Cuban Puppeteers in the republic: ¿renovation or dream?
by Rubén Darío Salazar
The fact that Cuban puppet theatre is currently associated with the most interesting aspects of our scenic arts is the byproduct of a vital artistic movement. The legion of creators that envisioned the grandest of possibilities for the puppet stage, aspiring for an infinite reach, began to sow the seeds for its plenitude from 1949 to 1959, achieving its full potential with the triumph of the Revolution, which brought about radical changes to the economy and the social order of the Island. The turnaround in the culture of the country decentralized the artistic hub which as the capital, opening up the whole territory by providing people with elements indispensable to acquire self consciousness and a conscience of their destiny.
Taking place in the Sixties, such blossoming attested to the key role played by professional puppeteers active since the preceding pseudo-republic, as the Revolution harnessed expectations previously shelved during a darker time, a time that exacted not just talent and vocation, but the summoning of a steel will, indispensable in the face of the tremendous gap existing between material and cultural progress. Since then, the professional practice of the art of the little stage continues to be inextricably linked with theatrical renovation in Cuba, tracing its origin to the work developed in that “initial void,” which invites multiple reflections that validate the result of this artistic legacy in the present.
The road to a professional puppet theater was cleared in 1943 by the student Modesto Centeno, whose version for a staging with puppets of the Perrault story, Little Red Riding Hood, won a contest at the municipal drama academy (el Concurso de Dramaturgia de la Academia Municipal de Artes Dramáticas). The presence of itinerant Cuban and foreign puppeteers, as well as that of international companies touring the Island, provided a backdrop to a time in which the national puppet broke with commercial and superficial canons that merely helped themselves to the tradition without enriching it or attempting to contribute to the evolution of this exquisite millenary manifestation, esteemed throughout all arts.
From that moment on, Centeno began leading the development of a theater that concerned itself with text, stagecraft, design, music, animation and acting. The artists involved took a special interest in their professional development, keenly attentive to searches and discoveries that would lead them towards a total theatre. Many of our founders participated in ADADEL, ADA, Grupo Escénico Libre (GEL; Free Scenic Group) and the Teatro Popular, whether as actors, playwrights, designers or directors of plays based on texts by Zorrilla, Moliere, Giradoux, O'Neill, José Antonio Ramos, Virgilio Piñera or Nicolás Guillén.
Even Modesto Centeno himself, as well as Paco Alfonso with his ephemeral “Retablo del Tío Polilla” (Tio Polilla’s Little theatre”), along with Vicente Revuelta, often cast their glances at the marvelous world of puppets. Some remained there forever, while others proceeded to specialize exclusively in theatre with live actors.
Two brothers arrive at the Academy
In 1947, the distinguished artistic director Francisco Morín registered two siblings at the Academia de Arte Dramático: Caridad (Carucha) Hilda Camejo and José (Pepe) Ramón Camejo have since then become key figures of history of puppetry in Cuba. That institution would stage A Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare, just as well as Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie or El Chino, by Cuban author Carlos Felipe. A three-year course of study included Playwriting, Cinematography, Radio Technique, Stagecraft and Acting, along with several electives. According to well regarded intellectual Mirta Aguirre, that was the place where the most restless and interesting theatre was performed, possessed of an absolute disinterestedness and an unimpeachable artistic purity ii
Carucha Camejo narrates that it was on an amusement park, sometime in the 1920s, where Pepe and her attended their first puppet show. It was a small stall as tall as the puppeteers, with a little house from whence a black couple engaged in conversation and then began fighting. iii However, what really struck the siblings was the 1949 staging at the Los Yesistas auditorium of the Retablillo de Don Cristóbal (“Don Cristobal’s Little Theatre”), written by Federico García Lorca and directed by Andrés Castro with the GEL group. Vicente Revuelta infused the main character with life and this is what she remembers: I believe it was Andrés Castro who directed Retablillo and Titón (referring to well known filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea) fabricated glove puppets out of carved balsa wood, I helped him but did not have his ability. Back then the public was relative, it could get crowded, I remember one performance of the Retablillo… iv
Immediately thereafter the Camejos began fabricating their own puppets, as they had become very enthusiastic with the puppet version of the Lorca text. Their first performance took place in the living room of the house, meant as a Christmas gift for Perucho, the youngest brother, just as Lorca himself had done for his younger sister Isabel, or even Debussy, who composed Box of Tricks for his daughter Charlotte. One can imagine the mirth of the ten year old Camejo sibling, as well as that of Pepe and Carucha, of twenty and eighteen respectively, animating the rag and flannel puppets for Little Red Riding Hood – once again Perrault’s story having to bear on the origins of our professional puppet history. The self-taught beginning of the Camejos found succor in didactic manuals on health and hygiene from Argentina. After this first performance others ensued, but the puppets improved and went from rags to papier maché.
The first puppet stage, initially designed by the father, was then functionally redesigned by Pepe himself. Thus was instituted, after the parents joint decision, “el Guiñol de los Hermanos Carmejo” (“Carmejo Siblings Guignol”). In accordance with the street puppet tradition, they considered their puppet stage an itinerant prop and offered performances in public and private schools as well as in parties and parks.
The Academy did not remain oblivious to such an important moment. On July 4, 1950 they had a presentation there, staging Little Red Riding Hood by Centeno, as well as Chinito Palanqueta, another text by this author written specifically for them. Included as well was La tinaja (the Jar), an anonymous French farce. Julio Martínez Aparicio, director of the Academy wrote in the program, we stress the marvelous effort of the Camejo siblings in creating their Little Guignol Theater.
She is still our student. He just graduated. Both possess extraordinary artistic gifts and have managed, in almost two months, to infuse life to a lovely small stage, where Carucha acts and fabricates the puppets that enliven the stage while, with talented ability, Pepito illuminates decorations that are projected to the stage. With such artistic promise we find ourselves comforted, thinking that by year’s end we have not squandered all our time.
The “Diario de la Marina” also commented about their presentation, publishing a review that catalogs the work of the Camejos as "A simply enchanting spectacle." Along with their puppeteering labors, the Camejos soon appeared as guest actors among other groups in plays by Cervantes, Tirso de Molina, Moliere, Wilder, Sartre, Gorostiza and Pirandello, even though their destiny held for them a greater and more specific enterprise.
Puppets in Cultural Missions
In 1950, when Aureliano Sánchez Arango was Minister of Culture and Raúl Roa was Director for Culture at the Ministry of Education, Julio García Espinosa spearheaded the Cultural Missions. The Missions… sought to spiritually mobilize the provinces in order to incorporate them into the cultural life, urgently striving for national improvement.
If culture constitutes the most precious flower of the soul of a people, its fruits must invigorate and enrich the conscience of the masses, liberating them from shadows, prejudices and superstitions. In our countryside, mountains and villages, there are vast zones that due to their isolated location and to sloth, remain secularly marginal to the noble and fertile joys procured by theater, music, dance, painting, film and science. And when on the most remote areas any spectacle is sporadically staged, it tends to be organized with only profit in mind, causing grave disservice to the sensibility of the spectators. It is not for nothing that up to now Cuba has lacked a cultural policy. v
It was through this arduous endeavor that rural populations were exposed to a sampling of the various artistic disciplines thanks to the arrival of such artists and personalities as Ramiro Guerra, Odilio Urfé, Antonio Núñez Jiménez, and the Camejo siblings, among others. This island wide Exchange with farmers and villagers allowed artists to consider how their work could impact the future, which is why the puppeteers opted to continue their Project with renewed enthusiasm, aiming for plenitude, and with a profound sense of duty to an avid public, which tremendously enjoyed their work.
After the Missions they turned to drama programming for children, initiating it in the newly created national television, but without abandoning their puppetry or their acting work in adult theatre. Cuban puppetry in the fifties also found diverse expressions in the valuable contributions of Dora Carvajal with “La Carreta”, Beba Farías and her “Titirilandia”, María Antonia Fariñas and Nancy Delbert with puppets. Even in the former Oriente Province, in the Central Prestón at Mayarí, the Teatro de Títeres de Pepe Carril was established. Carucha still remembers the visits of “el Caballero de París” to the Guignol performances by the Camejos in the “Cinecito” or little movie house in San Rafael Street, where they established their first quarters, from which they would later move to Retiro Odontológico, always pursing the dream of a permanent venue for children’s theater.
The puppeteers went as far as the Museo de Bellas Artes in their effort to promote puppet theatre. There, thanks to the support of director Guillermo de Zéndegui, first cousin of Carucha Camejo’s husband, they combined international films dedicated to puppets, with texts by Lope de Rueda, Javier Villafañe, Arkadi Avershenko, Serguei Prokofiev as well as classic story adaptations by Pepe Camejo, Modesto Centeno and a very young Pepe Carril, who joined them to become the lead in the trio that in 1956 created the “Guiñol Nacional de Cuba”.
A Guignol Manifesto, a puppet for the Island
On March 28, 1956, the emergent Guiñol Nacional de Cuba issued a work manifesto calling for the consolidation of a national puppet movement, stressing the rescue of national cultural traditions, and the propagation of this art form for all, not just for the child public.
They stressed the pedagogical possibilities of this kind of theater and proposed shows and didactic talks for teachers. It is worthy of note that the artists chose the word “guignol” to name their group, as its definition not only relates to the popular animation technique, but also refers to the meaning ascribed to it by José Martí in the story Bebé y el Señor Don Pomposo, from the children’s magazine “La Edad de Oro”
…and let us go to the Paris Guignol, where the good man wallops the bad man.
Love for the national and an interest to develop and strengthen a very ancient art evidence the seriousness with which the puppeteers considered their profession, imbuing their practical work with progressive ideas and with a sense of the future. They created “Revista Titeretada”, the first in Cuba to promote the world of puppets through articles, brief dramatic compositions, the history and the theory of puppet theatre.
From 1956 to 1959 they published three issues. They staged over thirty titles by foreign authors such as Manuel de Falla, Roberto Lago y Angeles Gasett as well as by Cubans such as Eduardo Manet, Conchita Alzola, Paco Alfonso, Reneé Potts, Clara Ronay, Vicente Revuelta and Dora Alonso. They organized contests and issued puppet playwriting calls, which provided for an ample and varied repertoire that is still employed today by different theater companies in the country.
The work with Dora Alonso, one of our essential authors, through the creation of the texts Pelusín y los pájaros and Pelusín frutero - written especially for them – constitutes the origin of the creation of Pelusín del Monte and Pérez del Corcho, the most genuine representation of Cuban childhood, smiling, keen, noble, always quick with a popular saying or a lively reply in any situation. Born in Matanzas, just like his author, on an estate named Tres Ceibas, Pelusín of the thread guayabera, the guano hat* and a handkerchief around his neck, always accompanies his grandmother Doña Pirulina, and soon became a member of the huge cast of world puppets, his charm and authenticity still enduring today, whether through television, radio, literature, visual arts and theatre.
Towards the end of the nineteen fifties they performed with puppets the beautiful poem Los zapaticos de rosa (“Li’l Pink Shoes”) by José Martí, resorting to technical books from Argentina, Mexico and the United States to fabricate the controls to manipulate the puppets. The successful staging of this spectacle was carried out in a park, commemorating the inauguration of the Santa Catalina neighborhood. The following years find the puppeteers working in Coney Island Park, at the Tienda Flogar, and finally at the Jardín Botánico, where they would install themselves up until after 1959, transforming that place into a must stop for the children of the capital.
The triumph of the Revolution expanded the repertoire and the aesthetic ambitions of the group, renewing their manifesto, and enriching the itinerant aspect of their artistic creation, something they had never ceased to practice, not even when in 1963 they settled in the air conditioned Fosca Hall as Teatro Nacional de Guiñol. The historic labor of the Camejos and Carril was consolidated during the difficult years in which our culture experimented.
From that time on they learned to connect with the world and with the whole Island; just as they corresponded with Argentinian master Javier Villafañe they would host a provincial artist who had become interested in learning more about puppetry. They never failed to take into account the most authentic roots of this manifestation, from the arrival of wondering minstrels who would disembark on the Island from distant shores to the presence of street puppeteers. They drank from the best sources of universal and national drama, were coherent in their academic formation and in their diverse incursions in the field of culture.
All the acquired experiences were bequeathed to “their magical world of puppets”, as it was referred to by professor and critic Rine Leal. The team made up of Camejo and Carril not only contributed to the renovation of our puppet theatre, but also helped to create the future national school and its artistic, pedagogical and theoretical objectives, built upon the groundwork of a time that they as well as other distinguished artists dreamed up as luminous.
Renewal or dream? The question places us face to face with the legacy of artists that assumed culture was a destiny and sought to spread the light that endows nations with strength and sovereignty in order to overcome ignorance and slavery. This renewal encompasses numerous contributions to the nation’s cultural patrimony. The dream entails the direct route to the human spirit, eternal caretaker of the multiple colors of the world, of its secrets and highest aspirations.