The Festival in Charleville-Mézières: A Wealth of Expressions in World Puppetry
Author: Tjaša Bertoncelj
The town of Charleville-Mézières, France, has been home to Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes for 60 years now. Its beginnings go back to 1961, when the amateur puppeteer Jacques Félix organised an event in his hometown to celebrate his favourite art form. One year later, he established Institut International de la Marionnette, followed by a school of puppetry.
When the festival – the biggest puppetry affair in the world – is on in Charleville-Mézières, puppets penetrate every nook and cranny of this world capital of puppetry. The 2021 edition ran from 17 to 26 September, with an international line-up taking place at 32 venues, from shop windows and gyms to kindergartens, schools, theatres, and so on. The extensive programme included 104 productions from 16 countries. In less than ten days, the festival saw at least 420 performances by acclaimed as well as emerging artists who are only at the beginning of their creative journeys. The Slovenian additions to the programme included the Maribor Puppet Theatre production of Pinocchio, directed by Matteo Spiazzi, and the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre production of Somewhere Else, directed by Tin Grabnar.
The off programme took place in three main areas across the town, with just as extensive a range of puppet theatre pieces by street puppeteers taking over street corners below walls plastered with flyers. This brought a wealth of puppetry forms from those originating in the ancient tradition of travelling puppeteers to puppetry as a form of art, which was mostly featured in the main programme. Sixty years after the festival's birth, puppetry still celebrated and showcased its rich diversity of expression.
In an interview for the festival catalogue, the festival director Pierre-Yves Charlois emphasised that he wanted to develop new strong, original themed strands within the programme, including shows based on the magical and the fantastic, on cabaret and performance art. The selection features puppetry pioneers and contemporary champions, experimental shows and new wave puppetry. The scale of an event that showcases dubious creations as well as a wide range of puppetry forms and qualities makes it challenging to give a comprehensive rundown. Let's, therefore, highlight the main trends and the most striking shows in terms of both production concept and staging.
Agrupación Señor Serrano, The Mountain: A problem collage
Señor Serrano is a company that combines performance art, text, video, sound, and scale models to piece together a single problem topic. In The Mountain, the company uses elements of philosophy to explore the issue of “what is truth”, various narrative threads coming together to raise the question of whether truth exists. What is the criterion for truth? What proves that something has indeed happened? Is proof, such as a photograph, only relevant when addressed to someone? The show defines the position of truth, drawing on the relations of knowledge in Plato’s allegory of the cave. Do we stay in the cave, ignorant, looking at shadows that imitate real ideas, or do we rise in search of actual truth? Nowadays, the distinction between "fake news", a production of falsehoods presented as facts, and verified scientific facts has become increasingly blurred. This is the premise upon which the problem-based dramatic arc develops the central metaphor for seeking truth: it remains unclear whether the summit of Everest was indeed reached during the first ascent of the world's highest mountain. We are made to question our own assumptions and positions in affirming something as true. The performers prove/discredit this by referring directly to the expedition through a mountaineer’s wife’s letters, and indirectly to Orson Welles’ news report of an alien invasion. The latter social experiment demonstrated the fine line of radio’s credibility and pointed to the gist of truth production: everything is plausible if you go about it the right way. Navigating the boundary between invention and truth with a projection of instantaneously created fake news, film clips, documentary footage, almost poetic close-ups, newspaper clips, photographs, etc., this carefully compiled collage of meanings and performing art forms suggests fragmented codes of performance, which nevertheless lead the different subjects, forms, and elements prudently along the dramatic thread of truth production and the lightness of believing. This is the definition of a fragmented contemporary dramaturgy, a type that runs its conceptual thread by combining multiple layers, exploring direct and indirect meanings, using various performance techniques to deliver associated and disconnected bits of substance.
Jan Jedenak – Theatre of figural forms, Imprint – imagine absence: A failure in concept and execution
Some projects pursue new approaches and symbols without being grounded in a solid conceptual dramaturgical foundation. Although elements of it are there, they remain invisible throughout the performance. Imprint – imagine absence, a production developed by the acclaimed artist Jan Jedenak using the language of photography and a blend of performance and visual arts, is one such example. While Jedenak’s decision for a fragmented piece focusing on the power of individual images is an interesting one, Imprint lacks visual potency and an underlying concept. Meanwhile, the performative technique inelaborately combines with other forms such as contemporary dance and singing, thus additionally preventing coherence.
Nevertheless, like many other visual productions, this one, too, raises the issue of animation and puppetry. How can one define a puppet? While the definition has now surely gone beyond the realm of traditional puppetry, it also seems that the criterion of bringing to life is no longer essential. What is essential is the sheer act of manipulation, the relationship-building process between the animator or protagonist and an inanimate object. Not necessarily given its own life, the latter may only become a symbol or intention. In Imprint, Anne Brüssau, Gilda Coustier and Sonia Franken animate a human-size puppet in stop motion, holding it in different lingering poses. Used this way, the puppet is given no life of its own; instead, it is manipulated to match the static visuals. This could lead to the conclusion that the gist of contemporary puppetry leans increasingly towards the act of animation rather than the result of bringing something to life.
Théâtre de l'Heure Bleue, Racines du Ciel: Induction of emotional states
A similar question arises with Racines du Ciel, where the puppet symbolises what has died rather than something alive or brought to life. What matters is the animator/character’s relationship with the puppet/dead essence. The highly delicate, sensitive production is a reminder of how the art of puppetry can reach a poetic height by inducing emotional states and creating poetic impressions. In the relationship between the puppet and the animator, the subject of grieving is staged in slow, delicate dynamics created by the “new wave” artist Laura Elands. The main puppet character symbolises death and the decay that comes with it. The set design underpins this by depicting roots, representing the cycle of life or strong emotional ties we feel when losing a loved one. The puppet medium is also used with a mask to symbolise one of the emotional states connected to grieving. The author and performer Laura Elands shifts between accepting death and dealing with memories that keep coming back, reaching for a dead silhouette. The dead presence she keeps chasing blends with the sets, decaying, settling among roots in the ground. What's left of the cotton that represented the deceased's body is a piece of silky fabric.
One of the interesting emphases in the show is when the animator removes her mask of sadness from her face, defining it as her own self. Rather than being used as a dramatic means to affirm an emotional expression, the mask suggests her idea of puppets. Her emotional state becomes an independent entity she can distance herself from. The result is a doubling of the One and ingenious use of the puppet medium. Most importantly, this underpins the coherence of the production’s spirit: demonstrating good execution and using clever methods, the show is based not so much on a narrative but, above all, on inducing emotional states. This can be achieved thanks to the technical, animation, and symbolic dimensions of the puppet medium and its ability to materialise the immaterial.
Plexus Polaire, Moby Dick: A dramatic-theatre-style puppet extravaganza
An incarnation of invisible states complete with masterly animation in spectacular dimensions: this was the outcome of a much-anticipated puppet event organised on a simple basketball court. Moby Dick is the latest show directed by the world-renowned, increasingly relevant director Yngvild Aspeli. The international co-production of Plexus Polaire and several other players, including the Ljubljana Puppet Theatre, skilfully combines the know-know and creativity of the director, the animators (Pierre Devérines, Sarah Lascar, Daniel Collados, Alice Chéné, Viktor Lukawski, Andreu Martinez Costa, and the LGL ensemble member Maja Kunšič), musicians, and the set designer (Elisabeth Holager Lund). Only an international team of this scale could execute such a grandiose project, magnificent also in terms of its visual aspect. The show combines small and massive scales, a life-size whale puppet and small boats floating in the air; human-sized puppets, animators as actors and the three-metre-tall puppet of Captain Ahab, and other varying dimensions. One of the striking elements is the powerful rock-style score, with musicians Guro Skumsnes Moe, Ane Marthe Sørlien Holen and Håvard Skaset underpinning the ailing soul of the captain and his pursuit of Moby Dick like voices from the bottom of the sea. The mystical, booming, stormy atmosphere created by the actor-puppeteers, music, light, video, and the use of space stage an illusionary event. The precise puppet animation is based on invisible animators and fully movable and animated images of puppets appearing as independent beings. While this interesting illusionary approach originates in a rather traditional form of puppet theatre, the artist takes it to a contemporary level by exploring the double presence of the actor and the puppeteer, using modern technology, situational dramaturgy, and metaphysical language, and examining the line between truth and illusion. Inner human states are materialised and turned into metaphors, the hidden depth of the sea visibly incarnated incompleteness. Focusing on human-size characters, Moby Dick comes across as a piece of dramatic theatre with pronounced elements of puppet theatre and superhuman puppet-based episodes. The latter create poetic images, for instance, of a large whale floating around the stage, as if to upgrade the seeming dramatic thread. They also point to the technical and staging dimensions of the show and numerous meticulously executed staging elements. This is puppetry that thinks big, maximising its staging potential in puppets and otherwise.
Duda Paiva Company, Bruce Marie: A pop icon
Duda Paiva is a regular at Charleville-Mézières. Usually associative and with no dialogue, his works are combinations of dance and puppets made of foam. This time, in Bruce Marie, he moves away from his unique aesthetic, focusing on text, dialogue, and singing. In a lab, we see a relationship being formed between Muffin, a lab monkey with Stockholm syndrome, and Bruce Marie, a retired drag queen with a split personality whose career is only a memory. The wittily conceived play exaggeratedly stylises the characters, Duda Paiva as the performer skilfully switching between them. Due to the very basic movement across the stage, the animation focuses on the puppet’s speech and its close interactions with the human. Occasionally, it delivers a fascinating illusionary creation of two/three characters in one.
Rather than on the fullness of the narrative, the emphasis is on the execution of the hour-long performance. Therefore, Kim Kooiman’s dramaturgy is based on the “fascination” and humour arising from what is happening on stage, instead of bringing the subject matter into a well-grounded whole that would allow for conceptual nuance or a well-crafted plot. This is a downside, especially because the production relies heavily on text.
Compagnie Yôkaï, Magic Mystery Talks: A magical conversation
The Yôkaï company test the limits of the ordinary and reach into the supernatural, using technology to merge the puppet medium with the theatre of magic. It creates total theatrical experiences and offers unusual scenic treats. Magic Mystery Talks is an event that combines theatre and public debate. Designed as a conversation with a magical entity, it starts at midnight in the corner of an empty church. There, we see a human interviewer posing questions to a winter coat, and the coat answering while gesticulating as if mimicking human nonverbal communication. Using hidden animation, an object that is the object of research is secretly brought to life, talking to the audience about how it comes to life and acquires a shape and a body. The curious idea set in a church in the middle of the night produces an effect solely by taking place. The group of creatives participating in the project also set up an exhibition titled Animaginarium, the concept of which was developed by Violaine Fimbel, while the "machine imaginators" (1) were Slovenian artists Marjan Kunaver and Aleksander Andželović. The fantastic display window covered in 3D print reveals snippets of invisible animation in display cabinets, providing space for new and old technologies to meet. Yôkaï’s projects demonstrate the intriguing outputs that can arise in contemporary scenic and performative works from combinations and correlations between puppet-driven thinking, magic, and new technologies.
Renaud Herbin/TJP CDN Strasbourg – Grand Est, Quelque chose s'attendrit: A play of optics
Quelque chose s'attendrit is Renaud Herbin’s new “short visual and sound poem” with a precise, minimalist concept, exploring possible layers of light. As is typical for the artist, the form of the show offers multiple viewing perspectives, allowing the spectator to choose their position and perception. One can observe the minimalist content as it appears, or scrutinise the realms of the rig; focus on the parts that make up the final, complete image, or on animation as an act. Blending performance and installation, the show examines the principles of optics. Shadow silhouettes of a marionette create various combinations of the optical system, with the sharpness, size and depth of the image depending on the mechanism.
The animator Bruno Anmar manipulates a motionless light beam, moving closer or extending the screen, covering or uncovering it, adding other elements, etc. However, throughout most of the show, he animates the marionette from all possible angles, breaking up the conventional way of controlling it from above. We can see an upside-down, modified shadow image of the original, which affirms the multitude and potential of perspectives and their existence. Along with the marionette, the light beam becomes an animated category, too: when modified, it delivers a variety of images. It reveals various optical properties in a poetic way, combining with the dramaturgically administered bits of poetry to create this exquisite ode to an endless stream of light. In Herbin’s new, insightful, cutting-edge puppet show, the artist's typical way of making shows with multitudes of perceptions turns into a staging concept, enacting an exploratory approach to an object, puppet, movement, image and technology.
Compagnie Ipsul, La Messe de l'Âne: An artistic experience
The intensity of a theatre experience as a whole point to the visual possibilities of the puppet medium. A relatively scant use of words is a common phenomenon as the underlying concept remains a supporting beam of the production's visual component rather than growing into the essence of the performance. Instead, the focus is on impulses or, one could say, the animation of the stage—the animation of the entire stage image, of moving images.
A good example of a production drawing on a contemporary genre and using a mix of visual art, theatre of movement, and animation of the entire stage image is La Messe de l'Âne. Outstanding in staging technique and execution, the show occasionally displays conceptual germs of humour meeting more serious sections but what prevails is superb, powerful images that maintain consistency and edge throughout the show. The precise, innovative direction by Olivier de Sagazan and excellent execution of the entire creative team, including Alexandre Fandard, Leïla Ka, Shirley Niclais, Stephanie Sant, and Elé Madell create an impressive aesthetic experience. A painter and sculptor, Sagazan often uses clay as his staging medium. The clay masks being made throughout the show, making grimaces, falling apart... reveal and conceal character traits and features. Bodies are deformed through the material, appearing as live sculptures. They create symbolic meanings of continuous artistic transformations connected through movement, thereby merging the puppet-specific aspect of using material theatre with other elements. Defined by art per se, La Messe de l'Âne was the highlight of the Charleville-Mézières line-up.
Cie Belova – Iacobelli, Loco: The subtlety of a body puppet
Natacha Belova and Tita Iacobelli are a duo of extraordinary contemporary puppet artists who excel in maintaining the right relationship between the puppet and the animator, with the body puppet always staying the centre of attention. The focus only rarely shifts to the animator, as an imaginary whisper or the main character’s motivator. Their latest masterpiece Loco, which premiered at the festival, brings together and drives the schizophrenic behaviour of two animators, Belova and Sophie Warnant. The two are prudently sparing in using symbols and the relationships formed, demonstrating this precision and ingenuity by combining various puppet legs or even absurdly highlighting four legs at once, thereby revealing and reflecting on the puppet-based structure of the show. The production never crosses the line, always working to underpin the action and the narrative. The peculiar character is seen in illusionary images, animated and distorted, for instance, with his head in the middle of his torso as a deliberate mistake. With a fair degree of concentration, precision in execution, and deviations, a mental disorder is depicted on stage along with the thin line between illusion and reality, madness and reason. Loco is based on Nikolay Vasilyevich Gogol’s Diary of a Madman. The domain of hallucinations also takes shape as the minimalist set with a bed and the puppets emerging from this only scenic element. All in the same colour palette, the puppets make the protagonist's world of duality uniform, merging into a single character just like the duality of the animators.
Théâtre des Tarabates, “3” – Simplicity in the puppet’s being
“3”, a new production directed by Philippe Saumont that combines narration, the body, and live music, offers a minimalist and yet meaningful experience, showing the birth or incarnation of a puppet in a tranquil rhythm with a measured dramaturgy. Controlled carefully and precisely by Valentin Arnoux, the puppet slowly emerges from a hand and grows into its final shape of a human-shaped rig. The production avoids being excessively saturated with symbols and signs, pursuing clean and minimalist visual design, thus additionally highlighting all the precise movements and details in animation. It uses the art of puppet theatre in the sheer act of puppet creation. Tiny gestures, choreographed combinations of the puppet’s head and torso, the variations of hands and fingers exploring the relationship between the animator and the puppet. The evolution of the relationship can be seen from the puppet’s march to independence, self-creation, the appropriation of the animator, control and manipulation of his body, all this for the puppet to acquire its own being. The puppeteer's body becomes the puppet's body, spotlighting the relationship between the animate and the inanimate body. Is the puppet complete when its body acquires a human shape, or is a simple move of a finger enough for its full being? The process of gaining independence depends on duplicating the human image: on the presence of what is human in the puppet, and human presence as a prerequisite for cutting the cord.
Ariel Doron, Boxed: Wittily professional
Simplicity merged with creative skill in puppet theatre could also be seen in the off programme, in Ariel Doron’s Boxed. Drawing humour from precise rhythms, durations, and well-crafted, expressive symbols, the highly witty, accessible work deals with the YouTube phenomenon of unboxing, where people share their experience of unpacking products. The package in the show contains a hand. The animator/addressee, fascinated about what at first is an artificial, flexible entity, plays with it, adjusting it to fit his needs, treating it as a pliable tool designed to meet his requirements. At some point, however, the hand that had no life of its own switches to its own being and starts to attack its addressee. In addition to the original staging idea, what’s fascinating about the production is the nuance in meaning between the hand as a part of the animator’s body, the hand as the animator’s puppet, and the hand as an independent life, which outside the illusion is only a body part. The show explores the paradox of the animate that is inanimate, or the animate that comes to life, one of its central motifs being the progression from bringing to life something animate that defines itself as inanimate, to the own being of the animate that used to define itself as inanimate. Using the fewest possible props (box, scissors, ketchup, sausage), Doron executes the show as a first-rate performer and artist, communicating easily with the audience and employing the puppet medium in a simple yet perfected way. While being accessible to the general public in terms of artistic disposition and approachability, the production also has a more theoretically theatrical, philosophical layer.
La Pendue, Poli dégaine: Puppet-style punk
Pulcinella is a character in puppet theatre whose tradition goes back 400 years to the streets of Naples. He personifies cunning and craftiness, a seeming stupidity he uses to ridicule those around him troubled by norms and bias while demonstrating unconventional behaviour, narrow-mindedness, ingenuity, and philosophical tendencies. The character developed in many regional variants across Europe, such as Guignol, Punch, Petrushka, Kašparek, Kasperl, and Pavliha in Slovenian puppetry. In Poli dégaine, Estelle Charlier and Romuald Collinet carry on the tradition but take it to a punk-style level. While keeping the structure as it is, with Pulcinella’s wife and Death as the main characters, and retaining the traditional substantial and staging premises, they step up the dynamic and lunacy, creating fierce clownish shifts, violent episodes, and rowdy misunderstandings. Meanwhile, the animators themselves enter the action as characters, commenting, hosting, disclosing the secrets of the castelet and puppet animation. They construct the puppet representing death in front of the audience and take full advantage of any means of communication and engagement with the audience. Taking the witty satire and buffoonish behaviour, they turn it into a comical play in which the hand puppet protagonist embodies human duality, thus delivering social criticism in what only seems to be an entertaining eruption of puppet theatre.
Compared with previous years, the spirit of the festival in Charleville-Mézières was affected by COVID-19. Despite all the restrictions and impediments, the organisers adjusted to the situation and were commendably willing to carry out such a large-scale event. Unfortunately, the pandemic also had implications for the alternative puppet theatre scene, which usually popped up here and there outside the organised programme. In this edition of the festival, the COVID-19 related measures made such “squats” impossible, taking away the platform for alternative forms of theatre to crop up. A nice example of the quality that this platform displayed in previous years was Women’s Land, a Méandres production that moved from a small room above a record shop, where it was shown two years ago, to a proper stage as part of the official line-up this year.
Since the festival is promoted as a world festival of puppet theatres, its biggest drawback is its focus on French. The productions without English captions are particularly problematic. If shows are not adjusted to a non-French audience in terms of form or production tactic, non-French-speaking international spectators may be at a disadvantage and have their options limited.
The festival is a meeting point for new, old, contemporary and traditional currents. Together with the rest of the programme, edgy new aesthetics and productions create a space for reflection on puppet theatre and a re-definition of conventional premises. They raise the question of what puppetry is and how contemporary puppetry relates to and works with other performing arts and artistic forms. Fortunately, the festival selection makes this possible. All in all, the festival in Charleville-Mézières is a platform to explore intermedia formulas of puppet theatre, a set of puppet theatre works that call for a re-definition of puppetry and a new position for it in the context of performing arts. Finally, the festival shows the full breadth of creativity in puppet theatre, which may directly prompt or indirectly give rise to many inspiring works and deliberations.
Above all, the event demonstrates that 60 years on, the art of puppetry is still worth celebrating in all its forms.
(1) In French, imachinateurs.