The Door To Peoples’ Souls

He has set up his show at the junction of two streets, both closed to traffic, in an open space at the foot of some stone steps on which people can sit to watch him perform without having to crane over the shoulders of others. There’s a wall on his right, and a cluster of observers – like me – stand opposite, at the bottom of the steps, creating a living third side for his miniature auditorium. Occasional pedestrians pass behind his back – and if they’re curious, they pause and may – or may not – join his audience.

Other street performers attract larger crowds in the more populous streets – often a hundred or more people, thus harvesting bigger returns when the time comes to pass the hat at the end of the show. But clearly this small, neat, bearded guy in his black bowler hat, his white shirt and his black bow tie and black vest, has chosen this site and claimed it as his own: I’ve seen him here before.

He smiles and salutes the crowd of thirty or forty people. Music (brisk and thin) issues from a small player on his belt; and then he begins his performance by animating a complicated wooden cat that has twenty-five or thirty strings (that’s a lot). The cat walks; wags its long tail; feeds from a can; it opens a trunk and first looks, and then jumps inside; it sleeps. A caterpillar comes to life and the cat returns, pursues the caterpillar, luring it out of the can where it has hidden and takes it in its mouth. After a few complications the cat follows the caterpillar into the trunk, which closes on his tail – and a butterfly flutters out. The puppeteer turns the can to reveal a word: “FIN”. The music stops. There’s a scattering of applause, and the puppeteer takes off his hat with a shy smile: a high forehead, thinning brown hair. He bows several times with one hand over his heart, and places his hat on the ground. A few people – children among them – approach and deposit small coins; a couple of others go up to him to chat.

There’s something both humble and self-assured about this thoughtful little man that sets him apart from the noise of more aggressive street performers. I approach and he agrees to an interview. His name, he tells me, is Christophe.

Over a couple of drinks – neat brandy for him, a beer for me – we sit at a table across the street from his performance space. His bow tie now dangles loose at his neck, and, close up, the collar of his once-white shirt is very evidently frayed. I get out my voice recorder and, with increasing animation, he talks.

He’s been a performer for seventeen years, he tells me, beginning at the age of twenty after a couple of years of training, initially in graphic arts, and then – in a “stage” (a work training arrangement of a few months) with “Caroline”, a German puppeteer in Berlin. It’s Caroline who gave him what he calls “le virus” of puppetry. And since 2001, when he “went out into the street to improvise and encounter reactions” – that’s where he has always performed.

“What about the risk?” I ask (my French feels ponderous and academic; his is both voluble and pure). “You’re free – but completely without security. How do you deal with that?”

“In the beginning, it was all liberty, and I didn’t see any disadvantages,” he says. “It was romantic.” Only later on did he begin to understand the disadvantages – always on the road, difficult to develop stable ties with people. “But it’s also a great ‘carte de visite’, a great way to meet people; and my first love is always puppets.”

“It’s a vocation?”

“C’est ça. Une vocation.” But also a virus; an obsession: “dificile à expliquer.”

In the first seven years he worked with another puppeteer, travelling between France and Argentina; since 2006 he has performed solo. He has a girlfriend who is also a puppeteer, but they don’t perform together.

“For lots of people,” he says, “it’s an unreal idea, a fantasy to live your life as an artist. But I have found a way, an economic way – and I found it quickly. Marionettes permit me to live my life exclusively by art; it’s a huge advantage because it’s the only thing that I do in my life, making puppets.”

“If I can ask an indiscrete question: how much money do you make?”

“Une bonne question. You have to define your level of life,” he says – and goes on to tell me that he lives on five hundred euros a month. (That’s about six hundred and fifty dollars.) He can do that because he has adopted a life without “une maison” or other expenses. He has an old car, which he bought from his parents (it took three years to pay them back). He now has an apartment in Douay and borrows a garage as a workshop when he builds a puppet. He makes a point of “dressing well” for his performances, because he wants people to understand that he is a professional. But he doesn’t say that his clothes are few and old and the collar of his shirt is frayed; and if you live on six hundred and fifty dollars a month, what is your diet? On that meager income, he somehow finances an annual trip to Argentina, where the cost of living is lower because the euro is strong against the peso. He spends the winter months there, because winter is inclement in France (if it rains, he can’t perform). He returns in the spring – like a migrating bird.

Will there be a time when he can’t do it? What about afterward? I ask. He is – I do the math – thirty-seven.

He shrugs. The question doesn’t interest him much. Sometimes he gives workshops, if someone organizes them. But he wants to go on doing what he does, and living the way he lives. I’m reminded of the words of Jesus: “Consider the birds of the air. They toil not, neither do they spin”.

Within his world (which is, I reflect, both limited because he is so poor, and unlimited, because he feels so free), he is practical. Someone whose “métier” is “un artist de la rue” has to be able to do three things, he tells me: first, attract a group of people; secondly, hold them for the duration of the performance; and finally, “les faire payer.” (“Get them to pay.”)

“But how do you do that in the street?” I ask. “You have to control a space. In stand-up, for example, the performer has a room. He works that room, and he keeps the energy of the crowd within the walls of that room. He’s very aware of the exits. In the street, people can drift away at any moment. They can leave without paying.”

He shrugs. “I choose to play in the street,” he says, “because it’s there that I meet people.” And then he jumps to “le chapeau” – the hat that is traditionally passed around for donations, large or small – and again he surprises me.

“You can make a lot of money on the street,” he says – “but you have to be careful, because you can sell your soul. You can make things in order to make money.”

“A kind of manipulation?”

“Yes. When you hold people for half an hour in performance, you have power. I don’t ask. I show the hat; there is ‘une culture du chapeau’. People understand. The challenge,” he says, is to “donner en vie pour les gens de donner – without asking.”

“To permit them to give?”

“Yes, I enable. It doesn’t matter whether they drop two euros into the hat, or six centimes.”

I felt that I was interviewing a secular version of Saint Francis: so innocent, so pure in his shabby vest and once-white shirt and cheap black pre-tied bow tie. And his joyous face. He coughs. He was sick the day before and couldn’t perform. I noticed the cough a couple of times during his performance.

He quotes his teacher, Caroline.

“Christophe,” she told him. “The ‘marionette a fil’ has great power. It’s a tool for opening the door to people’s souls.”

“It’s not me,” he says. “It’s the marionette that does that. But it’s a great responsibility. Because when you open the door to people’s souls, it has to be for their happiness.”

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