Cristina Masoliver speaks of her puppets the way the director of a close-knit theater troupe might speak of her actors: with respect, with fondness, with full knowledge of their idiosyncrasies, yet still allowing that they might surprise her at any moment. Masoliver and her marionettes have been together for more than two decades, and they all have stories to tell about each other.
This summer, Masoliver's Puppet Theatre los Titiriteros returns to Taos Farmers Market, with shows every Saturday morning on Taos Plaza. The program, offered free to all children, is funded by the Martin Foundation for the Creative Arts and supported in part by New Mexico Arts (a division of the state's Department of Cultural Affairs) and by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Masoliver began her life in Barcelona, Spain. Her journey to New Mexico involved a trek through Asia and two chance meetings with Taoseñas -- one in China and one in Nepal. She moved to Taos in 1986 and began Titiriteros in 1993.
"I've always loved puppetry, and I initially started building puppets just as art objects, not for performing. Then I wanted to do a puppet show about the matachines, and so I applied for a grant from New Mexico Arts - and I got it! So, then I had to do a performance. It's been a long journey ever since, a never-ending journey."
By now, the children who first enjoyed the adventures of Masoliver's original puppets -- the flamenco dancers Lola and Paco, grandma Adelina and the whimsical Fidel -- are grown and bringing their own children to see the show.
"I began performing with the original marionettes in the early '90s. Adelina was built, I think, in 1995. She's one of my strongest, and she takes on a life of her own. She is very Northern New Mexico and she mirrors so many people's memories, mirrors the culture here. Lola and Paco, the dancers, are archetypal puppets, very [Federico] Fellini-esque -- like the street performers in Fellini's 'La Strada.' Fidel is a tiny puppet, very curious, like Curious George, and he has this whole show that he's imagined for himself, a pirate adventure puppet show."
The process of adding new characters to the troupe is far from casual. "I don't build a lot of puppets. When I do, I play and play, and it's a very long process of many years to develop a new character. It's not instant - to get from tense to relaxed. Like anything you master, you have to get to that place, and it takes a lot of playing with them and getting to know their nuances."
She doesn't stockpile materials, and when it's time to create new marionettes, she builds them with "socks and cardboard and paper and whatever I need." The art of getting to know the new character then comes into play.
"You have to learn -- how does it move, what does it do well? Each one is different. One is good at flying, one walks well. You have to take time and let them show you. For example, Paco is very stiff; he walks very stiff and straight. Lola is very wobbly. That's how they came out when they were built. You have to see how they function and not try to control or force them."
Two of the newer characters are Little Steven and his girlfriend, Marietta. "I'm just experimenting with these new ones. [Taos] Farmers Market is a great place to experiment and play, to put myself out there and see what happens. It's different than having a full performance. These are little skits. I stay in flow, bring different puppets every week and keep it organic."
For the past few years, Masoliver has been spending the winter months in Mexico, performing in Baja. "I've done shows in little villages, very remote places. That was great, a very interesting adventure." During the summer, she does outreach shows in small and rural communities, like Truchas, Vadito and Chamisal, performing for senior centers and children's groups.
"My puppetry is not only for children, but for all ages. Adelina is more about connecting the youth with the elderly. One time after a children's show, a little kid raised his hand and asked, 'Is Adelina a real person?' I said, 'No, she's a real puppet -- real because she has a life. She is real in her own right all by herself.'"
She expressed gratitude for the support that's made it possible to sustain the art form across the years. "We are a nonprofit, and we have lasted. For our community to have its own puppet theater -- it may seem like a small thing, but sometimes good things come in small packages. Not everything has to be big and grand. This kind of puppetry is very low-key, very small and simple and nontechnical, and I think that's especially precious nowadays. In its own way, it can be a nice gift, something that anyone can appreciate. It's been a good ride. I love being the 'puppet lady' -- little kids come up and call me that. I don't mind that at all; I think it's very cute. As I get older, I enjoy it more and more. It's an intrinsic part of my life, and I don't see that I'll ever stop. It's my privilege to share a few minutes with kids and grandparents, and everybody leaves happy."
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