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The selection and the process

CHILE | Saturday, 19 January 2013 | Views [351]

The most valuable skill to have to when working this particular set of puppets is the ability to talk yourself down from the brink of panic attack in a claustrophobic space while you’re sweating like a rapist, putting your body through a sustained stress; contorting it through awkward, impractical and physically incorrect positions and movement phrases while manoeuvring and animating twelve or so kilos while the audience members – kids and adults – push you, pull you, hang off you, yank you, belt you and clobber you, all while you are vision impaired and blinded by sunlight.  This is what often many of these roves have come down to: the ability to endure.

The second most essential quality to have with these puppets is grace. Grace enough to hold your shit together as you come out of the puppet at the performance ‘s conclusion; when the minders tear open the velcro bindings and you birth forth like a sweaty mutant foetus breaking out of a steaming embryotic sack, covered in dirt and grime and broken bits of puppets, gasping for air as the crowd – the same fuckers who were punching and pulling and kicking you – clap and cheer as you take a bow. Then want to take a photo with you, they want to clutch on to your sweaty t-shirt, to document your boob sweat and matted wet hair forever, and to kiss you with thanks, as sweat dribbles down your face.  I don’t have the Spanish to tell them that when they kiss my cheek in congratulations, it’s not just my sweat they’re kissing, but a mix of my sweat and the sweat of past performers who have operated the puppet before me.

These Body Part puppets are hard work.  A giant nose, eye, mouth, ear, foot and hand. The material they are made out of is thick and unbreathable and as a puppeteer you operate the puppets from inside so you are fully enclosed. Your breath hole is your visibility hole, stale air is trapped and fresh air is scarce. The breadth of vision ranges from tunnel vision to not much, depending on time of day and shade.  Three weeks of touring, three performances a day, five times a week. Fifteen shows a week, forty-five shows in the run. For these puppets, it’s a lot. They deteriorate with every rove, making it harder and more difficult to work with them and they begin to look like victims of abuse, amputation casualties that are rolling towards a bin. My back, already damaged from the eye at the start of the year worsens with each rove and soon my knee and then knees start to go. I find new bruises daily on my hips, arse and thighs, a rash in my armpits – from sweat or heat or somebody else’s fungal residue I don’t know  - and a collection of sweat pimples in my cleavage and in the small of my back. I start taking painkillers, prescribed to me when I first put my back out and as I mask the old pains I create new pains, my numb body and good mood oblivious to my overexertion, until the meds wear off and I quickly spiral downwards into a grumbling bitter pile of soreness, ready to inflict my pain onto others. So I take more, and then life is good again, until they wear off and the cycle continues.

The central, urban gigs are the busiest and the most intense. In temperatures around 35’C swarms of people gather, waiting for the performances to start. The puppets come out and enter the plaza/square/street. The crowds go berserk. There is no concept of personal space let alone performance space, the audience crowd around holding onto and dangling off any part of puppet they can reach, thrusting their faces and small children at us, impeding our movement and view. I will never understand the adult thought process behind: A puppet. Kick it.  Or the one behind:My child is terrified. Throw it at the puppet and then laugh hysterically about it.

As always we have minders, people whose main responsibility is to tell people to stop molesting the puppets but the audiences won’t listen. They get so close and so rammed as they try to batter us with their unhinged joy that it is impossible to do anything but stand still, sweat and plead in quiet desperation, “Fuck off you fuckers,” while trying to punch them away through the puppet’s skin until Toni stands right in front of your view hole and screams ”Five minutes left.”  That’s the cue to start thrusting into and ramming people, taking them down or forcing them to get out of the way.

The lack of performance space gets so dire during these gigs that we get more minders, who at certain times, hold hands to form a chain, a barrier to keep the audience from mobbing us. It’s hard work for these minders; they are pushed and pulled as they try to stop overexcited people from coming too close.  People throw confetti at us, people cheer us, people want our autographs and we are interviewed for multiple TV stations. At one gig we are shunted into a waiting van at the show’s end so the crowd doesn’t mob us – the closest I’ll ever get to feeling like a rock star no doubt.  At one gig, one resourceful Chilean downloaded a company photograph from the web and turned it into a flag to sell at our gigs for the equivalent of $2.

I know it’s not fair to ball out a zealous crowd – it’s what you want. Besides, there are few things more disheartening than a shit crowd – such is the fragile state of a performer – especially when you’re dressed in a PVC fat suit, donning a chicken head as part of an instillation people blindly step over at the Melbourne Fringe Hub on their way to the bar. Or say, when you are dressed as a cow and you get cow tipped by three drunk country bogans dressed in womens underwear at a ute muster and start to bleed through your lycra cow leg and are unable to get up gracefully due to the awkwardness of the puppet’s structure, so you lie on your side for a while flailing about. So, yes, a zealous crowd is good. However it needs to be clear that these audiences are on another level, filled with madness and unbridled benevolent lunatics, almost frothing at the mouth at the sight  – and they are a sight – of these giant dismembered body bits – real life animations that are both monstrous and human – moving towards them with lurching gaits and cheeky swaggers, agitators of the hysteria that is closing in around them.

Then there are the regional and district performances. The hospitality shown to us at these places – by everyone we are lucky enough to meet in Chile actually – extends beyond the usual warmth and generosity, and generally the crowds are fun and engaged without being maniacal. That aside, when we discuss performance plans the directions include: Stay away from the broken glass and mind the dog shit. At one of these gigs, an area where one of our minders saw a SWAT team as she was driving to it, we perform for three toothless winos who ask us for money. At another one of these gigs there is a clown roaming around. As we go to the performance site I watch this clown do his thing which includes directing traffic, trying to help out on a construction site and wandering around with the back of his clown costume undone so his arse hangs out. He kisses me at the end of the performance. He is missing teeth. We perform in a town called Lota, which translates to Town of Little Importance. Their main thing is that they have a defunct mine.  These are the performances where stray dogs join in on the finales.

We’re in a proper ghetto in the north of the city and it’s filled with concrete, bars on windows, graffiti, rubbish, and dogs that look like they are in need of dying. Our driver is a local, proud of his neighbourhood and happy to meet us, as we are his friends from Australia. He is Juan. Or John. John Castle. Like Newcastle, but John Castle, and he is Number One. He decides to give us the John Castle tour, as long as we keep it secret.

The tour starts.

“This area is very dangerous. Drug dealers on every corner.”

The use of a drug made with the left overs from the process of making cocaine, similar to heroin, is high here.

“See?  That’s a drug dealer there.  She, she, is looking out for police.”

A skanky bent over crackwhore, scabs on her sallow face, stands on a street corner and glares at us as we drive by, slowly.

“And look, that man sleeps on the road. “

A homeless man sleeps on a mattress surrounded in litter on the footpath.

“Ohh and see him?  No good.  Addict.”

A lank man in double denim eyeballs our car, as we drive slowly, so slowly by.

We drive through a tricky intersection.

“See here? Many accident. No red, yellow, green, no.  So cars come here and cars come there and boom!” John Castle makes an exploding noise with his mouth.

“See here?“

Along the cracked and dusty pavement the remnants of memorials to dead people cling onto a chipped and tired pole.

“Dead. Big accident. Many big accident.”

We drive to our dressing room, which is in the bowels of the local sports centre and wait for the gates to open, the car idling in front of them. A cute young Chilean girl, of about eleven, in a fluoro midriff t-shirt and short denim cut offs walks by the gates and swings the doors wide open with such force they close again.  An old woman makes her way down to the gates from the sports centre and the girl yells out something to her. Nicolas, a member of our local crew laughs in shock.

“No.  I can’t repeat that,” he says when we inquire, but we persist.

“Ok, she say something like, why don’t you open your own fucking gate you stupid fat bitch?”

Then he turns to us and says:

“There is no way I would come here alone, they would know you’re not from here.”

In spite of all of the skank, John Castle is proud. He drives us by his sister’s house – all we can see is a concrete fence and bars. He introduces us to his neighbour and shows us the house he grew up in.  He drives us through tired streets with rundown houses and weathered people shuffling along the footpath. After showing us the sights and a highway he turns and asks:

“So, you like?”

The three of us in the backseat balk.

“…Ahh, yes? It’s great.“

John Castle smiles, satisfied that we have enjoyed his hood, and we have, I just wouldn’t want to live here.

Despite the difficulties of performing in hysteria, it’s no doubt an endearing shared quality of the people here, mostly. As always there are bogans and aresholes and children that you would like to punch in their soft spots, but largely the hysteria is an extension of excitement and warmth of a non-Anglo nature. It’s the same excitement and warmth that invites us back to bars and pubs for rounds of margaritas and empanadas, that hands you an icy cold bottle of water when you need it most and that fights the crowd after a performance to find your hand so they can clamp theirs on to it while they look you in the eye and tell you Gracias.

Tags: latino hospitality, santiago, snuff puppets, teatre a mil festival

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