Italian puppeteer Bruno Leone is an artist whom Pope Francis has personally thanked “for bringing joy to a dark world”. Leone is credited with single-handedly rescuing the Neapolitan street tradition of Pulcinella puppetry, which is known as guarattelle in Italy, from extinction in the 1970s. He gave up architecture to become a puppeteer and to contribute his talent to traditional Neapolitan theatre.
He has delighted children for years with his innovative plays in which the traditional Neapolitan Pulcinella character meets faraway cultures and personalities. Some of his most well-known productions deal with major themes of great art, such as war, betrayal, power and love. A respected ambassador, maestro and teacher, he is one of the few who continue to promote and practice this particular tradition of puppetry.
Scroll.in caught up with him during his recent performance at the Kathakar International Storytellers Festival in Delhi.
Tell us how your journey began.
I met my teacher Nunzio Zampella in 1978, after he had sold his puppets and his little theatre at the Scuola del Piccolo in Milan. [Zampella was a legendary puppeteer of the Neapolitan puppetry tradition.] In the first few months of 1979, I became his student and by September, I convinced him to resume the activity with theatre and puppets that I built based on his model. In this way, the art did not disappear. Further, with the experience of time, I understood that everything I had learned from my teacher represented a base – almost a language – to be able to develop any theme or topic I wanted to face.
Puppet theatre is a unique form of storytelling. What makes it so interesting?
Puppet theatre is unique as it allows one to tackle complex issues in a very direct way. By applying poor and synthetic means, it helps to unveil and dissolve deception and mystification. This art is timeless. It is a form of language that, if well understood, can help us face the future with greater serenity. Being able to laugh – even at our troubles and the problems that distress us – can help us deal with them. In this sense, my journey continues. This is the engine that makes me travel the world to understand that we are all brothers, even if we live far away and speak different languages. Those who rejoice in these shows teach me this lesson. The language of puppets, thus, is a language common to all the cultures of the world.
Can you talk about your productions over the years?
Pulcinella and the French Revolution was created in 1989 to celebrate 200 years of the French Revolution and 10 years of my puppeteer activity. It highlighted Pulcinella’s ability to go through all phases of history, adapting and remaining true to himself. The Tale of the Poet and Pulcinella is a tribute to [Spanish poet and playwright] Federico Garcia Lorca because in his work, the relationship between avant-garde and popular traditions is very strong. Pulcinella and St Gennaro is a show that comes to terms with Neapolitan popular culture, where being religious is interpreted in a very particular way. Furthermore, the story of San Gennaro is truly fantastic. [San Gennaro (272-305 CE) was a bishop and martyr. He is the patron saint of Naples, and an annual feast is celebrated in his honour in the city.]
Pulcinella in Palestine deals with the theme of war in the Middle East. The central part of the show is the improper use of the Bible, and how everyone seeks justification for their violence. It was performed several times for the Palestinian community in Naples. But in Palestine, I preferred to do the classic show of the guarattelle. I did not feel able to give lessons to those who suffer.
What was your experience of the Indian puppet tradition? Do you see any parallels between it and the Italian art form?
I find many points of contact between Indian traditions and some popular forms, especially of southern Italy, and I found the same spirit even if with different forms. Even the reactions of the Indian public – particularly of the children – were very similar to those I see in Italy, especially in Naples. Further, there are similarities in the rhythms and sounds. It is natural to think of a common origin that is lost in the mists of time.
Do you envision a cross-cultural collaboration between the two in the future?
We do not know what the future offers us. Anurupa Roy, a puppet artist from New Delhi, came to Naples for three months in 2001 to study and deepen her art. She came to the festival and told me about a possible collaboration in the future with the idea of creating a school. I am in India now for the second time – a sign that my work is liked – and who knows if there will be a third.
What are some of your upcoming projects?
I think I will continue to carry around this art of guarattelle and devote myself to helping the new generation of puppeteers in developing and spreading their work. Together with them, I will try to understand the possible developments of this art.