In May 2017, multi-story Giants, huge cranes and live bands invaded Montreal, Quebec to commemorate the city’s 375th birthday. Mark Sussman, an associate professor in the Department of Theater at Concordia University in Montreal and witness to the Giants’ slow march through the city, came to the Ballard Wednesday to describe the three-day long performance and the company behind it.
Royal de Luxe is a giant marionette street theater company located in Nantes, France. They only visit two or three cities a year due to the need to train puppeteers to operate the machinery of their Giants, which are massive marionettes that can walk, dance, turn their heads and even swim, and to ship them overseas. In fact, the performance in Montreal was the first time the company came to North America.
Jean-Luc Courcoult is the founder of the company. He talks to city officials to get permission for such large-scale performances. This discussion can take as long as three years, but the company takes on the persona of just appearing in the cities they visit, as if out of nowhere.
The Giants are made to move in well-choreographed, animated ways that make them appear almost lifelike. Along with puppeteers, there also have to be local crane conductors and engineers on hand to make the Giants move.
The puppeteers are visible during the performances due to the nature of the puppets’ mechanics, so they must constantly be in character while they work. Each performance is created to match the history, character and landscape of the city the show is taking place in. At times, the show has garnered audiences as low as 22,000 and as high as more than a million.
“I was familiar with them a little bit,” Esme Orsze, a sixth-semester puppetry major, said. “Usually people will send me videos of them, because ‘you’re a puppeteer, you should see this giant scuba diver!’ So it was cool to get the backstory.”
There were three characters in the Montreal performance: The Deep Sea Diver, the Little Giant and her dog Xolo. The Diver had a mysterious backstory as one of the victims of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. On Day One of the performance, he emerged from a local body of water, which was impossible in Montreal due to the currents of the St. Lawrence River, and washed up in the city. He didn’t wake up until Day Two. The Little Giant was his niece who he hadn’t seen since the tragedy, so the whole plot of the show was the pair’s slow trek across the city where they would reunite.
The Deep Sea Diver is 15 meters tall while the Little Giant is only 14 meters tall. Both are carved out of wood. Their size and composition make them move far slower than real people. The Little Giant’s dog is paper mache, so he can move much faster than the other two. The feet of the diver are longer than a human is tall. Only on the third floor of the buildings in Montreal could people look the Giants directly in the eye.
Due to the nature of the enormous, carnivalesque puppets, the storylines they undergo don’t need to be complex to create something truly extraordinary. The slow movements of the Giants seemed to stall time, even though most of their actions are simply the motions of everyday life.
From Royal de Luxe sprung a different company, La Machine. La Machine created similar giants, but rather than being created of wood or paper, their puppets were more mechanical. Sussman argued that this made them less intimate than the Giants of Royal de Luxe.
“I thought it was really interesting hearing the difference between the Royal de Luxe and the Machinist and how one was based on the inner workings of mechanisms and more robotics and this one was more about—you can see the performer,” Kat Folker, an eighth-semester puppetry major, said. “I thought this one was more interesting because you can go anywhere and see a robot or an automaton, but this is watching a giant marionette, which is a different experience.”
Because the mechanics of the Royal de Luxe Giants needed to be maneuvered by hand, the puppeteers had to leap off the crane behind the puppets, using their body weight to yank cords before circling back around so the next puppeteer could take their place. This manic motion by the people resembled bowing, as if they are worshipping the puppet they work to keep animated. Every little motion of the puppet was practically a dance for the puppeteers, with dozens of them needed just to make the puppets walk a few meters. For just three puppets, 95 members of the company travelled to Montreal and 30 locals were recruited to help make the performance happen.
“As someone who has worked with smaller scale marionettes, it was interesting seeing how people use their entire bodies to move one of the legs,” Folker said.
The Little Giant and the Diver began performing in 2009 and were retired just last year, so it’s possible that new Giants may take turns travelling across the Earth in years to come.
“Of course I’d go see them,” Folker said. “I’d wade through that crowd to get to see any of these puppets.”
Rebecca Maher is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.