The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Spanish: Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico, literally the “Free Associated State of Puerto Rico”), an archipelago located in the north-eastern Caribbean, is a territory of the [United States of America]. It consists of the main island of Puerto Rico and a number of smaller islands, including Vieques, Culebra, and Mona. San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and Spanish and English are the official languages.
Popular theatre and, more specifically, puppetry first appeared on the island of Puerto Rico in the 19th century, drawing primarily from antecedents in Galicia and the Canary Islands. By the 1920s and 1930s, local arts began growing, and during the 1940s, Puerto Rico experienced a cultural awakening. At this time Leopoldo Santiago Lavandero founded the Departamento de Drama at the Universidad de Puerto Rico (Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Puerto Rico) together with a university theatre, Teatro Universitario Rodante, which promoted children’s theatre and puppetry. In her book, Desarrollo del Teatro Nacional en Puerto Rico (The Development of National Theatre in Puerto Rico), Lydia Ester Sosa identifies this university department and two other institutions as the most critical drivers of Puerto Rican theatre during the 20th century. The other two include the Department of Education’s Programa de Teatro Escolar (Scholarly Theatre Program or School Theatre Program or the Teatro Escolar Program), also created by Santiago Lavandero in 1960, and the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP, Institute of Puerto Rican Culture) and its División de Fomento Teatral (Division of Theatrical Promotion or Theatrical Development Division), which was formed in 1955.
Nevertheless, Puerto Rico lacked a tradition of puppet theatre until 1965 when Santiago Lavandero dedicated himself to its introduction. Through the Programa de Teatro Escolar and with government financing, he established an experimental project called El Miniteatro Infantil Rural (Rural Mini-theatre for Children) or MIR. With the assistance of [George Latshaw], Ángeles Gasset, and Bruce Chessé, a number of young graduates were trained for small, mobile productions. By 1973, there had been more than 3,500 MIR performances, and each performance included the distribution of materials promoting puppet making and performance. Through the 1970s, puppet clubs appeared in many schools and grew rapidly but then fell back after the Programa de Teatro Escolar dropped its support for MIR. Nowadays, children in the public education system continue to be exposed to puppet theatre through performances by professional puppet theatre companies, many of which were formed by former members of MIR.
Indeed, after MIR’s disappearance, professional groups emerged. According to Rafael Ortiz, the first generation of Puerto Rican puppet companies were: Títeres Cibuco (Germán Colón, 1968); Títeres de Mario Donate/Teatro Nacional de Sombras Chinescas (Mario Donate, 1968); [Títeres de Puerto Rico Inc.] (José Álvarez-Zayda Ruberté, 1972); Títeres de Borikén (Francisco Torres, 1975); La Coa/Publicoop (Ángel Domenech, 1975); Titirimundi (Filipo Tirado, 1975); and [El Mundo de los Muñecos] (Rafael Ortiz, 1978). This final group was the first Puerto Rican company to win the most prestigious award in puppet theatre in the United States, [UNIMA]-USA’s Citation of Excellence, for their production of Pinocho ([Pinocchio], 1985). The majority of these companies continue to be active in their work. Other new companies include Títeres de San Juan (Nelson Pantoja), Rafael Rivera y sus títeres, Títeres Casabe, directed by Luis Colón, Santin y sus títeres, and El Mago Emmanuel, who also incorporates puppets in his magic shows.
A student of the Programa de Teatro Escolar inspired by the work of these pioneer companies, Manuel Morán founded [Teatro SEA (Society of the Educational Arts, Inc. / Sociedad Educativa de las Artes, Inc.)] or SEA in 1985, which combines actors, puppets of various styles, and musical theatre. SEA has operations in Puerto Rico, Florida, and New York, which includes a puppet museum and permanent theatre space. In 2010, SEA won UNIMA-USA’s Citation of Excellence for their production of La Muela del Rey Farfán/The Toothache of King Farfán.
Puppet Theatre for Adults
Master puppeteer and mask maker, Deborah Hunt, has been an important figure in developing adult puppet theatre in Puerto Rico. Her company, Mask Hunt Motions, began presenting experimental work for the adult public in the Teatro Yerbabruja (Yerbabruja Theatre) in Río Piedras. Her interdisciplinary use of marionette puppets of various styles, masks, [dance], music, and visual arts has been very influential and was featured in the [film] ECO (2009), perhaps the only Puerto Rican film to honour puppetry.
Pedro Adorno is another important figure in the puppet and mask theatre movement for adults. He worked and trained for many years with the famous American puppet company, [Bread and Puppet Theater]. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1993 and founded his company, Agua, Sol y Sereno (Water, Sun and Serene), where he participated in several international festivals with his theatre projects, workshops, and most recently, film.
Puppets in Puerto Rican Television
During the 1970s, puppets began appearing on Puerto Rican [television]. Children’s television programming was influenced by many foreign productions such as El Topo Gigio, Plaza Sésamo (the version in Spanish of Sesame Street produced in Mexico), and later on in the 1980s, El Show de los Muppets (The Muppet Show). Puppets have also been featured in adult programmes. In one of the highest rated programmes, Super X-clusivo, a full-body, loudmouthed puppet named La Comay, created by master puppeteer, José López, and manipulated by Kobbo Santarrosa, talks about the news of the day and gossip in show business. Another famous puppet created by López (a UNIMA-USA award winner) was Burbujita, created by the television commentator, Millie Cangiano. Filipo Tirado’s puppets were also very popular in many television programmes. These include Kilate and Pirita, Los Políticos (caricatures of that country’s governmental candidates), and Pepe Locuaz, among many others.
Festivals in Puerto Rico
Since its creation in 1955, the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña (ICP, Institute of Puerto Rican Culture) has been the governmental agency in charge of promoting the arts in Puerto Rico. From 1977 to 1981, it sponsored the Festival de Teatro de Títeres (Puppet Theatre Festival) on an annual basis. These festivals featured the pioneering companies mentioned above. ICP then combined the Puppet Theatre Festival with the Festival de Teatro Infantil (Children’s Theatre Festival) and, subsequently, the Rutas de Teatro Infantil (Children’s Theatre Routes), which were celebrated yearly through 1987. In 2002, ICP re-installed the Puppet Theatre Festivals and now celebrates them every other year. The eighth edition of the festival was celebrated in December 2009. The success of these festivals encouraged master puppeteer, Mario Donate, to fund and organize the Bienal Internacional de Teatro de Títeres (the International Biennial of Puppet Theater). The ten editions of this festival have engaged companies from Spain, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, and the United States, as well as Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, since 1987 the city of Caguas, “the capital of Puerto Rican puppet theatre”, has celebrated a city puppet festival.
Finally, beginning in 2008 eight Puerto Ricans initiated a festival known as Titeretada, or more recently, Titiriteros de Puerto Rico. This festival includes expositions, films, [cabaret], bazaars, and shows, and has been held annually since 2008, celebrating World Day of Puppetry during the month of March.
Puppet Theatre Schools
Other than the puppet theatre seminars offered by the Programa de Teatro Escolar and the Escuela Técnica de Artesanía Teatral (ETAE, School of Theatre Crafts) or the sporadic workshops run by existing companies, there has not been a formal instruction available. However, recently the University of Puerto Rico’s Departamento de Drama (Drama Department), at the Río Piedras Campus, offered courses by Noelia Ortiz, a Masters Degree graduate in puppet theatre at Connecticut College/IPPA (Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts). Classes in the Schools of Fine Arts in the cities of Caguas and Carolina are also offered.
There are few publications regarding the history of puppet theatre in Puerto Rico. Rafael A. Ortiz wrote a book in 2002, Apuntes sobre el teatro de títeres en Puerto Rico (Notes on the Puppet Theater in Puerto Rico), in which he summarizes the historical movement from a personal perspective. He offers valuable information on the main puppet companies and on his own company, El Mundo de los Muñecos (The World of Puppets). Manuel A. Morán’s doctoral dissertation, “The Development of Teatro Escolar” (NYU, 2005), includes an extensive chapter on the El Miniteatro Infantil Rural (MIR) experimental project, its performances and seminars, as well as interviews with Santiago Lavandero and George Latshaw.
Gladys Ruiz has written many articles documenting the history of the Teatro Escolar Program, which she directed for many years. Another important figure is Tere Marichal who published a puppet theatre bulletin called El Titiritero Alquimista (The Puppeteer Alchemist, 1983). He has recently begun to publish his online magazine, La 6ta Habitación: Boletín de Teatro de Títeres (The Sixth Room: Bulletin of Puppet Theater, 2009).
Finally, José Rodriguez, from the company, Los Soldaditos (The Little Soldiers), wrote in his book, El Arte de los Titeres, Efectivo y Divertido (The Art of Puppets, Effective and Amusing), how to open a puppet theatre, and in Libretos Cortos, Grandes Resultados volumen 1 y 2 (Short Scripts, Big Results, Volumes 1 and 2), provides each of the twenty short stories to use with puppets or children.