The South American nation, the Republic of Chile (Spanish: República de Chile), is located between the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Prior to conquest and colonization by Spain in the mid-16th century, the Incas had extended their empire into what is now northern and central Chile, while the indigenous Mapuche inhabited south-central Chile. Today, Chile is a multiethnic nation (see Latin America).

Puppetry was known in Chile before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors. The Mapuche of the mainland used masks called collón during their dances. Easter Island had its own unique tradition in “moai puppets”. According to the legend of “La Casa de los Títeres en la Isla de Pascua” (The Puppet House of Easter Island), the king Tu’u ko iho, after having met three ghosts, took a piece of wood and started carving gaunt figures with protruding ribs. With hot embers he finished the eyes and other parts of the body, thus giving birth to the moai kava kava. Then he carved three figurines of beautiful young girls who had come to visit, and called them moai pa’apa’a. Finally, he braided fibre ropes and attached them to the moai so that when he pulled the strings, the figures began to walk.

The Appearance of Post-Colombian Puppet Theatre

Contemporary Chilean puppet theatre was born in village squares, in folk performances, and in what Oreste Plath, Chilean writer and folklorist, called the “Teatro de la Mendicidad” (Beggar’s Theatre). The presence of the puppeteer is noted in the 17th and 18th centuries. We have little information on these puppeteers, but they were usually foreign artists who travelled the country with their wares, unwelcomed by the authorities, who refused them access to theatres until around 1780 in Talca and 1796 in Copiapó. In 1802, the first puppet theatre was built in Santiago, in a place called Basural de Santo Domingo (the Dump of Santo Domingo), by the Spaniard Joaquin Oláez Gacitúa, an acrobat and trapeze artist from Buenos Aires. Among the shows that made him famous was one given at the Palacio de la Moneda (Moneda Palace) for abandoned children. Elsewhere, Chinese shadow puppets, projected on a wall or cloth with only the bare hands of a capable artist inventing whimsical figures of animals and birds, became very popular.

At the beginning of the 19th century, with the arrival of a few artists who were at once acrobats, tightrope walkers, and puppet showmen, the tradition of puppet theatre began to take root and slowly grow. During the Reconquista (Reconquest, 1814-1817), the Spanish became the favourite target of satire and farce in Chile. In Recuerdos del Pasado (Memories of the Past), a book by the Chilean historian Vicente Pérez Rosales, there is a reference to the puppet shows that took place in convents in 1817, making the point that live theatre in general had a difficult time establishing itself because puppets, the true precursors of the theatre, already occupied the performance space (“Lo que es teatro poco o nada se estilaba; porque todavía los títeres, verdaderos precursores del teatro, cuasi ocupaban por entero su lugar”).

For a long time these acrobats and showmen were European, initially Spaniards and Italians, then Argentines. However, it was Mateo Jeria, a Peruvian puppeteer, who became a great promoter of puppets with shows in Santiago and Valparaíso. The Chilean puppeteer José Santos, in turn, presented shows in Concepción and Santiago during cockfights with his puppet characters Don Cristóbal (of Spanish origin) and Pulcinella (of Italian origin). In 1867, El Jardín de Recreo (The Garden of Recreation) opened in Valparaíso. It was built by Don Pedro Alessandri, an Italian puppeteer who had come to Chile to present a few shows.  He then decided to settle in Chile where his grandson and great-grandson became presidents of the Republic. In 1879, puppeteer Maestro Tapia became known for his rod puppet characters, Don Cristóbal and Mamá Laucha. This artist accompanied the Chilean troops during the Guerra del Pacífico (War of the Pacific, 1879-1883), entertaining them with characters such as Mamá Clara, Don Canuto de la Porra and El Negro.

According to the historian Francisco Encina, it was common to see puppet shows given by the Maestro Espejo accompanied by zamacuecas (Chilean dance and music), guitar and harp music, during the National Holidays. With their humour and sharp, witty words, these puppet characters perfectly represented the spirit of the people, the most popular being Don Cristobito and Mamá Laucha. Don Cristobito came from Spain. He first represented the pitiful cuckolded husband, but he quickly took on typical Chilean traits and transformed into an invincible hero. On the other hand, Mamá Laucha was a quarrelsome, mannish gossip who involved herself in what was none of her business.  

Among the first puppeteers, mention must be made of Tile Vallejos, considered to be the best puppeteer of the 19th century, an artist who, according to the writer Sady Zañartu, often looked for the appropriate locations so his performances could address unseemly topics (“busca el lugar propicio de la mina o la placilla cercana para que lo vean trabajar sobre un encatrado cualquiera, donde puede decir cosas inconvenientes”). Also in Valparaíso, characters such as Don Cristobito, Mamá Clara, and Josesito were very popular in the chinganas, a kind of stage set up for the National Holidays in the ramadas, simple open air performance spaces with walls made of branches to separate one from the other, where puppeteers could play after having paid a fee to the municipal authorities.

The 20th Century

It was only in the 20th century that local groups appeared that were permanently settled in the country. Meanwhile, new manipulation techniques and genres – string puppets, rod puppets, shadow theatre, black theatre, object theatre and the mix of puppets and actors – were adopted.

One of the most important Chilean puppeteers of the 20th century, who was equally appreciated throughout Latin America, was Italo Maldini. He was a product of the Compañía Piccolo dei Torino which specialized in string puppets and belonged to the Dell’Acqua family of puppeteers. Maldini made several historical creations for his puppets, such as La Toma de Pisagua (The Taking of Pisagua), La Batalla de Maipú (The Battle of Maipú), and El Combate Naval de Iquique (The Naval Battle of Iquique), amongothers, which he presented throughout Chile. He also participated in the Second Puppetry Exhibition (Segunda Exposición de Marionetas) in Buenos Aires in 1957, and joined the Experimental Theatre (Teatro Experimental) of the University of Chile.

In the 1940s, the Theatre Institute of the University of Chile offered several programmes in glove puppetry, under the direction of Javier Villafañe in 1944, and Heriberto Gómez in 1946, who introduced puppetry as a serious subject to Chile’s principal universities. The first company with a genuine tradition was that of Meche Córdova. He popularized puppet theatre throughout the country and, together with his characters Doña Clota and Cachenchín,  received a gold medal from the city of Santiago. In the same way, Lila Bianchi and her company La Madejita (The Little Ball) was recognized by the city of Concepción.

In 1950, José Hogada founded the company Títeres Mágicos (Magic Puppets) and was the first puppeteer to introduce mechanisms to control the eyes and mouth in his glove puppets. During a period of thirty years, he travelled throughout the country and was recognized at the 1966 International Festival organized under the auspices of the Ministry of Education. Then in 1958 the company Bululú, directed by Clara Fernández, began touring Chile and Mexico. Among her most important productions were Casamiento a la fuerza (The Forced Marriage) by Molière, El Retablillo de Don Cristóbal (The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal) by Federico García Lorca, and El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Peter’s Puppet Show) by Manuel de Falla. The company also created Enanito Bululú (Bululú, the Little Dwarf), which inaugurated a place for puppetry on Chilean television.

Another noteworthy company is Los de Ferrari. This group was founded in 1959 by two teachers who left their careers in education to perform puppet shows often inspired by Chilean folklore. They participated in television programmes and received the National Television Council Award (Premio del Consejo Nacional de Televisión). Also at this time, Héctor del Campo, a disciple of the Soviet puppeteer Andrei Fedotov and one of the founders of the Teatro Experimental of the University of Chile, formed the group, Titirín, which specialized mostly in political satire. At about the same time, the Consejo de Promoción Popular awarded Charito Godoy a “Laurel de Oro” Medal for his activities in promoting puppetry.

The 1960s to the Present

In 1961, the company Pirimpilo was founded in Concepción under the direction of Lientur Rojas Serrano, a renowned puppeteer and education specialist. Meanwhile, Adolfo and Ilse Schwarzenberg, who knew the famous Hohnsteiner puppets of Germany, began performing their own folkloric plays and in the process popularizing their characters, Bartolo Lara, Juanito and Anacleto Machuca.  

In 1966, under the auspices of the Theatre School of the University of Chile, the Ministry of Education and the State University of Technology, the first International Puppet Festival (Primer Festival Internacional de Títeres) was organized in the Teatro Bulnes in Santiago. The directors were Enrique and Hugo Cerda, both researchers and authors of several works on puppetry. There was also a major exhibition where the “pumpkin puppets” of Aldo Herrera de Los Andes were highlighted. Specializing in puppet opera, Compañía Helma Vogt presented such works as La Serva Padrona (The Servant Turned Mistress) by Pergolesi, El rapto en el Serrallo (The Abduction from the Seraglio) by Mozart, and Die Kluge (The Clever One) by Carl Orff.

In 1983, Ana Maria Allendes founded the Compañía de Teatro de Muñecos Guiñol with the objective of introducing new techniques. The same year the Schwarzenbergs organized the Second International Puppetry Festival at Viña del Mar. Participants included the companies Guiñol, Bululú, Gira-Sol, Los de Ferrari, Adelaida Negrete and Helma Vogt. On this occasion, the Unión de Marionetistas de Chile, UNIMA Chile, was born, with Adolfo Schwarzenberg, Ana María Allendes and Eugenio Beltrán providing the initial leadership.

The early 1990s witnessed the opening of a course in communication, education and puppet theatre (Comunicación, Educación y Teatro de Muñecos) at Diego Portales University under the coordination of Ana María Allendes with the support of Rector Manuel Montt and Dean of the Faculty of Communication, Lucía Castellón.

In 1994, the Fundación Ana Maria Allendes para la Dignificación del Teatro de Muñecos (FAMADIT) was created. Its activities include a unique library as well as a travelling museum. That same year, Professor Enrique Cerda with the Catholic University of Temuco convened a seminar on the place of puppetry in education and, in 1995, the directors of puppet theatres met once again. In 1996, Lientur Rojas of the Compañía Pirimpilo organized another meeting at the University of Concepción. There, the Faculty of Education offered space for a puppet exhibition from the FAMADIT museum, which was later presented throughout the country.

The Teatromuseo del Títere y del Payaso (Theatre Museum of Puppetry and Clowning) opened its doors on July 25, 2007. It is the only space in Chile dedicated to the distribution, development and research for the Theatre of Animation (puppets, objects, masks) and the Clown Theatre (clowns, mime). With its permanent exhibitions, the Teatromuseo del Títere y del Payaso also includes a school and a professional theatre auditorium that offers shows for children, youth, and adults on a weekly basis. Today, the Teatromuseo serves as a major reference centre for clowning and puppet theatre in Chile.

(See also La Rueda, La Troppa, Equilibrio Precario, Periplos, Payasíteres.)


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