We had the pleasure of chatting with Erminio Pinque, founder of BIG NAZO LAB in Providence, RI. Started in 1987, BIG NAZO is a collective of puppet makers and performers. The group teaches a wide variety of classes for the community and at RISD. If you're ever wandering through Providence, BIG NAZO has an open-door policy—feel free to wander in!
Core77: How did BIG NAZO start?
Erminio Pinque: My background is wanting to make art and theater merge. That's why Halloween time... seemed to be the perfect venue to let those things happen. You have painted backdrops, you have people in costumes, you have music playing, people are improvising with non-costumed people. Everybody knows it's another world that they're participating in and creating. Suspension of disbelief is at play with every individual.
I got really into creating Halloween costumes and as an accident got into creating street theater shows. If you had your costume, made it, and Halloween passed, went out with your friends and did it again and just ran amok... You'd get a crowd. People are like, what is this? What does it mean? Those are all good questions; the rest of it is just trying to answer that by making a career of doing it!
Where did the name BIG NAZO come from?
The name was yelled out by groups of onlookers in Italian street shows. I had a solo tour in Europe and had been hooking up with different street performers along the way, creating a super group. Without having a name for your group or character, people would identify what they thought you were. It might've been, Hey, green guy! But most often it was, Yo, big naso! So we just changed the spelling to a 'z.'
Everything about the group is on the street, made on the street, performed on the street—is that where BIG NAZO grew out of?
We're not trained to work on the street. My training, and the training of a lot
of the people that work with me, involves some sort of aesthetic discipline that's very formal that usually translates into gallery exhibition or architectural pursuit or conventional industrial design. So given that training and getting into the working world, which is not ready to hire you because you don't have the experience to get a job, you don't have a job to get experience. You're in that weird place that everyone often experiences—you made that transition from leaving the training grounds and into the actual workplace. You're not always given the opportunity, the desk, the office, someone to listen to you.
You can do your own theater show, but who's going to come? If you can go to a place where people are going to show up anyway on Saturday night and get on that stage and be seen, you can start to build a following. The street works the same way. Nobody's buying tickets ahead of time! They just sort of find you, the crowd builds, they walk away with wanting to see more of this, hopefully.
Who are the other people that are part of the BIG NAZO troupe?
There are folks who are trained and work in certain mediums, but aren't able to let loose for whatever reasons. They have to work more conservatively, or have reputations to keep intact. They're able to find a kind of superhero outlet, down to the point where we keep our identities secret and we wear these thin green stretchy masks underneath our costumes so if we're ever disrobed in public or need to get out of costume in an emergency, we'd still not be identified.
That's not because we're bank robbers or doing crimes or superheroes fighting crime, but because the suspension of disbelief that you create when people aren't fixated on who it is but what it is, and the freedom you feel when you're not yourself. It's not you being identified, but you're still in some sort of formal uniform that gives you the authority to speak in a funny voice and run amok. It's liberating. You need it to give the hundred percent that is required with the physical strain of doing this.
Masks by shop manager Conor Landenberger
Masks by shop manager Conor Landenberger
Is BIG NAZO spreading or is it still constrained to the street?
It's spreading. The venues that we work in have always been all over the map. There is the music act; it's a live rock band with dancing creatures and vaudeville-like interruptions from heckler characters that are puppets as well. That spectacle has only been limited by the stage and the funding. We've performed in 3,000 seat theaters... and we've also worked in small, intimate cafes... We've done parades of every magnitude, from Mardi Gras in New Orleans... to the Vancouver Olympics where we did major parades for two weeks, every day with seventy-five characters on the street.
We've pitched TV shows and been hired to produce a pilot script for a Nickelodeon show that wasn't green lighted, but nevertheless we went through that whole process. We've made props and characters for Broadway shows... Our group has toured Holland, Italy, Singapore, Japan a number of times. Right now we're currently working on our own self-produced TV show... The idea is that each venue presented to us gives us a new challenge and we just have to make sure we hone it to get it to what we want to be doing.
So many things are digital now. Movies are almost one hundred percent CGI, TV shows are more CGI, there are video games. Are you trying to combat that? Do you want to incorporate that?
I'm actually going to be presenting and doing a workshop at the VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy. It's a special effects media, gamers, and filmmakers kind of conference. And the fact that I've been invited is such a strange and wonderful collaboration. It's because of some folks in the digital media community who've wandered into the shop and just regained their childhood, loved touching things, and bemoaned the fact that they only now do it in cyberspace. They really want to say, Others need to see this because this is inspiring to me, this is why I do what I do. There's going to be people from Pixar, folks from all the major digital studios.
And BIG NAZO is really Pixar in reality!
I'm trying to figure out what we have in common, which is taking dreams from the collective subconscious and creating worthy illusions that people feel reflect their own [dreams]. There all these effects that are driven to the idea of suspension of disbelief, but you're hoping to instill some kind of core value or how to be a better person in the world. Even the most ridiculous fantasy film has some idea of justice behind it. You can't just do effects without anything to say.
I feel that in the end watching something "real" will always trump the CGI effect. If you find a YouTube video of a person climbing a building and saving a dog, then leaps into a bush and survives—you can watch Spiderman and always know that this guy really did it. What happens is more and more we live in a world where we don't really believe in real heroics and real astounding real-life stuff. We're living it through our imaginations.
We present a double-edged super sword. I think that our stuff on film in the same digital playing field would stand out. There'd be something about the look. We're not the same soft, felt, fur characters that you've seen on kid's TV shows. And we're also not extremely complex animatronics, stiff, you-need-to-cut-away-very-quickly-because-the-creature-will-not-hold-up sort of stuff. We're in-between where the design is built to be very human-driven.
Mask by intern Nick Truss
Hand puppets by Andrew Murdock
Shop manager Conor Landenberger working on new creations
Dave Seliger is a Postgrad Fellow in Logistics and Ext Affairs at the NYC Office of Emergency Management. He has extensive experience helping firefighters, police officers, and disaster responders improve their services through design.