To Slip Out of One’s Shell

Philippe Genty’s legendary production “Still Traveler” underwent a forty percent change and became “Still Travelers”.  The director’s unique lyrical diary reflects the evolution of the world that, as of late, has clearly become harsher, more aggressive and drew closer to its own end.   

Philippe Genty’s creative biography is extraordinarily impressive. As a young man he went on a hunger strike to protest against the war in Algeria, for which he was forced to undergo a compulsory treatment.  In order to recover, he organized a kind of an escape from reality by taking the puppet show “Expédition Alexandre” on the road with a friend of his and touring various towns and villages in an old Citroën. That Citroën, which had driven through 47 countries and 8 deserts, ended up in a museum as a round-the-world trip record holder. And Genty made a movie about puppeteers of the world.

“I was always a very reserved person,” he says.  “Puppets were serving as a barrier between myself and the outside world; I would hide behind them and would always be running someplace.  When I was twenty years old, my friend and I left for four years, touring the world – also an escape of sorts.  My paranoia was such that I actually pictured myself driving into a town that was built expressly for me and that disappeared with my departure.   All the doors seemed hand-drawn, although I was willing to concede that the town’s inhabitants went out of their way to prepare for my arrival and constructed more elaborate scenery in case I decided to take a closer look.  Then one day I realized that I could not spend my life on a paranoid run, and so I engaged in psychoanalysis.   And when you delve into your own self, you start by clinging to the wrong interpretation and avoiding the correct one.   This process caused a strange reaction – my whole body started itching.   I would keep scratching myself, trying to sort through my interpretations, until I found the right one.  And this would continue until my next dream.   After nine months of this I finally found the essence of everything that follows me from my childhood.  Since then my theatre centers around man.   I am not interested in conflicts between people, men-women, but rather in conflicts within man.”

Upon meeting dancer Mary Underwood, who would soon become his wife and coauthor, the famous puppeteer began letting people – double-jointed like puppets – take part in his productions.        A clever substitution of a person by a puppet and even a complete blending of the two (Genty’s famous puppet humans – talking heads on celluloid bodies) became his trademark. 

“Voyageur immobile” (“Still Traveler”) appeared in 1995, and it is already hard to call it a puppet show, even though the puppets in it are on equal terms with people.  The Chekhov Festival invited “Still Traveler” to Moscow, instantly got the Russian theatergoers hooked on Genty’s magic and continues to do so (“Boliloc”, “Lands’ End”).  And so the “Traveler” returns –familiar and unrecognizable, with old mise-en-scènes and their new content.   Genty admits that he went back to this production influenced by the events of the recent years.  In particular, his trip to Israel and the Arab territories, where he experienced a tremendous shock.  The “Traveler” was full of childlike joy at the discovery of the world, where a little man (a puppet with an expressive human face) was lovingly and securely supported by the hands of many people, helping him make his first steps, get off the ground and soar into the sky.  In “Voyageur immobiles” (“Still Travelers”), a crowd of people ends up being led by this little monster, who will not hesitate to trample one of his own on a path to the better tomorrow. 

A motley group of nine dancers-puppeteers-singers sets out on a journey across seas and oceans, African deserts and city jungles in a cardboard arc with the inscription “fragile”.  They grasp the subtleties of stock market game and secrets of their own subconscious.  They capture their own limbs that yearned for independence and eat their own brains.  They give birth to puppet children, actively separate them into suitable and unsuitable and bury each other in the clouds.  They undergo a humiliating customs check and shed their own shells, which, incidentally, continue to drag behind them for some time like rags that became stuck to their feet (a masterful performance with pieces of waxed paper).

Genty’s man gets either packed into a little box of prejudices, conventions, functions and responsibilities, or tossed into the outer space.  And so a number of such comfortably settled-in boxes with Genty-shaped puppet humans are being knocked about in the dark ocean of the Universe.  It is warm and light inside the boxes: here they make love, busy themselves with some enterprising trifles, sing; here they become bored.  One of the neighbors gets himself a pushy girlfriend, who secures a space for herself under the neon light, squashing her female neighbor (a small square version of the terrestrial globe, where everyone is suffocating in crammed quarters).  And so it goes until the blow of the elements scatters this multi-apartment house across the world-ocean.

Genty always takes the lead, fooling the audience that initially buys into his tricks and then, belatedly, tries to understand how it was done.   It is possible to figure them out, of course.  However, you, ladies and gentlemen, have once again overlooked the most important thing.  Behold the “travelers” as they wrap their falling comrades one by one into wrapping paper.    Rather belatedly you’ll notice that the number of paper sculptures keeps growing, while the number of dancers is not decreasing.  You strain, trying to note the moment when yet another actor slips out of a paper shell, like soul leaving the body, but it’s all in vain.  The thrill of the hunt that the audience experiences, trying to “expose the secrets of a black magic show”, is gradually joined by sadness.  It is impossible to hold on to a “moment of beauty”, or an elusive meaning, or another human being.

All these tricks and their masterful execution would have been “worth” a lot less, however, without the image of a mad, vulnerable and fragile world, which emerged out of god knows what and is heading to god knows where, rising behind them time and time again. Until suddenly a dust wind comes rushing across the stage, blowing people, puppets, and paper shells off the face of the earth, and a single celluloid puppet child, which somehow managed to escape the destruction, continues to happily and trustingly call out for his father, knowing neither who he is nor why he came into this world. 

 Philippe Genty.  French theatre director, artist and puppeteer.  In 1967 founded the Compagnie Philippe Genty with his wife, dancer Mary Underwood.  Elements of dance, pantomime, drama, singing, puppet theatre and illusions are intertwined in his productions.  Genty explores the inner world of man, his dreams, phobias, secrets of the subconscious (“Rond comme un cube” [“Round Like a Cube”], “Zigmund Follies”, “Désirs parade” [“The Parade of Desires”], “Voyageur immobile” [“Still Traveler”], “Dérives” [“Drifts”], “La fin des Terres” [“Lands’ End”], “Boliloc”).  The Compagnie Philippe Genty toured in over fifty countries of the world.

Olga Foux 

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