Ivy Leaf - Winter 2008

Spotlight on Carlos Ruiz

Ivy Leaf Chats with Instructor in Theatre Arts Carlos Ruiz about his life, the arts, and puppets.


IL: Let’s start with the basics; tell us something about your early life.

CR: I was born and raised in Mexico City. I am from a working-class family, the youngest of five children. All of my education has been in public schools. And I’ve really been independent since I was in high school because, with four other children to deal with, my parents just let me do what I wanted. That’s probably why I was free to explore art and theatre and things that my parents normally wouldn’t allow.

My choices still made my parents uncomfortable sometimes. They would say, “You won’t have a future with that.” But in the end they were always supportive.

IL: How did you first discover your love for art and theatre?

CR: You know, in the beginning I hated theatre. I would think, “Oh, I don’t want to work with these prima donna actors. They’re so demanding.” So, originally there was no theatre for me; I didn’t choose it. But now … I love theatre. In the end, the theatre chose me. Whether I knew it or not, my work and my art just kept pushing me in that direction.

When I was in college, working on my bachelor’s degree in graphic design, I was fortunate enough to have a professor who was working on a Mexican television show. He asked me if I would like to come and work on the show, too. After a year, I took a job there.

My teacher was a visual artist; he had this workshop studio where artists from theatre, literature, and different areas came in to work on these amazing projects. So, after working with them, I started to do my own work, my own art. I started doing installations, painting, and sculpture.

After a while people started seeing what I was doing and they’d contact me. They’d have projects that took too much time, or were too difficult to figure out, or that they just didn’t want to do, so they’d hire me to come do the job for them. Before I knew it, I was in the center of avant garde theatre in Mexico.

IL: How did your work in the theatre eventually lead you to puppetry?

CR: In the very first production I did, some of the characters were puppets. And the directors weren’t interested in a Sesame Street kind of puppet. They wanted something that was real and reflected the culture of Mexico. I had to really work to make these puppets and we had to train the actors to use them.

I became fascinated with the process and with the art. In fact, we did it so well that the actors hated the puppets because the puppets had the attention of the audience. It was amazing to me that this object I had created could be so alive that it could actually provide competition for the actors on stage.

Then, like before, people saw my work and began asking me to do work for them. It was fascinating and I loved it, but I was still making puppets for other people. It wasn’t until I came to the United States and did my first puppet show in English, that I was able to do my own work. I began with marionettes and in the style of Bunraku, which is a Japanese style of puppetry.

IL: What brought you to the United States?

CR: I moved here about twelve years ago. The true reason I came here is because I fell in love. I decided to leave my life in Mexico and follow my lovely wife, Roselyn [Penn State Altoona associate professor of Spanish and women’s studies]. And now I live with her in State College.

IL: What was it like moving to Pennsylvania from Mexico City?

CR: Living in a city for thirty years and then moving to an area with a college surrounded by farm land … With this environment, I feel like I’m on vacation all the time.

IL: What are the biggest differences between your theatre experiences in Mexico City and your experiences working at Penn State Altoona?

CR: A lot of the things are the same. There are still matters of budget and timing. How much do we have to spend? How long do we have to build it? One of the biggest differences is that, in Mexico, I had to do everything. I was the designer, the carpenter, the painter, the electrician. Here, we have many more people to help out, so we can delegate more and you can specialize in one thing.

It’s nice for some projects, when I’m the designer and I can sit down, do some drawings, sketches, and models and then just hand them over. Then, except for some supervising during set building, my job is done!

IL: If you had your chance to work on your dream project, what would it be?

CR: I’d love to design for opera. Theatre is great, but I love the scale and the huge size of opera. Maybe Electra or something like that.

I also am interested in using my puppetry for exploring other concepts. Over the last three years I have been developing puppets with “disabilities.” I came up with a new name for them; I call them “newly-abled” puppets because I don’t believe in the negative connotation that “disabled” carries. I think we are the disabled, not them, because we—the supposedly able-bodied—no longer hear, feel, or talk to each other. That’s what puppets made me see and feel through them. I want to expose this lack of consideration, helplessness, and indifference to each other.

I am also interested in working on projects that are more—not necessarily political—but more challenging. I want to make you think, make you feel uncomfortable. Like an activist in my message, I think that is the ultimate goal of art: to create something that not only entertains or educates but makes you think and see life in a different way.