An hour, the time necessary to dress a marionette. Four days to make a costume. Two months to prepare a show and a year to put on stage one from scratch. The “numbers” of the Compagnia Marionettistica Carlo Colla e Figli tell of a story of unparalleled craftsmanship and artistic experience. The Colla e Figli puppets are divas; they need time to get ready for the stage. Their wooden faces come to life under the skilled hands which care for their every aspects, like those of their first movements. When their strings are pulled for the first time, the result is a splendid, wooden puppet, ready to charm any public.
The Compagnia Carlo Colla e Figli has existed for nearly three hundred years. It preformed at the Teatro Stabile di Marionette (1906-1957) and at Milan’s Teatro Gerolamo in Piazza Beccaria; beautiful, dramatic stages no longer in use today. The current Atelier was founded in 1994 to give the company a permanent establishment, now managed by the Grupporiani Association which manages the production, promotion and distribution of the shows. The shows are appreciated throughout the world by both adults and children, with a repertoire – of over 300 titles – which can be enjoyed in Italy and abroad in some of the most important theaters and festivals. In 2010, the tradition puppetry of the Compagnia Carlo Colla e Figli and the Grupporiani artisan workshops were included as part of the Intangible Traditions Heritage of the Lombardy Region.
“The plays brought to stage have all been directed by Eugenio Monti Colla and come from fairytale traditions like Puss in Boots or the fairytale and ballet of Sleeping Beauty or the operatic tradition of Turandot,” explained Andrea as he led us to the theater stage in Via Neera, in Milan. In the last twenty years, the Atelier has specialized in its position: it remains one of the few companies in Italy to stage Marionettes as tradition indicates (for about three months the year on its own stage for two periods – about fifteen days each – within the program of Milan’s Piccolo Teatro), it possesses an artisan workshop for sculpture, carpentry, tailoring, scenography, hairdresser where blocks of wood are turned into wonderful marionettes in addition to dealing with the artisan and artistic restoration, archiving and heritage these pieces represent even centuries after their creation. The historical archives are home, in fact, to about thirty thousand pieces of puppets, costumes, sets, props and dates back to 1699.
The Atelier Colla is a magical place. In addition to the charming, small theater stage, constantly decorated with puppets dressed in lace, silk and tulle and with hand-painted backdrops, the magic is really to be found down below. Who doesn’t remember the description that Carlo Collodi gives of Geppetto’s workshop? At the Atelier Colla, the puppets are everywhere: wooden blocks, leaned up against this and that – completed in different stages – like little, sitting men; waiting in the “green rooms” as they are measured for their custom costumes; lined up in the dressing room, like a small army of actors, the marionettes wait for the show where they are the principle characters or about to make their debut.
The sculpture workshop work on the creation of the puppets, starting with a rough block of wood then hand carved with chisels and from sketches. The puppets on stage “talk” or “singing” are equipped with moveable mouths carved from linden wood, clear eyes made from glass paste and oil make-up; the spruce wooden bodies have soft arms made from a cloth tube, filled with sawdust, for slightly more fluid movements. Once assembled, the last delicate phase is the construction of the sling, the wooden cross the steel wires are attached to which serves to support the puppet’s weight and the ropes needed to control the different movements. After the wires have been attached, the puppet is ready to be dressed.
In the early 1980s, the Compagnia realized they had a need to “cultivate” the puppeteers within the Atelier, develop further their skills from the workshop to the stage, in a cycle leading from the raw material to the artistic product, making activity of the Compagnia unique in the world. The artists on stage are the same as those in the workshops working on the puppets themselves; they know their creations from the inside out and can maneuver them without ever tangling in the stages’s fascinating mess of wires and iron cables.
The concept of traditional craftsmanship in no way precludes the idea of constant research. Not only do the workshops conduct studies on new techniques, instruments and innovative processes but the Compagnia itself is full of increasingly ambitious projects. First, there is the idea of moving its “home” – charming, but a little out of the way – in Via Neera to the busier area of Tortona, the Milan neighborhood that for years has been known for fashion, design and art. Work is also continuing on projects in Italy and abroad, in collaboration with the large theaters. “The important thing” – as Andrea says – “is that the original meaning of the marionettes and the traditional genre connected to the theater are not shaken up.”