London a bit more. Now I have a confession here. London isn’t exactly my favorite European big city. The pace of the people, the weather, the price of transportation, the naked tourism (on a different level from Paris) all tend to sour me slightly. Nevertheless I’ve been here before. I’ll most likely be here again. And there are things I like. And so I decided to visit something I’d never seen before: The Victoria and Albert Museum (the V & A). The next morning I took the Tube over to the V & A and entered.
The V & A is free, like other national museums, but one does pay a hefty price for special exhibits, as I did to see the Balenciaga exhibition. I had been following my interest in textures and had been quite inspired by the Christian Dior show over in Paris and the Museum of Decorative Arts. But this show left me a bit cold. And the reason was that Cristóbal Balenciaga did exactly what I have a problem with. He bowed to the Modernist aesthetic. He made clothes that cut against the form of the human body. And the show reveled in that fact. This isn’t to say that I didn’t find creativity, artistry, even wit, in the designs. And among the fashion conscious I’m sure I’ve been indulging in heresy. But I actually got more out the works of his postmodern ‘disciples’ than directly from him. Yet it was quite informative to see the the dresses and ponder the history of fashion. Though my texturally oriented mindset derived much more pleasure from the older clothes that were on the free menu as I strolled in.
The V & A is dedicated toward design and materials. And so as I continued my procession through the museum I found intriguing images everywhere. From statuary to theatre props, including old Punch and Judy puppets, my eyes were soon full. I wish I had had more of an interest in jewelry and crafts because this was really the motherlode for such things. If gold and silver intrigue you then come here!
I decided to go to Chinatown, near Soho, a place I have often found something interesting to eat. And sure enough I came upon an inexpensive dim sum restaurant that reminded me why I love Chinese food so much. Biting into the first shrimp dumpling I withered into a pool of bliss. This is what living in a small town Alaska, without a Chinese restaurant, will do to you.
After the meal I decided to save myself about $10 and walk to my hotel. I was running low on pound notes and didn’t want to go to the bank machine again. It was about a 45 minute walk passing bookstores on Charing Cross Road and passing the British Museum. Alas a proper English rain arose to make it perfect. It was raining so hard that a couple of girls stood near me stranded under an awning directly across from the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child with large paper bags full of groceries completely soggy and coming apart in the rain. I told them to go back to a store and ask for plastic bags. But it was clear that they were tourists who didn’t speak English well. So eventually when the rain subsided slightly I left the awning and began to walk off. Then my conscience struck me. I turned, walked back to a bookstore, asked for a plastic bag, took it back to them and said ‘Here!’ They looked at me and sheepishly said ‘Thank you.’ and I walked off into the rain.
The next day I spent my pounds down to the pence on food for my train ride back to Paris. On the way I ended up sitting next to a girl with mixed French and English ancestry, and the English side was mixed further with a bit of black and white in South Africa, where she was born. We had an interesting discussion about law, which she was studying and troubling her up in Cambridge, news and the media, computers and would coding help her in the future, and reality, my answer to her question. For no matter what you learn in tech if the real world around you becomes too strange to deal with no one survives. Ultimately it always comes back to reality, to nature, to real face to face human interactions. It was a good meeting and I think we both learned something from it. And in the end both of us agreed Paris was in many ways much more human than London.
And I actually felt glad to be back in Paris. For me Paris is a more like home. Which is odd considering that English speaking London should be more familiar. And my French is hardly perfect. And believe me, Paris and France do have seriously problems. And yet I felt more at home with crowds and pace in Paris than London. I can’t really explain it. Maybe it’s the fact that London suffered so much in the war and its reconstruction over the years has left it feeling colder. Paris, even with all it’s immigrants, still feels French. London feels a bit less English than I originally remember it back in the late 70s.
Well the next week was essentially down time. Some of the puppet moments I had planned did not materialize. And I needed to unwind from my journey thus far. The Carons were perfectly enjoyable hosts. They even survived my one failed attempt to cook with a French oven. And I finally got over my cold only to run into another issue: An abscessed tooth. I went into Paris a few times. Once to see the latest Star Wars film, which I enjoyed on a dramatic level, but the more I weigh it the more I find wanting in the balance. I also found myself wading through the Noël crowds around Les Halles which were as crazy as any I’ve seen. My friends Nathan and Annika Birch dropped in for a nice brasserie meal on the Right Bank of the Seine. Nathan discovered the roasted bone marrow appetizer, which was a new for me. And we split a plate of escargot.
Paulette eventually came to visit and was whipped by circumstances from extreme joy to almost unendurable pain within a few days time. And yet it was quite meaningful to see her again. And I am hoping her health stays steady. She also helped me navigate the back door of the French health system to get antibiotics for my tooth. And then it was time to leave France for Tbilisi Georgia, where I will be spending a full three months. All bets are off on this one. But it’s sure to be worth coming back for.
But we’ll call this quits for now. And I hope you have a meaningful Christmas and brave New Year and face the future with the best resources you have.
As for me, I will have two Christmases, one New Year and have already had my heart enlarged by the music and people of Georgia since my arrival.
I jumped up on the all night train from Milan to Paris. I tried to open the door to my three person birth. It was locked, then undone, and I was welcomed to share the compartment with an Italian IT technician named Filippo on his way to Paris to work on a job. He and I were fortunately the only two sharing the room. He took the darker top bunk on the mistaken, we discovered in the morning, notion that some of the lights didn’t turn off. I was happy with the bottom bed, after taping something on the lights to cut down the glare. In the morning we had a interesting discussion about video games and fiction. After I told him about some of my stories, one will be self-published this summer. He demanded I give him contact information so that he could read my work and follow my progress. That was somewhat flattering I must say. Now let’s make good on that.
I arrived in Paris and rode the metro and bus out to my European home with the Carons out in the Ile de France. I had picked up an annoying, but not debilitating, minor cold in Rome that would linger for over a week. And so I used my down time in Paris to rest, see a movie (Les Gardiennes was a French World War I film that met my hunger for something grown up in this childish age.) and basically take it easy before going to London to visit the Quay Brothers. Before I left I dropped in on a store near Place de Republique called Heeza that I had bought a few odd items from online. Back in 2016 I had come here to search Heeza out but they were not open. But this time after a little effort I managed to get in. (There is no storefront.)
Once inside I met the owner Pierre who was an affable Frenchman who had very eccentric and intellectual interests in things like old silent film, primitive cinema, odd animation (lots of Švankmajer and Starewitch), a limited choice bandes dessinées (French and European comics), not to forget strange postcards, old fashioned games, and flipbooks. More importantly he stocks recreations of pre-film optical devices like the praxinoscope, the thaumatrope, the zoetrope, the phenakistascope, the camera obscura and of course the magic lantern. (If you got even two of those names you’re doing well. Go check out his site. Fantastic stuff.) Plus books on all of this. We discussed puppets in animation. And he was curious himself why he didn’t have more on the puppets. I ended up buying a mysterious DVD by Patrick Bokanowski call L’Ange (The Angel) a favorite it turns out of the Quays.
As we were talking a couple of Ukrainian clowns walked in. (You really can’t invent this sort of thing. And what is it with clowns on this journey?) Now they weren’t dressed up! And they were on their way to Bordeaux to perform. Nevertheless we had a fascinating discussion about clowning techniques and how this little store was a perfect lure for truly intriguing people. I told the Quays later in London that they had to drop in sometime. You get the point. (Look them up online!)
Well eventually it was time to grab the old Eurostar chunnel express and zip over to London. I arrived on a wet London afternoon. And cursed the whole payment system for the London Underground. (Less than three days and more than $45 on spent on the Tube.) I was scheduled to drop in the next morning on the animating brothers so I did the appropriate thing. I went to the IMAX theatre where they were still showing Dunkirk. Since I had missed it in Alaska, this was my chance to see this perversely adult summer World War 2 epic with massive sound and huge screen. And I was duly impressed. I’m still weighing my thoughts about the film.
There was an degree of pressure at the Quays Atelier Koninck QbfZ. A mysterious benefactor had about a year and half earlier commissioned the Quays to make a film. Not a specific item for him personally. But, generously, to do what they did best. Make their own idea into a film. Institutions around the world aren’t exactly lining up to fund their films in this age of bottom line financial mania. The Quays were actually mid-way through another project when this person approached them. But since it was digital and he being interested in film rather than digital creations, he wasn’t so keen on it. One of his stipulations was that it be shot on 35mm film stock with their old cameras. But he basically said here’s a certain amount. Would you like to make a a real film out of it? What could they say? Why, yes! And now he was coming to check out what they had done on the 19th of December. And I had arrived on the 12th. So essentially my visit was a break in round-the-clock filming and editing (digitally then transferred back to film stock).
Well the brothers carved out a couple of hours in the morning. As they said in an email “Why don’t you come at 10am and we’ll throw you out at noon.” Sounded fine to me. We met as old friends and immediately traversed a wide variety of subjects from Sicilian marionettes to the Symbolist works of Marcel Schwob, whom I had been reading. We mentioned Bulgakov’s Heart of the Dog as an opera with puppets. There were storage problems for their arcane studio, moving things up into the rafters to create something like a balcony. Evidently Švankmajer’s new film Insects is finished and will have a special Vimeo showing soon if you look for it. We also passed through subject of texture. They discussed their project, which at this moment officially is being called A Doll’s Breath. And the music for it is being done by Michèle Bokanowski, Patrick’s wife. And they seem quite pleased with her style.
Well time was passing and the hour of my ejection was coming. (Not exactly at the stroke of noon.) So I began wandering through their studio to photograph their oddities. It was something I’d always forgotten to do before. Several of the puppets for A Doll’s Breath were on hand. And I was allow to capture them. And there was a small set where they were still filming. I also was granted access to photograph that as well. Their place is quite thronged with strange little visual discoveries. Like the framed piece that they have had for many years that they never clean, except for one spot revealing a small face. At one point I realized that they had turned off the light for their little set. Rather than ask for the lights back I decided to take a picture in the darkened conditions, which seemed more appropriate.
Finally it time allowed us to talk a bit more while sharing a bottle of very dark wine I had brought from Sicily and some potent brie interlarded with truffles from France. For a little creative inspiration I promised to bring them a dried salmon head back from Alaska next time I visited. Alas it was time to leave them to their metaphysical activities. We would indeed see each other in the next year. After a fond farewells I ambled out into the gray London weather gladly satisfied that I’d crossed the channel to catch up with the Brothers Quay.
Next time we wrap things up in London and Paris before the big journey to Georgia
From the Chopin Airport in Warsaw, Poland waiting for a flight to Tbilisi
PS. An abscessed tooth, London Tube costs, all the other stuff I’ve mentioned in my earlier postscripts. After doing my budget its clear things have become tight for Georgia. So really if you can thrown in a few coins in my PayPal account that would be greatly appreciated. It’s simple and effective. Click here.
And sometimes you just have to make observations apropos of nothing. Travel does that to you. You see things that puzzle and intrigue you, amaze and amuse you. And so in no particular order here are a few dispatches from the road.
First of all there’s that moment when you enter a new country with a language you don’t understand. And that happened this time in Italy. I decided to break my tradition of avoiding it (for reasons of humility) and get myself down to Sicily, which I’ll write about soon. But here’s the confusing part. So I take a train from Switzerland to Italy. (I was really expecting the tunnel through the Alps to be longer.) I get out at Milan, which was just going to be a train transfer on my way to Genoa (Genova), where they still are quite proud of Cristoforo Colombo. I see that I have arrived early enough to jump on an early train so I don’t have to wait at the Milan train station for two hours. So far so good. An hour ride deposits me at Genova Centrale. I have a map, or rather a Google page, that is suppose to guide me. I get out of the station carrying my backpack load. And I start walking the direction I think I should be going. But it doesn’t feel right. I walk a bit further and nothing is resolving. Then I realize I should have gone another direction. So I go back to station and try another road, which doesn’t feel right either because its straight up hill. And supposedly I’m near the Mediterranean. At this point I just wanted a real map made out of paper. Finally I give up and go back to the white taxis I saw near the station. I use my few words of Italian and then find out my short ride is going to cost me 15 euros. Almost $20. And this is for a ride about five minutes. But the taxi driver indicates it’s ‘standard’. And so we take off. And then I get a shock. I was completely turned around. I was walking the absolutely wrong direction. And so I became grateful for my expensive little ride.
Another thing worth discussing here is sickness. Let’s just face it. If you aren’t on a slick two week package tour you are going to eventually get some foreign illness you’ve never had before. In 2012 I received two different strains of the local cold. In 2016 I had gastroenteritis so bad I was bleeding. And if I didn’t know what it was I would have been very worried. And this year I received a whopping fever. And here’s the point of all of this. In each of these cases the culprit seemed to be the Paris Metro. And specifically holding the metal poles, the perfect conductor of germs and bacteria. And I always forget to bring hand sanitizer. I also get the feeling the Europeans aren’t nearly as germophobic as we Americans are. So there’s not much to do but get sick.
And when you are sick travel changes immensely. New foods that might have seemed interesting to try now seem unappetizing. The customs of the locals seem all wrong. Does no one ever cover their face when they sneeze or cough? And they never have the kinds of things you want when you have a cold. But that’s okay there really isn’t anything you can do but rest, drink liquids and build up your body’s immunities.
On the subject of food I’ve been pushing it further this time. Of course there is French food, which I love. And yet I always have to get used to the fact I’ll be on a largely bready diet while in la francophonie. But also there are so many wonderful things that I can scarcely contain my desire to try as much as possible. There is a guy who sells cheese at the Sunday market in Les Häye les Roses where I stay while in Paris. And I am sure that this man alone knows more about cheese than everyone in the state of Alaska put together. And I have eaten cheeses that are so good I just want to cry.
And I have tried new things mate. In Brussels the central Carrefour had kangaroo meat! And since I actually had cooking facilities for once. I decided to give a try. Not bad actually. Tastes a bit like beef, without the heavy fatty feel and it had a bit of a tang to it. I didn’t get to the zebra meet sitting next to it though. But I cook up a little horse in Switzerland.
Also in Belgium I finally had Belgian frites, the original French fries. And here’s what I have to say. Astounding! They are thicker, with an amazing crust. And a wonderful flavor which I’m told comes from frying them twice in beef fat!?! Which is about as healthy as injecting pure cholesterol. But oh my! It was worth it. They actually had a big health issue over this. But the traditional frites makers argued that this is the tradition. And they won. And God bless them. Just don’t eat les frites too often.
And does everyone have annoying music on their phones in Italy? And do they ever use their earbuds? Why do I need to hear the pointless video you are watching on the bus? (Gripe number 326.) And no one seems to care. And then there is the ubiquitous presence of terrible electronic dance music, especially the excrescence know as nightcore, which involves taking old pop songs and adding new music to a vocal track sped up to chipmunk speed. This just strikes me as the most anti-musical notion I’ve ever heard.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I forgot to mention my time spent in the Museum of the Ardennes. I had been there before, but the second time was just as enlightening. And I was able to get better photos this time. And I had a chance to watch the marionette clock work from the inside!
Speaking of museums? Yeah, I went to one of the greatest museums on earth, the Vatican Museum. I’ll save my thoughts about the contents for later. But let me get a couple more gripes off my chest about tourists. Two things drove me crazy this time round. It’s happened before but this time I’ve got to say something. Are we done with smartphones yet? These things are really polluting reality. You enter the Sistine Chapel, which clearly is marked No Photos. Guards are saying ‘NO PHOTO’ over and over. And still people can’t stop. Someone really needs to invent a phone jammer. And smartphone selfies? I have no end to my disquiet over those who can only experience something by putting themselves in front it. Once in a while. Okay. It proves you were there. All the time? It proves you weren’t. Period.
Next: Tour groups following people with flags. Does this mean you do not have to pay attention to anything at all? A whole group just stops and blocks walking traffic. No one can get around them. They look at no one. And in a place like the Vatican? (I’ve heard that that the Tokyo trains are less crowded.) My advice when you travel: Do not take a tour group anywhere that is already crowded. Period. To take a tour group when you are the only ones in the building? Exceptionally great idea. But a tour group (or thirty) with five thousand others swarming you. Stay home. Or come alone. You are just in the way.
And finally there are just the inexplicable things. In Brussels early in the morning, around 6, twice I heard this strange mysterious piping. 5 or 6 notes. High shrill. Discordant. Played at irregular intervals out in the near distance. It was not a bird. It sounded like a piccolo, even higher. But it wasn’t. It reminded me of the mad piping of the blind idiot god in H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories… and that’s something I’m not about to discuss here.
Instead let me end this praising Sicilian, more specifically Palermo, Palermitan, street food and a mention of two items in particular, stigghiola (grilled sheep or goat guts) and pane ca meusa (a spleen sandwich). Wow! I’m just impressed. I’d say one of the top three reasons to get down to Sicily is the food. (There is something for everyone.) End of essay. Go!
But we’ll discuss Palermo and Sicily next time. Stick around for that one. It’s about life and death. And that’s no metaphor.
From Rome, the Eternal City
PS. A reminder we’ve had many hefty unforeseen expenses since the beginning of our trip, including a crashed hard drive and now broken glass on my laptop screen. 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.
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.
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
And then it was time to give my ‘prèsentation‘ for the students of l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM). It was the first time I was to actually meet the students. I went to the ‘new building’, which still had the feel of a remodeled unfinished structure… and definitely needed some added character. Designed as some lo-fi modernist piece several decades back it had such oddities of construction that I nearly smashed my head open trying to look through a window down to the street. A projector was given to me to connect with my laptop. And evidently there was some teensy pin difference between the chord and and the computer, turning my handcrafted movie clips into bleeding mud on the walls in the red tones. But it really didn’t matter. I could tell that les étudiants were finding my thoughts to be fairly substantive.
I spoke about puppetry possibly providing one answer to the realm of flat dead textures of plastic, glass, stainless steel and the endless distraction value of the screens we are enveloped by. I think something in what I said got to them. And unlike many students in this age who seem welded to their devices, belief structures never withstanding, these students, all of the Harry Potter age, seems to come alive at the notion that their craft might indeed be more than just an art or entertainment on the sidelines of culture. I could see their lights going on upstairs when I spoke of texture, materials, fabrics, wood, rusted iron, and the need for us to live in a world that had some of the features of the natural world: large vistas with details that never ceased in their fractal complexity: Old furniture, wooden walls, paintings often had this characteristic. But now we lived increasingly under the smooth surfaces of plastic, plate, glass, white enamel, and faux materials. Now the only thing of interest for vast swathes of humanity are screens on blank white walls, in theatres, on devices, and above all in our hands.
And yet the Puppet, I felt was in a unique position, with it’s emphasis on texture and tactility to provide some sort of possible answer to this terrifying dilemma. For we are certainly effected by the objects we surround ourselves with. And many of these marionnettistes immediately got the point. Rather than weakly accept the all surrounding force of commercial deadness and the pop cults of the day, these students were here to emphasize the tactile, real life movement, and the physical body. My message fell upon thirsty ears. I was telling them that there was indeed a purpose to their art in the 21st Century.
Now I don’t want give the impression that I had one glowing experience after another. It took several more days until I could actually talk with the students again. Meanwhile my fellow chercheurs Yanna Kor and old friend Paulette Caron had departed for other parts françaises. Estefania Urquijo had gone off for four days to look for puppets in Lyon. And so it was a long weekend. And I a bit isolated experiencing at last the dislocation of my transition from Alaska. As I walked through the Place Ducale I was nagged by an unresolved issue from my intense summer that was still weighing down upon me. Yet I was working on it. And I did indeed have some worthy news, that I’ll discuss in a moment. So I roved the town and waited thoughtfully for the last week to begin.
And it was indeed a memorable last week at the Institut International de la Marionnette. After my presentation Raphaèle Fleury, Manager of the Research Center, told me that the Institute was considering to help me finish the film and that included financially. Now I don’t want to go into all of the details, because this will take about a year to unravel and I want to see how things go. But one thing seems quite certain I will be back here in a year working on Gravity From Above again. And this is a big deal for me.
More importantly it was because of the effect of my presentation upon the students that Raphaèle was convinced that the istitute needed to help me get this documentary completed. And so there is justification for this journey. Yet as good as this news was it only felt like the appetizer for a main course that will come in time.
One student who immediately got what I was saying was Zoë Lizot. She spoke to me after the prèsentation and had many questions about the puppeteers role in art. Later I would see her performing a little puppet play with Valentin Arnoux and find that this serious young woman also had extremely funny voices waiting to be released into the world. Valentin himself was politely earnest and too was revealed to have a sly sense of timing as he played simply a head. (See photo.)
The student who most seriously understood the implications of my message was Coraline Charnet. Paulette had told me to talk with her. When I approached she was eager for further exploration of the ideas. We spent the good part of an afternoon sharing lunch and discussing the philosophy of texture, and our need for it. She said she had been thinking about these things for a while. Especially the flatness of contemporary society with all it’s screens and devices. She told me that I had articulated what had been disturbing her.
After weeks of waiting I was finally allowed in to see the students practice for an afternoon. A curious thing about the French training pedagogy is its emphasis on the physical body and movement. This comes from a long line of French theatrical theorists and includes traditions in theatre, mime, clowning, and of course puppetry. And so I watched Alexandra Vuillet conduct body work for an hour and a half. One of these exercises seemed almost related to some body preparation ritual prior to a burial. One student would lay on the floor as if dead and the other would massage/push/caress most of the unmoving clothed body.
But this seemed of a piece with the French casualness about the body in general as opposed to my more Anglo-American disregard bordering on squeamishness. And in my contacts with the French étudiants in general there was a physical closeness that seemed to develop quickly. Suddenly there were kisses on the cheek. Women touching me to make points. And even among the guys there was a casualness of body language quite foreign to my more northern sensibilities. I spent an evening with students Cassiel Bruder and Eve (pronounced ‘Ev’) Bigontina in which we were already like old friends with familiar gestures. Now this isn’t to imply that the French have achieved some sort of enlightened state concerning the flesh. I’m sure that issues arise often. They are just slightly different from those in more physically reserved countries.
In the afternoon they began to practice a variant of the Japanese bunraku technique, which involves one person in control of the head and right arm of a puppet, another the left arm and torso and a third the feet. And then they were broken up into smaller groups, there are only 13 students in the school, and allowed to create a small play based on photocopies of a short text. Now when I say text it’s not as if these étudiants are working with puppetry classics like Faust, Don Giovanni, Alice in Wonderland, for example. No they are working with more recent French texts, which always have a more philosophical message. One of them was about a man who had just committed suicide and whose ghost was over above his corpse in a flash of memory. And it was fascinating to watch how quickly they assembled little plays out of the material. One involved a puppet coming across Valentin’s head. Another with about a ghostly empty hoodie wandering around, while Iranian puppeteer Sayeh Sirvani played its feet. And the last contingent performed a play featuring several other students and the suicidal bunraku practice puppet.
One puppeteer stuck out for me. She was obviously moving differently, spoke English, but nearly no French, and was often seen alone. That was Latvian exchange student Māra Uzuliņa. When I had asked the students during my presentation about why they wanted to be puppeteers, she told a story about about being in a theatre program in Riga, Latvia, then going to medical school, then changing her thoughts again and choosing puppetry again. It was intriguing enough for me to ask her to be interviewed for the documentary. Like many of the students she had, what I would call, the right reasons for wanting to study puppetry. And the puppet students seemed like they understood intuitively the increasing abstraction from the physical world. Māra had that down cold. She had made a short video where she had made demonstrated her use of unusual objects to communicate deeply. We set a time to film our interview the Thursday night before I left for Brussels. When the time came I conducted the interview with a minimal amount of distraction in the Villa d’Aubilly.
This might have been the best interview I’ve ever done. Not that it had the historical significance of talking with Jan Švankmajer or Henryk Jurkowski. Not that Māra had great techniques and experience to share. Nevertheless she was open emotionally in a way that few other interviewees had been. And when we came to discussing puppetry in this media soaked 21st Century, she suddenly caught herself, honestly, passionately confronting the artificiality of this sad new world in a way that that even took her own breath away and left me affected as well. And that she was 24 years old was an important fact. I have interviews with older puppet folks discussing their discomfort with a world of increasing virtuality. In a time where younger folks will naturally defend the predigested big budget fantasy images on their ever present screens as being their own, here was one young soul who questioned it deeply. And she wasn’t alone either. I know many of the students of ESNAM would have said similar things. Though I doubt any of them would have said it with the emotional intensity that Māra had. And I was glad to meet as any of the students as I did. And I’m sure there’ll be more questioning of the spirit of the age when I return next year to interview several more. (And I will be back!) And so I’m glad to have my first Latvian friend as well whose name is Māra. Those who know me well might have seen this name show up in my creative endeavors before. And it will show up* again.
Oh and one other thing before I go to sleep here in Brussels. Raphaèle also approached me in the library to ask if I wanted to write an essay based on my presentation for their forthcoming book called Puppetry and Power. I said “Is it my name?” and of course was honored as I was by the whole experience at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières. And I bid a fond adieu to Raphaèle, Brigitte, Eloi, Delphine, Aurelie and my fellow chercheur Estefania.
Thanks for following along with me on my journey. Next time we are back in Brussels for a Toone marionette version of Dracula.
OKAY now just stop what you are doing! And watch that five minute interview with Māra all the way till the end.
* (In Arca a film I made with Sasza Sandur.)
So I found myself on the northern French highways veering off into Belgium on my way to see a clown performance in the town of Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg. The magnanimous Brigitte Behr was driving Paulette Caron (who had just arrived from Paris) and I to “Festival Clowns In Progress” to witness the antics of Ludor Citrik, a theatrical clown, not to be confused with a circus clown. If you’ve ever seen a version of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, you have a small idea of what a theatrical clown might be.
Now even knowing Godot and having seen a couple of clown plays in past European journeys did not quite prepare me for the full reality of les clowns. These theatrical clowns tend to have mutated into an extraordinarily loud, strange, mentally deranged, existentialist buffoons, for whom there are no taboos in an absurdist parody of life and living. They did not wear the make up that Americans tend to associate with clowns, but rather the additional, usually red, nose was essentially all one needed to cross the line. Some sloppy face paint usually completed the picture, along with badly fitting clothes. But what a line to be crossed. Evidently a European clown school is nowhere you’d want to go if you were at all inhibited by moral strictures or notions of societal decency.
After experiencing some of the unashamed stupidity of the wandering clowns at the very small festival we were ushered into a theatrical space to watch a play featuring the well known clown who goes by the name Ludor Citrik, along with his dense confrere le Pollu. How can I even sum it up? After it was over I discussed the idea of clowns with Paulette. She had explained that this European theatrical clown was supposed to be like an artistic soul, almost ‘attardé mental‘, saying and doing whatever came into his mind. I explained the more current American concept of the evil demon clown and how much the image of the clown has changed in American culture since I was a wee lad. (Thank you John Wayne Gacy, Stephen King, Insane Clown Posse and many others.) And what’s truly strange is that the clown, the very image of fun, has mutated into a satanic creature exactly at the same moment historically when people live for having ‘Fun’. It’s no coincidence.
Well anyhoo, the shenanigans of Ludor Citrik and le Pollu would have probably struck most Americans as being horrifying as well, featuring inchoate screams, loud bellowing, crazed body language, death grips, drugs, as well as Modernist concepts like breaking the fourth wall (the barrier between performer and audience), Beckett like absurdity, and hundreds of empty egg cartons. My feelings after seeing the pair was to react without language, only high pitched vocal contortions.
Meanwhile back in Charleville-Mézières I was settling into a regular routine of time spent in the Centre de documentation of the Institut International de la Marionnette (the French word for all puppets). I had become a chercheur, a researcher, in the library of books, videos, magazines and other media on puppetry and related arts. There were two other chercheurs in residence also. I couldn’t have asked for a more curiously disparate group, all united by an interest in puppetry.
One was Yanna Kor who grew up in Romania and Moldova only to move to Israel in her young teens with a story as elaborate as a Russian novel while speaking four and a half languages. “Russian, Hebrew, French, English and I don’t speak Romanian so well anymore.”) I have rarely seen anyone who could focus on research so intently, six or seven hours without a break, all the while specializing on French puppetry in 19th Century. She had also been a dramaturge for some of her own plays and had even been involved with puppetry. She was working on her PHD thesis on Alfred Jarry and his famous play Ubu Roi. And if I happened to mention a subject, she would eventually wander over to my table a leave a book on, say, medieval automata, for me to look at.
Quite different was Estefania Valls Urquijo from Guatemala of Catalan and Basque heritage. She had come to research her idea for a series of ceramic puppets she called Muñecas, dolls. She had been working with sculpture and ceramics but had gotten the idea to make puppets and this was actually her first serious attempt to do so. She eventually invited us over to see her puppets, which while needing more work and design, were nevertheless certainly already filled with character.
Later Paulette, Yanna, Estefania and I found ourselves sitting at an outdoor cafe. Estefania discussed life in Guatemala. Houses with bodyguards. Crime and poverty. Her work inside the jails. And here she was working on art. And it made sense. More than once in my conversations with all of these women I found myself considering new perspectives on ideas. And more than once I also realized how far away I was from the United States and Alaska. And that it was a real corrective to consider truly different viewpoints other than those I usually inhabited.
And then there was my own research into puppetry. And it was fascinating to consider the many things I didn’t know, as well as those issues related to puppetry that I did know that no one else seems to have considered yet. Soon I would be meeting the students at the school and giving my presentation.
(But I’ll save that for next time.)
Come back again…
This journey is already different from all of the rest if only for the pure pressure and chaos of my final days in Alaska before departing. Normally the days of preparation in anticipation of leaving have many confusing aspects to them. This time though it was on another level altogether. Unimaginable. This time I had to clear everything from my house, which had been sold, prior to my leaving. I actually thought that I could get everything moved from my house and prepare for the journey without a hitch. O stupid me. I needed another week to do it right. And I needed more help from friends a month ago. And I should have done something about it. But the date for leaving and my time in France was a hard intractable deadline.
I was right about the time it took me to pack my library. I was wrong about the chaos that had grown over the years in the back room. And in the end I paid for it. I won’t go into the details except to say that at the end I felt more like one of those people standing on top of the American embassy in images from the fall of Saigon. I know I left things behind. And there was nothing I could do about it. I had to be on the ferry at 4pm. End of story. And so with the help of several very good friends I took my final load over to Storage Unit 3 and called it quits. Feeling so drained from the two months of packing and dismantling my life that I could barely focus on anything else. Somewhere I had taken some time to prepare for this six month journey, but I fear that I must have left something important undone. (I owe deep thanks to all who helped me in some manner in this Sisyphean task.)
Nevertheless nothing has ever felt quite like stepping foot on the 4 o’clock ferry bound for Juneau. It was like crossing a demarcation from one world into the next. Everything in Alaska was temporarily wrapped up. My life had been put into boxes into a room without windows. But now it was all behind me. And what lay before me? Well I can tell you where I’ll be. And what I’ll be trying to accomplish. But it seems like something much deeper is going on. I wouldn’t even be taking this journey had I not been granted a residency at the International Institute for Puppetry in France. And submitting my application was something I had forgotten about until literally the last hour. And had I not had that residency I would certainly not be taking this journey in light of my housing situation. And yet here I am writing from France in Charleville-Mézières in an apartment of the Institut International de la Marionnette.
The ferry ride, the hotel in Juneau, the Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle, the inevitable hours spent at Sea-Tac waiting for the Icelandair journey all transpired in the normal manner which doesn’t require any comment. Icelandair was a slightly new experience. Small details stuck out, like having to buy my meal as I crossed the Atlantic, (Oh that’s how the tickets get so cheap!) landing at the Reykjavik Airport and then volunteering to make €200 by switching planes to land in Orly instead of Charles DeGaulle (I’m still waiting…), glimpsing a rather bleak corner of the Icelandic landscape as we then flew south (But I can’t really count that as having been to Iceland.), meeting a pleasant French woman who was a global representative of Christian Dior, as well as a few rather jovially lost Americans who were from Oklahoma and were gleefully happy to say things to the Parisians like “Hi. I’m just an ugly American.” when they gave ample evidence of their naïveté. It was all I could do not to tell them that you don’t need to point it out. They know! They know!
In Paris after helping the Oklahomans get pointed in the right direction (They spent €65 on a five day transportation pass!) I arrived at my usual destination, Hôtel Saint André des Arts, meeting my old friend Fred, for whom I had brought some smoked Alaskan salmon. I found the crepes I craved, noticed that a few stores that I had remembered now closed for business, tried to stay awake for most of Blade Runner 2049 and bought a SIM card for my dumbphone.
And then I repaired to the good graces of my puppeteering friend Lea Paulette Caron’s family in the southern Parisian suburb of L’Haÿ-les-Roses. Paulette arrived by train later that day to complete the reunion. And again I was overwhelmed by the food selection in the covered market: endless cheeses, cuts of meat unknown in the USA, quails, terrines, patés, and desserts that I can’t mention here for fear of violating the decency standards of WordPress. Haines, Alaska has three nice grocery stores but everything sold there is fairly predictable. This was precisely what I needed to resuscitate my American palate. I looked out at the lushly overgrown backyard of the Carons and realized that I’d always loved the kind of casual clutter of France, in opposition to the strict neatness of Switzerland, which also has a different kind of allure. I stayed for two days waiting for my body to fully catch up to my brain as I found myself still waking at 3:30am.
Finally on the morning of the October 9th I departed by TGV for my residency in Charleville-Mézières at the Institut International de la Marionnette. As the train glided effortlessly across the northern French landscape I couldn’t help but wonder about the next step in this expedition. A few days ago I was watching my life miniaturized in a traumatic blur of excavation and flight. Now I was beginning a six month journey of exploration of both inner and outer worlds.
Next time, puppetry research and clowns in Luxembourg.
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
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
The season changes. The unknown beckons. It’s been a short time since I wrote to delineate the developments in our Gravity From Above documentary and the coming major journey. And there have been several good reasons for that.
First of all last I wrote it was mid-fundraiser. And I haven’t wanted to keep writing after going through the endlessly necessary and annoying task of pleading for donations. It was time to give you all a break. Now on the sidebar here I have written to thank everyone, as I have through Facebook, for helping us to achieve our modest goal for this trip. In a nutshell, we received enough money through Indiegogo to let you know that we took home about $3,700 after they took their cut. Besides that we received more money through a live fundraiser in Haines and another $1,100 through donations on my PayPal account through this site here. (Hint. Hint.) bringing us over $5,000 for this site. The PayPal contributions here are actually more beneficial since they only take 3% away versus Indiegogo’s 8.5%. So if you choose to add to our funds as we travel then please feel free to do so. I can say this with absolute conviction we are traveling on the cheap here and will be counting our pennies, cents, centimes and tetri.
The second reason for the delay is that I have also been packing my entire life into boxes and taking them over to a nearby storage facility. And this will involve as many as five hundred boxes. Acquaintances will often commiserate and tell me how they know that moving takes a while. They mean well. I usually don’t disabuse them of the difference between what I mean when I say moving as opposed to what they mean. I will simply say this: When I moved up to Alaska 20 years ago my library weighed over 10,000 lbs (over 4500 kgs). That is most likely on a different order than what most people mean by the minor difficulties in moving. It takes two months simply packing everyday.
Thirdly… Oh yeah, I’ve been planning for what is now a six month journey into Europe. And that requires plenty of planning all by itself. I’ve been writing back and forth to puppeteers and friends. I’ve been trying to stay with people as much as possible and trying to reduce my costs as much as possible. I’ve been wrangling with Polish airlines and hotel booking sites and the inevitable mistakes that arise in undertaking such an intense endeavor. And since I am effectively in a form of exile during this time I must fill up my entire schedule. Returning for a month for Christmas and New Year isn’t an option. So there have been plane and ferry tickets, several hotel rooms, an apartment in Georgia for three months, and train reservations to make all requiring serious expenditures and much forethought. There are calendars to fill, itineraries to write, schedules to consult, maps to study, researches to follow, guide books to read. How do I travel from the train to the hotel? From the hotel to the puppet theatre? A journey this vast takes serious thought and time to construct. Especially if I want to have a meaningful trip and not just a series of random encounters. (Sometime soon I’m going to write about my traveling philosophy and how I really do manage to have such meaningful experiences.)
And now the good news… With the funds raised recently through my crowdfunding campaign I can now add Italy to my itinerary for the first time ever. (By the way without friends acquaintances and former supporters I would have made almost zilch from interested parties with whom I have had no previous contacts. Please prove me wrong! I have in the past been the recipient of a few very generous strangers’ largess. But not this time.) And I am very excited to finally get down to Italy. I will be going to Sicily to see the Sicilian marionettes in Palermo as well as a great puppet museum. And I will be going to Rome for the first time ever to see a puppet theatre with figures based on the commedia dell’arte. These two styles are some of the most foundational in European puppetry and I am privileged to finally witness them.
I will also get to spend more time in Brussels with the Toone and Peruchet marionette theatres. And this time I will be lodged with Toone. So I’m really looking forward to that. I will be able to visit Pascal Pruvost and Guignol again in Paris. And spend time with a new troupe in Lyon with my dear friend Paulette Caron. Plus I’ll be staying with her folks in the Paris area which will help save funds and allow me to dive more deeply into French culture. Plus there is the three week sojourn in Charleville at the International Puppetry Institute, which is what kicked this whole journey into gear in the first place. I’ll see the Quays again in December. Stay at L’Abri in Switzerland for a couple of weeks in November where I’ll give a couple lectures. And then there is the huge three month chunk of time in Georgia, which I know will produce cultural experiences that I can’t even begin to measure; puppetry, music and dance. And there will be much more. There will undoubtedly be more puppetry experiences, particularly in France. And there will be surprises. There will of course also be illnesses, stomach problems, sore feet, strange scenarios, missed connections, frustrations, misunderstandings and the usual headaches of real travel. These things come. You just bite the bullet and accept it.
But I can’t wait. Except for around two hundred more boxes to pack, some furniture to sell, serious cleaning up to do, a work season to finish up and too many last minute tasks to mention, except for that I’m ready! I’ll be writing much more regularly now. So stick around and travel with me. And thanks to all those who have helped me with this journey… And those who will help in the months to come.
To continue with my accounting of my Gravity From Above journey thus far we come to 2015, the first half of which was consumed with the declining health and finally the death of my mother. And that concluded with my building her coffin (our laws here in Alaska are probably different than yours) and holding a service for her after selling her furniture and belongings. It was as you might expect an emotionally draining period of my life. I didn’t think about anything else for about seven months. And I had a chance to see death up close and personal. And that has an effect upon a person. You either shrink back or gain wisdom while simultaneously understanding the impermanence of everything that surrounds you. And yet in the timing of this I could feel the presence of God. Not in a romantic spiritual way. But with a certainty I can’t or won’t explain in such a public forum.
And when it was over I found myself with a modest insurance claim and enough money to get back to Europe. And I was faced with a choice. I could take that insurance money and invest in my life in Alaska, to seek security and comfort. But I decided against that for several reasons. First: I had promised myself several years ago that when my mother died, I would go to Georgia. And I needed to go there to started something new. And second: I knew that I needed to get back out into the world. To begin working again to try to get Gravity From Above finished, to see my puppeteer friends, my friends in Switzerland and to meet people I didn’t know yet. And so I chose a three month journey.
In January of 2016 I embarked on this next Gravity From Above journey. I met new people like Dimitri Jageneau in Brussels, met guignolistes in Lyon, spent more time with the Quays and Buchty a Loutky. I was often accompanied by my good friend Paulette Caron. And then I ended up in Georgia, which had an incredibly strong effect upon me, being both completely outside of the realms of my experience and yet somehow deeply touching in an almost dreamlike and familiar way. And that has effected my life to this day. (You can scroll through the older entries on the right to follow the actually journey.)
And yet I still didn’t obtain the performance videos I needed to begin to assemble the my material into something like a documentary. I have dozens of hours of footage. I don’t yet have the images to bring it all together yet. But I think I know where most of these images are now. And enough time has gone by where I think I might be able to capture these images myself. Though I really would like a small film crew. (But I’m getting itchy to finish this and get it out in some manner.)
And then at the end of 2014 came another period of intense wrestling and self reflection leading up to my home of 20 years being sold by my landlords. This was something I wasn’t simply going to get around. And even if I had had that insurance money still it wouldn’t have helped. And as I thought about it I realized I could use this to get back to Europe by minimizing my expenses and putting everything into storage rather than paying more rent. And so once again I’m putting everything down on this project. And I’ll be spending 3 months in Georgia this time, which wouldn’t have happened had I not gone in 2016. All in all I’ll be in Europe for six months. And this both exciting and filled with unknowns that I’ll just have to deal with when I get there.
Someone talked with me recently having read about my journey in the local paper. They were happy for me of course. But then I realized that they thought I was essentially taking an extended vacation. It sounds so romantic! And yet for me there is much that is quite fraught with uncertainty. I explained that this is work. And it really is. More than once in 2012 I had to double back to meet an important puppeteer, who wasn’t available when I was. That meant returnihttps://www.indiegogo.com/projects/gravity-from-above-documentary-european-puppetry/x/17029105#/ng from one city to another by train, carry about 50 pounds (25 kg) on my back. Racing the clock all the way. Reading schedules in French or better yet Czech. That is not a pleasant restful holiday outing. And I’m not staying in four or even three or even two star hotels. Yes there is much of joy and wonder. But that comes from the satisfaction of having made the immense effort. And financially. I’m always counting euros, kroner and lari to make sure I get home.
And this trip is no different. I’m spending three months in Tbilisi again because I really want to, but also because that’s the only place in Europe where my money will stretch far enough to make my budget workable. And since most of my finances will come in during my last month here I only bought a one way ticket to Paris three weeks ago (under $600 from Juneau to Paris!), because I can’t yet afford the return ticket. And that’s why I’m doing this fundraiser and that’s why every $10, $50, $100, $1,000 matters. Right now I can’t even finalize my plans for three weeks in the middle of the journey until I see if I get enough money to even travel any further. (It’s iffy if the fundraiser doesn’t get the my minimum goal.)
So why do I do this? I can tell you that money has absolutely nothing to do with it. A truly prudent person would have saved as much money as possible. They would have prepared for inclement weather ahead. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I held my mother’s hand alone in her bedroom as the last breath escaped her body and her hands went ice cold. I’ve looked death in the face. And I’ll tell you what I know. Getting to the end of your life with a nice safe life and healthy bank account has nothing to do with meaning of life. Life is about trying to give something back to others. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky said:
“The artist is always the servant, and is perpetually trying to pay for the gift that has been given to him as if by a miracle. Modern man, however, does not want to make any sacrifice, even though true affirmation of the self can only be expressed in sacrifice. We are gradually forgetting about this, and at the same time, inevitably, losing all sense of human calling.”
What does puppetry and a documentary about it got to do with this? Well you know what? You won’t know until you see the finished film. That’s why I need your support. This Indiegogo fundraiser may end soon. But you want to know something? While you are rest comfortably in your beds at home I will, in a very real sense, be in exile, all my possessions locked away, no home, trying to finish something that is very important, not so much for me, I already know the message I’m trying to communicate, but for you. If you read this after August 21st 2017 remember I’ll be out there until April 1st and would react with incredible gratitude for any PayPal contributions you might choose to make. (See button above on the right.) BUT UNTIL AUGUST 21st PLEASE HELP DONATE TO GRAVITY FROM ABOVE ON INDIEGOGO. (CLICK HERE.)
You have my deep thanks for actually reading this and for anything else you might choose to give.
(Loading up my storage room)
I decided to go back to Europe in 2005. I had been working at our local radio station steadily for years and I decided I needed a three month leave of absence. And so I thought “Let’s go back to Europe with a purpose.” Just going from country to country and town to town seeing cathedrals and museums gets a bit alienating and repetitious. I wanted to learn. I had two possible modes of interest. One idea was to do serious research on puppetry. The other was to visit World War II sites. The more I looked at the logistics, the more I realized that I could only pursue one of these courses. I chose puppetry. And though a few WW2 locations survived my planning (Auschwitz, Berlin) it was puppetry that spoke the loudest. In 2000 the burgeoning internet was fairly helpful in planning my journey. In 2005 it was essential. But by today’s (2017) standards it was still quite primitive. So much so that although I could tell that some kind of performance was occurring at the French puppet school (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette) in Charleville-Mézières, I couldn’t quite interpret exactly what it was. Much of my journey was laid out before me. But I really didn’t know what to expect. What I found would alter the direction of my life in many ways. (You can read a more complete version of the tale starting here.)
I was constantly surprised by what I was finding. The Guignol show at Parc Des Buttes Chaumont was much better than the show I had seen at the Luxembourg Gardens in 1996. The student performances at the International Puppetry Institute completely altered my notion of both puppetry and what could be a puppet. The mysterious beauty of shadow puppetry in Germany could not be denied. The stories I heard of puppetry behind the old Iron Curtain countries in East Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow and Chrudim were inspiring. Seeing Czech culture through the eyes of puppet theatre was a window from which I did not need to be defenestrated. The Buchty a Loutky troupe in Prague gave me the idea that we could make an attempt at puppetry ourselves in Alaska. And the marionettes in Salzburg demonstrated the complexity of the art. I broke my wrist the week before I embarked upon this journey. By the time it was over I discovered I had lost my job in Alaska due to nefarious scheming while I was gone. I stood at a bridge in Salzburg and asked myself, if I had to do it all over again, including the broken wrist and the lost employment, would I do it again? Absolutely. Sign me up. It was that crucial.
What was it that I saw? Puppet shows obviously. And yet that isn’t what I saw. Having followed 20th Century music history quite intently I knew that the power of music had diminished by the year 2001. And what steamrolled over everyone now was the computer, the internet, and in 2005 the cascade of social media was just beginning. Yet it was already clear that the 21st Century needed an art that could challenge the digital hegemony. An art that could possibly break through to the real. And what I was convinced of was this. Puppetry was one art form that could do that. Whether in the real interactivity of a Guignol show in Paris, the illumination of objects like stone or grape branches in France, or the full grammar of puppetry in Prague, I knew that here was an art that could point one back to the tactile, the true senses. Even Švankmajer’s puppet films were soaked in the textures of materiality. Puppets could remind us of the world that existed beyond the screen.
Back in Alaska I started work on a small ad hoc puppet entity called the Lilliputian Puppet Sideshow based partially on what I had seen in Europe.. My chief issue was how to expose my recruits to the kinds of puppetry I had witnessed. I realized very quickly that there was no documentary on the subject worth it’s name. I used bits and pieces from a variety of sources. I have collected over 70 puppetry related DVDs since then. I can speak with some authority. There is no good overview or introduction to the art. By 2006 I began to muse over the concept of a documentary and the title , Gravity From Above, had already come to me, inspired by Heinrich von Kleist’s Romantic Era essay on the marionette theatre. Little did I know how much commitment Gravity From Above would take from me. Had I found the resources and the funds right away I would have put this behind me long ago. But that was much easier said than done. Funding has dogged me every step. I think people hear that I’m going to Europe and assume that I must be living the life of a well-heeled roué. Far from it. I’m always counting my pennies. Always completely drained of resources when I come back. (And I will be this time too unless you help.)
In 2007 I attracted the attention of a young producer from Switzerland. I met him in Los Angeles in late 2007. We discussed the project. Ideas were exchanged. Not much happened in the next year or two. In 2009 I was given an Individual Artist Award from the Rasmuson Foundation in Alaska for my puppet work. I took that money and formed a new puppet troupe called Reckoning Motions and spent two months on the American road in October and November. My goal was to present this strange new/old puppetry to people who had never seen it before. Financially, we lost money. But in terms of reception? Everywhere we went we surprised and intrigued folks with our curious and difficult little entertainment It felt good. I had proved something to myself. Puppetry could indeed shoot past the virtual and hit the audience on a different level. And so with that under my belt I decided to start thinking about the documentary again.
In the summer of 2012 I made my first foray into crowdfunding. And with a bit of help from the Rasmuson Foundation and USAProjects I made it to $10,000, just enough to get me back to Europe and start the interviewing process. But nothing is ever as simple as it seems. That helped with transportation and lodging. But I didn’t have a good camera. I was essentially flying by faith on the seat of my pants. (How is that for mixed metaphors!) Re-enter the Swiss Producer. He had moved back to Switzerland and had some idea that the Swiss funding agencies might like my project. So he decided (along with his wife and producing partner) to help out a bit. They said they had a camera for me. And sound equipment. And that sounded right. And so in October of 2012 after a very long bout of transportation I arrived in Europe, Poland to be precise, again. Eventually they met me and passed me the camera. Alas! This was some archaic digital video camera that had pixels large enough to count. It would never work. But fortunately they sprung for a new Canon DSLR camera while I was visiting friends in Berlin, thus saving the trip.
Now I had another issue. I had to get up to speed on this device before I arrived in Prague to interview Jan Švankmajer. And I think I just barely got there. My footage was passable for a documentary as long as my skills kept improving and my final cut was poetic enough. The trip was both tiring (dragging heavy tripods and other unneeded equipment) and satisfying. By any stretch of the imagination this was work NOT a vacation. Finding myself several times doubling back on train trips to interview someone on their schedule rather than mine. (You can read about the whole journey in the early Gravity From Above posts.)
Upon arriving at home I lived on crumbs of hope coming from Switzerland: That soon they would submit the project. Fortunately I had made a good friend in puppeteer Paulette Caron who came to visit Alaska twice to help with Reckoning Motions puppet productions in 2013 & 2014. But the delays for continuing the project seemed endless. Finally I just decided to give up on waiting and get back to Europe on my own. In 2014 I made another campaign run through USA Projects, which had changed its name to Hatchfund in the meantime. I made several tactical errors, like starting in the autumn. Also their was no matching funds from any other source. And it was a lot of work and time (three months)and serious personal stress for just $5000. Not much, but enough to buy a new laptop and to get the Final Cut Pro X software to make my promotional images shine more. My mother passed away in 2015 and I was left with an insurance claim. I decided to to take that money and get back to Europe. And so I prepared to make the journey again. I knew this wouldn’t be the end. But I was determined to honor the faith put in me thus far by the people who had put in as little as $10 or as much as a $1000. It’s passion, yes. But more it’s about commitment. And just wanting to get this done.
Next time we finish our brief history of Gravity From Above with our 2016 trip bringing us up to the present moment. Come back. Better yet. Do you see yet that I’m really in need of your help to get this finished. Won’t you give today?
So if you’ve read this far please help us by giving before August 21st to help try to finish up Gravity From Above. Follow the link below.
And so we come to another crossroads in our our efforts to complete Gravity From Above. Maybe it’s time to give you folks a summary of the origin and history of this project thus far. And why I’m determined to try to get this done… in my lifetime.
I did not grow up around puppetry. The most exposure I had to puppets was in watching the occasional Davey And Goliath children’s show, the odd early pre-Sesame Street performances of the Muppets on the Ed Sullivan show and other variety acts seen on television during the 60’s and, of course, televised reruns of the 1933 King Kong. As a child I never once watched a live puppet performance. Music grabbed my attention much more fully.
And recently as I began to wonder when I actually saw my first puppet show, I realized that it wasn’t until I was 32 years old in Paris at Sacre Coeur in 1987 where I watched an unusual street performer who brought various sculpted heads out from under a large red velour curtain of sorts on the steps of that cathedral. They interacted with each other in pairs. All the while a recording of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played from a boom box. It was a moving performance, but I did NOT even recognize until only a couple of years ago that what I had been watching was indeed puppetry. What an astonishing first performance!
Near the end of the 1980’s I ran into my first Jan Švankmajer films and then the Brothers Quay at the Film Forum while I lived in New York City. But even then I was more attracted to the curious animation techniques of the films than I was to the puppets they used. By the mid-Nineties I had been working in the New York art world for a while and I was puzzling over the defects of much of the contemporary art scene. I was writing a few notes down for some kind of new art that would use forgotten elements from the past in a different configuration. I wrote ‘puppets’ down. I had been thinking about the Brothers Quay and Švankmajer’s use of puppetry more. I made it through most of the first half of the Nineties without a television set or VHS player. But I did decide that I needed a couple of VHS tapes. The first I videos I bought were by Švankmajer and the Quays. And I was just beginning to suspect that it was Eastern European puppetry that was a key to apprehending their unique qualities.
By 1996, my last year in New York City, I had begun to articulate a serious interest in puppets. I visited a Guignol show in Paris early in the year. I watched Vietnamese water puppets at Lincoln Center. I sat through a boring student performance in NYU that was more noteworthy for the anticipation of the show than in the loopy postmodern politically correct posturings of the actual show/diatribe. And I was accumulating more animation videos in anticipation of my move to Alaska.
In the year 2000 I took my first true steps to find puppet theatres in Europe as I spent two months visiting friends and traveling by train. I did not get to see the Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which was on tour, but I did run across a seasonal Christmas marionette entertainment in Vienna. In Romania I came across puppetry that mixed jovial full sized actors with various hand and rod puppets . And then I arrived in Prague…
Prague was a revelation. I came seeking to encounter some kind of puppetry. After checking into what would be last cheap hotel I could ever frequent in Prague, I wandered into the night and quickly discovered why it was called the ‘Golden City of a Thousand Spires’. As I walked into the Staré Město I turned around catching the towers of the Tyn church and other structures. My mouth was agape. With abrupt understatement I realized I was in PRAGUE! And I was there to look for puppets and other odds and ends of theatrical culture. I saw my first Don Giovanni show at the National Marionette Theatre. I visited Lanterna Magika. I took in a black light show. I saw a strange play that also featured puppets and masks. I was also obscurely aware that I was only scratching the touristic surface of Czech puppetry. I would need to come back someday.
Now I didn’t go home and start a puppet theatre. Nor did I even become particularly obsessed with puppets. And frankly to this day I’m not overwhelmed by puppets qua puppets. Just because something is a puppet I don’t immediately go gaga. Cute puppets, Muppets, many children’s puppets, ill conceived and textureless puppets don’t grab my attention is all. (Which largely explains why so many features of American puppetry don’t interest me.) But I saw just enough to know that there was much more to see and to know. And so I began reading more about puppetry, began my library on the subject, puppet books were hard to find for me at that point. Found DVDs and online interviews with the Quays and Švankmajer. Picked up more animation videos. Names like Starewicz, Trnka, Barta became second nature. In late 2003 and I performed a shadow play with a student of mine for a few friends: A version of The Attack Of The Fifty Foot Woman. (A small figure was the normal size, a full human in silhouette was the giantess.) But I wasn’t rushing to get back to Europe to see more puppet theatres. I hadn’t really seen enough to convince me yet. I hadn’t seen enough of the right kinds of performances yet. But all of that would change in 2005.
Next week we’ll discuss how that happened. Come back soon! Meanwhile click this and do help out.
And while you’re here seriously if you have been following this journey at all do help us get back to Europe. It’s quite possible that we’ll get enough footage to finally wrap up the journeys for a while and start editing everything together. Wouldn’t you LIKE to see what this is going to look like? (If so watch the video directly below this.) Any amount would be appreciated. Help us to avoid being stranded overseas! And thanks to all of the supportive folks along the way!
This Gravity From Above trailer is the best demonstration of this documentary project.
Time for an update on the progress of Gravity From Above. I’ve meant to write sooner but I’ve been intensely busy trying to finish the editing for my short feature film Arca. (And that will be worth watching!) Nevertheless things haven’t stayed still.
So I will be going, by hook or crook, to Charleville-Mézières France for a three week residency to the International Puppetry Institute and ESNAM, their school, in October. And I have decided as long as I am there to visit a few puppet theatres and friends and try to get so more filming done. So far here’s what I know. I’ll be visiting Paris, hopefully to reconnect with Pascal Pruvost and the Petits Bouffons de Paris. I’ll will of course find my good friend Paulette Caron, who’ll help at ESNAM as well. I might drop down to Lyon. I will certainly get back to Brussels to visit Dimitri at the Théâtre Royal du Péruchet and Nicolas at Le Théâtre Royal de Toone.
In London I will have a chance to visit the Quays, who are working on a mysterious project on actual film again. While there I’ve also been invited by filmmaker Matty Ross to consider making a puppet sequence for a rather intense half hour film of his. So I’ll pop round and officially make his acquaintance. And there are other possibilities as well. (Of course I must get back to Georgia again sometime as well!)
A lot will depend upon financing. If I get the Rasmuson Foundation grant I’ve applied for that will help. But you can never count on grants until the money is in the bank. If I can get more support I’ll try to film the final stages of the documentary. Even if I can only get a few more clips it will make the work left to be done that much less.
(That PayPal donate button above this somewhere has come in handy so far, and right about now it would be a real encouragement to know that some of you are willing to contribute a bit more. I truly can’t go back to crowdfunding for quite a while. But why go through a middle man (Well PayPal does take its cut too.), when you can donate directly to this project today. Think about it.)
Meanwhile back in Haines I’ve been teaching a class of five students a serious course in puppetry studies. We are studying puppet techniques, history, films, materials etc. And at the end of it in late April we will be putting on a comic 21st Century version of Faust. It’s a step towards more puppetry education.
Speaking of puppet education. Very soon I will have a new YouTube video to share with all of you of the Brief History of Puppetry lecture I gave in Switzerland at L’Abri last March. Stick around and you’ll have a chance to watch another hour and a half video. (The last lecture Puppetry As Antidote Art is linked below. And so far it has received 15,500 views. Not bad eh? Now if each of them had contributed five dollars….)
I’ll be back very soon with A Brief History of Puppetry.