New Expressions Falling Into Old Traditions: An Apprenticeship in Trinidadian/Tobagonian Carnival Puppetry
Text and photos by Russell Rodríguez, Interim Apprenticehsip Program Manager
One of the signs of vibrant culture is the integration of new items, entities, and practices into long preserved traditions. The long-lived practice of carnival—the seasonal merriment that includes festive events and parades that precedes the Catholic celebration of Lent—has endured many transformations and interventions, especially with the recontextualization of carnival in locations such as New York and San Francisco. For example, as another ACTA Apprenticeship Program master, Gloria Toolsie, has explained that material types and material designs of costumes have changed radically since she began participating in carnival—not to mention the utilization of less material in costume (meaning skimpy bikini-type attire for dancers that continue to be the central attraction of carnival spectators). For the past ten years, master Stephen Tiffenson and apprentice/son Christopher Tiffenson, along with a few other artists, have contributed significantly to a new carnival tradition that seems as if it had always been part of the spectacle. These artisans have invested in the concept of giant puppets that connect to a person’s body, thus moving/dancing in the fashion of a person. And while puppets may have been seen in different carnival events from other parts of the world, these Trinidadian practitioners—who are also dancers, costume designers, and musicians—are developing a tradition that directly engages the historical aspects of the carnival practice.
The Tiffensons, committed to preserving Trinidadian/Tobagonian carnival, spent this past year researching, designing, building, and dressing a giant puppet that represented the carnival figure Dame Lorraine, as part of their participation in ACTA's Apprenticeship Program in 2011. The carnival characters emerged from the perspectives of emancipated slaves, who observed French Trinidadians as they celebrated and paraded during the 18th century, according to Christopher Tiffenson. This carnivalesque tradition is commonly practiced in a manner in which people developed costumes that represented a variety of exaggerated, voluptuous, and at times grotesque characters that mimic, imitate, and ridicule the aristocracy and authorities of the day. The Tiffensons have made a name for themselves by creating puppet versions of these characters, which stand approximately 20 feet, with a 15-foot wingspan.
In direct dialogue with other master puppet makers such as Peter Minshall and Kyle Hill, the Tiffensons continue to develop much nuance in artistry and practicality. The Dame Lorraine, for instance, guided Stephen Tiffenson to rethink the use of different materials for the foundational skeleton and the head of the figure to eliminate weight from the puppet, knowing that it will be harnessed upon a dancer who needs to carry and dance in it throughout the carnival parade. The puppet can weigh up to 25 pounds. New techniques in creating color textures in the fabric that dresses the puppet were also developed by the Tiffensons. The development of the giant puppets has been shared and well accepted in various carnivals throughout the United States. The Tiffensons most recently participated in the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, taking a few of their puppets, exposing a large audience to the traditional characters of the Trinidadian carnival. Stephen Tiffenson is currently the director of the ensemble Mas Makers Massive, an organization that participates in carnival, preparing dancers and creating costumes that best represent the Trinidadian/Tobagonian tradition. For more information visit Mas Makers Massive's website.