Go Deeper

Newly-Abled Bodies: Interview with Neighborhood Fringe artist Laurencio Ruiz

Posted July 29th, 2014

“Puppetry allows me to socialize people—it seems to me that we are no longer able to touch, to talk, and to listen to each other.”

Laurencio Ruiz in 2011. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Laurencio Ruiz in 2011. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Why do so many of us avert our eyes from people physically different from ourselves? Why are so many of us uncomfortable with differences in ability? In his 2014 Fringe Festival puppet show, Incongruous, Laurencio Ruiz raises these questions and challenges us to reevaluate our definitions of ability and disability. Laurencio refers to the puppets in his show not as disabled, but as newly-abled. As the lines between puppet and human and between abled and disabled blur, Laurencio reminds the audience of its shared humanity and connection. Incongruous runs Sept 5­–21 at Studio X (1340 S 13th St.). We talked to Laurencio to find out more about his production and his experience with puppetry.

FringeArts: What drew you to puppetry?

Laurencio Ruiz: Since my childhood, I have been fascinated by puppetry, thanks to the wisdom of Sesame Street, which became the landmark and universal point of reference. I learned about what puppets can do for us. At the age of ten, using two Sesame Street hand puppets borrowed from my best friend, I performed several small shows in my front yard charging 25 cents.

Back in Mexico, my home country, during college, I got involved in designing and building puppets seriously for theater productions, a national television show, and commercials. I collaborated with a couple of talented visual artists in their studios. This collaborative and challenging period was very rewarding personally and professionally. During that time, I was also involved in performance art—designing and performing objects as “puppets” for several performance art events and venues, as well as creating art installations for diverse art galleries, museums, and trade shows.

The beginning of my development as a puppeteer began during my last year of graduate school here in the U.S. After the events of September 11, 2001, as an artist I was in need of creating a piece of performance art to exteriorize my rage, compassion, love, understanding, courage, and forgiveness in my own terms and language. I came to the realization that puppetry would be able to help me heal and share my experiences; it was the right artistic medium.

But most importantly, puppetry allows me to socialize people—it seems to me that we are no longer able to touch, to talk, and to listen to each other. Sometimes we are afraid of the “different” (based on gender, ethnicity, race, cultural background, appearance, body image, accent, manner of dress, sexual orientation).  Puppetry allows us to do that again—to socialize and interact with each other without guilt, fear, or embarrassment, because puppetry involves cooperation and trust. It makes us conscious of our own bodies and the bodies of others, as well as allowing us to appreciate our capacities. Things that we take for granted, our daily routine, are acts that puppetry reminds us to appreciate, because puppetry transcends cultures and language, because at its core is our humanity. Just as puppets are used as a part of medical healing, they can bridge seemingly insurmountable gaps between people.

Laurencio Ruiz in performance. Photo by Michele Corbman.

Laurencio Ruiz in performance. Photo by Michele Corbman.

FringeArts: What inspired you to create Incongruous?

Laurencio Ruiz: The first idea was inspired by a very good friend of mine, Ana Vaquera. She was the greatest single mother I know, and had a single leg. One day I saw her standing with her crutch when her baby crawled over to her. She put the crutch to the side and, in an amazing balancing act, she lifted her baby son from the floor. This was such a beautiful moment of love without limits; I was so moved that eventually I asked her if she would allow me to make a puppet based on her.

From there I didn’t know how to make concrete, to materialize, my idea of working with physical disabilities, until a couple weeks later I found an interview in Esquire Magazine in 2007.  I was again so moved by the story of an Iraq veteran, Brian Anderson, that I couldn’t stop thinking about experiences and challenges each of them faced every day. This moment was my epiphany, and the starting point for my project.

FringeArts: Can you describe the process of creating a puppet show?

Laurencio Ruiz: In my case, the creative process for a puppet show comes in a variety of ways. Sometimes it starts with an image, something from an article in the newspaper, or from people I meet. The script is the last part of the process. I start with the structure or the main idea of the show, then develop the characters (gender, physical appearance, personality, size) and decide how many puppets I will need. During this time I start planning the plot and possible story lines.

FringeArts: Do you create new puppets for every piece that you write?

Laurencio Ruiz: Yes, I do, because every project is very different. Many times, in each project I make a new generation of puppets, improved and with new tricks, with different mechanisms and effects.

FringeArts: What makes a successful puppet?

Laurencio Ruiz: When the puppet is able to reach audiences and stimulate their curiosity. When I hear the audience being mesmerized and see them captivated by the puppets, I know I have been successful. When they come up after the performance and show that their interest goes beyond just superficial entertainment.

Often, I work to create artistic visual narratives that, at some point during the show, invite the audience members to be part of the performance as puppeteers. I invite them to literally “give me a hand.” That is, I ask an audience member to be the puppet’s right hand. We complete actions together, so the audience has the opportunity to see and practice both sides of puppetry.

Photo by Michele Corbman.

Photo by Michele Corbman.

FringeArts: What were the challenges in making Incongruous?

Laurencio Ruiz: The challenge was how to present these stories as one, because this show is not a play with a logical plot development.

From my point of view as puppeteer, since the puppet has fewer body parts for me to move, I am challenged on how to allow him or her to express him or herself. So the challenge is to build or create capacity while breaking the normalizing gaze of the audience members.

FringeArts: Has creating this production affected your understanding of physical disability and ability?

Laurencio Ruiz: Creating this production confirmed for me that we—not the puppets—are the disabled, because we are the ones who no longer talk or touch or see or listen to each other. This incapacity/disability results from our lack of physical contact and communication with each other, and is not based on the missing limb. Even though we can, we don’t.

This “newly-abled” puppet show bares all to generate a safe playground for the audience to become less prejudiced and more friendly to the “different,” to explore new realms of the eerie, the weird, and the odd. The more we are exposed to people with physical disabilities, the more we normalize our perception of what they really are—people, like you and me.

When we look at nude Greek sculptures, even when they are mutilated or missing limbs, we don’t get scared or avoid looking at them or see them as odd. Instead, we still encounter their presence and appreciate their bodies’ beauty. So why are we not doing the same with the physically disabled?

That’s why this “newly-abled” puppet show invites you to look at their bodies without fear and without seeing them as odd. They don’t want to be objectified; instead, they want to inspire reflection about our own bodies.

Thank you, Laurencio. We can’t wait!

All Fringe Festival tickets are on sale online. Tickets to Incongruous are available here.

$10 / 45 minutes
Studio X
1340 South 13th Street
Wheelchair accessible

Sept 5­–7 at 6pm + 7pm
Sept 12 at 4pm + 11:30pm
Sept 13 at 2:30pm + 9:30pm
Sept 19 at 4pm + 11:30pm
Sept 20 at 2:30pm + 9:30pm
Sept 21 at 5:30pm + 6:30pm

—Miriam Hwang-Carlos