An Overview of Puppet Theatre in Puerto Rico; past, present and future
by Manuel A. Morán Martínez, Ph.D.
Introduction – The Presence of Puppets in Puerto Rico
Theatre has been one of the artistic manifestations of vast development in Puerto Rico, particularly during the 20th Century. Through great effort and hard work, this development was wrought by several people and institutions dedicated to establishing a theatrical tradition in Puerto Rico. Three institutions were crucial to this development: the University of Puerto Rico’s Drama Department, created in 1941 by Dr. Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero; the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and its Division of Theatrical Promotion, created in 1955 by Dr. Ricardo E. Alegría; and the Department of Education’s Teatro Escolar Program, created in 1960, also by Santiago Lavandero. As Lydia Esther Sosa stated in her book, The Development of National Theatre in Puerto Rico, these institutions have carried out: “the greatest contribution in the evolution and development of our theatre.”
Puerto Rican children’s theatre and puppet theatre also emerged through these initiatives. Puerto Rico lacked a tradition of children’s theatre, specifically puppet theatre. Even though puppet theatre is unheard of in Puerto Rico before the 1960’s, there can be no doubt that some theatrical performances employed puppets, whether as an artistic element or for educational purposes in schools, or by mostly European theatre companies that visited the island. Emilio J. Pasarell, in Origins and Development of Theatre Afición in Puerto Rico, provides the only historical references to several puppet theatre performances on the island prior to 1960s. He mentions two companies: Salzburg Marionette Theatre, which visited San Juan in 1954 and again in 1956; and another Italian company called Los Puppi, which performed for several weeks in 1957. Nevertheless, in his article “Puppet Actors Invade the Island,” Santiago Lavandero establishes that: “In Puerto Rico, there’s no history that reveals the presence of puppets in the past.”
MIR – Genesis of National Puppet Theatre
In 1965, Santiago Lavandero himself initiated a movement to establish a puppet theatre tradition in the country. Through the Teatro Escolar Program, and through the auspices of the United States Congress Law #89-10, better known as Title I, funds were secured which allowed him to establish an experimental project, El Miniteatro Infantil Rural (MIR), or Rural Minitheater for Children.
This innovative project would consist in forming and training various itinerant puppeteer companies or groups that would tour the island with the purpose of “providing a minimum of cultured recreation to all the children in rural and urban zones, public and private.” In contrast to another project that Santiago Lavandero had previously initiated (Compañía Teatral de Maestros) the new endeavor would focus on puppet theatre and an elementary school public.
In August 1966, American Master-Puppeteer George Latshaw was hired as puppeteer specialist, to train the personnel. Those being trained were young high school graduates. The four chosen to staff the MIR were Víctor Adrián García, Antonio Pérez, Rafael Ruiz and Rafael Luis García. On November 9, 1966, they left on tour. Culebra Island was the site for the formal inauguration of Miniteatro Infantil Rural de Puerto Rico.
George Latshaw describes MIR in his article “Creating a Puppet Theatre Tradition in Puerto Rico,” published in The Children’s Theatre Review:
In the summer of 1966 I made my first trip to Puerto Rico to help launch the Miniteatro Infantil Rural, a pilot project that Dr. Lavandero had designed for elementary schools. Miniteatro was literally a “rolling theatre”- erected on the back of a six-passenger pick-up truck - which could accommodate the productions of both “live” and puppet plays. A sizeable stage deck was cantilevered from the truck bed to give elevation to the acting areas. Performances were to be held in the open air of schoolyards or playgrounds. Scenery consisted of a unit set, which could be converted into a thrust puppet stage with the addition of a wrap-around masking apron. Puppeteers worked overhead, while seated on low rolling stools on the stage deck.
The first tour was successful both educationally and artistically. That experience proved that this project should be continued and expanded throughout the island. Latshaw comments:
The success of the demonstration year led to the creation of three Miniteatro units during the summer of 1967. The “live” play was dropped, in favor of a smaller two-man company, which could travel with a repertory of three puppet plays. Portable puppet booth and gear was designed to stow neatly in a compact International Scout.
The Puppetry Seminar trained the staff during the summers. Participants were trained in the various areas of puppetry, from puppet making to creating material for the performances. In Rafael Ortiz’s book, Notes about Puppet Theatre in Puerto Rico, he states that, on average, twenty people were annually trained. Those training sessions and seminars were combined with other seminars in order to train teachers for school theatres. Subsequently, said trainees became Master Puppeteers who taught teachers how to use puppets as teaching instruments, sharing various puppetry techniques and methods. In the presence of Latshaw, and later of Ángeles Gasset from Spain and after that of Bruce Chessé from the U.S., a generation of native puppeteers was educated. This generation continues to dominate the puppet theater stages of Puerto Rico.
MIR traveled abroad: Eastern Connecticut State College in Hartford, Connecticut (1969); the American Educators Conference, Washington D.C. (1970); The Dominican-Puerto Rican Cultural Exchange Program, The Dominican Republic (1971); and The White House Conference on Childhood, Washington D.C. (1971). During this last conference, only eight groups were invited, among them prestigious United States groups such as Sesame Street and Puppets on Wheels. NBC and The Voice of the Americas filmed the MIR show and broadcasted it throughout all of North and South America. They also participated in the Puppeteers of America’s National and Regional Festivals: New Orleans (1974), Atlanta (1977); and in UNIMA’s World Puppetry Festival in Washington D.C. (1980).
Throughout the duration of this project (until 1973), more than 3,500 performances were staged, and thousands of Puerto Rican children had the privilege of watching puppet theatre. The project was so successful that it was expanded to incorporate nine companies that visited schools throughout all of Puerto Rico. Aside from the show, each school visited received books on puppet theatre: Títeres con Cabeza by Ángeles Gasset and El Guiñol de Don Julito by Muñiz. These books served as reference material to foster and promote activities aimed at creating a puppet theatre. Previous MIR school visits gave rise to numerous puppet theatre clubs in schools.
After thirteen years of developing and showcasing the art of puppetry throughout the country, the Teatro Escolar Program was forced to limit its activities due to lack of funds and personnel. Among its achievements, MIR consolidated the use of puppetry as a resource, which facilitated teaching/learning processes. It positively influenced student’s interest for the theatre accounting for a proliferation of puppet clubs in schools. Children and teenagers designed, fabricated, and staged shows, attesting to the impact of the program. Today, the employment of puppets as a resource in Puerto Rican schools has diminished. The lack of training and supervision has forestalled its further evolution. For their part, various professional puppet theatre companies continue exposing children in public education to puppet theatre. Many of these are made up of former MIR members. Francisco Torres, Filipo Tirado, Rafael Ruiz, José B. Álvarez, Mario Donate, Ángel Domenech, Germán Colón and Rafael Ortiz are all Master-Puppeteers from MIR. They constitute the roots of Puerto Rican professional puppet theatre.
The work that took place at MIR from 1966 on in schools positively influenced the taste for theatre and puppet theatre. Santiago Lavandero and MIR therefore endowed the art of puppetry with an important site in Puerto Rican theatre history.
After MIR’s disappearance, professional groups predominantly promoting puppet theatre in grade schools began to emerge. According to Rafael Ortiz, the first generation of Puerto Rican puppet companies were: Títeres Cibuco (Germán Colón-1968); Títeres de Mario Donate/Teatro Nacional de Sombras Chinescas (Mario Donate-1968); Títeres de Puerto Rico (José Álvarez-Zayda Ruberté-1972); Títeres de Borikén (Francisco Torres-1975); La Coa/Publicoop (Ángel Domenech-1975); Titirimundi (Filipo Tirado-1975); and El Mundo de los Muñecos (Rafael Ortiz-1978.) This last company was the first Puerto Rican company to win the most prestigious puppet theatre award in the United States, UNIMA-USA’s “Citation of Excellence”, for their production of Pinocchio (1985).
In the preface of her book, The Anthology of Puerto Rican Children’s Theatre, Rosalina Perales lists the aforementioned companies adding: “La Comedia de Muñecos” (Andrés Quiñónez and Ethel Ríos), was the first company to make puppets in Puerto Rico; [and] Los Muñecos de Puerto Rico (Luis Rafael Rivera).”
All of these companies work with different puppet styles, but the “bocones/muppet style” puppets, gloves puppets and rod puppets, are the most common. The majority of these companies remain active.
New companies emerged after the original MIR members trained youngsters on the Escuela Técnica de Artesanía Teatral (ETAE.)This project, which lasted 10 years (1972 – 82), wasn’t a specialized puppetry school, but it incorporates a significant puppetry component, since many of the faculty members were former MIR members already working as professional teachers at the school. In his book, Ortiz states that the following companies issued from ETAE: Títeres de San Juan (Nelson Pantoja) and Rafael Rivera y sus títeres. He also mentions that a company from the town of Cayey, Títeres Casabe, directed by Luis Colón, who had been trained at MIR.
Inspired by the work of these pioneer company, Manuel Morán (a current member of UNIMA’s Executive Committee), at the time a young student of the Teatro Escolar Program, founded Society of the Educational Arts, Inc. or SEA in 1985. Previously known as Producciones Fantasía, SEA presents theatre that combines actors and various kinds of puppets within the context of musical theatre. In 1991, he moved to New York City to attend graduate school in Musical and Educational Theatre at NYU. There he studied with Master Puppeteer Ralph Lee, founder of the Halloween Parade in Greenwich Village. SEA has operations in Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York, where it runs a puppet museum and permanent theatre space, Teatro SEA. This year (2010), SEA won the prestigious UNIMA-USA’s “Citation of Excellence” award for their production of La Muela del Rey Farfán / The Toothache of King Farfán, the second time a Puerto Rican company receives it.
Puppet Theatre for Adults
Master Puppeteer and Mask Maker, Deborah Hunt, has been a key figure in developing puppet theatre in Puerto Rico, especially in puppet theatre for adults, a novelty on the island since the majority of existing companies primarily produced shows for children. Hunt, originally from New Zealand, established herself in Puerto Rico after a long trajectory of experiences throughout Asia, Europe and Latin America. Her company Mask Hunt Motions began presenting experimental work and producing series with artist collectives and puppeteers (Sobre la mesa) for the adult public in the Yerbabruja Theatre of Río Piedras. Her work has a “performance” style and a unique and particular aesthetic, employing marionette puppets of various styles and masks. She combines her performances with workshops, which have given rise to several theatre/puppet groups and companies such as Papel Machete, Y No Había Luz and Aspaviento. Regarding Papel Machete, it stages socio-political performances in communities around the country by making use of diverse techniques such as masks, shadows and puppets. Teatro Aspaviento (2000) focuses on the creation and staging of original pieces of experimental theatre and objects. Finally, Y No Había Luz (2005) uses an interdisciplinary art focus, combining theatre, dance, music, masks, puppets, objects, miniatures, as well as plastic and visual arts. Some of its most recent work has been seen in the Banco Popular movie “ECO” (2009), directed by Israel Lugo and Gabriel Coss, perhaps the only Puerto Rican feature film where puppetry is highlighted.
Pedro Adorno is another important figure in the puppet and mask theatre movement for adults. He worked and trained for many years with the famous American puppet company, Bread & Puppet Theatre. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1993 and founded his company, Agua, Sol y Sereno, with which he participated with his theater projects and workshops in several international festivals, most recently experimenting with film.
Festivals in Puerto Rico
Since its creation in 1955, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (ICP) has been the governmental agency entrusted with promoting the arts in Puerto Rico. With a combination of federal and state funds (National Endowment for the Arts), it promotes and subsidizes the arts through festivals and/or other programs and artistic projects. In 1977, the ICP initiated the Puppet Theatre Festival. The majority of the pioneer companies listed above participated in that first festival. Four festivals were carried out from 1977 to 1981. After the last one, ICP combined the Puppet Theatre Festival with the Children’s Theatre Festival, annually celebrating them up until 1987, continuing them through annual editions of Children’s Theatre Routes, traveling throughout the entire island. In 2002, ICP re-installed the Puppet Theatre Festivals and now holds them every other year. The eighth edition of the festival was celebrated in December 2009.
The ICP Festivals are national in scope, encouraging pioneer Master-Puppeteer Mario Donate to initiate and organize the International Biennial of Puppet Theater. This festival showcases both local and foreign companies. Ten editions of this festival have been organized, drawing companies from countries such as Spain, The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica and the United States. It is the only international puppet festival in Puerto Rico.
Additionally to the above-mentioned festivals, others have emerged through personal or governmental initiatives. The Caguas City Puppet Festival (1987-Present) is organized in a city that has become "the capital of Puerto Rican puppet theater." Besides this festival, Caguas offers free puppet theater classes, has a resident puppet theatre company and is considering opening a puppet museum. If opened, this museum would become the first and only, puppet museum in Puerto Rico. Bayamón City hosted an international puppet festival in 1984. The shows took place in the Braulio Castillo Theater, where three puppet companies from Miami, Texas and Michigan joined El Mundo de los Muñecos, the local company from Bayamón.
Another festival initiated by a group of puppet companies, now called "Titiriteras of Puerto Rico," is the Titeretada. This festival, which includes expositions, movies, cabaret, bazaars, and shows, has been held annually since 2008, in celebration of the World Day of Puppetry during the month of March. At least eight Puerto Rican companies organize and participate in this festival. Also in 2008, el Taller/Teatro La Camándula celebrated a puppet festival.
Puppet Theater Schools
After the puppet theater seminars offered by the Teatro Escolar Program and by the Escuela Técnica de Artesanía Teatral (ETAE) ended, no further formal education in this art form was made available. Existing companies offered only sporadic workshops relating to the creation and manipulation of puppets.
Recently Noelia Ortiz, a graduate of the Masters Degree Program in Puppet Theater at the University of Connecticut, taught some courses at the University of Puerto Rico’s Drama Department, Río Piedras Campus. The Fine Art Schools of Caguas and Carolina also offer classes.
There are few publications about puppet theatre in Puerto Rico. At the time of MIR, the Teatro Escolar Program published educational materials on puppet theatre, along with curriculum guides for teachers and scripts to be staged in schools throughout the country.
Addressing puppet theater history in Puerto Rico, Rafael A. Ortiz wrote Notes on Puppet Theater in Puerto Rico (2002). This book offers a summary of the history of the puppet theater movement, but from a personal perspective that privileges the author’s own experiences as part of this movement. He offers valuable information on the main puppet companies, most specifically on Mundo de los Muñecos, his own company. Manuel A. Moran’s doctoral dissertation, The Development of Teatro Escolar (NYU, 2005), includes an extensive chapter on MIR, the seminars, as well as interviews with Santiago Lavandero and George Latshaw. To date these two publications may possibly be the only ones that address in some detail the development of puppet theater in Puerto Rico.
Gladys Ruiz’s historic preservation efforts must also be mentioned. She has written numerous articles and documented the history of the Teatro Escolar Program, which she directed for several years. Another important figure is puppeteer, playwright and actress Tere Marichal. After studying in Europe, she returned to Puerto Rico and published "El Titiritero Alquimista /The Puppeteer Alchemist" (1983), a puppet theatre news bulletin. Recently she has begun launching an online magazine: "La 6ta Habitación: Boletín de Teatro de Títeres / The Sixth Room: Bulletin of Puppet Theater" (2009).
Pertaining to dramaturgy, there is a paucity of texts dedicated to puppet theatre. Rosalina Perales, in her book The Anthology of Puerto Rican Children’s Theatre, states: "Inside the dramaturgy, Rafael Ruiz is one of the few who has written mostly for puppet theater." However, his texts have not been published.
José Rodriguez, from the Los Soldaditos company, wrote in his book "The Art of Puppets, Effective and Amusing” a description of how to open a puppet theater, and in "Short and Long Stories, Volumes 1 and 2," includes twenty short scripts in each to be used with puppets or children.
Theatre Spaces Dedicated to Puppet Theatre
Unfortunately in Puerto Rico there are no theatre spaces dedicated to puppet theatre. Ninety-five percent of the country’s theatres belong to the government, and the various municipal administrations of each city oversee them. Of the few remaining theaters, the Yerbabruja Theatre in Río Piedras is the only one that, since its opening in 2000, offers puppet theater seasons primarily for the adult public, owing to the titanic effort of puppeteer Deborah Hunt, who administers and programs it.
An attempt was made to dedicate the space annexed to the Tapia Theatre in San Juan, one of the main theaters on the island, as a puppet theater. Although some shows were held there, the project never became established. It was toward the end of the 1980s and during the beginning of the 1990s, that Teatro Puerto Rico para Niños in Santurce was briefly established as a theatre dedicated to children’s performances where puppet shows were also staged. Another venue that disappeared was Teatro La Camándula in Río Piedras, which also provided puppet theater programming. Recently, Teatro Coribantes, another one of the few remaining independent theaters, began a series of children’s theater including puppet theater.
Puppets in Puerto Rican Television
The use of puppetry emerged in Puerto Rican television during the seventies. From then on various children’s television programs began using puppets influenced by various foreign programs such as El Topo Gigio, Plaza Sésamo (the Spanish version of Sesame Street, produced in Mexico) and in the 1980s, The Muppet Show. The first children’s television programs with puppets were: Sandra Zaiter, with Filipo Tirado and Francisco Torres’ puppets, Titi Chagua (Rosario Abreu). In the 1980s, the following took off: Chiquimundos with Israel Lugo, then a boy ventriloquist; El Payaso Remi (José Vega); and María Chuzema (Tere Marichal). During the last ten years other programs have gone on air: Pequeños en acción (Filipo Tirado), De la mano con los niños (Rafael Ortiz and El Mundo de los Muñecos), Tesoro Infantil (Germán Colón y Títeres Cibuco) y La Tienda Mágica de Shabum (Emmanuel, the Magician and Santín y sus títeres).
Puppets have also been featured in adult programs. One of the programs with highest ratings in Puerto Rican television is Super X-clusivo. A full-body, loudmouthed puppet named La Comay (formerly La Condesa), originally created by Master-Puppeteer José López and manipulated by Kobbo Santarrosa, comments on the daily news as well as show business gossip. Another famous puppet created by López was Burbujita, which starred in a children’s television program of the same name, created by the television commentator Millie Cangiano. José López has won several awards for his work of construction and design, including the two UNIMA-USA’s awards that Puerto Rico received; he designed and built the two award winning productions in 1985 and 2010.
Filipo Tirado’s puppets were also very popular in several television programs: Kilate and Pirita; Los Políticos, caricatures of the country’s government candidates; and Pepe Locuaz, among many others. After a long career in Puerto Rican television, Filipo moved to Miami in 1998 where he has continued to work as a creator/puppeteer for Hispanic television in the United States. David Álvarez’s puppets are another example of puppets that have been integrated into television. He began with a segment in the now disappeared Show de las Doce at Telemundo, and eventually produced a "sitcom" with puppets titled Radio Mostro, which only lasted a season.
Puppet Theatre in the Church
Puppet Theatre has also developed among religious groups in the island, mostly among Protestant denominations. In many churches and religious communities fans of puppetry employ the puppets as a resource to teach and preach. Professional groups have arisen because of this: Teatro de Títeres Semillas, Manos Arriba and Los Soldaditos. Aside from its ministry in churches and communities, Teatro de Títeres Semillas has an online store where they sell puppets and offer puppet making services. Los Soldaditos presents their shows within and outside of Puerto Rico, have published books about puppet theatre and had their own radio program. Companies such as Manos Arriba, much like Los Soldaditos, have worked as puppeteers for the Payaso Remi on the television program, El Planeta de Remi.
Puppet Theatre in Puerto Rico has evolved in a slow, yet continuous way. There are a few peculiarities in the development of the puppet theatre in the island. Most notable among them is the notion that puppet theatre is, perhaps mistakenly, only for educational purposes. Just recently there has emerged a movement employing puppets for adult audiences. There is the stigma, even among artists, that both puppet theatre and children’s theater are less important genres. This is reflected by the lack of both government and private support and funding. In terms of the puppets, the “muppet” style made out of foam rubber prevails, followed by the glove puppet. There has been almost no string puppetry. Neither has there been playwriting nor specialized criticism.
It is necessary to research and publish the historical development of this theater genre in order to continue promoting the art of puppetry. New initiatives, creative projects, puppeteers and collectives are evolving. Notwithstanding, there is scarcely any exchange between these emerging groups and the pioneers. It is necessary to join forces, set aside differences and share knowledge in order to unify the puppeteers. This is the only way to continue nurturing the art of puppet theatre in Puerto Rico.