The Théâtre de l’Oeil

Andre Laliberté is an imposing man, with a wide face and heavy glasses, a thick grey beard and tangled hair worn in a pony tail. He’s one of the giants of Quebec’s thriving puppetry scene. The Théâtre de l’Oeil, which he founded in 1973, is a cultural treasure.

The company mission extends beyond producing a series of beautiful and original shows for children. It’s also dedicated to developing puppet theatre in Quebec, and over the course of forty-six years, the Théâtre de l’Oeil has been a major incubator of talent. Laliberté has trained and employed two generations of young puppeteers, introduced more than twenty writers to the challenge and joy of writing for puppet theatre (sometimes “writing” wordless shows), brought in visiting directors, and raised the profile and status of the art through successful international tours. He now plays the role of enabler and mentor, while a new generaton creates the shows.

The company experiments with different types of puppetry—shadow, bunraku, “marionette a fil” (now rare), small rod puppets, masks. Puppeteers are usually but not always visible, and when visible sometimes they’re black-clad, gloved and veiled, sometimes not. Some shows are wordless, and some are full of dialogue—depending on the theme and the creators. But all their shows use “grands plateaux”—big stages; and the visual effect of their shows may be far larger than the stage itself, because of back screens and lighting. Richard Lacroix has worked closely with Laliberté for years in creating those sets and designing the puppets. Music is also key, and like Lacroix’s wonderful visual effects, it is fresh and original. Some of the shows become classics, like Le Porteur. All are painstakingly created over a series of months and often years in a process that more than one collaborator calls “almost monastic” and “Zen-like.”

Laliberté extends his mission into the explanatory texts and videos that increasingly accompany his shows. Thus, if you check his website, you’ll find short promos for each new show—but alongside the promo (which just gives a taste of the visual surprises in store for the spectator) there will be notes on the show’s origin, glimpses of the lengthy creation and rehearsal process, and interviews with the show’s creators.

Here are three short glimpses of three shows, all different in style; and there’s also a great fifteen minute feature with English subtitles that shows André himself, writer Simon Boudreault, and designer Richard Lacrois talking about the constraints of working with objects and how puppets imposed their own history as they created Sur Trois Pattes (The Three Legged Tale), in which a puppet-camera explores our relationship with nature. It also includes moments from the twenty-seven month creation and rehearsal process. (To trigger the English subtitles, click on the double “CC” at the bottom of the screen.)

But first, here’s a brief magical sequence from The Star Keeper, where a tiny baby puppet meets a giant and hops onto his hand; his red shirt rolls up like a curtain to reveal a mechanical spider tap dancing on a black and white checkerboard floor.

Then a couple of minutes from Le Corbeau, subtitled in English. It opens with an introduction by a performer, telling us that her grandmother, Nukum, often told stories: how as a little girl, she met the raven on the balcony of her apartment; she was eating from a bag of frites, and the corbeau wanted one; she overcame her fear and gave one, and then the whole bag, which caught his beak. They became friends—and the mundane falls away as the world expands into the vast sky and the equally vast myth of the raven. The text and some of the drawings for this production are available in book form.

Here’s a two minute teaser for Marco Bleu, their most recent production. All the qualities of the company are here: richly imaginative visuals, advanced puppetry (mainly Bunraku style, with naturalistic human puppets, and the extraterrestrial friend, Marco, is a blue version of the protagonist) and enchanting effects, as the space is transformed by light and projected image to dazzle us with sky and immense space.

And, finally, here’s the fifteen-minute, subtitled interview that I mentioned above.