Adventure on the street

Adventure on the street

Road show

Adventure on the street

Scarlet show: The ‘Les Giraffes’ street show in Chennai.

Urban eyes are not used to seeing giant creatures stroll down streets. Certainly not a herd of scarlet giraffes, at that. And yet, cities across the world have been seeing this strange sight, thanks to the febrile imagination of Philippe Freslon, director, Compagnie Off. For this street theatre firm from France, outlandish is the norm. The weirder, the better.

Imagine a scarlet giraffe parade in full height, throw in some high-pitched opera singing, a dancer in the ring who belts out a mishmash of hip hop, reggae and what-have-you dancing, music from local bands, fireworks, smoke screens and spot lights, circus tricks, glitzy showers of coloured paper that is sprayed generously on jaywalkers who have stopped by to watch this show, and you have a carnival atmosphere erupting on the streets.

But the opera singing is not just for the decibel effect, though. It is central to the story, and the singer doubles up as a heroine who is wooed by the clown. Incidentally, the clown is the one who yearns for giraffes, though it is the singer who sings out for giraffes. The giraffes heed her call, and there you have — nine, eight metre-tall, scarlet giraffes with their trademark graceful swaying necks strolling down the street. Confusing,is it? Perhaps. But it is also very colourful, and a strange new sight for city folks. “That happens to be the intention,” Philippe says. 

Street theatre is exciting because it uses the city architecture as its backdrop. You have to be sharp, or you will loose your audience’s attention. “To keep your audience’s eye in the sky, we have to be very fast on our feet. It is most challenging, because, your audience can just walk off. To hold their attention requires something spectacular,” explains Philippe. And a street play is never really repeated, because, the audience, the stage and the ethos keep changing all the time.

Les Giraffes is a street show that mixes opera, circus burlesque and the outlandish of all — a giant puppet theatre. The story and the scenario evolves, depending on the site, the audience, the time of the day, but chiefly, the stories are about emotional stuff like a wedding, divorce and a finale. “We tell a tale of love,” Philippe admits. Trust the French to stay romantic, even on the streets. 

So when a herd of red giraffes trot along in their trademark slow-motion kind of gait, with their graceful and flexible necks arching up to peep into buildings, arches, and other assorted city architecture, the ‘why’s of this streetplay fade out, and you are left awed at the hugeness of these creatures. “It feels like standing under a brontosaurus,” says 10-year-old Ashwath, one of those who had gathered to watch the parade at Venkatnarayana Street, in the heart of Chennai. The fact that onlookers can walk alongside the giraffes is a big attraction. There is no separate stage, no separate audience. People can walk in and out, and if you feel like it, you may even join in the parade. 

The entire parade winds up within a 400m stretch, but this procession takes all of an hour, because along the way, the clown woos the singer, marries her, has a fight, a divorce and a reunion as well. Needless to say, the play isn’t supposed to be cerebral. The idea is to appeal to the senses. And thankfully, there is no ambition to convey messages.

Giant shadows fall on the frontage of buildings, thanks to the spotlights which flood upon the performers, especially the giraffes. Where Les Giraffes scores is in the technical part, in successfully building giant giraffe puppets which simulate the graceful movements of real giraffes. “It took time, of course, and our giraffes evolved over the years. Initially, only one stilt walker was inside the giraffe, with iron legs at the back,” informs Philippe. Now, two stilt walkers take their place inside each giraffe. The stilt walker in the front controls the movement of the giraffe’s neck by means of cables. The stilt walkers do not seek attention, their job is to stay invisible and give life to the giraffes.

At Chennai, Les Giraffes roped in 50 local people — students, theatre artists and of course a music band that generally performs at weddings and other ceremonies, besides the 26 members of Compagnie Off which includes both freelancers and permanent staffers, of course. A week’s training is all that is required for learning to stilt walk, apparently. “Wherever we go, we like to work with local groups,” Philippe says. And besides, imagine the logistics of travelling around the world with a 75 member band!  
“Ten years ago, I wanted to have a parade with real giraffes. I love the way giraffes move,” says Philippe, for whom Les Giraffes is only one, but the star attraction of his street productions. Finding it hard to get real giraffes, Philippe settled for their puppet version, which incidentally turned out to be louder and wackier than the real version. His stint at the Tempodrome alternative circus explains the presence of clowns and other circus elements in his productions; Philippe can also be credited for taking opera to the streets of the world. 

Compagnie Off is a Street Arts company that thrives on the interaction between its artists and the city and its people. So, these giraffes have paraded in the streets of Africa, US, Canada, Taiwan, Europe and now Chennai, India, as part of the ongoing BonJour, the Festival of France in India. “Staging Les Giraffes in India is going to be different,” Philippe tells me ahead of the show. “India is Chaos,” says a grinning K’Chash, French Caribbean dancer in the crew. “We have never performed in such a crowded place before,” Philippe says.

What drives Philippe in going on with his bizarre street productions is a sense of unsure anticipation. As he says, you never know how a street parade or street play would turn out. Every time is an adventure.

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