Puppet duo bring entertainment and emotional support to rural communities
It sounds like a hippie’s dream, traveling through Mexico in a van, giving puppet shows to children in rural areas to pay the bills.
âDoing theater is a life choice,â says Sandra Reyes, who together with Ãngel Ledezma An Escena Teatro. For 20 years, they have traveled through rural Mexico, continuing a long tradition of traveling shows.
Reyes and Ledezma met while working with a more conventional theater group called Trasluz. After its breakup in the 1990s, it was Ledezma’s idea to lean into the puppet, but Reyes was quite hesitant at first.
Reyes loved the scene since she was little, following her father when he performed with his band. But she wasn’t sure whether she could transfer her acting skills from her body to an inanimate object, and she didn’t have the skills to craft the puppets either. However, she says “… when I started to animate the puppets and tell stories with them, I fell in love.”
Basically, A Escena’s training as a puppeteer was done on the job. They started out by traveling wherever there were workshops on making and working puppets, which led to touring shows.
The emphasis on travel was important because âwe became convinced that art and culture are rights for children, and we saw that performing arts productions were limited to big citiesâ.
There are still many places in Mexico where the mass media and the internet do not reach – very isolated communities deep in the rugged mountains. The lack of connectivity and infrastructure leaves a great void in cultural services, which A Escena tries to fill.
That means many days and hours on winding mountain roads in a van filled to the brim with everything they need. From their base in Puebla, they have visited many parts of Mexico and even abroad, although their work is concentrated in the center of the country in Oaxaca.
Returning to mountain roads can be dangerous but also rewarding. Some are so narrow and in poor condition that only one car can pass at a time. They got into trouble with paramilitary groups and decided to cut back on movement in some of the most dangerous areas of the country.
But even this aspect of Mexican rural travel can have its silver lining. Reyes says that when pulled over at military checkpoints by soldiers wanting to know what’s in the van, their faces can’t help but soften when faced with a myriad of puppets. The couple can also admire some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the country.
However, their main reward is playing for their audience. Their pieces are original works written by Ledezma. The puppets are the stars, but the puppeteers are visible on stage.
Reyes says there are cultural differences between children in Mexico. Those in warmer climates tend to be more engaging and those in colder climates more reserved. Perhaps a little shocking is that children in border areas tend to encourage conflict and even violence with their shouting during performances. Reyes attributes this to the violence they live with on a daily basis.
Even after the couple leave, they receive letters and drawings from children about how the shows have affected them.
While the shows are important, the Reyes found that they weren’t enough. A Escena has added workshops for making and working puppets for the same children they play for. Several years ago, Reyes attended an art doll workshop from master craftswoman Mayra RenÃ© who not only introduced him to new techniques for creating more sophisticated pieces, but also emphasized the importance that human figures can have even outside of a stage.
The experience led her to create a new project called SueÃ±os a Mano (Dreams in hand). The project’s first workshop worked with relatives and other relatives of missing people in southern Veracruz. This resulted in 14 dolls, many with embroidered âtattoosâ that participants used to express their feelings. Reyes hopes to exhibit the collection soon.
Bringing culture to marginalized communities requires ingenuity, even at the best of times. With a pandemic, the challenge increases exponentially. Previously, all of their equipment was loaded onto a truck and performances were held in kiosks and other public spaces. With the latter wrapped up, Reyes and Ledezma decided to make the van itself the scene to allow them to perform anywhere they were welcome, even if only in private homes. This innovation has earned them new attention from Mexican cultural authorities and media.
Despite all the importance of creativity in this ‘lifestyle choice’, there are practical reasons why Reyes and Ledezma have been able to do this job for over 20 years: First of all, the two have a relationship. exceptionally good work. Reyes points out that there is no romantic implication, but the respect and trust they have for each other as artists is very evident. She is the strongest performer, and he is the writer and “lander” of projects.
Perhaps more importantly, they handle the financial ups and downs of show business better than most performance organizations, making sure funds are set aside to take advantage of the next opportunity and, of course, to coping with when a pandemic strikes.
Leigh Themadatter arrived in Mexico 18 years ago and fell in love with the land and culture especially its crafts and art. She is the author of Mexican cardboard: paper, paste and fiesta (Schiffer 2019). His cultural column appears regularly on Mexico News Daily.