Single Photo Stories: The Oak Forest

It’s starting to get dark. All of a sudden, an evening breeze breaks the almost perfect silence of the forest. It moves millions of leaves and brings them to life. There’s a cosmic sigh carried by millions of voices. A long out-breath. A muffled voice trying hard to pronounce something.

I cannot understand what it says but somehow I know it’s something that concerns me. And you. And anybody.

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Single Photo Stories – new weekly series

I am starting a weekly series focused on stories built around single photos. I will keep all stories under 100 words. Being concise is a skill, probably one of the most difficult to acquire. Stories can be directly linked to the photo (how it was taken, what was happening) or they can simply use the photo as a writing prompt.

For today, I chose this grainy photo on a windmill in a small nature reserve close to where I live.

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Building a photo project

If there’s something that connects the various dots of my posts here, it’s my interest in storytelling. I don’t mean the technical aspects of telling a story, although those are important too. I mean the reasons we tell stories, the way they change us, and the roles they take in our lives.

There are many ways of telling stories, some more obvious than others. Telling a fairy tale is storytelling, but so is writing a novel. Or the letters and emails we send to family and friends. Or the photos we take. The books we keep around, the pictures we hang on the walls, and our social media presence are also ways of telling a story about ourselves.

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The reality of stories

In my native language, one standard formulation to start a folk tale is “There was, once upon a time, because if it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it”. There are different versions of this formulation, some of them going on and on about a miraculous past and place where the events took place.

“If it weren’t we wouldn’t tell about it” is about the substance and reality of stories. Obviously, folk tales are not descriptions of historical events (although they may echo such events). But this doesn’t mean that they are not rooted in the real. They are “real” insofar as they condense and distill the lived experience of past generations.

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The stories we live in

I would lie if I said that I started this blog having a detailed plan for going forward. But one thing I knew well: it would be about the spellbinding power of stories.

It would be about how stories take hold of us, enlighten us or push us into submission, make us happy or miserable. How we get to live inside our stories for years or even decades, and what this does to our life and our sense of self.

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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.

Moments in time

I chose a few photos that respond to this week’s Lens-Artists Photo Challenge: Your Inspiration. Each photo was taken in a context (place, time, mood) that I find inspiring.

I tend to develop a strong connection with certain places and return to them again and again. However, it’s not the simple presence in those places that provides inspiration. It’s a mix of narratives and emotions built around them, sometimes linked to specific times of the day (or night).

Some other times, it’s the cool breeze of exploration and discovery. The thrill of the unexpected.

Dew-covered fields at sunrise (Belgium, 2018)
Afternoon sunlight in the backstreets of Alfama (Portugal, 2019)
The sea after sunset (Belgium, 2019)
The free-range horses of Transylvania (Romania, 2019)
Path towards the heart of the forest (Belgium, 2019)
Watching the sunrise from the dunes (France, 2021)

Summer in Paris

A cloudy summer evening. We’re walking aimlessly through the big city.

On the banks of Seine, young people are chatting around something to eat and drink. The waves created by big tourist boats fade away at their feet.

The Seine between Pont Neuf and Pont des Arts (July 2021)

The rain comes unexpectedly and we find ourselves floating in a sea of umbrellas. For a few moments, it rains heavily. Il pleut des cordes, as they say here.

Saint-Severin Church and the Latin Quarter under the rain (July 2021)

The setting sun appears through the rain. It changes the contrast and texture of things. It makes them heavier, more real. Shadows are getting longer.

A busy street in Saint Germain-des-Pres (July 2021)

I don’t know if it was me taking your hand or you taking mine. We enter this old, glass-covered Parisian passage with small shops and cafes. Embroidery, stamps, jewelry, toys.

A silver-haired guy in a colorful coat, perfectly in tune with the atmosphere of the passage, briefly looks at the posters then enters a stamp shop. He looks like he belongs here.

Jouffroy Passage (July 2021)

When we get out on the other side of the passage, the rain has passed, the streets have dried up, and it’s almost dark. It’s just that indefinable after-the-rain smell that still endures.

Where stories take place

Traditional story openings are fascinating.

First, because they show how much we share across cultures and parts of the world.

Second, because they tell us a lot about the internal logic of storytelling. In its turn, this reveals how we communicate things that we consider worth transmitting over cultures and generations.

Sunny Sunday morning in the Belgian Ardennes (2020)

Openings set the scene by giving us an idea of the time and place for what is about to happen.

So when do stories take place?

  • English: “Once upon a time…”
  • Arabic: “There was, oh what there was (or there wasn’t) in the oldest of days and ages and times…”
  • German: “Back in the days when it was still of help to wish for a thing…”
  • Irish: “A long, long, long time ago it was (and there was a king in Galway)”
  • Korean: “In times of that a tiger used to smoke”
  • Japanese: “Long ago, long ago…”

This is not the present and it is not exactly the past either. It’s a past so distant from us that it defies any possible historical placement. It’s so long ago that strange things happened back then – and they appeared as normal. It’s a possible past, loosely connected to our chronological past. A might have been.

Now, where do stories take place?

  • Czech: “Beyond seven mountain ranges, beyond seven rivers…”
  • Estonian:”Behind seven lands and seas there lived…”
  • Slovak: “Where the water was being strewn and the sand was poured…”
  • Hungarian: “Once there was, where there wasn’t, there was a…”

Since stories take place on a time plane that’s so distant and different from ours, it makes sense to see something similar when it comes to their physical, geographical placement. This can be expressed either as a measure of distance (number seven is often involved) or as a measure of difference and strangeness (“where the water was being strewn…”). It is always far away – so far away that it becomes irrelevant where. It remains in the shadow of maybe it was or maybe it wasn’t. And this is exactly the point. Stories need to stay in that undefined space of possibility in order to travel and be transmitted.

I want to finish with a few words about the Romanian opening: “There once was, (as never before)… because if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been told…”. Not because it is my mother tongue, but because it adds something that, to my knowledge, does not appear elsewhere. It’s not only the play between was and wasn’t, between may have been and may not have been. It’s the second part: because if there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have been told.

This is not an invitation to believe that those incredible things really happened. It’s just a way of saying that our words, our stories carry something important that needs to be heard. It’s the narrator inviting the listeners to gather around, settle down and open their minds.

The fact that a story existed for so long, and has spoken to so many people who wanted to share it and keep it in existence, is proof of its value, proof that what the story has to say “exists.” A story remains alive only insofar it’s able to speak to us from that undefined place of possibility, only insofar it continues to travel, be shared, and enchant.

Source: I have taken examples of story openings from this Twitter thread.

You can read here an older post about the benefits of storytelling, and here another one about the role or function of stories.