A journey through the old Brussels

At the end of a certain Impasse Sainte Pétronille, carefully hidden just a few steps from Grand Place, there’s an old brick and wood house that holds inside much more that it gives away at first glance. Weekend tourists may know the beer tasting tours that invariably pass by the pub downstairs. The pub where you can drink the amber beer produced by the monks of the Orval Abbey, in the south of Belgium, while patting the cat of the house.

But locals and people who’ve been living here long enough know about the cozy puppet theater upstairs, the Royal Theatre of Toone.

What is this place really?

If you’ve been to a puppet show as a kid, you have a good starting point. Now, imagine a place where shows address any age and no age in particular. They speak to the kid in you. They speak to the adult who has maybe forgotten how to be a kid.

It’s a place where dreams are made.

“All for one and one for all”. A scene from The Three Mousquetaires (September 2021).

It’s funny how we use puppets and masks to tell our stories, those that count for us humans. At some point, however, puppets come alive and tell their own stories. Incredibly similar to ours and yet strangely different.

The theatre room is small and cozy. Dozens of old puppets are hanging on the walls. After having served in so many plays, they are now facing the stage just like the rest of the audience. In fact, they are part of the audience.

Wooden beams, long benches, small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settle down and stop their whispering.

After a few minutes, your adult, often cynical mind is swept into that spot of light on the small stage, where small wooden frames covered by colored pieces of cloth talk, fight, fall in love, or die. They are called Athos, Portos, Aramis, Carmen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Hamlet, or Macbeth. And they’re alive.

Nicolas Géal, the theatre director and the official Toone (a title which passes from one generation to another), was kind enough to sit down and chat about the puppets and the theatre. I could also photograph what happens not only front stage but also behind the curtains, as he and the puppeteers prepare the show.

Nicolas Géal, Toone VIII, showing some of the oldest puppets in the small museum of Toone Theatre.

Who is Toone?

Toone is the diminutive of Antoine in the Brussels dialect. The founder of the Toone Theatre was called Antoine Genty. It all started around 1830 in the Marolles district. Toone does the voices of the puppets, surrounded by six puppeteers. The configuration of the puppeteers’ booth does not allow them to work with the same puppet throughout the show. Therefore, the puppeteers do not do the voices of the puppets. Toone performs all the roles for practical reasons. He also does female voices, hence the parody aspect.

Behind the scenes, the puppeteers prepare the show. José Géal, Nicolas’ brother, demonstrates a technique while speaking about the balance between realism and hyperbole.

What does the world of puppets mean to you?

The world of puppets represents all my childhood and my family. I grew up in this universe. My whole family revolves around the planet of puppeteering. However, one does not necessarily become Toone from father to son. It is a popular and adoptive tradition. Toone is indeed enthroned by his predecessor and by the public… because, without an audience, there is no theater. As Racine said: “The main rule is to please and to touch. All the other rules are made only to achieve the first.”

Nicolas Géal with Woltje, the mascot of Toone Theatre. Woltje appears in most shows in the role of a funny and resourceful little guy with a big mouth and a big heart.

What is the audience of your shows?

Our shows are aimed more at adults curious to discover the specificity of Brussels. Toone Theatre is indeed unique in its kind as it was a popular mode of education until the beginning of the 20th century. People came to Toone’s to keep up to date with cultural news. Now they come to Toone to see a parody and have fun.

Pulling the strings. Rehearsal before the show.

What do you do when something unexpected happens?

Sometimes you must improvise during the show. Puppets can get tangled up, lose their head (literally or figuratively), come on stage too early or too late… The puppeteer can also end up handling the wrong puppet. One day, a small dog walked across the stage.

At the end of the show, all the puppets come on the stage to dance and salute the public. The puppeteers show their faces as the public applauds and cheers. Toone descends in front of the stage with his usual half-innocent, half-naughty smile. “If you like it here, please go tell your friends. If you didn’t like it here, it stays among us.” It’s not just a joke; it’s almost an incantation, a signature phrase at the end of every show. A way of saying goodbye in typical Toone style.

The puppeteers salute the public at the end of the show.

Downstairs, in the small estaminet with Spanish pink brick walls, blackened beams, and tiled floor, there’s an inscription on the wall by Jean Cocteau. It reads:

“There are too many frozen souls out there in order not to love wooden characters that have a soul”(Il y a trop d’âmes en bois pour ne pas aimer les personnages en bois ayant une âme)

I couldn’t agree more.

2 thoughts on “A journey through the old Brussels

  1. Very cool post. I know very little about puppeteering, since Brazil does not have a strong tradition-that I know of, neither have I heard much about it in the USA but both myself as a child in Brazil and my son here have been to puppet shows. No puppets like you portray though. Not as detailed and finely dressed. I wish I could visit this bar.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Alessandra.
      Funny thing is I don’t remember going to a puppet show when I was a child (although I may have just forgotten about it). So I discovered it as an adult and I think there was something in that adult craving to watch this with the eyes of a kid, with no cynicism and no judgment.

      Liked by 1 person

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