Gaetano Grasso
In conversation with Enza De Francisci

What does the Puparo [the puppet master] represent for you?

The puparo is the one who creates and builds typical Sicilian puppets, better known as Pupi.

Through his creations, he both brings to life his passion as an artist and supports his family – creating art and realising a dream at the same time. In the past, thanks to his puppet heroes in their tin armour, he offered Sicilians a glimmer of hope – what it looked like to seek revenge and gain freedom from their oppressors. Our company was founded in 1963 in Acireale by my father – the master puppeteer, Turi Grasso, who passed away last year due to Covid – and continues today, with my mother, Fichera Venera, me, my brother Giuseppe, together with our grandchildren and many cousins and collaborators who have continued the great tradition of the Opera dei Pupi in Acireale.

How have performances changed over the years?

Performances used to be accessed by an exclusively male audience, by cultural tradition transmitted to us mainly by the Arabs. Because the puppets are too heavy to be manoeuvred by women, the difficulty and harshness of the craft also excluded women from the workforce. However, as early as the mid-20th century, significant changes began to take place within the family-run puppet theatre companies which gave impetus and renewal for women. Women, for the first time, were included in warehouses when tailoring the puppets; in theatres through the presence of female roles; and in the halls as reception staff. As well as this, the presence of women in the audience has continued to elevate the tradition of the opera dei pupi even more so on a social and cultural level.

How did audiences react to the puppet shows?

The audiences of the 1800s who attended the performances in old caverns, warehouses, and stables were neither educated nor schooled. This was a time when children at 5 or 6 years old would be sent to the mines or out to sea or to work the land: education was reserved for the cultural nobility and the church held considerable power over the people. Though audiences lacked an education, but they knew the history of the Paladins of France by heart. Every one of the Puparo’s characters or stories was immensely popular and audiences were even able to influence the performance if they did not like it. The Puparowas always very careful to respect the wishes of the audiences and, in turn, gained a following. Popular stories included those that enabled spectators to dream, like those based on revenging the exploitative power of the rich and the Church who forced people to a life of hardship and abuse, or on the liberation of Bourbon oppression thanks to the exploits of the main character, Orlando, and his sword, called Durlindana, used to massacre the enemy. The opera dei pupi was therefore not just a commercial business but also a highly instructive form of art that told the truth about war and the realities of death on the battlefield.

Where do the stories come from?

Most of the stories were based on the notion of freedom, taken from the French literary tradition, such as the 11th-century epic poem, La chanson de Roland [The Song of Roland] by the anonymous poet, Turold. This Chanson in Acireale represented the true pillar of our puppet tradition, each centred on the hero, Orlando, fulfilling the supreme sacrifice of death at the battle of Roncevaux to save Christendom from the invasion of the Spanish Arabs. The various French poems were then adapted and reinvented by Italian medieval authors, namely Matteo Maria Boiardo, Ludovico Ariosto, and Torquiato Tasso. Sicily, a land of cultures and civilisations, a place of myths and legends, steeped in battles and military campaigns of liberation and made vulnerable by passing occupation forces, including the Crusades, became, through the Sicilian pupi [puppets] and their pupari[master puppeteers], a symbolic place for chivalric folk tales.

What are the differences between tradition of the Opera dei pupi in Aci Reale and that in Palermo?

Though the stories and stagings adopted by the two regions are essentially the same – with the “goodies” entering the stage from the right (like those who are placed at the right hand of the Father in religion) and the “baddies” from the left – our approaches differ. First of all, Orlando is dressed in green in Palermo, whereas in Catania, and here in the neighbouring Aci Reale, he is dressed in red to represent the fire of the volcano, Etna. In Palermo, the stories are accompanied by a small cylinder piano that plays traditional melodies by turning a handle. In Catania we don’t use music. Our puppets are also much heavier than the ones used in Palermo: some weigh 10 kilos, others 25 kilos. Precisely for this reason, our maneuverers (called manianti in Sicilian) operate from a manoeuvring bench placed above the puppets themselves, at a stage height of 130 cm. The puppets of Acireale are distinguished by their manoeuvring rods that reach 2.30 meters. Our technique in manoeuvring the puppets is unique in the world and allows us to add depth in scenes, above all during the combat scenes – the “sword dance”. In Palermo, on the other hand, their puppets aren’t longer than 80 cm and their weight is about 6 to 8 kilos. In fact, in Palermo, the maneuverers on stage operate on the same plane as the puppets and give voice to the puppets at the same time, while in Acireale, the handlers do not give voice to the puppets, and, instead, there is one actor who performs all the different voices for all the puppets.

What materials do you use during the performances?

In our tradition, certain objects are used when manoeuvring the puppets during the performances. These include a Zoccolo – that is a shoe with an iron heal which the Puparo uses to direct his co-stars (signalling when to move from one scene to the next, for example) and helps to create the sound of movement during fight scenes. We also use tin to create thunder, a large brogna (a conch shell) to replicate the sound of a horn, drums to accompany a march or battle, and various pieces of wood for other sound effects.

How do you see the future of the Opera dei pupi?

I started working in my family’s company at the age of 10 but times have now changed. Children in Sicily today are no longer required by law to start working at such an early age so essentially we won’t be able to teach this laborious and beautiful tradition to younger generations anymore. Perhaps it will only survive in family theatre companies which already have a wealth of experience and traditions that can be passed down to children and grandchildren. Time, however, does not help us and modern technologies sometimes seem to “obstruct” live theatre… Anyhow, let us move forward in the name of master Turi Grasso and continue to perform to our audiences here in Aci Reali, tour our repertoires abroad, and try our best to keep our heritage alive, which has now become an patrimony protected by UNESCO.