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Many hands make puppets work

Both craftsman and performers, marionnettistes or puppeteers make puppets and also use them in shows. The art is thought to date back 3,000 years to ancient Greece or Egypt and modern puppeteers use a blend of ancient techniques and newer technologies.

Similarly, their shows often bring a contemporary edge to stories involving traditional characters.

In France, puppetry has a rich tradition, largely centring on the character of Guignol.

Creator, Laurent Mourguet, practised dentistry in 1797 when he fell on hard times after the Revolution and started to put on puppet shows to distract patients while pulling their teeth. He had such success he gave up dentistry to be a full-time puppeteer, developing characters representing aspects of daily life in his home town of Lyon.

Guignol is still entertaining large crowds today, often with biting satire as well as the inevitable doubles entendres which constitute his appeal to children and adults alike.

Unlike many crafts, which focus on one set of skills or materials, puppet-making is cross-disciplinary, using whichever skills and materials are necessary to create a particular desired effect.

Traditionally puppets were made from papier mâché, fabric, clay and wood, but today they are equally likely to  be from latex, polyester or reclaimed items.

Puppets can be very simple, as is the case with finger or sock puppets, or complex, operated by a series of wires and strings, or with multiple moving parts. They can be three-dimensional, or, as is the case with shadow puppets, flat.

Some makers, such as Charli­luce in the Jura, focus on a single style of puppet, in this case the wooden marionette, operated by strings. Others use an assortment of methods according to the occasion or character they are trying to represent.

To become a puppeteer, you need creativity above all, a crafter’s resource­fulness and ingenuity and a good understanding of volume and scale. You should also have a good eye for staging and bringing a story to life.

As there is no single technique to be mastered in making puppets, ideally you will be motivated by a love of puppets.

A college dedicated to puppetry, the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Mar­ionnette (Ensam), Char­leville- Mézières in Ardennes offers a three-year Diplôme National Supérieur Professionnel de Comédien) spécialité acteur- marionnettiste to students 18-26 with a bac or equivalent.

Young people looking for a career in puppet-making could take a broader approach, with courses in sculpture, modelling, or decorative arts at either school or university, and then specialising once they have obtained their qualification.

Ensam is at the Institut Inter­national de la Marionnette and offers short summer courses of two to three weeks for ‘professional’ adults already active in puppetry. For the less experienced, there are specialist puppet workshops around France.

Anyone wishing to retrain can contact the Centre de For­mation Professionnelle aux Techniques du Spectacle in Paris suburb Bagnolet. It is offering a seven-week, 245-hour, puppet-making course téchniques de réalisation de marionnettes for which nothing more than an ‘aptitude for manual work’ is required.

We make the puppets and then bring them to life while performing

Puppet workshop and theatre Le Train Rouge is run by mother and daughter Lydie and Marie Coste in Seyssel in Ain. The puppets are all individually conceived and hand-made and bring to life musical works, from Chopin’s preludes to Prok­ofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Marie Coste, 43, trained as a tailor in Valence then, after a diploma in costume-making in Lyon, joined Yves Saint Laurent in Paris in 1997 before starting to make wedding dresses in the Alps in 2001.

She began to work with her mother, herself a painter and a musician in 2003.

They create period costumes inspired by Lydie Coste’s paintings, which were themselves inspired by musical works.

“Little by little, my costumes shrank in size,” she laughs. “I first made 19 little costume dolls to go with L’enfant et les Sortilèges by Ravel, and from there it was but a small step to making little characters who could move”.

Puppets were “a solution of scale to the problem of putting on operas at home”.

Marie Coste’s puppets are made from the finest fabrics from Lyon and the surrounding area and are, as she puts it, “better dressed than we are”.

The majority are glove puppets, but some, as for Strav­insky’s Pulcinella, are string puppets. For both, the head is made from air-drying dough, which is painted and varnished by Lydie Costa.

Le Train Rouge’s puppet shows are performed by Marie and Lydie themselves.

Puppets dance to classical recordings or Lydie plays piano with the puppets dancing on the top. A performance in Annecy last year saw them put on a live performance of Pulcinella reduced for piano trio: “the children loved it because the puppets made the music much more accessible,” says Marie.

She is as passionate about making puppets as about performing. “When you make clothes for a person, you’re making clothes to fit them but when you make a puppet you are creating the character and their clothes in their entirety; then you bring your idea to life when you perform”. She says the work is “100% imaginative”.

Although they do not speak the Lyonnais dialect essential for the Guignol character, they are passionate about protecting him and transmitting the savoir-faire for making him and performing with him.

“We need to protect this idea of a character who can say things we ourselves don’t dare say,” Marie Coste says.

For anyone wanting to get into puppetry, Marie backs the Ensam course, saying it would have been her choice if she had had clearer career ideas. But she says anyone trained in making clothes, or in wood- turning or modelling, can make puppets: “The only thing you need is motivation.”

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