My Brief Career as a Spanish Puppeteer

Webpage-editor's note: This article first appeared in the Puppetry Journal, the magazine of Puppeteers of America. After this collaboration with Los Titiriteros de Binefar, Magical Moonshine Theatre and Los Titiriteros collaborated again on a music recording, now available, called Family Fiesta, Play Songs From Northern Spain. There is a link on the links page to a website where the recording is available.

The Beginnings: Mexico City, 1991 -In the summer of 1991, my theatre company was performing at a series of puppetry festivals in Mexico. It was there that Valerie, Benjamin (my wife and son who was six at the time), and I first met the founding members of Los Titiriteros de Binefar, a puppet troupe from the Aragon region of northern Spain. Although our performance schedules were such that we did not get to see each other's shows, we immediately felt a connection between the two groups. Like us, they were a performing family, consisting of Paco and Pilar (the parents) and their almost teenage daughters, Marta and Eva. And like us, they were able to see the humor in the more disorganized aspects of the Mexican festival we were attending. As a result of this chance meeting, they asked us to add performances in Spain to our already scheduled shows in France and Germany for summer, 1992.

Northern Spain, 1992 -All in all we spent a little over three weeks with Los Titiriteros in northern Spain, braving the summer heat and performing in the dusty towns and villages in the arid region surrounding the southern Pyrenees Mountains. During this time the two companies had ample opportunity to see each others shows (for the first time) and fortunately found that our mutual respect for each other extended to each other's work as well.

California, 1994 -In late June of 1994 we finally had the opportunity to complete the circle and host Los Titiriteros in California for their first performances in the United States. The whole experience was so marvelous that I wanted to share it with other puppeteers with the thought that some may also have an opportunity in the future to participate in a cultural exchange such as this one.

The Challenge: -When we performed our shows in Spain, we performed in Spanish as Valerie and I both speak the language somewhat. However, of the five Titiriteros (the four family members plus Angel, the musician) performing here in California, none spoke more than a word or two of English. How were we to make the performances accessible to California audiences? A significant portion of the population here speaks Spanish, but not all. In addition, the Spanish speaking audiences can be the hardest to reach as they are often less willing to attend a public event such as a performance. And in many cases, second generation Hispanic children do not speak much Spanish as their parents and schools urge them to learn the language of their new country. It was clear to me that having some English in the show was desirable.

After a few exchanges of faxes regarding this situation, I suggested that I might somehow be integrated into the show, standing off to the side and giving some English translation as needed. Paco enthusiastically agreed, and sent me a nine page script of "my lines" in Spanish for me to translate and prepare.

I had never seen the particular show that they were bringing, and I only received a script of my lines and cues. I was still somewhat uncertain about the details of the play when the troupe arrived in California two days before we were to leave on the first part of our tour. From the script and press photos, Valerie and I pieced together that the play was a version of the tale of Saint George and the dragon, told with hand puppets and musicians in medieval jester garb. Imagine my delight when, upon their arrival, they informed me that I would be one of the costumed musicians (they had brought the costume), and proceeded to teach me the medieval tunes that I would be playing in the show!

We had time for one rehearsal (remember, I had not even seen the show) before we headed to Asilomar to perform at the Pacific Southwest Regional Puppet festival. I had done my homework, translated and memorized my script, and thought I was prepared. However, it was during the first and only rehearsal that I realized that Paco and Pilar improvised the script, and that each show was going to be different, and that I would truly have to rely on my Spanish language skills to survive the next few weeks with my dignity intact. In point of fact, it was after this first rehearsal that Paco and I decided that the best way to keep my dignity intact was to destroy it completely and purposefully.

The Set Up: -Here is how we did it: The introduction before the show stated in English that Paco, the leader of the Jesters wanted California audiences to understand the show. To this end, he had hired an "American jester" to help with the performance. It was explained that although he had some concerns about the wisdom of this action, he was hoping that all would work out in the end.

This contrived situation set us up with many humorous possibilities. It also served the useful purpose of hiding my mistakes of translation; should Paco, in his enthusiastic improvisation, rattle off some line in Spanish that was incomprehensible to his humble translator, then I would just completely and obviously mistranslate it and a potentially awkward moment would become one of general hilarity.

As the show evolved over the course of a number of performances, so too did the jokes. Some of the mistranslations became part of the script. In addition we worked out some routines where Paco would come from behind the hand puppet stage and bawl me out in front of the audience. In one of these, after a particularly fierce tongue lashing in Spanish Paco orders me to translate his words to the audience. There can be no doubt that the audience understands the meaning if not the words of his tirade, but my character, realizing that none of the troupe can understand English, proceeds to translate a glowing report from my leader, including promises of a wonderful, future career with his company. This always brought down the house.

Although I have been producing shows with my company for 15 years now, this was my first experience performing in a show produced by someone else. The experience was a delight for me. I was able to step into a finished production, work in the company of professionals who were honed performers, and, as the English translator, get lots of laughs as I was the one delivering all of the funny lines. But while I was enjoying the ease of sliding into a successful show, I was also gaining a renewed respect for the work that many puppeteers routinely do; that of writing, directing, and producing their own shows. For every independent puppet company, there has to be at least one individual with a vision that is ultimately realized in the form of a puppet show.

The Collaboration: -Working with Paco Paricio was very interesting for me. As we discussed the changes that my presence in his show required, I began to see through cultural and language differences, and realized that I was looking at someone very similar to myself. Both of us take that role of the visionary. The buck stops here, so to speak. Although both of us have many creative and talented people contributing to our respective works, as independent companies living off of our craft, we each must take ultimate responsibility for the success or failure of the production. And both of us have had years of practice and years of developing the habit of being that decision maker.

However, in spite of any potential for directorial clashes, we worked beautifully together. I always kept in mind that it was his show, and he in turn was always open to my ideas and suggestions, many of which we tried. At times it seemed that he was more respectful of my offerings than those of his colleagues, but perhaps this was due to our mutual delight in finding a kindred spirit in the other. We parted with a strong friendship and with many excited discussions of future projects together.

The Tour Workings: -Los Titiriteros were in California for almost three weeks. During that time they presented five performances, one at the Pacific SW Regional (already mentioned), two at the San Diego Guilds "Puppets in the Park" festival in Balboa Park, and two in Napa Valley. Between the two companies we had eight performers and two productions. Our touring, by necessity, was in two vans and Valerie and I did all the driving as the others did not have international driver's licences. The Spanish troupe were split into the two vehicles, but passed the hours on the road with constant play over the airwaves of the two cheap CB radios that we had purchased for the occasion.

On my advice, Los Titiriteros entered the U.S. on tourist visas as opposed to work visas. We chose tourist visas because of simplicity and the lack of sufficient performance revenue to warrant the efforts of obtaining work papers (we only had about six weeks to organize the tour which meant it was difficult to arrange good paying venues). Thus, Los Titiriteros could not be paid directly for any work here. All fees were paid to our theatre and we covered all expenses. Between performance fees and local donations we managed to raise $4500.00, which covered all U.S. expenses including a day at Disneyland and a night in a two story suite at the semi-famous Madonna Inn near San Luis Obispo. The Spanish government of Aragon generously covered Los Titiriteros air fare. Thus, although Los Titiriteros did not take home any money from their visit here, they got an all expense-paid working vacation that I'm sure they will remember.

The Conclusion: -Paco felt that the work that we had done here together could open many new possibilities for him. Previous to this, he had always performed in Spanish, and mostly in Spanish speaking countries. As he left he was talking of using the "American jester" concept in other countries. This adaptation could allow his troupe to perform in Japan, for example, with a "Japanese jester" or their equivalent. He was also very exciting about the possibility of a return tour to the U.S. Los Titiriteros' shows at the PSW Regional and in Balboa Park elicited a number of requests for future performances and he has asked us to assist him in organizing another U.S. tour, a year or two down the road.

The Future of International Collaboration: -Although the format of Los Titiriteros' production lent itself rather well to the above described collaboration, it seems possible that other types of creative collaboration based upon the same principal could be conceived. Each show is different and will offer its own challenges and difficulties, but the creative puppeteer is used to fabricating his or her own reality. In addition collaborations from 'scratch' could be planned and executed internationally through the fax lines. In our shrinking world, anything seems possible. And if my experiences are any indication, the effort would be well worth it.

More on Friendship Exchanges for Puppeteers: -One program that specifically promotes international friendship exchanges between puppeteers is UNIMA-USA's Hands Across the Sea. The program provides a link between companies with interest in traveling to another country, hosting a foreign troupe in the U.S., or both. For more information contact Monica Leo, UNIMA-USA Hands Across the Sea, 1404 Spring Street NW, Atlanta, GA 30309-2820

About the writer: Michael Nelson is a co-founder and director of Magical Moonshine Theatre, a California based musical puppet and mask theatre that has toured in the U.S., Latin America, Europe and Asia. He has written a number of articles for the Puppetry Journal in the past, most notably his "A Trip to the Hardware Store" series.

Photo, from left: American Jester Michael Nelson, and from Spain, Angel Vergara, Eva Paricio, Paco Paricio, Pilar Amoros.