Berkeley Rep Blog

Previous entry: A curious dispatch from Lemony Snicket
Next entry: Two free parties this week!

Breaking news: The composer is dead!

posted by Karen McKevitt on Mon, Nov 29, 2010
in Backstage buzz , Costume shop , Our shows , Prop shop

Bookmark and Share

CDpre2_lr  Have you seen the two features about Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead that came out over the weekend? Robert Hurwitt at the San Francisco Chronicle interviewed Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko of Phantom Limb, who created the puppets, while Jackie Burrell at the Contra Costa Times conducted an irreverent interview with author Lemony Snicket’s stand-in, Daniel Handler.

I myself have been absolutely fascinated with the orchestra of marionettes in Lemony Snicket’s The Composer is Dead, and during tech week, I managed to catch up with Erik as well as the costume shop staff to talk about how they designed and costumed these marionettes.

The show is based on the book by the celebrated author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. At the top of the story, a composer turns up dead, and everyone in the orchestra is a suspect. But, these aren’t your everyday everyones.

“The Inspector interrogates the instruments,” says Erik, “not the musicians.” In fact, the musicians and instruments are essentially one and the same.

Erik’s marionettes are elegant human/instrument hybrids. Put simply, they’re instruments with faces, arms and hands, but Erik was careful not to “Disneyfy” them. The violins, for example, have an austere bone structure that’s not at all cartoonish. Erik created the heads and hands using Celluclay. “No one over age 8 uses it,” Erik says, laughing. “But I don’t use synthetics in my work.” The Berkeley Rep props department cast all the instruments over the summer.

While the marionettes were being made, the costume shop started working on their elaborate wardrobe. The fabric that makes up the brass section’s pinstripe suits is printed with the actual score from the show. Three different dye vats were used to create the parchment-colored clothes for the oboes. The violins wear corsets that form their body, while the ruffled fronts are the strings. “They’re my favorite,” says Kitty Muntzel, a draper in our shop. “They’re very girly.”

I asked Kitty how costuming marionettes is different from costuming actors. “Well,” she says, “you can stitch the costumes directly to the puppets!” We laugh. Another plus is that there’s hardly any tailoring and no intricate facing like functioning pockets.

One of the costume shop’s biggest considerations was the marionettes’ range of motion and where the strings are located. They also had to consider that the marionette’s bodies are fabric as well, so the costumes don’t slide over them the same way clothes slide when an actor raises his arm. Erik noted that the resistance of fabric against fabric was actually helpful when the puppeteers started working with the marionettes.

Most of the marionettes were dressed in rehearsal – after they had already been strung. So almost every morning, the costume department would arrive early to costume a section of instruments. Each section had to be unstrung, and the costumers had to dress each marionette in the quarters of their orchestra pit.

One of the biggest challenges in rehearsal was getting groups of marionettes, like all the violins, to stand up and sit down as a group. Each marionette is individually strung, so it takes an elaborate network of pulleys and expert puppeteers to make them all move the same way simultaneously while still being able to move individually.

The result, judging from the dress rehearsal I saw last week, is visually stunning. And we’re all looking forward to sharing it with you, so purchase your seats now before it’s too late!

Photo of Geoff Hoyle by


Great post! Can't wait to see it on the 4th!

Kim | Mon, Nov 29, 2010

Thanks, Kim! Glad you enjoyed the post, and we look forward to seeing *you* on the 4th.

Karen | Wed, Dec 1, 2010

Bravo travail! Absolument, j'ai suivi votre blog pendant une semaine. Je dois dire que je vois la maturation dans votre article, je vais le garder.

latex pants | Tue, Dec 28, 2010

The comments to this entry are closed.