Last summer, photographer and stage/film mask-and-creature sculptor Matt Jackson traveled to the tiny town of Charleville-Mézières, in France, to study puppetry at L'Institut International de la Marionette. After a three-week workshop, he took his new hinged buddy, François, on the road for several months, performing on stages and sidewalks in London, Edinburgh and Berlin. Now the Art Institute of Pittsburgh grad and former Squonk Opera collaborator is back in the States. François' U.S. debut is set for March 25, at a 5:30 p.m. opening reception for an exhibit at The Artists Upstairs, 911 Penn Ave., Downtown (412-365-0270).
I went to the [Art Institute] because of puppets in movies like Labyrinth and stuff like that. Little troll-like puppets. I just liked creating a new entity, some new animal. Squonk Opera geared me towards more old-fashioned puppets, with sticks and things. Squonk kinda opened my eyes to other forms.
What was the Institut like?
It was incredible. We had students from Spain, we had students from France, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Scotland, and an instructor from Japan. And in a French school. The Japanese instructor didn't speak French, the French barely spoke English, and the English didn't really speak French. So it was mostly just hand gestures.
What did you study?
It was [the instructor's] specific style of puppetry. He's a performer himself and has been for 50 years. He had built a style loosely based on bunraku, which is a 500-year-old Japanese form. He taught us how to build this one style of puppet, that's bunraku but much larger. It's life-size. Then he taught us performance and manipulation. Then we had a few days to create a performance.
The puppet's named François?
Of course. He eez French. I realized he kinda looks like my grandfather. Everyone else had pretty much a full-sized puppet, and here I am with this weird little old man. ... Bon jour, monsieur.
How'd your show go?
It was well received. For some reason my show ended up being like a really sad, serious piece, and a few people came up afterward and said, "I cried. I cried during your show." And I'm like, "It's a puppet. A 15-minute puppet show."
What was your show?
There was a hanger, and there's clothing on the hanger. It was a blouse, a skirt; you could tell it was his deceased wife. And it comes up slowly from the corner of the stage, and he's definitely affected by the clothing, and it's all to extremely sad music.
You worked at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
I worked 18 hours a day building the theaters, and for another three weeks I did all lights and sound. Fortunately or unfortunately I arrived there with absolutely no money. I had [François], so I was able to busk in Scotland. I would go out for about an hour, I would make five, seven pounds. But it rained a lot, and I wanted to ask if maybe I could busk in the foyer. And the guy said "No, but we have an empty time slot in one of the theaters, if you want to do an actual performance." I'm like, "Yeah, I think I could work that out."
How'd Germany happen?
I was fortunate to meet a girl from Germany while I was in Scotland. She booked me at a theater, they flew me in and gave me a whole bunch of money. It was at this German comedy night. It was like 10 different German comedians come out and tell these jokes or whatever. I didn't know what to do, so I'm like, "I'm just going to do my show." So I did the sad, serious show, in the middle of this two-hour comedy night, and these Germans had no idea -- "What the heck?" I walk offstage, and leave the puppet there, and I'm back there waiting for them to clap, and no one's clapping. The guys [backstage] are telling me, "I think they're waiting for the punchline."
Is it boring here now?
I think one of the reasons I was so crazy when I came back was I had just created this entity that I didn't have any more. [François] was on my back literally for five and a half months, and now he's just in my trunk. People would talk to him, have conversations. They didn't know my name; they knew François.
How has François been received here?
It's been hard coming back, because I feel more comfortable over there [in Europe] most of the time. Especially with this kind of work. Americans are like, "What? Puppets?" My friends I grew up with, I brought him out, and they were like, "What is that?" and they were creeped out by it and they hate him.