The Republic of Cuba (Spanish: República de Cuba), an island country in the Caribbean, is a multi-ethnic nation. Its people (Spanish: Cubanos), cultures and customs have diverse origins, including the indigenous Taíno and Ciboney, the descendants from the long period of Spanish colonialism that began in the early 16th century, other Europeans who have come to the country over the past five centuries, Mulatto/Mestizo, Afro-Cubans, descendants of West Africans or of Haitian origin, among others (see Latin America).
Ever since the conquest of the island by Diego Velázquez in 1511-1513, the different forms of Spanish theatre (mysteries or autos sacramentales, eulogies of praise or elogio, the mechanical theatre, street performing acts, short farces called mojigangas and puppetry) permeated Cuban cultural and artistic life. Just like other Latin American countries, Cuban theatre was marked by Spanish models and celebrations marking the Feast of Corpus Christi and the festival of Navidad (Christmas). A 1573 decision by the Santiago de Cuba municipality declared that all trades (tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, blacksmiths) and “los negros” were made to contribute to the organization of these ceremonies which should include “invenciones y juegos” (inventions and plays).
Over the following decades, Spanish and indigenous cultures started to intermingle. The Corpus Christi celebrations were renewed at regular intervals, and up until the 18th century, trade corporations and religious congregations were the only institutions to present theatrical works.
The Origins of Puppet Theatre in Cuba
According to the press of the times, a puppet theatre performance appeared in La Habana (Havana) in 1792, put on by the Spaniard Modesto Antonio who manipulated “descoyuntados muñequitos”, small disjointed puppets, while playing his guitar. Two years later, a “teatro mecánico” (mechanical theatre) from New Orleans (USA) presented “moving figures on a platform with interiors springs”. In his Viaje a la Isla de Cuba (Voyage to the Island of Cuba, 1798), the Cuban author Buenaventura Pascual Ferrer (1772-1851), mentions “acrobats, puppeteers, street performers and other types of charlatans in vogue in Europe who travelled through Cuba on their way to Mexico and Peru”, thus showing the growing popularity of these live and masked entertainments during that time. At the beginning of the 19th century, travelling companies from Spain started to crisscross the island performing circus, magic and puppet shows.
Until the end of the 19th century, Cuba thus became the main place of transit for European and Latin American troupes whose itinerant artists left their mark on the island. Cuban novelist and ethnographer Miguel Barnet’s Biografía de un cimarrón (1966; Biography of a Runaway Slave, English editions, 1994 and 1995) is a collection of memoirs by 104-year-old freed slave Estebán Montejo: “The town became joyous and filled with lights and confetti as puppeteers arrived and started to dance and do somersaults. I remember it perfectly well. There were Gypsies, Spaniards and Cubans. The Cubans did not have the same grace and extravagance as the Gypsies. They gave their performances in the parks, surrounded by crowds that were singing and yelling, and the children were wild with joy watching these puppets walking and moving at the end of their strings.” The presence of these puppeteers at the beginning of the 20th century is confirmed by other witnesses. The sociologist Fernando Ortíz in his La clave xilofónica de la música cubana. Ensayo etnográfico (1935; The Xylophonic Clave of Cuban Music. An Ethnographic Essay, English edition, 1992) mentions a certain Matinto, “an old African negro in Yagüajay who made his living hidden behind his curtain and, with the skill of a ventriloquist, imitated the voices of black, white, Chinese and mulatto characters that were moved by small ropes. The very vast repertoire composed of anecdotes, plays, stories and fables, was perhaps inspired by European puppets, but also seemed to have African characteristics.”
The 20th Century: To 1959
During the 1940s, puppet theatre began to significantly progress after the creation in Havana of the first Academia de Arte Dramático (Academy of Dramatic Arts) in 1940 by the dramaturge, teacher and director Modesto Centeno (1913-1985) who, in May 1943, presented a loose adaptation of Charles Perrault’s story, “Little Red Riding Hood”, in Spanish, La Caperucita Roja. This premiere is considered a pioneering landmark in children’s puppet theatre which, for the first time, broke free of its school setting. During this period other works were also produced: El retablo del Tío Polilla (Uncle Polilla’s Puppet Show) by Paco Alfonso and the famous El Retablillo de Don Cristóbal (The Puppet Play of Don Cristóbal) by Federico García Lorca, directed by one of the most prestigious names of the Cuban theatre, Vicente Revuelta.
That same year, the playwright Eduardo Manet directed puppet performances at the Universidad de La Habana (University of Havana) and later at the Sociedad Cultural Nuestro Tiempo (Our Times Cultural Society). The puppeteer and poet Dora Carvajal Rodríguez (1920-1989) collaborated in creating these productions. Meanwhile, influenced by the representation of El Retablillo de Don Cristóbal, the sister and brother duo, Carucha and Pepe Camejo, launched a small travelling group.
It was only in the 1950s that the first companies appeared. Among these, there was the company of actors, La Carreta, in 1952, which performed shows with animated figures under the direction of Dora Carvajal, and the group Titirilandia, created in 1955, directed by Beba Farias and Nydia del Valle. Outside of the capital, in Mayari in the eastern region of the country, Pepe Carril founded his puppet theatre and associated himself with the Camejos to establish the Guiñol Nacional de Cuba (National Puppet Theatre of Cuba) in 1956. That same year novelist Dora Alonso (1910-2001), principal representative of Cuban literature for children, created the character Pelusín del Monte at the request of the Camejos. They wanted to have on Cuban stages an original protagonist, representing the manners and customs of the Cuban people. Pelusín became famous, with four plays written by its creator for the theatre and a television series that lasted from 1961 to 1963. The popularity and permanence of Pelusín is such that a number of critics have asserted that it, indeed, is the Cuban national puppet. This Guajiro boy, from a farming family in the countryside, would be taken up in the early 1970s by Pedro Valdés Piña, one of the country’s leading puppeteers.
However, all these small companies struggled to survive, without any outside financial assistance and without any official recognition, in a chaotic social situation and under the dictatorship of General Batista.
The 20th Century: Since 1959 – Renewal and Continuity
The 1959 revolution brought many changes, particularly with the 1961 creation of the Consejo Nacional de Cultura (CNC, National Council of Culture) under which the Departamento Nacional del Teatro para la Infancia y la Juventud (National Department of Theatre for Children and Youth) was attached. This organization called upon Carucha and Pepe Camejo to train puppeteers and also the remaining few groups to give free performances in schools and in public squares.
In 1962, a professional puppet troupe, supported by State financial aid, was created in each province. Starting from the 1960s, puppet theatre gained in strength – in particular with the creation of the Teatro Nacional de Guiñol (TNG, National Puppet Theatre) in 1963, founded by Armando Morales and others – and the first festivals were organized. Among other troupes established during the 1960s, Cuban playwright and illustrator René Fernández Santana founded the Teatro Papalote in Matanzas in 1962. The Camejos and Pepe Carril, in addition to their existing repertoire of shows for children, developed a large body of work aimed at adult audiences, such as Don Juan Tenorio (1966), which they performed in and outside of Cuba. They were also instrumental in introducing the Afro-Cuban world into the puppet theatre. Teatro Ismaelillo was founded in 1968.
In 1969-1970, the first Escuela Nacional de Teatro para Niños (National School of Theatre for Children) was established, under the direction of playwrights Bebo Ruiz and Julio Cordero. Its principal function was to initiate schoolteachers into the puppetry arts. However, in 1971, the adoption of a new cultural policy excluded those who did not comply with certain moral and political “parameters”. As a result some of the most important Cuban theatre artists were removed from their groups, and the Escuela Nacional de Teatro para Niños was closed. It was not until the creation of the Ministerio de Cultura (Ministry of Culture) in 1976 that there was a gradual recovery from the difficult initial years of the decade. The celebration of the first Festival de Teatro de La Habana (Havana Puppet Theatre Festival), held in 1980, sought to consolidate this progress. In fact, it marked the onset of an extraordinary period for Cuban puppetry.
Between 1978 and 1982, the first “plan de desarrollo teatral” (theatre development plan) was implemented and promoted the creation of new troupes. Thus, by the end of the 1980s, there were more than twenty professional companies in Cuba. These included Okantomi, the company directed by Pedro Valdés Piña; the Guiñol de Santa Clara, which featured exceptional manipulation; Teatro Papalote of Matanzas, headed by the master René Fernández Santana who was a disciple of the Camejos and a tireless experimenter; the Guiñol of Camagüey, directed by Mario Guerrero; and Guiñol of Guantánamo from the eastern end of the island. The Santiago de Cuba remained the oldest of the troupes created during the revolutionary period. It had among its memorable productions the play Papobo, the story of a black child during colonial times which remains a small classic of Cuban children’s theatre.
However, the rigid organization of Cuban theatre led to a certain inertia. The Ministry of Culture attempted to remedy the situation beginning in 1989. They allowed those who had a specific artistic project to freely associate and obtain financial and material support from the government. This loosening of the reins engendered the creation of younger new groups next to the older more established companies. These included, among others already mentioned, Los Cuenteros, Teatro Hilos Mágicos, Teatro de Las Estaciones (est.1994), Teatro Nacional de Guiñol – perhaps the most important and prestigious of all.
Into the 21st Century: The Future of Puppet Theatre
The collapse of the former socialist world brought economic loss to Cuba, while sweeping away cultural references that for nearly forty years were essential elements of its theatrical world.
The last edition of the Festivales de Teatro para Niños was held in 1990. There was an attempt to replace it by extending the Festival Nacional de Teatro held biennially in Camagüey and presenting to the jury the best in puppetry and children’s performances. However, this was controversial from the start given the thinking that these are “minor” theatre forms of little value when compared to live actors’ theatre produced for adult audiences.
Two events grew from this time of crisis. The first is the Encuentro Profesional de Teatro para Niños (Professional Meeting of Children’s Theatre) convened by the Teatro de la Villa, located in the Havana municipality of Guanabacoa. The second, beginning in 1994, is the Taller Internacional de Títeres de Matanzas (TITIM, International Puppetry Workshop), which is held every two years in the city of Matanzas. Chaired by René Fernández Santana, this forum brings together the best of the puppetry arts with a selective and non-competitive sampling from both foreign and national companies. Sponsored by the Papalote puppet company and the Consejo Provincial de las Artes Escénicas (Provincial Council for the Performing Arts), the workshop has become one of the foremost in the country. It has brought together international and host country puppet masters and puppeteers with playwrights, critics, and other theatre specialists. Roberto Espina, Héctor Di Mauro, Enrique Lanz, Fabrizzio Montechi, the designer Zenén Calero Medina, and the researcher and playwright Freddy Artiles are among those who have participated. Important sponsors include the Galería El Retablo, which is dedicated to conserving and preserving the history of puppets, and the Teatro de Las Estaciones, founded in Matanzas in 1994 by Rubén Darío Salazar.
In collaboration with Retablo (from the province of Cienfuegos), Nueva Línea, Pálpito and Teatro de la Proa (from Havana), Teatro de Las Estaciones has played an important role in reasserting puppet theatre in Cuba. At the same time mentors like Armando Morales (head of the Teatro Nacional de Guiñol), René Fernández, Félix Dardo (in Los Cuenteros), Olga Jiménez, Iván Jiménez and Allán Alfonso (in Santa Clara), and Rafael Meléndez (in Santiago de Cuba), together with others, have established strong contacts with the younger generation. While Cuba does not yet have a school specializing in puppetry, the Instituto Superior de Arte has created a diplomado (seminar programme) treating the tradition of the animated figure. Meanwhile, it is encouraging that publishing houses such as Tablas-Alarcos, Vigía, Gente Nueva and Pueblo y Educación, have begun generating relevant materials, and several academic theses treating Cuban puppet theatre have appeared.
There are other supportive developments. These include the recent re-establishment of the Cuban branch of UNIMA, done so in collaboration with the leaders of this international puppetry organization and those of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escénicas (National Council for the Performing Arts). Playwrights such as Esther Suárez, the recently deceased Freddy Artiles, Norge Espinosa, Maikel Chávez, Blanca Felipe Rivero, among others, have become involved. The same is true of Sahimell Cordero, Yaqui Sáiz, Panait Villalvilla, Christian Medina, Idania García, Liliana Pérez Recio, Edwyn Maza, and Arneldys Cejas. This circle also includes researchers such as Yudd Favier and Marilyn Garbey. Outside Cuba, puppeteers such as William Fuentes, ATO Teatro and Luis Enrique Chacón have borne witness to the value of Cuban puppetry.