ERICA SAPIR, PUPPETEER: ONE STORY ABOUT TALENT TESTING
Erica, born and raised in Florence, was living in Israel when her story began. She now calls France home — when she’s not traveling with her puppets on behalf of Puppeteers Without Borders, which she founded. Erica also serves on SICA’s Board of Directors.
25 years ago, in my early forties, a respected and dutiful mother of five semi-adult children, I decided, carried away by the Subud fashion of those times, to test my true talent. In my CV there was a brief, youthful stint in journalism, an interest in Art, a passable ability to draw, and a brilliant career in motherhood.
The test showed, to my utter surprise, that my talent was in Theatre.
Now, theatre was something I was never even interested in. True, when I was a little girl and had assisted with a very primitive puppet show (with paper figurines attached to sticks) made by some neighbors, I was overwhelmed by the magic of it, and when I had small children of my own I made puppets for them and encouraged them — with great success indeed — to make small shows for family and friends.
So, testing showed that Theatre — with a big T — was my talent. And it didn't help when, at an international meeting in England, I tested again, with experienced helpers, without telling them of my previous receiving. (I was driven by desperation to such deceits.) They received ever more clearly that even the timing was right for me to work in theatre!
I was sure that everyone in the profession, my family, and everyone who cared would make fun of me.
The safest way to start was with puppetry. I took books home. I went to see a lot of puppet shows — and I found out that there was, within theatre, a whole area that actually left me spellbound. That is the area which is called "Visual Theatre," which includes the art of performance, puppetry for adults, as well as for children, video art ,mime, installations, working with masks, and different combinations of all those. "By chance" I discovered that a new school for visual theatre was just opening in Jerusalem, (some 100km from where I lived), and at the last minute, I applied for enrollment, thinking that if I were accepted, it would be a "sign" and everything else would fall into place.
And so it did. Out of some 100 applicants, 15 were chosen and I among them. An elderly Subud sister living in Jerusalem happened to need someone to sleep in, so as not to be alone at night. My two teenage girls who still lived at home were very brave and encouraging, and the puzzle pieces did fall into place. That's how a totally new life began for me.
The studies (three years) were very intensive, interesting, eclectic — and although I was, at 43, the oldest student, I soon started to feel completely in my element. I would be back home at weekends, cleaning and cooking as much as I could, but feeling a renewed energy and happiness. I can't remember having ever felt tired or discouraged.
As the final project, I chose to do an adaptation of an amazing novel which I had found, again “by chance," in a secondhand bookshop. The Dwarf, by Nobel Prize winner, Par Lagerkwist. Virtually unknown in Israel and very foreign to the local culture, the novel is about a dwarf in the service of a prince of the Italian Renaissance. Being born and raised in Florence, I found the story impossible to resist.
In the adaptation I made, I acted the dwarf with a kind of body puppet attached to my neck, while the other characters were small puppets which I manipulated from various parts of a table on which the dwarf puppet was sitting. Teachers, fellow students, and families at the end-of-the-year performance received the piece very well. Among the teachers who expressed a positive reaction was my acting teacher, Yehuda Almagor, a young and very good actor himself. He encouraged me to "do something" with the short fifteen-minute piece, and after consultations, my own hesitation, and discussions, we decided to work together on the same idea, and develop it into a full show for adults with him as the actor, and me doing . . . all the rest.
It was an exhilarating time. We worked for some six months, enlarging the adaptation, directing together, and me building new puppets (this time, life size), and props. The debut was at a new festival in Tel Aviv called Theatre Netto — quite prestigious — and we received second prize. "The Dwarf" has been performed hundreds of times in Israel and in Europe in many international festivals. (We translated it into German and English.) We received a special prize in Germany. Since then, I have worked on many other shows, mainly as designer and puppet builder. Work has been steadily flowing without having to look for it. After a few years of this, maybe as a delayed reaction to death in the family, I felt I needed an interlude, and again, encouraged by positive testing, I traveled to India with the idea of working as a volunteer at Mother Theresa's Home for the Dying. I lived in Calcutta for 8 months, during which time I also worked with children who live at the huge railway station, doing with them "art lessons," and of course, a puppet show. I also did a workshop for teachers at a school for the handicapped. These activities put some seed for what was to come later. . . After one year, I was back in Israel with renewed enthusiasm. I worked on another puppet show for adults with the same actor, and we were invited to participate in the prestigious Jim Henson Puppet Festival in New York; and for another show for children, I won a first prize at an International Festival in Israel. In 2001 I moved from Israel to France, and settled in a small village, far from Festivals and Theater groups. I therefore started to cultivate the seeds I had kept from my visit to India: to see ways in which puppetry could help humanitarian causes. I created with friends, formers colleagues from Israel, an organization which we called “Puppeteers Without Borders”, through which we offer our know-how in puppetry as a way to pass on messages on hygiene, human rights, violence, AIDS awareness, sex education. We are invited to all corners of the globe, where we teach educators, health workers, and social workers to make their own puppets and to use them in their work.
It has been an interesting, exciting journey, which, I am sure, would have never taken place without those fatal testings about ”my true talent”.
Now at the age of almost 70, sometimes I would like to rest, but it seems that “the Higher” thinks differently.
There is a joke going around: “How do you make God laugh?” The answer: “You tell him/her about your plans!”