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  • XIVème Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes, Charleville-Mézières, France, 15-24 September 2006
  • Claudia Orenstein

Every three years the generally quiet town of Charleville-Mézières, in the Ardennes region of France, gives itself over to an exciting festival of world puppetry.1 Home of the Institut International de la Marionnette (International Institute of Puppetry), as well as France's own national school of puppetry, L'École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette (ESNAM), Charleville holds a special place in the hearts of puppeteers and puppet lovers across the globe, who have attended festivals there as far back as 1961, taken or offered workshops at the school, or pursued scholarly studies at the Institute's Centre de Recherches, which holds more than 6,000 books and 1,200 videos. The three-year hiatus between festivals, which some would like to shorten to two, helps build anticipation for what is perhaps the largest puppetry festival in the world. In September 2006, the festival offered more than 250 shows from more than forty countries as part of both its main program ("Programme In") and fringe ("Programme Off"), along with twelve exhibits on puppetry and an endless stream of street performers occupying every inch of open air space or perambulating around the city in striking costumes. With food stalls and puppet vendors set up along the main streets, stores and buildings throughout the town decorated with puppet figures, and nightly gatherings for beer, tartiflette (a local favorite dish), and free music at the festival's central locale, for ten days the town of Charleville fully immerses itself in its celebration of puppetry.

A festival such as this gives Asian companies a chance to connect [End Page 148] with European audiences outside of Europe's capital cities, as well as with accomplished puppeteers from around the world, contributing to the global dissemination and appreciation of puppetry techniques and traditions. While the festival was a success in many of these respects, Asian puppetry maintained a relatively low profile throughout the event.

There were fairly few Asian offerings in Charleville, with most of the companies not surprisingly coming from France. However, the Asian companies that did come were mostly major troupes including both puppeteers and musicians. These performances were predominantly traditional forms, labeled "spectacle traditionnel" in the program.

The Parc d'Exposition, located a ten-minute ride from the center of town, hosted consecutively the Théâtre National des Marionnettes sur L'Eau (National Water Puppet Theatre) from Vietnam as well as the Joe Louis Theater from Thailand. The Vietnamese water puppets performed their usual fare, a series of vignettes about mythical animals and peasant life, to the accompaniment of live music and singing. Puppeteers hidden behind a screen, standing thigh-high in the pool of water that serves as the puppets' stage, operate the figures by means of long, submerged poles. Sliding through their watery setting, farmers plant rice, children swim, fishermen row their boats, and phoenixes and sea serpents dive and play, the latter spewing water and fire. This colorful performance was more or less identical to one at the Lincoln Center Festival in New York in 1996, and to those given regularly for tourists in Vietnam. In the large, overwhelming indoor space, with an audience of restless schoolchildren, who were given no introduction or explanation of the Vietnamese scenes, the event lacked some of the magic of the outdoor, moonlit version in New York's Damrosch Park, although the audience still oohed, aahed, and laughed at the puppets' sometimes surprising, sometimes comic feats.

Since the Vietnamese water puppets were making a return visit to Charleville, many local and nearby residents, who make up the vast majority of the festival audience, had already seen the company perform. Posted far from the town's bustling center, this exquisite traditional art, so recently saved from extinction, sadly seemed submerged within the torrent of festival events. One was grateful to Argentina's madcap, cabaret-style performer Diego Stirman for adding his own "traditional Vietnamese water-puppet show" to his act. For this bit, Stirman donned swimming trunks, goggles, and a snorkel, dove into a small barrel of water, and...