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Invasion of the puppets

posted by Daria Hepps on Fri, Nov 12, 2010
in Our shows

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EJ photostrip Rehearsals are underway, and Berkeley Rep's been overrun with marionettes. I had a chance to talk with the puppeteers for our upcoming production of Lemony Snicket's the Composer is Dead. I'm no expert on these things, so it was fascinating to hear them talk about their field. Here are some of the fun and interesting things I learned...

Marionettes have existed since ancient times. Of all puppetry fields, it’s the one that is fading most rapidly – not because audiences don’t love marionettes, but because they are the most difficult to work with. They demand specially designed sets, special lighting, and they are themselves complex to design and manipulate. Marionettes, which can have up to 20 strings, blend art, engineering and manipulation in a unique way.

Jessica Grindstaff and Erik Sanko of Phantom Limb (shown in this photo) both have art backgrounds, and they believe that marionettes are the most magical of all puppetry fields. As marionettes are not physically attached to the body of the puppeteer, they can appear to be fully functioning independent beings. Notes Erik, “Audiences are enthralled.”

Marionette theatre in Europe has found a niche with established companies such as the Salzberg Marionette Theatre, which performs full length operas in a purpose-built theatre. Marionette theatre in America was strongest during the 1920s, '30s and '40s when artists such as Tony Sarg and his protégé Bil Baird were working. In 1928, they created the floats for the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and their floats graced many subsequent parades. Bil Baird was also well-known for the “lonely goatherd” sequence in the film The Sound of Music.

Erik Sanko remembers seeing marionettes perform regularly at Bil Baird's now-defuct theatre in Greenwich Village when he was a child in the '60s and early '70s. Marionette shows are still offered at the Swedish Cottage in New York’s Central Park, but only sporadically. The Bob Baker Marionette Theatre in Los Angeles is one of the few other dedicated spaces for marionettes in the country, and like most other marionette operators, Mr. Baker is well into his 70s. Erik and Jessica are some of only a handful of marionette artists in America under the age of 70. Jessica noted that they always have a hard time casting. Phantom Limb currently has two shows running and is using a total of nine operators. Says Jessica, “We probably only know five more operators, period.” Although many American schools and universities offer classes in puppetry, only the University of Connecticut offers a puppetry degree. The only other way to gain the experience necessary to operate marionettes without going to Europe is to apprentice with a company like Phantom Limb.

According to Erik and Jessica, “There has never been a bigger show with marionettes than Berkeley Rep’s production of Lemony Snicket's the Composer is Dead.”

It's going to be a real treat for the holidays. I'd recommend buying tickets in advance. And if this whet your appetite, you can read a lot more about puppets and their long history in our program when you come to the theatre.



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