Stephanie Diaz’s Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych probably isn’t what people usually think of when they come to catch a show at Free Street, but when we first saw this haunting and deeply beautiful piece, we knew it was a perfect fit. Mariposa Nocturna is a puppet play that draws on Diaz’s Guatemalan heritage to tell a series of stories that don’t offer the audience a single or straightforward narrative. From an interactive altar before the show to the slightly surreal events that take place on stage, we’re asked to experience the stories as a community. What’s most exciting for us in bringing Mariposa Nocturna to Free Street is that Stephanie and her team of professional performers have been mentoring a group of four Free Street artists – teaching them to manipulate puppets, communicate through masks, and generally explore the many ways that puppets can facilitate human connection. Read on for an interview with Stephanie:
What gave you the idea to make this piece?
I saw a picture in a book called The Guatemala Reader of a piece of folk art: a carving of a little skeleton wearing a cape and crown. He was identified in the caption as San Pascualito Rey, a patron folk saint of illness and death. My mom is from Guatemala and I lived there briefly as a child, but I had never seen or heard of him before. I thought he would make a cute puppet and sort of filed that away in my brain. Shortly thereafter, I was encouraged by Esther Grimm of 3Arts to create an original, all-puppetry work, performed without spoken dialogue, that relied on movement and gesture to carry the storytelling (I had been mulling the idea over for years but never spoken about it to anyone). So I started with San Pascualito and created a 7-minute piece for Links Hall’s Puppet Cabaret, and that piece became the first part of this show.
What do you think is most exciting about your piece?
What I find most exciting and what other people find most exciting are probably different! But for me, I’m thrilled by the way that this show invites the audience to participate: without imposing a particular narrative, I wanted to give the viewer enough information to naturally and automatically create their own unique story of the action onstage, but not so little that they would be scratching their heads going, “huh?” I love hearing people after the show talking about their ideas of the relationships between the characters, and the emotional journey they’ve taken by the end of the show. Each audience member’s experience is unique to them, yet communal.
Why did you want to include young artists?
When you ask most anyone what they think of when they think of puppets, two responses will generally come up: the Muppets and marionettes (in fact, to most people, marionettes are synonymous with puppetry in general). There is also a general feeling in the United States that puppets are something exclusively designed to entertain toddlers. However, there are vast and varied traditions of puppetry worldwide, and for some reason, American audiences just aren’t exposed to puppetry as a fine art they way we might be to concert dance, plays or classical music. Because puppetry is a physical art, and the emotional language of gesture and physicality can really be universal (see: clowns), puppetry can be a way to tell stories that transcends barriers of age, race, nationality, language, gender identification… because a well-operated puppet cannot help but draw you in. What a powerful performance tool to share with young artists. I have heard it said (and I don’t know if I agree) that puppetry is a dying art– if this is so, then it is essential that we continue to expose young artists to this ancient art form and expand their repertoire of what is possible on stage… which, if puppets are involved, is just about anything!
I am particularly thrilled to have to opportunity to work with the young artists of Free Street, since in the last couple of years –participating and attending national puppery conferences and festivals– I became aware that there seem to be precious few puppeteers of color currently working. The result is a stunning lack of diversity in contemporary American puppetry, and I am determined to do my part to change this. Creating Mariposa Nocturna and incorporating an all-Latina ensemble of young artists for this run is a welcome opportunity to both demonstrate the inherent value in diversity of voices and pass some of my knowledge of this art to the next generation of theatremakers.
Mariposa Nocturna: A Puppet Triptych runs Thurs-Sat through November 1st. For tickets, visit: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/893907