Les Sages Fous

Les Sages Fous is a three-person troupe based in Trois Rivières, a small city on the St. Lawrence River, between Montreal and Quebec. They settled in Trois Rivières, initially because living costs were low. But they also found that the relative isolation of this provincial town offered the quiet that they needed for creation. And the place is beautiful, situated on the shores of the mighty river, its centre formed by the peaceful harmonies of nineteenth century convents and schools, now turned to secular purposes. The company has taken over the former garrison church and its gardens, which now serve as its workshop and performance space.

Their work is wordless, rooted in the improvisations of street theatre. They are fascinated by the detritus of our society—the solitary souls who wander the streets, checking garbage bins for treasures in cast-off objects. Theirs is an art of discovery, where a shabby performer in black or grey opens battered barrels and suitcases before an audience. Eerie bunraku-style puppets emerge from these unlikely habitats to reveal their strange beauty. Thus, their work combines elements of clowning, wondrous puppetry, and object theatre.

Here’s a two minute introduction to their Cirque Orphelin (“Circus of Orphans”) in a TV feature with glimpses of the puppet in action, along with brief cuts of South Miller, Jacob Brindamour and Sylvain Longpré, with English subtitles. They talk about the world of this puppet—the discarded, the abandoned.

And here’s a short extract from Tricycle, which they premiered at Charleville in 2017. It captures the spooky atmosphere, and Jacob’s improvisations, as he discovers and animates hidden creatures, creating a city of light out of his collection of scrap boxes attached to a bike.

The following video (fifteen minutes) offers a more complete taste of le Cirque Orphelin, consisting of several short pieces, performed before a live audience in Europe, all wordless. We see Sylvain and Jacob as a pair of semi-Vaudeville performers, dressed in drab black. The rod puppets are highly stylized: a shrimp-like one that walks a tight-rope; a large-headed puppet in a bird cage and the guy who consists only of a head and long arms, who flies; the “sirène du cirque” a female puppet who starts off in an improvised racing car and performs a dance like a drag queen. This is fine puppetry combined with mime; the routines are comic, but always with the edge of the poignant Absurd, and as with all their work, there’s a junk yard quality to the boxes, crates, barrels, sets, and the intermittent lighting: we are in a kind of abandoned warehouse.

A further element is critical to their art: their fascination with the unfinished, with work-in-progress.

South Miller, Artistic Director of the company, tells the story of the ostrich egg: how, when they were first developing their creative language, they took a giant ostrich puppet into the streets of Trois Rivières along with its egg, which they wheeled around in a small wagon. A little girl asked if she could listen to the egg; others followed suit. There was nothing inside to make a sound, but these spectators nonetheless heard something that amazed them—a eureka moment for South, as she understood that the audience is an active participator, a co-creator of puppet theatre.

For this reason, les Sages Fous seek to involve the audience in the creative process itself. Hence the micro-festival that the company mounts every second year: they invite artists from around the world to spend a week with them in Trois Rivieres to create new work, which is then performed to a local crowd in two sold-out shows, in its unfinished state. (I attended this “festival des oeuvres inachevés” in October, 2018.)

This final video records a talk by South on the company’s history and ethos—and that festival. It’s in French, with French subtitles.