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.

Of humans and puppets

The old puppeteer looks tired. As always, after the play is over he bids farewell to the people in the audience. He thanks them for being there. He is still using his puppeteer voice when he tells them, with a smile: “If you loved the play, go tell your friends about it. If you didn’t love the play, let’s keep it between us.”

He is one of the few who keep alive a tradition started in the 19th century: puppet shows for kids and adults alike. The shows build upon famous plays and infuse them with humor and contemporary references. Stories of deceit, tragedy and murder are told with a smile, but it’s not the smile of indifference and cynicism.

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

The theater room is small and cosy. 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 wooden benches, small scene covered by painted wooden boards. The smell of old wood and dust. The little funny speech of the master puppeteer at the start of the play. The moment when the lights go out. When the wooden boards move to the side and reveal the scene. People slowly settling down and stopping their whispering.

You enter this room and you look around and there’s a cynical voice inside wondering if you’ll be able to make it through the play. If your adult mind will still be able to access that state of grace, carelessness and play. To enjoy the show.

And you know what? It happens. After a few minutes you’re swept into that spot of light on the small stage, looking at small wooden frames covered by colored pieces of cloth. They are called Athos, Portos, Aramis, Carmen, Cyrano de Bergerac, Faust, Hamlet, or Macbeth. And they’re alive.

It’s all so real. I can feel the hard wooden bench I’m lying on. I feel the puppets just above me. It’s dark outside. And there’s that unmistakable smell of old wood and dust.


“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) – Jean Cocteau

Cities in silence: Brussels

I’ve done this short series that I called “Cities in silence”. It’s the silence of cities devoid of people, withdrawn, turned towards themselves. There is a certain nostalgic beauty to it. The last in this series is Brussels.

This is the place where it can rain for a whole week and winter winds chill you to the bone. It’s the place where – depending on your mood – local administration and politics can either make you laugh hysterically or drive you crazy with its absurdity.

But it is also the place where you can meet people from all over the world. Where you sit on ancient oak benches and savor a Trappist beer, produced by the monks themselves. Where you can watch the night sky laying down on the pavement of Grand Place, the central city square, around which the whole city developed through centuries. Where you can discover little bits of the old city in unexpected places.

These places have known plague, war, famine and despair. They have known joy, endless evenings on the terraces, couples making out, groups of friends celebrating something, doesn’t matter what, people walking alone with the wind in their hair.

The crowds will eventually return. The students, the rich, the tourists, the loners, the freaks, the drunk and the lovers will cross each other again along these old streets.

For now, the city still lives its silent life. Still breaths its hidden breathing. Barely moving but alive. I can hear its breathing beneath medieval pavement stones and rundown building fronts.

You can also read the other two posts in this series, about Paris and Lisbon.

Wired for stories

One of my earliest memories is me lying on the bed while my dad was reading me a story. It is so early I’m not even sure if it is a real memory, or rather something I’ve picked up along the way and made it mine. I don’t remember what the story was. But I do remember how it felt to be told a story.

Stories are ways of telling one another things that matter. Telling them without simply describing them, without lecturing about them, and without forcing our moral conclusions on the audience.

I’m not only talking about popular tales, short stories, novels and the like. We are storytelling creatures and we structure our experiences and our past along narrative lines. The way we see ourselves becomes our story. One that we rewrite and redefine as we go along.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). This Mexican holiday is associated with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (1st and 2nd of November). What sets it apart is the atmosphere of celebration rather than mourning.

Long before we set out to tell a story, we listen to or read countless other stories. From grandma’s tales to the latest psychological thriller, we live among narratives. Many of them become part of us. We learn, consciously or not, about different story patterns and plots. About how good storytelling feels.

Dia de Muertos in Brussels (2019). Three women prepare themselves as the procession is about to start.

When telling stories or listening to them, we rely on this implicit knowledge of what a story is and how it should be told. We don’t need to know about narrative arc, plot and conflict in order to feel that some stories feel right and others not so much.

We are wired to look for stories, understand them as stories and extract personal meaning from them.

That’s why good stories are at the same time personal and universal. They speak to us directly, as if they were written for us. And they do the same with countless other people.