Culture | Pulling strings

Puppetry as art at L'Illusion Théatre de Marionette

Real puppet shows aren’t very common nowadays. At the word “puppet,” Pinocchio springs to mind, and since he eventually became a real boy, I don’t think he really counts. Sure, everyone’s familiar with The Muppets and Punch and Judy, but going to a theatre with the specific intention of watching people manipulate wooden figures is no longer an everyday pastime for those beyond the age of five. That’s what makes L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionette so curious. Why would one establish a theatre specifically for puppets when the main audience for those shows can’t be out past seven p.m.? Who are the people behind this?
L’Illusion Théâtre de Marionette nestles in a quiet, green street north of Mont Royal. Yet the inside is a far cry from the air of mystery I expected. Instead of a feeling of enchantment drawing me back to my childhood, the atmosphere is busy, purposeful and business-like.

Claire Voisard, the general and artistic director of L’Illusion, explains that the buzz of activity is due to the Festival international des Arts de la Marionette, running from September 14 to 19 in Saguenay, Quebec. Through festivals like Saguenay’s, and the efforts of theatre companies like L’Illusion and the Laval-based Théâtre Incliné, puppet theatre is swiftly moving out of the sphere of children’s entertainment.

Voisard concedes that historically, the marionette has been associated with children because they have a much stronger capacity to believe than adults. But children don’t just believe anything. There has to be a force behind the illusion that makes it credible. This is where the training of the marionettiste – the person that controls the puppet – comes into play. Voisard explained to me in French that marionettistes are like other actors in that they use their voices and bodies to transmit certain messages to the audience. The difference, she says, is that on top of what actors do, “the marionettiste must learn to have a relationship with the object he manipulates. …There must be a kind of choreography between them so that the object will be able to convey an emotion.”

Though manipulated objects are the medium of the art, the marionettiste’s body is still an integral part of the performance; according to Voisard, “The art form that most closely resembles the marionette is dance.” In dance, the only way to express feelings, ideas, and opinions is through movement. In a puppet show, it’s the same: the movements of the marionette and the marionettiste together unlock the meaning of the art.

Puppetry is not solely the realm of Saturday morning television and day-trips to the beach, and is not only for young children. Voisard earnestly believes that through the marionette, a person can truly come to know themselves. As Voisard says, in a marionette show, “anything is possible – anything can happen.”