From Junk to Giants: Berlin Hosts a Massive Puppet Show

20 years after the Berlin Wall fell, the city celebrates its unification.

October 1, 2009 — -- If you had to describe Jean-Luc Courcoult, you might say he is a cross between a circus clown and musician Elton John. He wears a bright yellow shirt, a pink jacket, shoes in colors a parrot would be proud of and oversized, square-framed glasses with orange lenses. In other words, he looks a lot like your stereotypical artist.

Courcoult, 55, is the creative head of Royal de Luxe, the French cult contemporary street theater company that makes extraordinary things out of everyday junk. Taking its inspiration from Jonathan Swift's classic tale "Gulliver's Travels," it catapults old-fashioned puppet theater into a new dimension. Working with high-tech puppets that are meters high and weigh tons, the company can turn any city into a stage for another chapter of its "giant saga," which started in 1993.

From Oct. 1-4, the company will be bringing this spectacle to Berlin as part of the celebrations surrounding the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This chapter -- named "The Giants Arrive - a Fairy Tale for Berlin" -- will cost around €1.6 million ($2.3 million). Organizers are hoping to charm about a million spectators.

The Royal de Luxe is part of a renaissance in folk theater. Courcoult likens it to the wandering minstrels of the Middle Ages -- except, instead of moving from village to village, his troupe travels from metropolis to metropolis. The giant puppets have danced in Nantes, France, Santiago, Chile, and London. In the latter city, the puppets rode around in double-decker buses and had children swinging from their arms. An elephant puppet even sprayed water over the crowds.

The company is bringing two puppets to Berlin. One is 9.5 meters (31 feet) tall and weighs 2.5 tons. It is a deep-sea diver and will be wearing an atmospheric diving suit made out of truck tarpaulins as it makes its way through the city and its waterways, aided by 31 helpers decked out in red livery. The helpers are called the "Lilliputians," after the little people in Swift's book. The smaller puppet -- at 5.5 meters (18 feet) and 800 kilograms (1,750 pounds) -- won't just be walking around; it will also be driving a scooter and a boat with the help of 22 Lilliputians.

Secrecy Preserves the Magic

"It's a family story; it won't be political," Courcoult said during a recent press conference in Berlin's now-decommissioned Tempelhof airport. As he went on to explain, his company will be telling a fairy tale about a long separation with the following plot: Terrible events have torn a city in two and caused one part of the city to be walled in. The big puppet is stuck in the west of the city, and the smaller one in the east. The big puppet drags a dormant geyser along the riverbed and places it under a wall. Then it wakes up the geyser to let it break down the city's barrier and allow the puppets to reunite.

Courcoult said that his company's stories are meant to help people dream. His guiding principle is the perfect illusion -- which obviously requires secrecy. During his press conference in the airport hanger, his team was hidden away one floor down, as if it were working on some top-secret project for Boeing or Airbus. Its members only emerged onto the runway when they were sure nobody could get a look at their half-built puppets. Only the official photographer was allowed to take pictures of the preparations, and each photo is carefully checked before being handed over to the media. Likewise, journalists are not allowed anywhere near the preparations -- apparently because too much information could rob the puppets of their magic.

The puppets-to-be are lying around in pieces on the dingy floor of Hanger 4. The head of the smaller one is covered with a black cloth and held upright in a rusty cage. A potato sack is wedged between its nose and the cage bars; its chin rests on a cushion. The head of the larger puppet sits on a builder's pallet. There is foam and cardboard between its teeth, and there's a hole behind its hairline, where the model airplane engine that will move the puppet's eyes by remote control will go.

Two workers drag the accordion-like neck of the larger puppet and screw it onto the giant's exposed innards, which consist of a control box as big as a cigarette machine slung with cables as thick as your arm. Another worker cleans the mold off the giant puppet's diving belt; it had built up over the months that the puppet was stored after the Nantes performances. And all around are plenty of wooden boxes that have yet to be unpacked. They have labels reading things like "Lunettes" (glasses), "Couette" (ponytail) and "Avant-Bras" (forearm).

When Puppets Come to Life

Out on the runway, other workers are welding absurdly old-fashioned vehicles that will give the marionettes -- which are mostly moved by human hands -- a little extra support. For the larger puppet, there's a rusty, 18-year-old dumptruck complete with a crane arm and lots of straps. For the smaller puppet, there's a forage harvester. What once moved corn from the stalk to a truck has been accessorized to fit the needs of modern giant puppetry.

It is hard to believe that this junk will be transformed into a spectacle, a theatrical dream. But this is the whole idea: making something special out of something mundane. The puppets that Royale De Luxe makes are famous for looking so true-to-life. They walk in a realistic way, their eyes swivel and their chests move when they breathe. "People will think they have seen the puppets laugh and cry, even though it is technically impossible for puppets to do so," puppet builder Matthieu Bony promises.

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