The French Connection: Day 13 – Storytelling and Street Theatre

As I write, sitting in the rooftop bar of the Lafayette Galleries, having my second glass of red, the waiter asked: “Card again, no receipt again?”

I agreed and, remembering his joke from Monday (yes, I am back here again) I said: “And the view is still good.”

“But it’s grey,” he laughed, pointing at the clouds. “And it’s windy,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “But it’s not raining”. You can’t do this (at least not comfortably) in Manchester. In October. Unless you’re trying to prove a point or it’s a feat of endurance.

Today, I added probably the most obscure mode of transport to the list of odd things I’ve ridden and, do bear in mind, that having sledged a toboggan (ok that’s not that weird) down the Great Wall of China (more random) I am usually on the lookout when I travel for the unusual. I’ve been riding a Minotaur.

Created for a show in Toulouse, standing 14m tall and weighing 47 tonnes, the Minotaur can be seen carrying up to 50 people up and down a former runway in the Montaudran suburb. I wonder if it ever gets boring to look out of the window and watch a Minotaur striding past.

The Compagnie de La Machine have their main workshop in Nantes but opened this location as their operation expanded.

There seems to be something fitting about setting up shop here. It’s where the predecessor of Airbus, Aeropostale flew their planes to South America from. Aeropostale was created as a result of gathering together WW1 pilots who wanted to continue flying after the war. Their first route was Barcelona but was extended to Casblanca and then Dakar. By 1925 they were flying to South America. So it’s a location where companies with imagination have based themselves.

Sophie, an actor by training and an operator (one of the machinists steering the Minotaur today) told me: “This seems to be a good location for visionaries and dreamers.”

Princess the Spider made an appearance in Liverpool in 2008 and she’ll be wandering Montaudran during half term. She requires 13 operators so she only comes out for special occasions.

Each leg weighs a ton and for each performance there will be one technician for each leg. The company’s mantra is that you can only steer/ drive/ control what you can see. The risk of injury or damage is far too high to have operators working blindly, especially in crowded street settings which is what these fantastically beautiful creations are designed for.

La Machine (the company) have been operating for about 25 years creating street theatre spectacle around the world. Each creature requires epic production with 60 professions working within La Machine to build these. They come about using a combination of old crafts techniques (from declining industries), new technology and developing their own solutions to problems.

Each machine is made of wood and metal and it’s not only design, engineering and construction that goes into making each one. There’s a whole heap of movement choreography because the animals must move in a natural and believable way.

Each production requires a story BEFORE the creature comes to life. “We don’t design an animal and then wonder how we are going to use it,” said Sophie. “We start with the purpose and then we design the right animal to tell that story.”

The right animal has included Princess (the spider) for Liverpool and Long Ma (the horse dragon) for Beijing, for the 2008 Olympics.

The story will be influenced by the geography. What does the setting have? Is there a river? Is there a bridge? How will this feature in the storytelling?

And what about the culture of the place? What are the references that everyone will understand? Liverpool is different to Beijing.

When Long Ma was commissioned, it was with much shorter notice than was usual for La Machine. Each machine can take two years but the Beijing project had to be ready within eight months. The Minotaur was already complete… but there is no cultural reference to Minotaurs in China. A dragon would work.

Looking at the pictures of Long Ma and the Minotaur (none to add here) I can see why a Horse-Dragon was created. The lower half of the Horse-Dragon isvery similar to the Minotaur. Only the top half differs.

That must have sped up construction. Only half of the machine was a new design but teams had to be expanded to work against the click to ensure Long Ma was ready to go to China.

Not every idea achieves full scale. Politics (change of mayor or political party) and finance can stop a project being completed. The polar bear is one that fell by the wayside. That’s one I’d really like to see.

La Machine is in demand as a place for internships and work experience by young people who want to learn the skills involved. Sophie said that they often return seeking jobs as there is nowhere else outside of the company that works with the same ethos and methodology.

It’s a company that pulls together very different crafts to work together on joint projects. Many of the people who work there found that their skills were used in restoration – the use of traditionl techniques for authentic construction. At La Machine, they’re making new things. 

The success of the workshop in Nantes has led to more cities wanting La Machine – regeneration, jobs and tourism. In Nantes, the workshop is in an old naval workshop and the company was asked to preserve the historic buildings. They have and they’ve expanded the workshops and the workforce.

It’s a fascinating place to visit and NOT only because I got a ride on a Minotaur.

Categories: France, Street Art, The French Connection, Toulouse, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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