Ten o’clock in the morning and a white, unmarked van idles in the bus lane outside the train station. A hand waves out the window, “Venga, ven!” Ten minutes later I’m walking into a rusted metal warehouse off a dirt road outside the town of Arenys de Munt. Glassy eyes line metal shelves to my left. Limp hands lay atop large swaths of fabric on an over-sized table to my right. And there’s an aggressive buzz coming from the back wall where two men toil over a table saw.
Maybe I should be terrified, but this is my new normal. This is work. And today I’ve got 1 marionette to string, 4 foam chicken puppets in need of rainbow plumage, and rehearsal after lunch.
I grew up where most people in the United States grow up: Idaho. We learned irony at an early age.
My high school did a cool thing: senior year we took our finals before spring break. Then the rest of the school year was devoted to something called our “Senior Project.” Plain and simple, the idea was to get us Idaho kids out of Idaho. Step 1: choose something you’re interested in. Step 2: the school, your family, the whole town finds someone who works doing that thing. Step 3: spend two weeks doing an internship or what-have-you wherever that person or company is located. Step 4: come back, write a twenty-page paper, and give a presentation complete with speech and Powerpoint slides.
I was interested in alternative theatre. Like most high school seniors. Right? And, as luck would have it, the sister of a friend of my parents lived in Barcelona and was married to a puppeteer named Pepe. Puppetry is pretty alternative and soon it was all set up. I was to spend 2 weeks sleeping on the floor in the miniature back room of this couple’s apartment. Pepe would take me around to interview puppeteers all over the city, to see puppetry shows, and even get me into a workshop for a day.
The powersaw quiets and I make a quick re-count of strings before laying my marionette down on the table. It’s taken me longer than I’d planned to get the strings right, but no one said getting a horse to gallop across a stage would be a 4 string task. This particular pony requires 20 strings all carefully measured, detangled, and knotted. It’s been shoulder-hunching work. Luckily, this is Spain. I take my turn in the tiny workshop bathroom and change into my bathing suit.
Every workday includes this 12 o’clock trip in the white van to Arenys de Mar, the closest beach. The head of the puppetry company, Biel, insists all us puppeteers swim out to the weather-stained yellow buoy and back. This lap must be completed twice. The first time we lie out on the beach after, like lizards, drinking in the sun. The second time, we must dry off with our towels, piling back in the van. By one o’clock we’re at Biel’s house. Some of us take showers while others start chopping vegetables. Biel is experimenting with veganism so meals of late have had a focus on lentils or rice with piles of veggies on top. I say hi to Jorda, Biel’s teenage son, when he steps in the door from school. What it must be like to eat lunch every day with 5 puppeteers.
When I was 17, I knew nothing about puppets. Or rather, I knew about puppets for kids. I’d had a small puppet stage and hand puppets when I was little. I’d made a sock puppet in a crafts group. I knew about Oscar the Grouch and Kermit the Frog. But that’s it. So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Barcelona.
Similarly, I had been taking Spanish classes since middle school. I knew tons of vocabulary but I still messed up the past tenses and when to use “por” and “para.” I didn’t feel overly confident about my interviewing skills. I wrote out my interview questions in Spanish. Then I wrote out potential responses to those questions in Spanish. And then I wrote out potential responses to those responses in Spanish. Just to be prepared. Just to be sure not to sound like a total idiot or be caught tongue-tied.
My 2 weeks in Barcelona were spent trooping about with Pepe. One day he took me to visit 2 women who told epic tales with shadow puppets; the shadow scenery made out of the insides of dismantled old radios. The next day Pepe brought me to a performance by a marionettist: acrobat marionettes did a tumbling sequence and a white gorilla marionette modeled off the famous albino Floquet de Neu (Snowflake) managed to get a miniature banana out from under a heavy box after some impressive reasoning and displays of strength.
Pepe was a magnificent storyteller. All the puppeteers I met were. But Pepe especially blew me away. He would stand in front of an audience holding a large piece of paper. He’d start telling a story and, seemingly absentmindedly, crumpling or folding the paper. Miraculously, paper forms would appear, matching moments in the story. Then, walking between shows or interviews, Pepe would point out pigeons, piles of leaves, a dog’s tail, the way someone held a lighter. Each observation would expand into a story. His hands would limp like an injured bird, flutter like leaves, wag with glee like a triumphant dog, or clench with impatience at the delayed arrival of fire. I realized the definition of “puppet” was undoubtedly much larger than I had previously imagined.
One day we went to a show by a puppeteer named Jordi Bertrán. A ping pong ball attached itself to a sponge, climbed a high ladder to a diving board, and- after a number of false starts and unplanned obstacles- worked itself up to doing a masterful plunge into a cup. The entire drama unfolded with the accompaniment of a guitar and kazoo. The kazoo being the voice of the ping pong ball. The audience fell in love with a sponge and ball. I fell in love with a sponge and ball. I was flipping out.
Another day we visited the workshop of Pepe Otal. It was a place of nightmares: floor-to-ceiling puppets with a focus on skeletons. I was pleased we visited at mid-day (though we did end up returning another evening for a show in the same space.) Here I was told that no one could be a true puppeteer until they had successfully made a skeleton puppet. There had to be that knowledge of how the human body was built; there had to be an understanding of human joints and proportions; there had to be a respect for our own inner system before we could truly impart that respect on an inanimate object. The two Pepes- both in their late 50s with thick gray beards- sat on high stools, smoking cigars, and discussing the finer details of Dante’s Inferno while I explored the hundreds of puppets hanging from, reclining on, and resting within every surface of the workshop. They invited me to handle any of the puppets so I picked up one jiggly skeleton marionette and turned its head from side to side. Unhooking a string, I caused all its limbs to leap off its body. Its jaw dropped as it laughed at my consternation. Hooking the same string back returned everything to where it belonged and I quickly put the puppet down.
We took the train out to a neighboring town called Arenys de Mar to see a children’s show by a puppeteer named Biel Porcel. It was performed in Catalan (the language of Catalunya, this region of Spain) so I did not understand every word at the time. There was a combination of live actors and rod puppets made out of foam. This fit in more with what I’d always thought of puppets: a show for children. But the topic was of human impact, environmental damage, how to choose a more sustainable and earth-friendly path through life. I was impressed.
Post-lunch, post-siesta, we’re back in the workshop. It’s 4 o’clock now. We’re rehearsing for a puppet movie: manipulating foam rod puppets from below. I’m standing with my legs spread as though riding an especially fat donkey so as to keep my puppet at the appropriate height. A long mirror helps us check our puppets are looking in the right direction. We added eyelid triggers to the controls yesterday so during each rehearsal pause the puppets frantically bat their eyes at each other as we get our fingers used to the new position. The schedule is for 3 hours of rehearsal but I decide to stay another hour after to glue those feathers on the 4 foam chickens. I don’t want to start tomorrow already a task behind.
One day, all those years ago, Pepe, his wife, and I had finished lunch in the apartment and were sitting about with coffees and teas, savoring the end of the meal the way Spaniards like to do. Crumpled napkins lay upon the table and Pepe fingered one distractedly while looking out the window. Then he turned his head to me and said intensely, “Respiración.” Taking a more focused hold of the napkin, he started making it “breathe.” Repeatedly lifting and lowering a part of it by minuscule amounts, Pepe stared at the napkin intently. Suddenly he swiftly turned a top bulge of the napkin towards the window. I felt my heart still. This was the secret. Merely by giving an object breath, he had instilled life within it. The manner in which it turned to the window portrayed a curiosity I was certain no napkin had ever demonstrated before. Reverently removing his hands from the cloth, he looked up at me. “Respiración. Siempre
The moon is outrageously clear. I’m standing on the small train platform beside the Mediterranean. The unmarked white van released me from its suspicious bowels a few minutes prior. I’m waiting for the Barcelona bound train. I’m covered in fake multi-colored feathers.
When I was 17, I never dreamed I’d be in Spain again, working with one of the puppeteers I’d met, taking lessons from another, speaking in Spanish and Catalan every day. But then, I’d also never dreamed I’d fall in love with a ping pong ball velcroed to a sponge. In some ways I guess, we’re life’s puppets. I give the bright wedge of moon one more look before the train can block it from my view and I take a deep, contented, breath.
Johanna Marvel wrote: My childhood in Idaho consisted of books, mountains, and magic tricks. Adult life so far is Catalan puppetry, Ecuadorian street acrobatics, British physical theatre, American improv, and Canadian fringe festival storytelling. Now, Barcelona is home; I write plays and short stories, perform around the city, and run my food tour company: The Barcelona Taste.