Master of puppets 

Portland’s Il Teatro Calamari gets a hand up

When asked if he’s ever gotten laid just because he’s a puppeteer, Tim Giugni replies, “Yes, but only at a puppetry festival.”

Giugni is the founder of Portland, Oregon’s Il Teatro Calamari, a theater group focusing heavily on puppetry, and much of his work is as startling as the thought of a man receiving sexual favors in return for manipulating puppets the way a rock star might attract groupies with a guitar solo.

To recognize the difference between Il Teatro Calamari and other puppeteers, note that the troupe won the “Best Actors” award at the 2001 International Puppet Theater for Adults Festival in Bulgaria. Wait…puppet theater for adults? Aren’t puppets for kids? “Puppetry is accepted as an art form everywhere except the United States,” Giugni says.

American adults rarely consider puppet shows art, according to Giugni, “because they are used to crappy birthday party puppeteers who usually treat children like imbeciles.”

If Il Teatro Calamari had a mission statement, it would be to treat each audience member, including children, like thinking adults.

“We always try to work on the theory that the highest form of television and theater was the 1960s Batman series,” states Giugni, “where kids always took it very seriously and adults always took it as campy fun.”

Appealing to audiences of all ages is indeed a challenge that few in the arts and entertainment world accept. However, those who have met it head-on have been duly rewarded. Just take a look at “The Simpsons” or any of the digital animation films released by Pixar.

One of Il Teatro Calamari’s most successful productions to date has been Waiting for a Train. In this show, Giugni and his actors practice what is known as “found object puppetry,” animating and personifying everything from silverware to handkerchiefs to food that “doesn’t want to be eaten.” The show has been enormously successful in the United States as well as in Singapore, Russia and Brazil. Giugni explains that part of the international draw to the show is that anyone can “get it.”

“Although most audiences are used to English because of the American empire and its movies,” Giugni says, “we felt that we weren’t quite connecting…I started thinking that if I wanted to continue to tour internationally, I’d have to remove the language barrier. What we did for Waiting for a Train was develop a series of vignettes we could use, loosely based on things that would happen if you sat in a train station.”

These vignettes contain no dialogue, which has helped Il Teatro Calamari connect with audiences of many different languages, while also giving the performance a built-in touch of originality not often found in more conventional theater.

“People are used to a constant bombardment of words,” Giugni says, “so to see something that resembles a silent film is now unique.”

Where and how does one become a puppeteer? Most of us have probably lived our whole lives without giving a second thought to the subject, and would be surprised to learn that there exists a Puppeteers of America organization holding biannual conferences and claiming approximately 3,000 members. For Tim Giugni, however, it all started at the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif. Here, Giugni met with a professor, Ronlin Foreman, who told him, “A clown is a performer that walks the line between heaven and hell.”

“Clowns aren’t funny when they’re in your face with a rubber chicken or pounding each other with a mallet,” Giugni says.

“Clowns are funny in the way that Charlie Chaplin was—it’s showing the pull between things, like to be evil or to be good. Showing the pull shows that you’re human, and good clowning is about being more human than human.”

While Il Teatro Calamari advertises itself as a theater group for all ages, many of its shows remain oriented toward children. One such show, Rapunzel, was especially memorable.

The original premise was that the puppeteer in charge had to tend to an emergency and so “Bob the Janitor” came out to do the show. Bob didn’t know how to work puppets, so he came in and accidentally broke all the puppets (which were designed to break apart). This destruction included a beheading of “The Prince.”

Giugni looks back and laughs at the show’s flaw.

“Everybody I talked to that was an adult thought it was hysterical,” he says. “But the first time I ever did it, it was at a festival in Coeur d’Alene and there were a lot of children there, and they considered it the most tragic thing that ever happened. To them, it was tantamount to Joe Pesci getting his brains blown out in Goodfellas. So that was a bad thing.”

Aside from this one-time puppet massacre, Il Teatro Calamari has staged many successful productions, including an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that featured both human and puppet characters.

The group also produced an “object theater” rendition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” using shadow screens.

After talking to Giugni, one is overwhelmed with the notion that he and his fellow performers are carrying a torch long-forgotten by most of the theater world.

“We try to take all the bastard art forms that nobody loves, like puppets or clowns or New Vaudeville,” Giugni says. “They’re sometimes considered a big joke. What we try to do is to find the truth in each one of these and then re-expose it for a new generation.”

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