Since I have decided to try with all of my energy to get back to Europa next spring to continue the filming of Gravity From Above it occurs to me that this would be a good moment to share with you folks what I actually need to accomplish. At least what I am hoping to get done.
What have I done so far…
First, and most important of all, has been the research. I have been reading puppet history in copious quantities. And more important than how much has been the quality of that understanding. I am nowhere near considering myself an expert on the subject, though I must say I have passed muster with Nina Malíková, editor of Loutkář Magazine, which has been in existence for over one hundred years, with Henryk Jurkowski, the foremost authority on European puppet history living today, and crucially, for my money, the Brothers Quay, with whom I spent a lively afternoon in discussion back in November of 2012. So I’ve learned enough about the homunculi by now to at least ask intelligent questions. And I understand enough to know that no really good and comprehensive documentary on European puppetry exists. So the research is there.
Secondly, I’ve been visiting European puppet theatres since 1996. (Has it really been that long ago?) In 2000 I began my discovery of Czech puppet theatres. 2005 was the first time I spent serious time, several months, investigating puppet theatres in France, Poland, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic. It was like a visionary experience that really shook up my conceptions of the possibilities of art in the 21st Century. I met puppeteers and other related folks who have remained friends to this day. And it was out of that journey that this project was eventually born, as well as three puppet troupes in Haines, Alaska.
And then in 2012 I raised a few dollars for a preliminary run through Europe with a camera to try to record a few interviews with various puppet folks, especially the aging ones. That is the journey that this site has born witness to. Looking back I am quite astounded by the interviews and the new connections I have made. I even interviewed the elusive Jan Švankmajer, who, along with the Brothers Quay, was in many ways the inspiration and impetus for much of my own explorations into the world of puppetry.
And yet there is so much I could not possibly accomplish in the 2012 trip. First of all my camera skills, which have improved since, were not good enough to film the actual performances. There are two interviews I feel I need to redo. (Fortunately Švankmajer’s was good enough.) And eventually I will need to go back with an actual cinematographer to capture the puppets in motion. But I feel confident enough of my skills now to go back to get more interviews, to redo the faulty ones, and to get more candid behind the scenes footage.
So what am I hoping to accomplish this spring?
Here is a grocery list: Go back to Wrocław, Poland and spend more with Jakub Krofta. Go back to Prague, of course, where there is much to do. Get to Brussels, record and interview Nicolas Géal and attempt to shoot performance footage of the Le Théâtre Royal de Toone. Go back to ESNAM to spend some serious time following the puppet students. Return to Lyon for interviews with guignolistes and Guignol historians and to finally capture a Lyonnaise Guignol show. Of course, more time Paris. Switzerland needs a bit of investigating. And crucially get back to London for a serious interview the Brothers Quay. And finally to get myself to the edge of Europe in Georgia to investigate their puppetry, particularly the work of Rezo Gabriadze in Tbilisi. Getting to Georgia is essential to me on several levels, and Gravity From Above will give me a good excuse to get there.
Now beyond that and seriously needing more funds I must get to Italy, Sicily in particular; Moscow, with hope the political situation doesn’t disintegrate; Spain, Catalonia calls out; Austria again to find the Teschner expert, Punch is smashing me over the head in England to get recorded and much more. And I need a film crew. But I can go on at least one more journey by myself if I have to. (I actually like traveling solo. It pops any cultural bubbles that often develop in groups.)
As I mentioned in my last update I have decided to kick off a campaign on the Hatchfund site to raise the funds to get back to Europe for more interviews and investigations. I thought about attaching a “Donate” button here for my PayPal page. But then I realized that it would actually interfere with the coming campaign. A few wonderfully generous souls would probably immediately donate to the cause, which is mighty swell. Except that I do need any contributions to Gravity From Above to be concentrated at the appropriate time and on the Hatchfund.org site specifically between October 15th and November 26th – the day before the American Thanksgiving holiday. (I’d like to be very grateful on that day.) So keep thinking about how you will help out THEN. And after that I will add the PayPal “Donate” button for any stragglers and further supporters.
But whatever I do, wherever I go, I will report in again as I have been doing to include any and all who have an interest in this strangely meaningful world of European puppets.
Come back soon for another update before the campaign.
(With a Detour into Alaska)
I recently edited together the lecture with slides which I gave while traveling through Europe in 2012 interviewing puppet people. The lecture was entitled Puppetry As Antidote Art. It was given to the students at the L’Abri Fellowship in Huémoz Switzerland.
This lecture is an in depth introduction to serious puppetry focusing mostly on Europe. It is both a general survey of puppet history and styles in Europe and it is also gives an account of my personal journey into puppetry. The discoveries described in the lecture under-gird the structure of Gravity From Above.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to include the students questions with the video. The presentation itself lasted nearly an hour and a half. Obviously it contains great quantities of information on the subject of puppetry and is not suited to the casual YouTube surfer. My suggestion, download it and watch it in the best available format. (And by the way it is my experience that you can download it easier by going to the actual YouTube page rather than viewing it here.)
If you have any questions about puppetry or the forthcoming documentary Gravity From Above please get in touch here or through the YouTube page. (I hope to know something from Switzerland by the end of April this year.) (I still need more support for the documentary so don’t feel shy about that either.)
Meanwhile stay warm and stay creative…
I woke up early, packed my fifty pounds plus (over 20 kilos) for the last time and extricated myself from Hôtel Saint André des Arts before I had a chance to eat the miniscule bread and tea breakfast one more time. Fred wasn’t working that morning and I had already paid so I simply turned in the key then disappeared into the RER station to pop up later at Aéroport Charles De Gaulle. It was a fairly uneventful trip back through London, Seattle and finally to arrive in Juneau at about 9:30PM Alaska Time.
Although come to think of it I did set a new personal record for baggage checks in one day. Four! The first in Paris. They took a small blunt pair of scissors that I originally bought in France in 2005 and had grown quite attached to. Yet the Americans and Brits had let me through with it! The second was at London Heathrow, which is now resting securely at the top of my list of worst airports in Europe. And in 2005 they didn’t make me go through that? At that point they assumed that you were in the system thus were already scanned. No longer. You know the paranoia isn’t going away. Example number three… I get random searched by US customs officials for answering the following questions in a cheerful manner. ‘Is that all of you luggage?’ ‘Yes it is.’ ‘Did you check anything?’ ‘Nope, this is it.’ ‘Please go to aisle 6 for a random search.’ Nothing found. Five minutes sucked away forever. Finally, about twenty feet away, the TSA folks made me go through yet one more X-ray machine death march, computer inquisition and shoe removal seminar. Beautiful.
But at last I stepped out into the brisk fresh Alaskan night air in a snow covered Juneau where the Best Western van was waiting to take me to the most expensive hotel on my entire trip. But the chill in the air, the homey, sometimes homely, Alaskans, the familiar Tlingit guy who drove the van at 5:30 the next morning, the waiting ferry, the dozens of local folk I met on the way up to Haines, the conversations, ‘How was the trip?’, ‘Are you just getting back?’, all greeted me as the old friends they were. Finally there was no one to greet me in the chill of the Haines Ferry Terminal, but that was soon rectified when Scott Hansen (the elder) arrived to pick me up after getting waylaid in the way Hainiacs often do. (In truth I could have gotten at least six rides from friends on Le Conte.)
And it was over.
I was drained but satisfied. My goal now was to simply stop for as long as I could and catch my breath. And to begin to reflect on what this whole adventure meant. Aurélia Ivan’s question kept coming back to me. Why are you doing this? I don’t think she was so worried herself as to what it was all about, rather I think she wanted me to think about it. What exactly was I trying to accomplish?And what exactly had I accomplished thus far? Quite a bit it seems.
When I thought about all of the people I met, the puppet shows and other theatrical events I’d seen, the wanderings through European towns, the discussions both formal and informal, the moments of dislocation, the music and food from many different cultures, the film files on my hard drive, the moments when things didn’t work and the many, many moments when they did I realized that I had just done something. What exactly it all meant, that would take some time.
And there was plenty of work to do. I had to edit together something to pass on to the Swiss. I had to plan on part two of this trip. which would involve a crew filming the performances. I had to keep up my contacts overseas. Money was still very much an issue. I’d drained my resources to the bone to get this done. There was translation, writing, and rights to puppet films to research. And then there was organizing the details all over again for the second half of next year. (But I should have help this time.) But whatever that looked like it wouldn’t quite be the same as this trip. Trips with others are never as edgy as trips alone. But whatever it took I was committed to the process.
But meanwhile I was grateful to have done this whole thing safely, with as much support as I had, with a sense that others besides myself were starting to see what it was that I was actually constructing. And it is with a fond memory that I look back on moments with all of the people I met or reacquainted myself with along the way.
I will now take a break from this writing too, until there are new developments… in a month, or two, or six.
Thanks for following along with me on my tour of European puppetry and as I start this documentary. Take your own journey someday. Discover something, don’t be just a tourist.
Better yet make a puppet show out of scraps you find in your closet, backyard or the hardware store. And think about what there is to communicate that is not a cliché or propaganda.
Now get off this infernal machine and go outside!
In booking the Eurostar, the Chunnel train, I discovered that the United Kingdom starts with customs in Brussels at the Midi/Zuid train station. I wasn’t quite ready for the grilling and heavy security to take the train. I had gotten so used to life in the Schengen Zone that I was a bit taken aback by the sudden emergence of fences again. And it seemed to have gotten stricter since my last journey in 2005. And then there is the strange fact that the U.K. IS in the European Community but NOT in the Schengen Group, while Switzerland IS NOT in the European Community but IS in the Schengen Zone, which creates the odd situation that you don’t need a passport check to get into Switzerland anymore BUT you do need to show your passport to get into the U.K., and to show that you have a ticket out of the country, and that your luggage will have to pass through a similar degree of airport styled security to board the train. Nevertheless after a hair-raising set of circumstances I did make it into the U.K. In one piece.
At St. Pancras Station in London my old friend Nathan met me and took me back to his place in the Elephant and Castle area near Southwark (which should be pronounced Suth-uhk by the same unwritten English code which turns Greenwich into Grenich and Leicester into Lester). We dismounted a double-decker bus and strolled passed a large apartment tower, with non-working propeller blades on the top, back to his apartment to meet Annika and to put me up in his spare room, for which I was deeply grateful. And almost the minute I arrived in rainy old England a little tickle in the back of my throat became a full fledged cold with coughing symptoms. Fortunately my hosts had already been attacked by this very same creature. And also it was not the kind of thing which saps ones strength. Nevertheless I was determined not to go off into London simply to see things. I’ve been to London before, and, while I find it worthy of my time, I’ve never been as fascinated by it as I am by Paris, Prague, Lyon and other cities. And besides I had friendship to catch up with, which included a well cooked dinner by Nathan.
Nathan and Annika took me through the extensive Borough Market. Where I resisted the urge to buy Ostrich meat and large wheels of cheddar cheese and even the Stinking Bishop. Though I was in a mood to mostly rest, recover from my cold and get my strength back, there were two things I had to do while in London. One was more of an introduction to another puppet theater and the other was to find a couple of brothers quite high on my list of people to interview for my documentary.
We journeyed out to Islington to the Little Angel Theatre. While I couldn’t find anyone I could really talk to about the theatre they were performing an unusual version of Pinocchio. In their version Geppetto and most of the other characters were played by humans in paper masks on a stripped down stage, while Pinocchio was performed in a modified bunraku style by three different players in brown floor length coats. The puppet was a naked collection of raw wood, sans clothing, sans strings. This was not the Disney version but much closer in spirit to Carlo Collodi’s original. Yet still with a deconstructed essence. There were quite a few children present. And I was struck by how different, how quiet, they were compared to the French, Polish and Czech children’s shows I had seen. Ah the English.
On Monday I had one appointment. I wasn’t quite sure how it would play out. It was with the Brothers Quay at their studio not far from my hosts’ apartment. Along with Jan Švankmajer, the Brothers Quay were by far the most influential in getting me to explore the world of European puppetry. The Quays are twin American brothers who have been thoroughly europeanized and, having lived in London for about thirty years, speak with a bit of an anglicized inflection. And while they are not puppeteers themselves, their consistent and mysterious use of puppetry down through the years had raised a lot of questions about the nature of the puppet as an object. It was through hints gleaned in interviews found on DVD’s that I first heard of the Toone Marionnette Theatre, Richard Teschner, and generally realized that there must be a larger world of puppetry behind the former Iron Curtain. I also knew enough to dispel several misconceptions, that they had embarked on their course prior to discovering Švankmajer, that Starewich had had a greater influence upon them, along with Polish animation from the Sixties. I had contacted them by email after communicating with their longtime producer. We had exchanged several emails, which ranged between cordial welcome to questioning caution to finally being told that I must arrive with a bottle of chilled white wine “for provocation”. So I wasn’t at all sure how this would go. But I had a notion that there might be connections.
I arrived on a rainy London Monday at the place at the appropriate time. I was welcomed into their crammed darkened studio. Books, vinyl record albums (CDs were in the WC) weird puppets and old European Christian iconography was practically falling off the walls in in their labyrinthine wunderkammer. I immediately greeted each by name and produced my clammy bottle of Grange Volet from Ollon in Switzerland. (Swiss wine rarely escapes the country.) I also passed on Madame Starewitch’s card with personal greeting, along with Cognac chocolate from Switzerland. We all sat down at their crowded table and poured the wine as I gave them updates on the Toone theatre and Švankmajer in Prague as well as the fact that Teschner’s Nativity was being performed by a Teschner expert at the theater museum in Vienna. I also filled them in on Buchty a Loutky, whom they had never heard about, ESNAM in France, Polish puppetry and a host of other subjects. Our conversation took us through their most recent projects* and their show at MOMA in New York. Before careening off into new territory.
We discussed Georgia, the country, which they had also had some music from. I pointed them towards the Gori Women’s Choir. We had all discovered the fantastic book, The Empire of Death, about the ossuaries of Europe and beyond. To my surprise they hadn’t heard of Merhige’s Begotten, nor did they know that Peter Delpeut had released the mesmerizing Diva Dolorosa. We unraveled puppetry a bit more and I filled them in on my experiments in Alaska. They showed me books on Teschner and other related subjects. We shared an antipathy towards the virtual, wireless, digital contemporary world. And at one point they showed me their old film camera that they sadly needed to sell. (The camera they had made all of their classic pre-digital films on.) We were all being dragged into this present evil age. They also gave me a little tour through the narrow crowded corners of their atelier. At one point they showed me a pile of sand on a small table. “We just finished shooting that.” They told me. Coming from the guys who animated metal shavings with a magnet I had no doubt that the results would be gripping.
At a certain point, somewhere around the three hour point I told them that we had had such a profoundly good conversation that it would be a shame to spoil it by filming an interview. They agreed completely. But we can do it when I come back next year. “By all means!” They concurred. They were fully on board with the project now. They understood what it meant. And in a way more than I hoped. While the interview was certainly a high priority for me, meeting and connecting with them was of greater consequence, of more import. In a way I felt that my whole study of puppetry had been to get me to the point where I could have an intelligent discussion with these guys. And I couldn’t help but be grateful for the time and the hospitality.
London was time well spent. It was time to journey to my last official destination further north in England.
*Animation aficionados will be glad to know that there are several newer Quay related things to look for. Firstly there is a great book for their show in New York at the Museum of Modern Art. The show is over in January.
Secondly a DVD exists from the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia of Through The Weeping Glass, their examination of the museum. It is well worth buying.
Thirdly a DVD exists for Maska their version of Stanislaw Lem’s The Mask (It could be region 2) Get this! I own a copy now. But it is tough to find. Good luck!
The train sped on with twists and curves all through the night as I slept fitfully in my bunk alone in my sleeper cabin on the way from Warsaw to Vienna. My back was bothering me from carrying too many kilos on it and my stomach was in odd shape. So I couldn’t quite get the sleep I was hoping for. Ah… the imagined romance of rail travel.
The train pulled into Westbahnhof at about 7AM and after some finagling I bought a two day pass for public transportation and made my way to the Hotel Congress. Fortunately they had a room ready for me at the early hour so I settled in rested a bit more then departed to find the Österreichischen Theatermuseum (Austrian Theater Museum).
I walked through the museum district of old Wien, what was once the palatial estates of the Hapsburg Empire. I turned down a narrow lane and low and behold the Österreichischen Theatermuseum. I entered looking for something very specific: The puppets of the early 20th Century puppeteer Richard Teschner. I had sent an email but had received no reply. But that didn’t mean I didn’t want to actually see these exquisite works of art. Teschner had been a serious influence on the Brothers Quay, and much of European puppetry for that matter.
After paying my admission I ventured up the marble stairs past a statue of one of the muses, I assumed. I craned around and was slightly disappointed to find Teschner’s puppets in a darkened room where a projector was showing a documentary about a long gone Austrian tenor. But there in the dim light were Teschner’s creations. And they were every bit as marvelous as I had been led to believe from photographs and descriptions. Unfortunately his unique theater for them was not set up. So I took my little camera and photographed them in bad flash as well as I could.
What kept striking me over and over was the delicacy and the artistic integrity of the puppets. Teschner is important for many reasons in the world of puppetry, but it was by raising the bar for artistry that he made his greatest contribution. Some of his plays include the Weihnachtsspiel (The story of the Nativity of Christ), which was performed regularly, and for those really lucky souls in Vienna this December can watch an authentic recreation during the Christmas season. He also performed Nachtstück, Der Drachentöter (The Dragonslayer), Karneval, Die Lebensuhr and Der Basilisk (about the mythical creature). And each of these has wonderful photographically illustrated booklets dedicated to them available through the theater museum. I tried to at least talk to the curator of the exhibit, but missed her.
I discovered more about old Wien this time finding it a curious place to drift around. Vienna unlike Prague was never boiled in the communist cauldron. And so there is a continuity to the place, uninterrupted by scalding bath of ideology. Thus you never know what you’re going to find when you turn a corner. Naturally one finds many of the chic Euro-boutiques that deface many of the capitals of Europa. But here unlike Prague or Warsaw you can stumble upon some business or vendor that has been in operation for hundreds of years. I found stores selling old paintings in the most refreshing way. Not white walled gallery just painting leaning against painting in a haphazard manner. In the windows of these establishments one would see paintings one, two, three hundred years old in old windows. In that respect Wien is much more like Paris, a repository for antique European culture, than any of the old communist cities or the more modernized cities like London. Getting lost in the heart of Vienna is a wonderful way to explore the city.
And a great way to find food. I stumbled into a locals-only type of restaurant and ate a memorable meal of dumplings and beef goulash and had an interesting conversation with a waiter. I must confess I did end up the next day at a more tourist oriented restaurant and arrived before the lines form for there famous wiener schnitzel, I however chose the sweetbread schnitzel instead. Good food, over priced. But hunger got the best of me.
I enjoyed my cultural wanderings in Vienna, including a stop at the English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., which was unrelated to any other establishment of the same name. I actually saw an Austria film at a theater dedicated to showing European cinema. And what a breath of fresh air that was, since American fare so dominates the cultural landscape everywhere. The film was entitled Die Wand (The Wall), and it was set in the Alps. A woman gets trapped by a mysterious force field in a large tract of alpine land. Alone. With a few animals, including a milking cow. Apparently something has happened to the rest of the world. It’s very low key sci-fi. Worth watching, I did have a couple of quibbles. But I’d still recommend it. But certainly a change of pace from the monotony of American movies ca. 2012.
Eventually it was time to heft my backpack and equipment aboard the train again and head for Hallstatt, Austria, which was not a puppet related stop at all. It was time for a break… it was also time to break an important piece of needed equipment.
Next Hallstatt Austria…