Animating beliefs in Spanish culture: a conversation on ‘Puppets of the Impossible’

By Ana Salgado, Sept. 27, 2022

On September 14, the Department of Theatre and New Dance hosted an event called “Puppets of the Impossible” that featured Esther Fernández, a writer and program advisor for Spanish and Portuguese at Rice University.

Fernández is an authority on early modern Spanish literature and culture, with an emphasis on the development of theater and its relationship to the nation’s emerging civic society. Fernández is also a resident associate at Wiess college, where she also serves as the divisional advisor for the humanities, and she is a fellow at the Center for Teaching Excellence. She recently published a book titled “To Embody the Marvelous.”

The main goal of the event was to investigate how the motion of animated objects and puppets used in ceremonial contexts on the Iberian Peninsula during early modern times became essential components for imparting didactic knowledge without direct human engagement.

Fernández explores these artificial entities through artistic narrative and shows how they inspired profound theological ideas and other times served a practical or pleasant purpose.

During the event, Fernández shared her own explanation of animations that resemble puppets and are created expressly to simulate simple physical movements in religious and ceremonial contexts that have existed since the dawn of humanity. 

The discussion lasted for one hour as Fernández summarized Jointed-Christ figures, or “Cristos articulados,” meaning articulated virgins — marionettes portraying saintly protagonists, mechanical monsters, like the Tarasca that are paraded in Corpus Christi processions and religious automata.

Especially in Early Modern Spain, these moving items and puppet figures were all evolved into impressive and edifying artifacts that the public thought to be immensely appealing, shared Fernández.

She also touched on various topics such as how their main dramatic effect was to make everybody who looked at them or interacted with them feel alive. These artificially animated beings had the ability to convey profound theological concepts in some cases, while also providing amusement or utility in other situations.

Ana Salgado | The Poly Post

Fernández’s words and style of expression are highly esteemed in the community of Spanish literature and theater artists. Marta Albalá Pelegrín, an Early Modern Iberian literature and renaissance drama CPP professor, liked what Fernández had to say. 

“I wanted to give Cal Poly Pomona students the chance to get involved not only with their research,” said Albalá Pelegrín. “But also, with the practice of managing a puppet and the feelings that a puppet can evoke, as well as with theater’s ability to transport viewers, have them participate in the performance and bring theater to the communities.”

According to Albalá Pelegrín, Fernández takes students to the roots of Puppetry theater, therefore having Fernández talk at CPP would benefit students in a manner she couldn’t. Fernández, who performs with the puppetry group Dragoncillo, a group of academics familiar with the Golden Age of Theatre, can bring people together and educate them about creating these kinds of communities through theater.

Stephanie Alvarado, a theatre student shared their feelings after attending the event.

“I thought it to be fairly fascinating in terms of how puppetry is probably silly and other things, when you think about it,” said Alvarado. “But now that I’ve seen that this presentation discussed the significance of religion and how it affects people’s feelings in such a profound way. After the event, I believed that the techniques used to give these puppets life, I found it to be quite interesting to see the significant relevance of stories like the virgin and Christ amplified. Overall, I really liked it, and it helped me respect puppetry as an art form.

Fernández stated that she finds inspiration and knowledge in theater and that she would like to see more of the theater that is taking place in Spain and Latin America, particularly for the students who are native speakers.

“All of this cultural diversity that Latin America and Spain have is something that my company, Dragoncillo, offers to students who can grasp it and native speakers in order to give back to the culture,” stated Fernández.

Fernández has never thought of theater as anything religious, even though it presents political and social issues. She believes that by attending a performance, she will advance politically, culturally and socially. She insists that plays should abolish stereotypes.

“I think you must go with a very open mind and see what resonates with you and what resonates with me. What could be better than being united in a theater for a play, in these times of war we can have a space for peace and coexistence,” shared Fernández.

The campus community can learn more about Fernández by visiting her website and attending a show by Dragoncillo, a group of puppeteers dedicated to creative storytelling that entertains and educates audiences.

Feature image courtesy of Ana Salgado


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