The World Puppet Theatre Festival 2019

As spring begins to bring the world back to life, it’s starting to feel marginally less painful to reminisce about a time when live performance was everywhere and people gathered for festivals and in-person celebration. And as I write this, World Puppetry Day and World Theatre Day happened in the past couple of weeks. My performer self is beginning to reawaken and rub her groggy eyes. The time has come to (finally) complete the recounting of The Dragon and the Wanderer’s adventures in Europe!

The final stretch of Wandering Theatre’s European journey was the Festival Mondial des Téâtres de Marionnettes, or the World Puppetry Festival, in Charleville-Mézières, France. Our show, The Dragon and the Wanderer, was an official part of “OFF Street,” the street-performance portion of the festival. We had shows scheduled each day for a week, both on the street and in local restaurants; and we were surrounded by incredible puppeteers from all over the world and their amazing works of art. The entire town was alive with a spirit of creativity, joy, and celebration. Even though I wasn’t able to stop and watch nearly as many performances as I’d have liked, I saw countless works of puppetry unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

On the street, shows ranged from the slapstick comedy of Italian commedia dell’arte, to 3 minute marionette dance pieces, to an audience-participation musical about the Santa Maria’s journey to America–with a giant rolling wooden boat of a set whose scenes changed on a crank like a giant pop-up book. At the festival opening, there was a massive parade that rained feathers over the entire town. Almost every shop and restaurant had puppets, paintings, and festive scenes in their windows. One courtyard was decked out like a huge circus, complete with multiple tents, food, drink, and magic shows. There were outdoor covered stages where larger shows held performances (one of my favorite was a language-less piece that followed an incredibly articulate and expressive puppet of a little girl, as she created drawings that came alive). Fellow puppeteers as well as audience members filled our campsite, and did impromptu performances. And a few times each day, a march of larger-than-life crows passed through the cobbled streets, lanterns held aloft to guide their way. The body puppets made it seem as though we’d entered an actual fairy tale. It was both thrilling and humbling to be among them.

We arrived in Charleville-Mézières a few days before the festival began, to give ourselves time to acclimate and make sure our set and puppets–which had been packed away in a storage unit for about a month–were ready to go. For two nights we stayed at an AirBnb, to ensure that we had the space and shelter to pull out the contents of those suitcases and do puppet repairs (and also, to give ourselves a little bit of recovery time. We’d just come off of two weeks trekking through the alps with our backpacks and tent).

Repairing puppets on our first full day in Charleville-Mézières, France

I have to admit, for the first couple days I was NERVOUS. These festival performances were our first advance-bookings (or at least, the first ones that didn’t fall through due to visa confusion). They had an air of expectation around them. These would be our first audiences that had planned to come see a puppet show. Plus, there were tons of puppet shows to see, not just ours. What if ours couldn’t compare to all the rest? After all, there were professional companies from all over the world taking part in this festival. What if we couldn’t hold a candle to them?

Very quickly, though, the atmosphere of the town reminded me that it wasn’t about that. The spirit of this festival was experimentation, creativity, and celebrating not perfection, but the community and value of the art of puppetry. We did belong there. And I was defeating the purpose if I was going to let those kinds of worries stop me from enjoying our time there, or from having fun doing our show.

Performing on the Street

By the time we arrived at the World Puppetry Festival, we’d already done a handful of outdoor, busking-style performances of The Dragon and the Wanderer. But this was the first time we’d done so on the streets of a city, and with pre-arranged time slots and locations. In some ways, this was a nice change. After three months of being responsible for every little thing ourselves, there was a quite desirable safety in knowing that somebody else was in charge of some of the details.

But, that didn’t exactly mean getting set for these performances was easy. One factor was weather. All types of weather. When we had shows in direct, strong sunlight we had to decide which direction would be best to orient our shadow screen. We had to walk a fine line to make sure the audience could actually see our shadow puppets. On the one hand, if we faced into the sun, the puppets would be so washed out they would be virtually invisible. Two strong LED photography lights, the enclosed shadow box, and the awning shade above our screen still stood no chance against the spotlight of afternoon sunshine. But, if we oriented ourselves so that the sun was behind us, that meant that the audience would have to stare right into it–they’d be uncomfortable for the duration of the show, squinting and shading their eyes. So we did our best to split the difference; and to account for how much the sun was likely to move between when we started setting up and when our performance would finish.

Then there was rain. In general, we had a mindset of “the show must go on.” But our costumes, props, sets, and puppets are distinctly not waterproof. Also, since we spent the duration of the festival housed in our tent at a campsite, we couldn’t count on the opportunity to dry anything out. It would be some jam we’d find ourselves in if our puppets got moldy and ruined. So we pushed through, and kept our tarp hitched underneath the stage, so that if the rain picked up too much, we could pause the show, throw the tarp over everything, and try to wait it out.

Rue du Téâtre performance

Luckily in all of these cases, we made it through our performances, and all things considered they went pretty well! The rain did diminish the size of our audiences; but still, I was impressed with the audience dedication I saw, and everybody’s determination not to let gloomy weather dampen the mood of the festival.

Another street-show adventure was the result of my non-French-speaking butt completely missing the memo on an organizational level of the festival as a whole.

Two Sagas of American Confusion

1-Those Who Wander…Are Sometimes Lost

Our schedule told us what street to be on and when. It did not, however, specify where on the street (or in the square) we were meant to be. So, for the performances I talked about above, we basically just scoped out a likely looking place and make the decision ourselves.

Our listing in the Festival program!

We had multiple performances on Rue du Téâtre, which (as you might have gathered) is the street where the city’s largest theater is located. We’d noticed other performers setting up on the steps right in front of the theatre. It looked like the ideal spot; perhaps even the official spot for OFF Street shows at that location. So we started to set up there.

The first time we tried to do this, folks from the theatre’s box office came out and told us that our performance time was too close to the time when they open the lobby, one hour before their performance. We were a bit confused–after all, we weren’t the ones who had scheduled ourselves for this street at this time–but we found another likely looking corner on the same street that didn’t block the entrance to their building.

We’d already started putting our set together at that point, so the move was a little bit frantic and disorganized. Then, maybe five minutes before we were due to start our show, we discovered that one of our speakers was missing.

I won’t lie: we were freaking out. We were panicked that our audience wouldn’t be able to hear the music and sound effects; and since our show has no speaking whatsoever, the track that plays through the speaker is 100% of the auditory experience. This was only our second day of performances–we had four more days and many more shows to go. It was unlikely that we’d be able to replace the speaker there in Charleville. We were using two bluetooth speakers paired to each other, so we would need to get the same exact kind we’d purchased back in the U.S.

Aaron finished putting up the set, and kept the crowd engaged. Meanwhile I ran back to the theater. Their doors were still closed, but no one was in the box office this time. Knocking did me no good.

Just around the corner of the building, there was a group of tech folks (identifiable by their all-black clothing and the fact that they were clearly on a cigarette break just outside of the stage door). I asked if they spoke English (one of them spoke a little), and asked if they’d seen a small, black, cylindrical speaker.

“Oh yeah, one of our stage crew has it. He isn’t here, though.” Apparently he’d gone a few blocks away; I was unclear on whether it was a lost and found, or if he was just checking with another venue if it belonged to them–but either way, it was safe. I was hugely relieved; but also, I needed to find this man in the next 2 minutes before my show started.

The guy who’d spoken to me told me he could lead me to the place where the speaker was. I was incredibly grateful. And incredibly stressed, as he strolled along the streets, in no hurry. Our capacity to communicate was limited, and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. But as soon as we found the stage crew member who had the speaker, I thanked them both profusely pretty much over my shoulder, shouting, as I literally sprinted down the cobbled streets back to Rue du Téâtre, where we began our performance just in time.

Rue du Téâtre performance

2-Yeah. Very Lost.

The second time we tried to set up on the Rue du Téâtre, there was another performer with his own set built about ten feet away. We asked this French puppeteer what time his show was (thankfully he too spoke some English). Turned out, his performance was going to overlap with ours. Even though there would probably have been enough space for both of our audiences, the real problem would be our competing sounds.

He didn’t seem too worried about it, though. “We’ll just go to the office. They’ll help us figure it out.”

Office? There was an office? I let him lead me there while Aaron stayed with the show and continued building the set (we didn’t want to run out of time before our show was scheduled to start).

The French puppeteer and I went to the main square, Place Ducale, where Aaron and I had done our brightly sunlit performances two days before. The man led me up a large staircase and into one of the stately looking buildings on one side of the square.

Inside there was a big open room, and a long table at the front where two organizers sat, like a reception desk. We explained the problem–one of the women at the table spoke English fluently. She asked us the name of our companies, so that she could check the schedule and the map. As soon as I told her I was from Wandering Theatre, she gasped and her face broke out in a grin.

“Oh, good! So you are here! We are so glad! No one ever checked in, so we didn’t know if you were coming!”

I was totally stunned, and also felt like a complete idiot. We’d been there five days by that point. We only had two days left at the festival, and we’d already done seven performances at a variety of locations. I told the woman this, apologizing profusely. “I don’t speak much French, and I must have misunderstood the information in the message we received before we arrived!” They’d emailed us orientation materials, but it had all been in French. I thought that my attempt to translate it to English had been all right. But I’d taken it to mean that on the first night, the festival would have its official opening at Place Ducale; not that we were supposed to check in at Place Ducale once the festival began.

The woman was incredibly understanding. She reassured me that they were just glad we were here, and that for our sake she was sorry we hadn’t known to come here sooner. And I was sorry for that too. Because she led me into the room behind her, and told me that this entire space was for OFF Street performers. There was free coffee and tea; and best of all, there was space to store our puppets in between shows. We’d been dragging our suitcases back and forth from the campsite. On days that we had a long time between shows, we’d hauled our bags with us around town, and into restaurants or grocery stores when we were trying to find lunch. And, we could have sheltered our puppets from the rain here, and let them dry out! If only we’d known.

She handed me gift bags that had been saved for me and Aaron, and then showed us the diagram of the street performance spaces. There were, in fact, designated performance areas on each street, and they were specifically assigned to each company or performer. Oops.

So, we found the location where we were meant to be performing that day (it was a good distance away from the kind French puppeteer, who saw us off amiably), and had a good laugh about our American stupidity.

Place Ducale

Performing in Restaurants

During our week at the World Puppet Theatre Festival, we had six performances scheduled at different restaurants and pubs around Charleville-Mézières. Some were indoors, some outdoors, and all came with some degree of charades to overcome the language barrier (on my part especially–Aaron did pretty well with his French, but mine was frankly embarrassing). All of the restaurant owners were personally present and extremely hospitable. The entire community was contributing to this festival, and it was an infectious sort of camaraderie and excitement.

We shuffled chairs and tables around and found enough space that we could squeeze between our set and the bar to work our puppets. We set up a couple of our camp lights on the ground at our feet when we performed in the outdoor seating area of a restaurant one evening, creating the most ambience our little show had ever had. And time and again, we were served heavenly meals when the show was done.

One of these meals was arguably the best that I’ve had in my life: at the Restaurant le Grillardin. We entered the restaurant in between meals, having just completed 2 performances on the street. We were scruffy and sopping wet, dragging the suitcases containing the show behind us and trying not to track too much mud and water onto the wooden floor. We still had a few hours before our performance at the restaurant, but the staff immediately welcomed us and showed us upstairs, where the tables would soon be moved aside for our show.

After tucking the suitcases into a corner, we asked about seeing some menus to buy lunch (it was approaching 4pm. No food since breakfast and two cold, wet outdoor shows had us longing for a hot meal). The gentleman who’d shown us in told as that lunch was over, and dinner wouldn’t start for a few more hours. This only made sense…but still I kind of wanted to cry.

Without a moment’s hesitation, though, the server and the folks from the kitchen (which was also upstairs, just around a corner from our cozy table) offered to throw something together for us. And I kid you not, this “thrown together” meal–a traditional dish with potatoes and sausage and greens in a balsamic lemon sauce (an a layered Irish coffee to boot!)–was one the most delicious things I’ve tasted in my life.

This meal was followed by one of our most rewarding performances ever. A significant portion of our audience that evening was a group from the deaf community. Since The Dragon and the Wanderer has no speech at all, (and, I think, because pre-teens and dragons often go together pretty well), the show was a perfect fit for this audience. After we finished, they asked questions and stuck around to watch us pack up, and allowed us to show them how to manipulate some of the puppets. Their chaperones explained that it meant a lot to them to see a show like this: one that used body language, movement, and facial expressions to communicate a story that they could access just as easily as the rest of the audience. Whatever doubts I had about whether we were truly good enough to fit in at this wildly impressive festival evaporated. We were doing what we’d set out to do, and people were able to take away some meaning from it, fleeting or not.

I have to be honest: often when I’m reflecting on this trip, on our show, on my dreams for my life in general, I feel selfish. I care about other people, but still I’ve chosen a path in life that prioritizes my own passions: creativity and storytelling. And while I genuinely believe that those things are powerful and useful, it can still be very difficult to tune out all those voices that insist “artists are a drain on society.” Moments like that performance of The Dragon and the Wanderer are a reminder that it’s never quite that simple. Even if the whole endeavor of an overseas puppet tour was something that we undertook for ourselves, we wanted to share our show in the hope that it could be for more than just ourselves. And in that moment, it was.

I also had one of my most difficult performances ever in one of the restaurants at the World Puppet Theatre Festival. On the morning of Aaron’s birthday, I woke up brutally sick to my stomach. I had to stay at our campsite all day, running back and forth from the public restroom (I’m sure you don’t need any more detail than that). But I really, really wanted to rally for our show that evening. So I sipped water, nibbled bread, napped, and demanded that Aaron go enjoy the festival and his birthday (he sent me pictures, which was nice).

Aaron’s solo adventures…with Critter!

When showtime rolled around, we dragged our suitcases across the footbridge from the campsite to the town, like always, and arrived at St. James’ Pub for our show. We were nestled into the front corner of the pub beside the bar, and the bartender kindly made sure that my water glass was always filled. Thankfully I made it through our full 30 minute run without any major incidents. “The show must go on,” of course! And I was glad that it did. After all, we only had one week left of our honeymoon, and just a handful of shows left to do, before it was all over.

Unfortunately, not all of our scheduled shows did actually go on. A few of the restaurants where we performed did not have any indoor space for performances. Instead they had their shows setting up on the cobblestones in front of their buildings alongside the outdoor seating. When this worked, it worked extremely well: we had the built-in audience of the customers at the tables, plus the possibility that passers-by would see and get interested enough to stay.

But, when there was no cover from the weather, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do. At a couple of locations, we tried rescheduling performances to see if the storm would pass (our week in Charleville-Mézières was, sadly, an extremely wet one). We also tried arranging the umbrellas and awnings so that they’d protect our puppets from the worst of the rain. But it didn’t really work. There were gaps in the cover, and the wind threw sheets of water everywhere, and the puddles were like lakes on the ground. Plus, if we were using the umbrellas to shelter the set, how could we shelter the audience? Were they just supposed to stand in the downpour? We had to cancel due to weather more than once. Luckily, the restaurant owners were all flexible and generous, and extremely understanding. It was disappointing, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. If we’d learned anything, it was that things never go entirely according to plan.

Bonding With a Community

Some things, though, end up even better than you could have planned them. We knew the festival would be a unique and massively exciting experience. I don’t think we could have imagined what it would feel like to be a part of it. To belong as a part of it.

At our campsite alone, there were puppeteers from all over the world. There was a couple from Peru whose show, Churi, Hijo del Rio (Child of the River) used beautifully painted wooden puppets. There was a woman from China who did a beautiful dance right in the center of the campsite with her body puppet, and then with two finger puppets. We talked with them over meals at the picnic tables, or while waiting for our tent to dry out beneath the office awning before we left. It felt a bit like summer camp.

We also met a fellow puppeteer from back home! Kurt Hunter is a well-established American puppeteer, and a couple of our mutual puppetry friends pointed him in our direction from all the way back in the States (thanks, Phoenix and Aaron, and Mark!). Kurt was kind enough to watch a performance of The Dragon and the Wanderer (in spite of drizzly weather), and later met us for dinner and a drink. We laughed about never having met until going overseas; and I marveled at how the puppetry community continued to support and bolster us even from thousands of miles away. (If you want to know a little more about Kurt, he is a Guest Artist with the O’Neill National Puppetry Conference, which is being held online this June!)

At the end of our stay in Charleville-Mézières, we gave ourselves one night in an AirBnb. Our host was an older woman named Catherine, and her incredible cat Nougat (pronounced the French way, obviously: new-gah). As ever, we were met with nothing but generosity and warm welcomes. Catherine spoke just enough English, and Aaron spoke just enough French, that we managed to understand each other and hold a conversation. We were staying in her attic room, and Nougat came to visit us delightfully frequently. Catherine and a friend even came to watch our final performance. (Also in attendance was a couple who had somehow managed to see The Dragon and the Wanderer three times, and a family with an adorable toddler who couldn’t seem to decide whether to be afraid or utterly captivated by our puppets. She kept coming close, pacifier poking out of her mouth and reaching for us, and then hiding her head in her mother’s arms, only to reach forward once again. I was smitten.) It was very wholesome.

Our performances also gave us a unique opportunity to interact with the crowds. With each subsequent show, we paid more and more attention to actively gathering an audience. We had one street show where we began our performance for literally no one, apart from the handful of police officers on patrol on that block. People gathered eventually, but after that we came up with a plan. Aaron puppeteered Little Bigfoot while I, as Grog, carried a whiteboard with the time and location of our show written on it. We circled our location, interacting with each other and with people on the street, encouraging them to follow us back to the stage. In fact, this is how we gathered the audience that contained the group of kids from the deaf community (I’ll remind you, our best show ever). We used exclusively expressive gestures and body language to gather our crowd (and the specific information on the whiteboard, of course). It proved quite effective. And, it was a beautiful reminder that the audiences were just as much ‘our people’ as the other puppeteers. Everyone at this festival was there to celebrate the joy that is puppetry. Even when I was razor focused on being in ‘performance mode’, I could feel how we were all a part of this together.

The Final Morning (being dragons)

The End

It was certainly bittersweet to leave. We departed from the festival before it was officially over, because we had to catch our flight from London back to the U.S. on September 29–fourteen weeks after we’d arrived.

And now here we are, a year and a half later, in an altered world. Sometimes when I look back on all of this, it seems like another life. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way, about any number of things. But I do feel that the spirit of community and shared joy that defined the Festival Mondial des Téâtres de Marionnettes has not disappeared. It’s been hard to feel it in the same way as we could then. Without being present and in-person, where you can draw energy and excitement from everyone around you (without having to worry about getting too close, either), it feels almost impossible to capture that sense of connectivity. But there are still glimpses of it; even if it’s just through everyone talking about the fact that we all feel this way. Yeah, life is definitely not what we imagined it would be when we touched back down in America after our grand adventure. But haven’t we learned by now? It’s never going to be exactly what you expect. And that’s not all bad.

Wandering Theatre’s journey in Europe taught me how to get to know unfamiliar places, circumstances, and people. It taught me to get to know myself through my wanderings. And then the following year taught me to get to know familiar places and people–and taught me that I only thought I knew and understood them, but really, I hadn’t been looking properly. It taught me to get to know myself in stillness. And it showed me that connectedness is still there, always there. I think that’s worth remembering.

If you made it all the way to the end with me, thanks for reading! In addition to blogging, I love writing fiction, and I’m working on expanding my author platform. If you’ve got a spark of interest for my writing, please consider following me on Instagram and Twitter! Thanks pals, and keep those creative spirits alive <3.

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