Journey into European Puppetry #2: The Unexpected
Notes from European Puppet Explorations in 2005
Part 2- The Unexpected
Back in 2005 when I was traveling across Europe looking for puppet theatres I did not plan on visiting every country. Sadly there would not be time for Sicilian puppets in Italy or a good old English Punch and Judy show. But I wanted to make an arc from France into Central Europe and back. There were several reasons for my journey: among them pure fascination, a desire to visit European cities with a purpose beyond sightseeing and a love of the art form. I also suspected that there was more going on in the realm of puppetry than could be seen from my media saturated American perspective. In 2000 I had visited several puppet theatres in Bucharest, Vienna and Prague while making my irregular visit through Europe. I had also been considering ways to incorporate puppetry into some other presentation. I had a mistaken notion that puppets might be added somehow to another form to create something new: Mistaken because I didn’t fully grasp what puppetry itself could do yet. But I strongly suspected that there were ways to present ideas through the use of puppets that had been minimized or even cut off in other art forms. With that in mind I decided not only to visit puppet theatres on this trip but also to interview puppeteers for a possible magazine article or two. I assumed quite correctly that the puppet masters would not have phalanxes of bodyguards keeping regular folks away. I knew that there was something here yet I wasn’t expecting to strike gold. But that’s what happened in my own creative thinking when I arrived at the Institut International de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières in the north of France.
Now I really had no expectations at all about what I would find there. In fact it was the most dubious stop on my puppet trip. All I knew was that it was called the International Institute for Marionnettes (Marionnettes meaning all puppets in French.) and that there was a school attached to it. I didn’t know exactly where it was situated within the town. I didn’t know if there was any puppet theatre connected to it that I could visit. I had discovered their website. I had written to someone about possibly conducting an interview in English with someone. I rerouted my email to someone else with a promisingly English sounding name. My inquiry was never returned. But I did notice in a French language version of the town’s website that it seemed to be saying that the students were giving midterm presentations that were open to the public. I would miss half of them. But I committed myself to going and booked a hotel reservation for two nights. Vague indeed, however I figured that at worst I’d probably be in another French town with an old town square and some decent food.
Inauspiciously, the train didn’t take me all the way there. Track work forced me to arrive in Charleville-Mézières by bus. I couldn’t find a city map for sale at the station. So I memorized the train station’s map and started looking for my hotel. I found the street and then noticed a sign that said “Institut International de la Marionnette” with an arrow pointing my way. I sighed. Now I won’t have to spend my time hunting the place down. I dumped my heavy baggage onto the bed of the hotel. Then I realized that it was past three o’clock and that I really should get out there and find the institute. After turning the wrong way once I came upon another sign on the road. I turned to look in that direction. There next to a three story tall statue of a marionette figure built into the side of a building I saw the Institute. I entered sheepishly and asked “Parlez vous Anglais?” at the front desk, to which I received a “Non”. Then I tried in my halting French to discover if anyone there did. Another woman came out. Her English was only slightly less halting than my French. Was it possible to interview anyone? Alas no. The teachers had just finished reviewing the student’s works and were engaged in long meetings discussing them. Were the student presentations open to the public? Well, yes. They took my name and put it on a list for the 7PM shows. A group of perhaps ten people shuffled behind us then left the building. The woman I was talking with exchanged a brief word in French with someone behind me then abruptly turned to me saying, “You can go with them.” Where? “To see a few presentations. But you’ll be missing two of them.” So I hurried out to catch up with the small band of pedestrians as they rounded the corner of the building.
I walked with them perhaps five blocks mystified as to where I might be going. I heard a woman speaking in a familiar accent. She was a Canadian woman who has come to see her daughter’s performance. I had missed seeing her daughter’s piece, she was with the earlier group. But she explained a little bit about the school, l’École National Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette or ESNAM. At length we came to a large old arched wooden door. The woman leading the parade opened it and we entered a compact antique stone courtyard. A girl in her mid-twenties was standing near old rusting equipment. She was wearing a black dress; her hair was pulled back. She would not have been out of place at a New York dinner party. Hanging on a rusty pipe were several woolen scarves in black, beige and brown. She picked one up and placed it around someone’s neck. She began to talk about the word, la parole, how it brings humor, sorrow and many other qualities. She eventually placed scarves around every neck. She looked directly into everyone’s eyes as she repeated her gesture. When she bestowed a scarf upon me she said that la parole leads to silence. Evidently this was to be a philosophical piece related to the pain in relationships. After she finished dispensing the scarves she pushed the remainder of them away to revealing a dark stairway leading down to a dungeon. We all must bow to step down these stairs as we enter the dark chamber illuminated by two or three small lights. After we have huddled together in the dark she descended slowly with dim lights attached to her palms. She crept along the side of the walls, reminding me of Cesare, the somnambulist, from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, until she came to what appeared to be a small homemade meat grinder. She placed a few small smooth stones inside and “ground” them into sand. She continued her comments about words and silence as she continued to follow a row of smooth rounded stones on the side of a stone wall. She disappeared through a doorway and with the slightest of gestures beckoned us to follow. We entered an even darker more claustrophobic room. Piles of stones lay on the floor. She slowly organized them into a spiral. Then she followed the stones to what looked like a slightly oversized ant farm with a frozen shadow puppet person floating in silhouette inside. She then slowly poured sand into it burying the figure ‘alive’. Finally she spoke again about words and silence. The last thing she said to us was that the very last word will be ‘Believe.’ She picked up a large rounded stone and walked off alone into a blackened corridor, the rock illumined by light emanating from her hands. And the piece was finished and she came back for a bow almost in tears at the intensity she had put into it. Her name was Julie Trezel.
This was the only the first performance. I may not have concurred entirely with the philosophy of the piece but I was completely captivated by the presentation. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. But before I could consider it too much we were walking towards the next show.
We passed in front of an old church, practically a cathedral, and we entered a building near it. We stopped in a workshop with a couple of circular saws. By this time I was fully expecting that the saws would be a part of the next performance. (And why not?) Then a petite black haired girl in a long dark dress spoke to us. She said that the piece by Hungarian Julia Kovacs would begin in just a moment. As the time passed I was introduced to the Canadian woman’s daughter Clea Minaker and she was interested to talk with me about the school once the performances were over. She informed me that each of these midterm performances was to be done in collaboration with a French author and that it was essentially a lesson in working with a text. At last Aurelia, the raven-haired girl, led us into a darkened room that was smothered in black felt. She sat us down on wooden benches as we stared into the impenetrable void. All of the lights were extinguished.
In the pitch blackness of that hall a white light was projected some ten meters 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 of 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 the wind says). I was so entranced by this performance that I couldn’t even remember to record the audio for it after the second session later that night. But one thing was certain… my impressions of what puppetry was and could do had just been smashed to pieces.
But I was hardly finished with my tour through the student performances at ESNAM.
(To be continued soon…)
For more information about the Institut International De La Marionnette (en Français):
And about ESNAM (en Français):
They used to have an English page but there are translation tools… But here is an English version of the course of study: