As I reach the studio of El Clan Destino, perched on the heights of Paris, in the district of Belleville, my friend Diego Stirman greets me with open arms. It’s been nearly six years since our last meeting and the place has really shaped up. On that previous occasion, I’d watched him scour the floor of this former clothing workshop, presenting his vision of the puppetry “atelier” and theatre he was going to set up in his living room! Diego is a one-man puppet/clown/charlatan magician/story teller company. He has been travelling with his street shows all over Europe for the last thirty years. Every single element in his original stories, he crafts himself: puppets, props and scenery, ingenuously patched together from manifold objects, mustered up from the streets, or recycled from household wares. He started adult life as a doctor and top athlete in Argentina. After practicing medicine for a couple of years in Spain, he felt the need for a radical change, moved to France, turned his hand to puppetry and devised a knockout show which he performed to delighted crowds in the street outside his apartment in the Saint-Germain-des-Près area of Paris. Invitations to perform at various events and festivals followed, and eventually the idea of having his own performance space took shape.
This is where we stand now, coffee and whisky in hand. We recall old times surrounded by rows and rows of books, cheeky medleys of objects, foam puppets either finished or in the making, and incongruously positioned everyday items (are those boots glued to the wall?). At the back, we see a small artisan stage, flanked by two black curtains tacked to burgundy sidewalls. On the right, in the wings, is the kitchen. To the left and bolted to the wall, Diego’s foldable bed. In front of the playing area, four staggered wooden boxes, divided by a central aisle, seat about 20 people. A couple of spotlights hang from the ceiling. Organized chaos reigns throughout: empty coffee cups cohabit with pots of glue, a saw, a crazed rubber chicken, a globe. Leaning against the walls are colorful set elements, most notably a painted panel with the character’s face holed out so you can slip your own head through; dangling from the ceiling, various string puppets: a benevolent wise Talmudic professor, wild eyed bare breasted witches, doctored Barbie dolls…
The studio is accessed directly from the street. An industrial steel frame shop window displaying an unusual array of artifacts and a funky tribe of papier mâché puppets, in Diego’s inimitable style, suddenly catches the eyes of passers-by. Upon entering, on the right, there is a small counter, and under a pink transparent elephant head, a neon sign that reads: Bar + Empanadas (Argentinian savory pastries, home-made). Four shows are currently being performed in random order, befitting their creator’s mood and availability.
First, there is Entremets (small desserts) which I watched again during my visit. It is a joyous mix of great puppetry and irreverent street-performance slapstick that has the audience in stitches for the better part of an hour. Having established a friendly informal rapport with his small crowd, he takes us on an interactive ride that begins with a virtuoso Greek tragedy puppetry number (in a basket!) followed by an appearance by none other than Toto Copperfield, David’s grandfather, performing spurious magic tricks and crowned by a conference on “Oriental” art (see Editor’s note below), that almost ends in disaster. Members of the audience are invited to assist in the final act, but they do have to fight back tears of laughter in the process. Also in the repertoire are Flatus Bovus, which he describes as a “musical pedagogic ecological comedy for 4 years plus” and La Véritable Histoire (The True Story of) de Christophe Colomb, which is Diego’s iconoclast take on the illustrious merchant’s achievements. And Le Banquet, described as, “Everything you always wanted to know about love, but were afraid to ask for”.
Admission is free, but you throw money into a hat passed at the end of the show. Just like with street theater. Although the shows are in French, they are highly visual and Diego will gladly accommodate English speakers by throwing in a bit of simultaneous translation. Take a look at his website (in French): www.familia-stirman.com to find out more and see when you can catch one his performances on your next visit to the City of Light.
On the term “Oriental”. Diego makes satirical reference to the past exoticism of the east by the western world, specifically France — an idea through art and literature, that formed the othering of the east as a place of the unknown, wonder and mystery and was embraced by the intellectual elite of the era. What once was termed “Oriental” is now called Asian. See http://en.wikipedia.org/