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El Arca: Where new puppets are born

El Arca: Where new puppets are born

Today, however, at least for the kids who live in Old Havana, this time of day has a completely different connotation—it’s puppet show time.

“After the kids have played out in the sun in the nearby park, they come to El Arca and take refuge here,” says director Liliana Pérez Recio as she welcomes us to Teatro de Títeres El Arca—The Ark Puppet Theater—where in a lovely room the actors are rehearsing a puppet version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

With a capacity for 64 spectators, El Arca is situated on the ground floor of Casa Pedroso, whose upper floors are home to the Office of the City Historian of Havana. Liliana takes us around the place, which includes the theater, the typical central courtyard of Cuban colonial homes, and the puppet museum. El Arca is located right across the Bay of Havana and the environment is the pretext for the name: El Arca (The Ark) the refuge where puppets come to life and where they travel from one show to another.

When we ask Liliana how El Arca came to be, she tells us about her student days at the Higher Institute of the Arts (ISA) when a group of students gathered round researcher, playwright and theater expert Freddy Artiles who devoted his career to the validation of the at times misunderstood art of puppetry; of the nearly ten years she spent with the Guiñol National, Cuba’s national Puppet Theater and of her relationship with Roberto Fernández, a director with a lengthy and fruitful stage career who was her teacher and friend. And of course, she tells us about Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, heart and soul of the revitalization project of Old Havana, who never forgot a project suggested to him by a group who wanted to set up a street puppet theater. “Several years had passed and you might think he wouldn’t remember, but one day we met here on the corner and Leal said, ‘What are you doing? Are you free? Come with me.’ He took me by the hand and showed me this place, recited some verses by Calderón de la Barca and asked me, ‘It’s a theater, isn’t it?’ And that’s how it all began,” Liliana tells us, clearly showing her emotion from knowing that her dream came true.

From the very beginning, the project included a puppet museum. “I asked Eusebio,” Liliana recalls, “How can we have a museum if we don’t have a collection?” And he replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll have one somehow.” “But we have no money,” I said, “so where will we get the puppets?” “We’ll have one somehow,” he said again. Liliana’s eyes shine when she speaks of the City Historian. She can’t hide her respect and admiration for Leal. The adventure of traveling throughout the island knocking on the doors of puppet theaters everywhere in search of pieces for the museum began in 2008. “First we went to the provinces,” says the director of El Arca, “and told everyone that we were going to create a museum and that we wanted all the puppeteers and puppet troupes in the island to be represented in this museum.”

It was neither a quick nor an easy task. Some groups that had been important in the history of puppetry in Cuba no longer existed and many pieces were in the hands of people who had already retired, or of family members who usually had no idea how to preserve them properly. “So, step by step, we began to create a Cuban collection,” and Liliana continues, “I believe that right now our collection has an acceptable level of representation, which reflects certain features that allow us to speak of Cuban puppetry. We owe our international collection to donations made by friends from Belgium, Africa, Spain, India, Brazil, Peru, Mexico. And while some puppets, for some reason or another, may not be extremely valuable as museum pieces, they have an educational value for us.” The idea is to have an interactive museum in which the children will be able to understand and learn the different puppetry techniques and to handle puppets. “Our aim is to make it fun,” assures Liliana.

El Arca Theater opened with “Lilo’s Cat,” a shadow play. This technique was not common in Cuba and Liliana explains further: “Many people thought that El Arca was a theater for shadow plays and I always say, ‘No, El Arca is a laboratory, today it may be shadow plays and tomorrow something else.’”

And in justification of these words, she tells us about the premiere of The Musicians of Bremen and Brazos Caídos adapted both for paper theater, also called toy or model theater. This is the result of a paper theater workshop for children and adolescents who live in the Historic Center. Like many other institutions in the area, El Arca gives participation to the local community in the cultural process that is part of the revitalization and preservation program of Old Havana’s Historic Center.

At the time of our interview, the company was preparing Sueño de una noche de verano based on William Shakespeare’s immortal A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This show has become a hard learning process especially for the less experienced actors who have had to work with rod puppets for the first time, in addition to the text by Shakespeare, quite different from the everyday language they are used to working with.

Like the biblical Ark, El Arca is a refuge and a place of promise where new puppets are born to help populate the rich world of Cuban puppetry.

Teatro de Títeres El Arca
Avenida del Puerto y calle Obrapía, Habana Vieja
Funciones: viernes, sábados y domingos, 3 pm
Octuber 2014 This article formed part of the August 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.

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