Puppetry is often thought of as a child-focused art form, often bringing to mind magic, whimsy and happy endings. But in Por Piedad Teatro & The Play Company’s Django In Pain, its title alone already suggests a degree of suffering that will be experienced upon viewing, with a character struggling with depression and suicide ideation.
Created by Mexican theatremaker Antonio Vega, Django In Pain is a product of the pandemic, and almost metatheatrically, follows a playwright who wants to write a happy play, but can’t because his main character is so depressed that he wants to end his life. Made and staged using only hand-made puppets and scrap materials found around one’s home and filmed on a cellphone, Django In Pain traces the line of grief along with wickedly dark humour, as this tragic puppet show explores issues of despair, loyalty and hope.
Speaking to creator Antonio Vega, we found out more about the origins of the show, and the process of creating theatre. “Depression was something I wanted to talk about, but I wanted to do it in a humorous and uplifting way, because I don’t want people to get even more depressed after watching the show,” says Antonio. “Even if they don’t understand it, I wanted to have fun with it, something I think happens with puppets. Because of the situation at the time, I wanted to take the opportunity to try to do everything without going out of the apartment, which is why we ended up using things we found around the house, including building the sets ourselves, and saw it as an opportunity to explore the idea of theatre and staging.”
While the company itself isn’t strictly speaking a puppet theatre company, and Antonio himself is not formally trained in puppetry, the team have previously worked on several shows that riff on similar ideas, such as The Duchamp Syndrome, which previously played as part of the 2015 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. That show utilised a combination of marionettes, toys, miniatures and even an iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner to discuss ideas of loneliness and the American Dream. “The pandemic caused a lot of lines between theatre and the digital to become blurred, and all around us, we saw people still creating, like how a colleague in Mexico was doing performances on their balcony,” says Antonio. “And while we started thinking of Django In Pain as a live show, we wanted to see what we could do with the limitations first, and thought of it as a movie being created before the audience’s eyes in real time. I do hope artists around the world continue to explore these new ways of working, and continue innovating using tech and the ideas that they have. We are smart, we are adaptable, and we will keep creating.”
“We had some friends in New York who asked us to collaborate, and they were very generous, because they told us to just dream something up, and I wrote Django In Pain with the idea that it would be very guerrilla, and filmed on a phone,” adds Antonio. “We were very scared because we didn’t really know what to do during the pandemic, but they ended up liking it, showed it to someone else, and it got commissioned. We finished it with a very small team, and even though we don’t know anything about cameras and music and sound, we took on the challenge and completed the project. It’s very ‘homemade’, but it also has a lot of heart and spirit.”
The Django of Django In Pain is also said to be inspired by jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, in part because the in-film Django also plays the guitar. “This puppet actually came from how we were promoting my show A Special Day, and we had a puppet called Juan who started ‘playing’ a guitar, and I thought, why not make a puppet who actually did resemble a guitarist – Django Reinhardt? So we did that, and he ended up ‘busking’ in Central Park in New York, and he ended up as the star of Django In Pain,” says Antonio. “But even beyond that, Django himself was a musician who overcame so much difficulty, still making music in spite of being told he would never be able to play again after burning two of his fingers. The guitar is also important to me – my father plays it, and we’ve included some guitar music by a Mexican composer, in homage to the original Django. For me, the music is key to bringing out these characters and their stories, almost as important as the script even.”
On creating theatre as a Mexican artist, Antonio explains that there is still some way to go for the country, in terms of infrastructure. “It’s difficult but possible to be an artist in Mexico. It’s not something people do with the intention of getting rich, and we find ways to get by somehow, whether it’s from government support to collaborating with institutions like universities, or getting fiscal sponsorships from companies who can get tax relief for supporting the arts,” says Antonio. “We always think about Singapore and the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival as something we do actually aspire towards, and also hope that beyond artists, we get more training for technicians in the theatre, and need more education in that respect.”
“The bigger issue maybe is how mental health is still quite taboo in Mexico, where it’s hard to talk about, and often interpreted as a sign of weakness. Some things are changing, especially in big cities, but it’s still a lot of work to do to break those misconceptions and raise more awareness that there is no shame in mental health issues,” concludes Antonio. “What’s important is to note that if you need it, you should take proper steps to help yourself and seek professional help, which should be more available. And even if you’re not suffering from mental health issues, it takes a village, and if you can afford to reach out and support someone who’s suffering, you can and should do so.”
Photo Credit: Antonio Vega
Django In Pain streams online from 4th to 15th January 2023 as part of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023. Tickets available here
The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2023 runs from 4th to 15th January 2023 across various venues. Tickets and full lineup available here
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