Big Nazo on the Run
Director’s Notes on a Touring Theatre
by Erminio Pinque
Everything about travel is what made the work and the process what it is: an open engagement with the forces of chaos and a search for meaning. Arriving at the destination was never what really mattered most, it’s always been about the trip itself. The trip always had more meaning in the rear view mirror, the growth and evolution were always evident once you passed through that rough stretch of road or topped the painful climb up the hill. -Erminio Pinque
Traveling overseas to see art and make art along the way, set me in motion. The anonymity of being a stranger with a
strange form of expression made it bearable to put myself out on a limb. The further I got from the world I knew, the more I was free to fail wonderfully.
In 1985 I traveled to Europe with my favorite Hand-in-mouth over-the-head puppet character in a backpack and a one way ticket that brought me to London. My goal was to get to the International Puppet Festival in Charleville-Mézières, France, and then head down to Italy to reunite with relatives I hadn’t seen for many years. After these adventures I planned to begin the rest of my life.
I left my job at the Puppet Workshop in Providence, RI to see puppet and mask theatre at work in other cultures . Throughout my travels I was compelled to transform my “wandering young world traveler” identity into that of “mysterious puppet-creature super-hero.” I’d sneak into alleys and behind bushes and emerge, transformed into my green, big-nosed alter-ego and wander about improvising with local people and barking dogs. In London, where everyone spoke my language, I experienced the dread of one who has gathered attention but has little to say. It was embarrassing and I felt relieved to have my face hidden in my costume, even though no one would know me anyway. When I journeyed onward into France, I found myself in the opposite situation. Speaking no French, I had to rely on creating physical communication and was forced to translate meaning and emotion into grand and subtle gestures.
At the Festival in Charleville, I attended up to five puppet-related productions per day. The variety of shows completely reinforced my feeling that puppetry could bridge all art forms and every kind of theatrical expression. A particularly deep impression was made on me when I witnessed fifty Punch & Judy Shows all happening in the main piazza all at the same time. As I walked around the huge circle of mini-stages and caught the various exploits of Mr Punch interpreted in various European, Chinese, African and Latin American forms, It became clear to me that sometimes the important thing is the telling, not the tale. Everyone knew the Punch & Judy story, but they settled in front of the show whose style they enjoyed most.
Creating a visually stimulating scenario that could draw audiences and engage them with the text by way of outrageous characters became an important aspect of the BIG NAZ0 aesthetic.
By the time I traveled onward to Italy, I was excited at the prospect of combining the physical with the verbal. I spoke Italian, but not fluently enough to make the mistake of focusing on exposition and gab. I began to perform in the style that still defines BIG NAZ0 today: a fusion of visual spectacle, Commedia-like improvisational dialogue and audience interactivity in unconventional spaces and contexts. The street culture in Italy allowed me to nurture and blossom as a performer in a way that would not have been possible in the downtowns of most northern East Coast cities. In America, people on the street were rushing to be someplace or insisted on knowing what the performance was “selling” and/or why it was even happening (“what is dis for, anyway?”). In Italy, all kinds of people went out before and after dinner to walk around the piazzas and streets in order to meet and greet one another and to enjoy watching others pass by. In this environment a giant, green, bald weird puppet persona was a welcome addition and the audience had no qualms getting directly involved in the action. With all this improvisational energy coming at me from all sides, it was easy to lose all self-consciousness and begin to channel confident eccentric
characters. I partnered with other street performers and formed an act with some medieval renaissance musicians who began to play rock & roll and blues on their lutes and mandolins in order to compliment the irreverent carnival barker of my character. We began to play in exchange for room and board and put out the hat to collect the money that was thrown at us.
The world trip I was taking had turned into my first working international tour!
Early Padova: 1985-86 -Making puppets for I Fanaghiro
Working and living in one town and interacting with people on a daily-life level transformed the way I viewed the duty of a performer. I looked up some performers I had met in Charleville and ended up living with members of the Padova-based puppet group, I Fantaghiro. I became their foam puppet designer/builder for their show, Quando L’Orso se ne Va and accompanied the group’s Director, Serena Fiorio, to the elementary school where she taught.
The act of creating puppets and props for a stage show and teaching the craft to kids rounded out the activities that comprise the bulk of the duties of BIG NAZ0 to this day.
I returned to the US because I had signed a contract to work at the Alley Theatre in Houston, Texas. on a production of Frank Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening”.
I returned to Providence soon after that inspired to re-create in the streets of Providence and the US, the atmosphere of wonder and fantasy that I’d experienced in Europe. I gathered up some crazy friends and we started to make public mischief in foam-rubber costumes (wrestling in traffic circles, riding public buses, etc). The experience of doing strange stuff when no one is expecting it and have no context with which to evaluate it was a new kind of “testing” zone that seemed almost more valuable than the European Street theatre experiments.
HALIFAX: 1987, 1989, 1992, 1996 -First Group outing, forming an act
BIG NAZ0 had been doing spontaneous Street Theatre in the Providence, Boston and NY areas. We’d head down to Washington Square Park and mess around. When the producers of the International Busking Festival in Halifax Nova Scotia contacted me to invite my “Troupe” to be part of their festival, I told my collaborators that we were now officially a performance group, not just a group of crazy unemployed artists with a taste for the absurd. We had to step up to the challenge of whipping ourselves into a well-oiled street theatre machine.
At the Festival, we learned invaluable lessons in the skills of drawing a crowd, engaging volunteers and setting up a good “pitch” line which would inspire the crowd to put money in our hat. World class sword swallowers, jugglers, animal and music acts gave us tips and encouragement. The festival had drawn performers from around the world in search for the top best-of-festival $10,000 prize. Competition was fierce. BIG NAZ0 was the only fully masked and costumed act, and during the two weeks of 6 shows a day we had to solve myriad problems ranging from where to get dressed into costume, how to keep the wind from knocking over our backdrop, dealing with the loud honking bus next to our spot, contending with hecklers and , (no joke) drunken sailors.
The Canadian public seemed to appreciate street performers in a way that I had not experienced in the US. They were generous and laid back and seemed fascinated by the strange, grotesque, dysfunctional-yet-lovable characters. As far as we were concerned, we were just exaggerating and performing the archetypes of our home-town civilization. To the gentle, patient and supportive Canadian crowds, we could have been depicting the antics of a strange alien race. They thought it was all delightfully absurd and original. We thought it was a spoof of the society we lived in. BIG NAZ0 won third prize: $2000.
EDINBURGH: (Fringe Fest 1991, Hogmanay 1999) -Legit Theatre experience
BIG NAZ0, collaborating with members of Brown university’s theatre Dept, brought a show called The Vision of Nostrildamus to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which required us to translate our street-savvy, anarchistic, audience-interactive street theatre and harness it to the subtler, more focused demands of produced, conventional theatre space and audience/performer relationships.
Instead of needing to summon a large crowd to pay attention to us, we had a captive audience, comfortably seated and willing to be transported. There was no longer a need to be aggressive and grand-gestured. We began instead to work on improving the storytelling and letting the other devices of theatre help us in this task: lighting, scenic effects, fog machine. The experience in Edinburgh gave us a crash course in the world of producing conventional theatre.
Organizationally, it was more challenging than anything we had done up until then. We had to promote & publicize ourselves, seek out housing, rental space and tech support, and negotiate all the related fees from across the Atlantic. Once there, we were subjected to the scrutiny of reviewers and competitive rival acts. It was an eye opener to the business of show business.
JAPAN: (Nagoya & Osaka 1992, 1993, 1994, 1998)
-translating for new cultural values
BIG NAZ0 was been invited to perform at the World international Performance Festival. Apparently, some world traveling performers who had seen us in Halifax recommended us as a unique and unusual act. Walking the streets of the crowed Osaka entertainment district for the first time felt like walking through a video game. It was truly a different world and we felt like beings from another planet, just like our characters.
During our first tour of Japan, we performed as the BIG NAZ0 Band and played rock & roll, blues and funk. At home, our tunes were not what would be considered cutting edge, but in Osaka and Nagoya, the crowds went wild. There was a ravenous hunger for American R&B and Rock, and the combination of giant monster go-go dancers and masked musicians made
us a huge hit with audiences.
When we returned to Japan with a new show about a film director who wanted to combine the stereotypical cultural samplings of the American Western with the Japanese Monster movie, we confronted the reality that what we thought was funny was completely different from our audience’s idea of humor. The satire and irony that we thought was so clever was not going over well with the audience, prompting our volunteer camera operator to remark out loud in what may have been his first ever direct
English statement to a Westerner :“I don’t get the story.” We watched Japanese TV that night and observed that there was plenty of slapstick and visual gags (which usually centered around humiliating some poor game show contestant) and we re-worked our show to feature what was most interesting to the large crowds: we “Showed” them what was happening instead of narrating or commenting on it. We simplified, introduced more Japanese into the text and expanded our interaction with
The daily act of translating between English and Japanese and working to communicate across linguistic and cultural differences deeply inspired the BIG NAZ0 troupe’s desire to create universally understood performance art that would transcend language. It was during our repeat tours of Japan that we developed the beginning of our repertoire of
invented “Alien Languages.” Sometimes it’s better to be so foreign that no one can understand you. Then there’s
a possibility that real communication can happen.
PORTUGAL: WORLD EXPO representing the US (1998)
BIG NAZ0 was invited to represent the United States at the US pavilion at the World Expo in Lisbon , Portugal. We shared the venue with “Up With People,” who sang Broadway tunes and were always smiling. They gave the impression that Americans looked & behaved like the cast of Grease. BIG NAZ0 made it its mission to represent the US with an “alternate” reality. When it was our shift to entertain the crowds, we did the best we could to undo the perceptions of sanitized American perfection by unleashing our lovable, troubled weirdos. Ratzo P. Ratwick, an especially popular NAZ0 character in those times, was the lead spokesperson of our group and enthusiastically discussed the creative and irreverent underbelly of American Society. We ended up functioning as ambassadors who’s mission was to prove that the US had a sense of self-parody and could dish out a healthy helping of fun-loving subversion.
The Lisbon experience made it clear to me that wherever we performed, we would be representing our country and that we had to be prepared for that responsibility. We made sure that wherever the BIG NAZ0 characters went, that they came off as compassionate, clever beings who celebrated their mutant diversity and loved life, fully capable of acknowledging their flaws with good humor while generating life-affirming nonsense.
SINGAPORE (2000, 2001,2008)
BIG NAZ0 has performed in Singapore three times. The first time was for Chinese New Year, the second time for a festival called, “An All American Affair”. In both cases, the gigs took place on stages inside popular shopping malls. The audiences were incredibly diverse—families from Malaysia, Indonesia, China, India, etc. We were amazed that our performance, a high energy, musical cabaret/Commedia featuring a puppet Circus family, a crazed Hollywood Director, an American tourist mom and her gigantic hip-hop/rap star wannabe son and a giant child-eating monster, could win over and make fans of such a culturally mixed group. It became clear to us that the spirit of fun and absurdity we created on stage was something that everyone could understand and was one of the things that connected all of us as a global, human family.
BALI: September 10-17, 2001
We woke up in Bali, Indonesia in the town of Ubud to learn that the World Trade Center had been attacked and destroyed while we slept. We had already arranged to perform at a small Jazz Club later in the week and the decision of how to deal with our feelings of dismay, confusion, sadness and dread had to be made. How could we justify performing with irreverent mirth when global events were affecting us so deeply? I looked at the serene, beautiful landscape around us, the quiet routine of the rice farmer on the side of our compound, the sounds of children playing, dogs barking, trees swaying and thought of the peacefulness of our surroundings. I came to a realization that our huge world was home to peace as well as war, life as well as death and decay. We made the choice to affirm life by continuing to fuse art, theatre and music in the way that had always had significance to us. We did the show and many people came up to tell us how much it meant to them. Reflecting on that experience makes me realize that the most important thing about performance may be the zone of shelter it can create.
ENGLAND (Manchester 1999, Millennium Dome, 2000)
In the year 2000, BIG NAZ0 Strolling Characters were hired to perform at the Millennium Dome in London. Visitors from around the world crowded into the attraction and many of them had encounters with us as they walked about. We went on to tour the rest of the country, but were invited back to do another week at the Dome in August. The rest of the group was weary from being on the road so long and opted to head home. I stayed behind to recruit performers to form a BIG NAZ0 Crew that could do the Dome strolls with me.
It was a thrill to search for talent in London and to gather a troupe of actors to train and transform into NAZ0s. This time, the cast
of characters were Londoners. They spoofed English society and added all kinds of exciting and peculiar new nuances and details to the characters they played. I realized then the value of swapping characters with other performers in order to expand expression and motives. This is a process peculiar to the puppet and mask arts, where bodies and faces can be temporarily inhabited by others who bring their own fresh perspective to the mix.
At one of our first festivals in England, we arrived with missing props and puppets. The airline had misplaced some of the bags containing costumes for the show. At twenty minutes before show time, it became apparent that the missing puppets would not make it to us in time. We hastily shifted gears, doubled up on role responsibilities and made adjustments in the script that could accommodate the absence of certain characters.
The scramble to reassign the sequence of events and performance roles led to some interesting new juxtapositions and challenges that made the swapping of roles and puppets something worth repeating as a creative exercise. This incident in England forced us to acknowledge the creative value of things that go wrong.
Erminio Pinque, continues to relish things that go wrong. He is still the director of Big Nazo, which has a storefront studio next to Providence City Hall.