2023 Festival Archive: Tian Gombau

Tian Gombau: New Shoes

January 25-29, 2023

Chicago Children’s Theatre Presented by Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival


Scholarship and Resources

One Size Fits All: Review of New Shoes

An Essay by Paulette Richards

A graduate of the Escola Superior d’Art Dramàtic (ESAD) de l’Institut del Teatre of Barcelona, Tian Gombau founded his own company, Tian Gombau Companiya de Teatre – l’Home Dibuixat, in 1992. Home Dubuixat means “Drawn Man” in Catalan. It is the title of a song recorded in 1968 by singer-songwriter, Jaume Sisa, an icon of Catalan underground culture in the 1970s and 80s. Gombau greatly enjoyed dancing to it when he started his theater studies in 1984. Indeed, Sisa’s artfully rhymed couplets, effervescent cha-cha rhythm, and surrealistic imagery of a paper man without flesh and bones make Home Dibuixat a fitting epithet for the peripatetic artist who, following in the footsteps of the troubadours, has entranced audiences in more than forty countries.

Inspired by the expressive possibilities of theatrical language, Gombau shifted to creating theater for the very young with a show called Stone by Stone in 2008. To date he has performed Stone by Stone in ten languages—French, Spanish, English, Basque, Portuguese, Italian, German, Hebrew, Japanese, and Catalan, his mother tongue. Many object performers who tour internationally seek to reduce the amount of spoken dialogue so that audiences can understand the action from the gestures and movement of the puppets alone, but for Gombau, “being born with a minority European language means that you have a different sensitivity to the language of others.” Consequently, he finds that using the language of the audience, especially with children, is an act of respect for their culture. “Let’s not be hypocrites either,” he adds, “having a linguistically versatile show makes it more profitable and commercial. Either way, let’s win on all sides!!!”

Gombau’s process for translating and learning his scripts in other languages is fascinating (the following quotes all come from an email exchange dated May 24, 2023, and have been slightly edited for grammar and usage):

I always do the “premiere” of our shows in Catalan, in our region. After, I do it in Spanish, French, and English. We manage these languages ourselves, in the company. With the other languages, it depends…sometimes we hire a translation company, or we ask for help from another friendly theater company, or directly with the organization that wants our show, asking them to send us the translation of the text written and recorded by someone, into their language. I listen to it and make a phonetic transcription. I study it, and thanks to the new technologies, the organization can correct my pronunciation by video chat. 

Studying a version usually takes about fifteen days. There are languages you don’t know how to take, [so] you have to memorize word by word. There are languages that are phonetically closer to the ones I speak, but there are others that have unfamiliar phonemes and it’s not easy to know where to place them in the mouth, nose, or throat. I create associations with sounds or images and grab them as I can. There are associations that would make you laugh a lot, hahahaha. I know each sentence in general—what it means—but not each word. 

Now, there are “key” words that I look for in the translation, especially when that word is attached to a gesture. If, for example, you have to say pedra roja (“red stone”) and at the same time, you have to show to the audience a red stone in your hand, you must know when you say pedra roja, because in the expression the gesture always comes and then the word. Try saying the word first and then showing an object, it’s not organic, it’s artificial. 

Finally, upon arriving in the country, we review [it] live and [then] go to act!!!! You always find someone from the organization or the theater, very friendly people, who will correct a word or the pronunciation. Sometimes at the end of performances, the audience speaks to me in their language, thinking that I know it, hahahaha. It must seem that I know how to speak it, and I answer that I only speak it “onstage.” They appreciate it very much, and they always are grateful that you come to their country and have made the effort to learn the text. 

This dedication to meeting audiences where they are made Gombau’s lyrical narration of New Shoes enchanting, even though English is not one of the languages he speaks.

Of course, his skillful manipulation is an even more effective communication tool. Gombau asserts that:

The language of the theater of objects is and must be very visual. During the creation of the show, it is necessary to look for the image before the word. Find visual poetry in every moment. The word is the last necessity of expression. First comes the gesture and the movement, the action. 

The main character in the show is a pair of shoes representing a young boy. Sometimes a shoebox serves as his torso, but much of the time Gombau evokes the character’s whole body just from his manipulation of the shoes. For example, he dangles the shoes over the edge of the set as if the wearer were sitting there, swinging his legs. In these moments Gombau is adept at suggesting the weight and direction of the character’s body, but the laws of physics do not apply to the character’s movement. The shoes walk horizontally across the air, with Gombau’s manipulation accurately mimicking the weight shifts resulting from the process of walking, in defiance of what we know about gravity. Stripping the character down to a pair of shoes opens space for the audience to more freely imagine a world in which such feats are possible.

The minimalist set, made up of a hinged ramp and a collection of shoeboxes that represent houses, similarly opens space for the audience’s imagination. The character moves through a mutable world where the shoebox houses can stack up in different configurations to suggest different locations or, with Gombau’s expressive hands gesturing through the windows, become personifications of the inhabitants who converse with the boy as he makes his way down to the river and back. Indeed, Gombau first builds the shoebox town while encouraging the audience to compare the sizes of the boxes—small, medium, and large. This is an excellent lesson in spatial relationships for the youngest audience members, but it also becomes a powerful metaphor for the hero’s journey through life. 

As the show opens, the narrator shares his reminiscences of Santa Catalina’s Day in the small Mediterranean town of Vinaròs, Spain. Celebrated each November 24 as the weather is turning cold, families would customarily provide each child with winter clothes and a new pair of shoes that grew from small to medium to large with each passing year. Once the children had exchanged last year’s outgrown shoes for a new pair, they would receive a meringue cake and carry it down in the shoebox to the river, where they would eat it while communing with nature. In the show this journey down to the river and back is full of simple pleasures: admiring the flowers, conversing with friends, anticipating eating the cake. Like the journey through life itself, however, it also presents numerous challenges: slipping past the grumpy neighbor, navigating the swampy marsh, extricating oneself from the muck after falling off the path. The musical score, composed by Òscar Roig, adds layers of emotional texture to this seemingly simple story of idyllic childhood. A shadow-puppet figure inside one of the shoebox houses plays the piano. Then later the narrator unfurls a keyboard from another shoebox, and the young boy sets off in a boat that rides the keys like ocean waves. 

Teach l’home dibuixat to sing a song of love, Sisa advised, to celebrate his pain-free birth. The lyrical language and gestures of New Shoes, in fact, sketch a realm where embracing imagination fosters growth in audience members, whether they are small, medium, or large.

Festival Performances

About the Performance

January 25-29, 2023
Chicago Children’s Theatre
100 S. Racine Ave.

US Premiere

A child puts on a pair of new shoes and goes to the river for a snack. Along the way he discovers the world that surrounds him: streets, houses, landscapes, people, and animals. His shoes accumulate experiences as he grows, little by little. 

Internationally recognized Tian Gombau creates large experiences from very little. In this one-man show, a local event at a Mediterranean town takes you on a universal journey, speaking with simplicity and poetry about the fact of growing up. People of all ages can venture into the child’s world in the gentle flow of popular songs, nature, and the sands of time.

Image Gallery

Past Performances and Further Reading