All the World's a Puppet Show at France's Biannual Festival - Atlas Obscura
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All the World’s a Puppet Show at France’s Biannual Festival

The international event’s roots go back to a puppeteer who entertained kids during the Nazi occupation.

Puppet performance of “The Seven Ravens,” a German folk tale by the Brothers Grimm, in which a young girl travels the world to look for her seven brothers, who have been turned into ravens.
Puppet performance of “The Seven Ravens,” a German folk tale by the Brothers Grimm, in which a young girl travels the world to look for her seven brothers, who have been turned into ravens. All images courtesy the World Festival of Puppet Theaters

We first learn the concept, intuitively, as kids: Pretending that objects are alive and making up epic stories about them is fun. A teddy bear can be a medieval warrior-king, a rubber duck an evil sea monster. Perhaps that’s why puppets are such a universal form of art and play that spans eras and cultures across the world. Marionettes—literally “little, little Maries” were often used to tell Bible stories in medieval France. Shadow play is a mainstay in China and Southeast Asia. And Japan’s bunraku is puppet theater with singers, musicians, and half-life-size dolls.

These and more forms of puppet theater are currently on parade in Charleville-Mézières, in northern France’s Ardennes region, at the biannual World Puppet Theater Festival.

A square in Charleville-Mézières, where the biannual World Puppet Festival is held.
A square in Charleville-Mézières, where the biannual World Puppet Festival is held.

The festival was started in 1961 by Jacques Félix, a man who is considered the “father of puppets” in France. He first got to know the art when he worked as a kids’ entertainer in Nazi-occupied France. Félix’s true passion was scouting, but when it was banned by the Nazis, he turned to child entertainment in Nazi-led summer camps.

Today, the 10-day festival attracts around 250 theater companies performing for 170,000 spectators—adults and kids alike—across 50 venues in town. The puppeteers come from all corner of the planet, from Brazil to India and Israel to the United States.

Charleville-Mézières is also home to the International Puppetry Union, a UNESCO-affiliated organization of puppet practitioners, and the International Puppetry Institute and its school, which currently trains 30 international students in a three-year puppetry course.

Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from current and past iterations of the festivities.

“Passager Clandestin” is the story of a shepherd who leaves Italy to look for work and ends up boarding <em>Titanic</em>, by Cannes-based company Arketal.
“Passager Clandestin” is the story of a shepherd who leaves Italy to look for work and ends up boarding Titanic, by Cannes-based company Arketal.
Adapted from “The Lost Ones” a short story by Samuel Beckett, "Milieu" tells the story of a trapped marionette. For the performance, puppeteer Renaud Herbin built a 12-foot cylindrical structure, and uses 7-foot strings to move his marionette.
Adapted from “The Lost Ones” a short story by Samuel Beckett, “Milieu” tells the story of a trapped marionette. For the performance, puppeteer Renaud Herbin built a 12-foot cylindrical structure, and uses 7-foot strings to move his marionette.
<em>Katkatha</em> puppets from India.
Katkatha puppets from India.
Two masked actors during one the daily performances in the streets of Charleville-Mézières.
Two masked actors during one the daily performances in the streets of Charleville-Mézières.
A marionette from a street performance in Charleville-Mézières.
A marionette from a street performance in Charleville-Mézières.
Another glimpse of Renaud Herbin's trapped marionette, from "Milieu."
Another glimpse of Renaud Herbin’s trapped marionette, from “Milieu.”
A glimpse of “La Traque” ("The Pursuit"), a play by international artist collective Projet D about a village that gets surrounded by wolves.
A glimpse of “La Traque” (“The Pursuit”), a play by international artist collective Projet D about a village that gets surrounded by wolves.
 German puppeteer Ika Schönbein performing “Ricdin Ricdon," the story of a young woman who is locked in a dungeon by a king who hopes to turn her into gold.
German puppeteer Ika Schönbein performing “Ricdin Ricdon,” the story of a young woman who is locked in a dungeon by a king who hopes to turn her into gold.
Miniature marionettes created by Renaud Herbin for “Ouvrir the Hibou” (“Open the Owl"), which allows spectators to look behind the scenes.
Miniature marionettes created by Renaud Herbin for “Ouvrir the Hibou” (“Open the Owl”), which allows spectators to look behind the scenes.