It was Saturday night, and some friends and I were enjoying a quiet drink at El Nus, a tiny cocktail bar in my Barcelona neighborhood, when in walked a trio of European hipsters: two women, one armed with a kazoo and the other with a ukulele, and a curly-haired boy who looked to be in his early 20s, carrying an old suitcase.
The bar quieted to a hush as the young man opened the case, revealing a miniature diorama upon which he proceeded to enact a drama involving a dejected marionette-man, his lost love and a very-not-to-scale bottle of booze, all suspended from strings attached to the boy’s slender fingers, while the women provided musical interludes.
At first, I wrote off this impromptu puppet show as nothing more than a kooky one-off, another random occurrence in bohemian Barcelona. But when a second marionette show turned up in another hole-in-the-wall bar a few weeks later, and then a third, it occurred to me that the city might actually be in the midst of some kind of puppetry renaissance.
My hunch was confirmed when I talked to Toni Rumbau, a puppeteer and author who publishes a trilingual online magazine devoted entirely to puppetry. “When you talk about puppets, the majority of people say it’s for children, but many of these shows are really for grown-ups,” he said when I tracked him down at his airy office workshop overlooking Las Ramblas.
In Catalonia, “the classical puppet tradition is not very rich compared to Italy, France and Germany,” he explained as two hand puppets for one of his upcoming shows lay lifeless on his desk. “But what is very rich is all this popular iconography for the feast, for the street.”
Rumbau was referring to the myriad street festivals that celebrate Catalonia’s heritage and very often feature at least a couple of large papier-mache figures known as “gegants i capgrossos,” or giants and large-headed dwarves. Towering as high as 15 feet, these figures first appeared around 1400 as a way for the Catholic Church to convey Bible stories to an illiterate public by essentially staging puppet shows. Today, the giants represent noble lords and ladies or just people from the neighborhood (each barrio has its own set); some perform specially choreographed dances with their giant partners.
La Casa dels Entremesos, a museum in Barcelona’s Born district,is home to dozens of gegants i capgrossos, as well as bestiari, or beasts. These dragons, vipers and eagles are at their most spectacular during the after-dark correfoc parade, a fiery highlight of the La Merce festival that takes hold of the city every September. It’s an allegory about demons breaching the gates of hell, in which the fearsome beasts are outfitted with madly spinning fireworks that rain sparks down on thousands of huddled onlookers.
By the early 20th century, hand puppets could be seen in Barcelona cafes in shows that discussed current events and the pressing issues of the day. “They were very sophisticated, talking about what happens in the street and political questions,” said Rumbau. “Of course, that disappeared with the dictatorship.”
The arts were censored under Gen. Francisco Franco’s repressive 36-year rule, but after his death in 1975, the puppet scene — along with almost everything else — flowered anew. In this newly liberated Spain, a new generation of puppeteers emerged, among them Pepe Otal. Bearded and idiosyncratic (Rumbau says that the man never even had a bank account), Otal was a sailor who did a few years of formal puppet study before founding his own marionette workshop in 1975. Six years after the master’s death in 2007, the workshop lives on in an ancient building in the gritty, graffiti-streaked Raval neighborhood, as a co-op run by Otal’s proteges. The best of the new, new puppeteers hone their craft here.
Casa-Taller de Marionetas de Pepe Otal sits just down the block from a favorite corner of the local prostitutes and across the street from a circus shop that specializes in unicycles and juggling batons. When my friend David and I walked in the door one recent Saturday night to see a show by Chilean puppeteer Mauricio Riobó, we felt as if we’d entered Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium: Dusty mannequins were mounted to the walls at rakish angles and marionettes hung eerily from the ceiling, their expressively carved faces more H.R. Giger and Edvard Munch than Mister Rogers.
“My 3-year-old would be totally freaked out by this place,” said David.
The ticket-taker was a woman in a bowler hat whose cartoonishly large eyes and graceful limb movements made her look not unlike a marionette herself, or even a ventriloquist’s dummy. The small and musty 60-seat theater in the back — which by day functions as workshop space for the puppet-makers — was nearly sold out, and with only one fourth-grade exception, everybody who shelled out the $10 entry/membership fee was a grown-up, artsy type in their 20s, 30s or 40s.
In his hour-long performance, Riobó didn’t even use traditional marionettes, instead employing stuffed animals, Barbie dolls and even an amorous talking tea set to bring to life stories inspired by the opera “Turandot” and the fairy tale “The Princess and the Frog,” replete with sly political in-jokes about the Spanish royal family. Afterward, our hosts rolled out a generous vegetarian buffet of couscous, baba ghanoush and lemon meringue pie, all included in the ticket price, while the audience members and the puppeteers mingled and chatted under a canopy of expressionistic creatures frozen in suspended animation.
When I came back to the workshop a few days later, I found several of the boldfaced names in Barcelona puppetry sitting around a table drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and talking theater while on a break from puppet-building and show rehearsals. At one end of the table, sporting a handlebar mustache, was Pere Bigas, a photojournalist who spent years covering Latin America and now puts on travel- and adventure-themed puppet shows with his company, Marionetes Nòmades. At the other sat José Antonio Puchades, better known as the mononymous Putxa, a classically trained actor whose latest show was getting good press on Rumbau’s blog.
“Puppetry is easy to do with few resources,” Bigas answered when I asked what had attracted him to it. All you need is an idea, some props and a place to perform.
Committing public acts of puppetry without a permit is forbidden in Barcelona, he explained; puppeteers caught performing in the street are subject to a $320 fine. This has driven the best performers to alternative indoor spaces, ranging from bars like the one in my neighborhood to private homes. At a semiannual event here called Hors Lits, guests spend the evening moving from apartment to apartment to see theater performed in the intimacy of someone’s bedroom.
There are a handful of official venues, too, including the Taller de Marionetas and a tiny new spot called Sala Fènix, a 40-seat black-box theater not far from the Taller. Putxa was performing there the following weekend and invited me to come.
By the time I arrived, Sala Fènix was packed and sweltering; I snagged the last chair in the back row. There were a few kids in the front, but once again, they were outnumbered by boho 20-somethings by a factor of 10.
For the next hour, Putxa performed a series of vignettes using only his hands, a pair of creatively tailored gloves, some googly eyes and a few small props. Through the power of his imagination — and the audience’s — his palms and fingers were transformed into a sneaker-clad breakdancer, an incompetent magician, a rapper’s ghostly face and a shipwreck survivor who sails away in a shoe. Putxa lobbed winking sex jokes right over the heads of his young fans up front, but the show’s emotional impact wasn’t lost on anyone: Everybody laughed out loud and cried out in sympathy with the plight of the puppeteer’s suddenly vivified, sentient index finger.
As the show went on, I thought about something Rumbau had told me earlier: “The main question of puppets is the question of the double, the duplication of ourselves,” he’d said, explaining that puppets are a projection of our own thoughts, values and desires. “To understand that we have these dualities inside is very important. It’s a basis to change, a little bit, our civilization.”
I don’t know whether everybody in the audience would have seen it that way — changing civilization? achieving world peace through puppets? — but something special was happening in that theater, no doubt. In a tiny dark room in Barcelona, everyone — kid and adult, local and tourist, Spanish-speaker and non — participated, wordlessly, in creating meaning out of thin air.
I walked home in the fading afternoon light, remembering a time when tea sets could talk, shoes could be ships and imagination reigned, and quietly wondered why I ever grew up.
Kroth is a writer and Fulbright fellow based in Barcelona.