A street performance by France’s Royal de Luxe is unmistakable and otherworldly. Gigantic, yet strangely lifelike, mechanical marionettes are attached with ropes and pulleys to converted tractors and mobile cranes and operated by a team of costumed puppeteers as they make their way through locally inspired street-theatre spectacles. This month, to celebrate Montreal’s 375th birthday, three of the company’s five currently touring géants (as they’re known en français) cross the Atlantic for their first-ever Canadian appearance. The company is notoriously secretive about forthcoming shows, but, Margot Courcoult, one of the operators of The Little Girl Giant’s right foot and daughter of company co-founder Jean-Luc Courcoult, provides a behind-the-scenes look at this massive spectacle.
When did you first perform with Royal de Luxe?
I was about nine or 10 when I appeared in the show Les Embouteillages [Traffic Jams] in 1993. Myself and a friend had the roles of children playing in the back of a truck full of sand as if we were on a beach. After that, I distanced myself from the company a little, until I got a call in 2005 saying that a new giant was being built, and did I want to be part of it.
How are the giants made?
It takes one or two years to build them, including planning and construction. They’re made of wood and metal—poplar, lime, steel and copper—as well as materials such as leather, paper strips and silicone. The machines that they’re attached to are specially converted, for instance, from tractors or cranes. They’re very much objects until the first time we rehearse with them, and that’s when they become their characters and we refer to them as “she” and “he,” rather than “it.”
How many people operate the Little Girl Giant?
There are more than 20 of us, plus four reinforcements—local operators—we hire in each city. Just to operate the head, you need five people: one each for movement to the left, right, up, down and the eyes. It’s funny—even though there are so many of us dressed in red, shouting directions to each other, we still get people asking how she moves.
How did you learn the motions?
It feels very much like being on a ship, because of the ropes and pulleys and the way you’ve got to work as a team—we are dependent on the other operators. If you don’t move when you’re supposed to, you may break something on the marionette or hurt yourself. It’s quite powerful to be part of it.
How do you make her walk?
The machine pushes along, and counterweights make the leg not so heavy to lift with ropes, but there aren’t too many counterweights, or the leg wouldn’t touch the ground. You have to pull the ropes down with your whole body weight. The guys operating the knee run forward, jump and pull the ropes toward the ground, then release quickly. If they don’t, her leg stays up, and it doesn’t look real.
What’s it like to perform with the giants?
It’s an amazing feeling. Rehearsals are exhausting, physically and emotionally, but we walk a lot further than we ever would in rehearsals, because of the energy of the audience.
More ways to celebrate Montreal’s 375th birthday: