For Mentally Ill, Expression in Puppetry

La MaMa Puppet SeriesSamantha Ku Dario D’Ambrosi supervises preparations for his new show at La MaMa Experimental Theater. His work explores the experience of the mentally ill.

Life-size puppets were perched on stacked chairs at the La MaMa Experimental Theater as Dario D’Ambrosi, the Italian avant-garde actor and director, attended to last-minute details for the opening of his new play tonight.

“Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads” opens the fourth annual La MaMa Puppet Series. Mr. D’Ambrosi first worked with mentally ill patients more than 30 years ago, doing research in a mental institution in Milan. Since then, his main avenue of creative exploration has been portraying the experience of mentally ill people through acting and playwriting.

This passion led him to create the Pathological Theater drama school in Rome, which teaches stagecraft to students with a range of conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism and Down syndrome.

We caught up with Mr. D’Ambrosi earlier this week as he supervised the hectic construction of the set at the theater.

What was the inspiration for this piece?

This piece came from my work with the mentally ill. You see the set and the puppets, they designed it. We developed the play together. Yes, it’s my play, but it’s also from Teatro Patologico [Pathological Theater].

What is the message you’re trying to convey in this play?

These people with mental illness, they don’t really need medicine, they really need love. The greatest medicine is love. This play is really positive about young people with problems. Don’t be afraid when people feel sick, hug them. Don’t be scared, because so many people are scared when you see somebody really sick, screaming and yelling, crying. But maybe that is the moment when they need you the most.

Did you write it specifically to be performed with puppets?

I wrote it with the puppets in mind. You know, I’ve never worked with puppets before, so the idea was very exciting. I’m an actor too, and it’s very difficult to think about working with the puppets. When you’re an actor, you don’t want anything around you, to block you. But now, working with the puppets, you learn so much. It doesn’t take anything away from your energy.

This is not a traditional puppet play—the actors are just as much a part of the play as the puppets are.

La MaMa Puppet SeriesSamantha Ku Mr. D’Ambrosi with one of the puppets that will be featured in the show.

What is the relationship between the actors playing the characters and the puppets they carry?

Well, they start as normal people. In the mental hospital, they start to separate. It’s like when you’re schizophrenic—the puppet is a part of you. Sometimes, when you’re really feeling apart from your body, you can really see things, and then you can put it back inside of you again.

You brought some of the crew with you from Italy, but the actors are from New York. What was the casting process like?

For me, as an actor, so when I’m casting, it’s very important to me to feel the humanity from the actor. I did “Titus,” I did “Passion of the Christ,” I was working with Anthony Hopkins and Mel Gibson. With Anthony Hopkins, yes, he’s a great actor, but behind the acting there is a great human being. So for me, the most important thing is the feeling.

You first performed here at La MaMa 30 years ago. How have the theater and the East Village evolved since then?

I think it’s changed a lot. When I opened my first time, it was very nice, because I remember the energy of New York was amazing. In the audience was Andy Warhol, Spike Lee, Jim Jarmusch. I was studying at New York University. There was a really natural amazing energy. The energy has changed in the East Village. The situation of theater has changed with the crisis, and there’s no money now. So you can really feel the change. But sometimes I ask myself, is it you, Dario, that changed a lot, or is it theater in the East Village, the people that changed? Sometimes I think it’s both. But for me, it’s always incredible and beautiful to work in New York and La MaMa.

“Bong Bong Bong against the Walls, Ting Ting Ting in our Heads” at the La Mama Experimental Theater, 74 East Fourth Street, 212-475-7710.