Everything Wrong with This Caja Show

In 2012, I visited Argentina for the first time and I was fascinated when Mara Ferreya, a puppeteer from Cordoba, described a kind of street puppet show that took place in a box. She showed me a photograph, with three people all wearing headphones and looking through their own peephole at some invisible show inside a cardboard box. It didn’t look that hard to make.

Later that summer I made my first attempt at a similar show. I called it the Personal Puppet Show and performed it at farmer’s markets and community events. People liked it, but it was only after I went back to Argentina two years later and took a workshop with Mendoza puppeteer Gabriela Céspedes that I realized all of the things I had done wrong. Here is a list of them.

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1. The box is too shallow. I could only see one side of the box in Mara’s photo and I didn’t realize it had to be a certain depth. Part of the magic of caja lambe-lambe is that the tiny peephole creates a forced perspective for the viewer. This gets ruined, however, if the box isn’t deep enough and the puppets end up too close to the eye. My box is only about 6-8 inches deep which is great for transport, but not for creating a forced perspective.

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2. There are two eyeholes instead of one. This was purely me trying to be fancy. I thought two eyeholes would make it easier to see inside, but it’s actually the opposite. Because everyone has a slightly different distance between their eyes, some people find it much harder to focus, looking through two holes. One peephole per viewer works the best.

3. There is no viewfinder for the puppeteer. Another detail that I missed because I only saw a photo. There should be some kind of window in the back or the top of the box so that the puppeteer can see what they are doing. Otherwise, movement becomes imprecise and easy to mess up. Without a viewfinder, my puppeteering isn’t as good as it could be.

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4. There is a curtain at the back, instead of holes for the puppeteers hands. Another mistake that causes practical problems for puppeteering. Trying to smoothly move my hands (and puppets) between pieces of fabric is difficult and it’s easy for the cardboard puppets to get stuck. This creates a jerking motion as they enter the scene, which ruins the illusion of movement. Most boxes have holes for the puppeteer’s hands either at the back or the side, with a curtain over the top to block the light spill. It is much easier to place a puppet in front of this curtain and then enter the box, rather than trying to do both those movements at once. Another option if your puppets are on vertical rods is to cut the holes in the top of the box and bring the puppets in from above.

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5. The box isn’t created with a single show in mind. This is the biggest mistake I made, and it’s arguably the one that takes the Personal Puppet Show out of the category of caja lambe-lambe. A true caja show is a miniature world, one that is constructed for the purpose of telling one short, 1-3 minute story and that story alone. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the puppets, the soundtrack–all of these should combine to create the illusion of a complete setting. My box, with its one-color walls, black curtain background and plain floor does not do this.

Despite (or perhaps because of) my many mistakes, I enjoyed building my Personal Puppet Show and felt very much at home with the style of puppetry. After studying with Gabriela Céspedes and building a second show as part of the 2015 Fringe project I Thought the Earth Remembered Me I was only more convinced. This year, I’m looking forward to premiering my third caja show, called Library Love and demonstrating how much I’ve learned since I first built the Personal Puppet Show.

Puppet Postcard #1

Flashback time! Back in January, Cecilia was part of a delegation sent by Theater Communications Group to the Santiago a Mil theater festival in Santiago de Chile. As usual, Cecilia kept an illustrated journal of her travels, including encounters with puppets. These first two are from Mendoza, Argentina, where she spent a weekend catching up with Gabriela Cespedes and hanging out watching caja lambe-lambe shows in the plaza.

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An Interview with Gabriela Cespedes

When Cecilia was traveling in South America last year, she took a workshop with Argentine puppeteer Gabriela Cespedes in the art of caja lambe-lambe puppetry at the Convocatoria de Mujeres Titriteras (Convention of Women Puppeteers). The following is an interview with Cespedes about her work. It has been translated from Spanish and condensed for this blog post. 

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Gabriela Cespedes, teaching a lambe-lambe workshop in Argentina.

Cecilia Cackley: How did you become a puppeteer? When did you first become interested in puppetry as an art form? 

Gabriela Cespedes: My training comes from acting. I started doing theater in 1988, with Mariu Carreras, a great teacher. It essentially taught me that theater takes place when we are dealing with the public and that is why you always have to create and perform work for an audience. Puppetry came later, in 1996 when I start to do street shows with two colleagues and became forever trapped in the art of puppetry …my interest in this technique must have been born from playing with small things, making houses, staging and playing with friends to make characters.

CC: Are there projects that have changed in response to audience comments? How do you maintain a balance between other people’s criticism and your own vision? 

GC: At first audience comments about a work they had seen affected me a lot and I always tried to change small things … but after a while I realized that art is intimate and solitary, that one can not meet the whims of each viewer … so when someone makes any criticism I take it with respect and affection, and on the other hand I still respect my artwork as I conceived it.

One of Gabi's lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

One of Gabi’s lambe-lambe shows, set up for spectators.

CC: Do you work alone or in collaboration with other puppeteers? Why or why not? 

GC: At this moment all my works are solo … by choice or because it has been easier to move from one place to another by myself with my puppets !!!!
There are plans to work in groups … but we are always organizing activities in conjunction with other puppeteers.

CC: What project are you working on right now? 

GC: At the moment I am researching miniature drawings to use in both stop-motion animation and lambe-lambe theater or caja magica.

CC: What advice do you have for people who want to work with or learn more about puppets? 

GC: The art of puppetry is an ancient technique, captivating, trapping, that allows us to travel into unsuspected worlds … but mostly it is hard work and a lot of research, and that is fundamental to puppetry … and as they say in Japanese “give life to the wood” in that is everything, be able to give life to everything that comes into our HANDS !!!!!

Shadow Puppets in Argentina

I was lucky enough to take a workshop with shadow puppet artist Gabriel von Fernandez when I was in Argentina back in November. Based in Buenos Aires, Gabriel performs his own shadow puppet shows and teaches workshops to artists at all levels. Here is a page from my journal about my experience working with him.

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Goodbye 2014…Hello 2015!

We’re heading into a new year, with new projects and adventures on the horizon. Thank you for reading our blog this year, for coming to our shows, for commenting on Facebook or Twitter and cheering us on. The audience is an essential part of any performance work and we value every single one of you, either online or in real life. We hope to see you again soon!

Kismet hanging out in front of Casa Rosada, one of the most well-known buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Kismet hanging out in front of Casa Rosada, one of the most well-known buildings in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Kismet in La Boca, the neighborhood where the Grupo Teatro Catalinas Sur has their theater and puppet company.

Kismet in La Boca, the neighborhood where the Grupo Teatro Catalinas Sur has their theater and puppet company.

Kismet in shadow, part of a workshop piece at the festival Titiriteros Juglares, near Cordoba, Argentina.

Kismet in shadow, part of a workshop piece at the festival Titiriteros Juglares, near Cordoba, Argentina.

Postcard #9

Wit’s End artistic director Cecilia Cackley is currently traveling in South America. While she is gone, Cecilia is keeping a visual journal of the places she visits and shows that she sees. She will be posting pages here occasionally as virtual postcards from her trip. 

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