This summer I spent an amazing two weeks training at the Little Angel Theatre learning to perform the traditional marionette show ‘The Wild Night of the Witches’, which was first performed in 1961. Initially, I chose to take the course because I had virtually no experience with traditional marionettes and yet so often mime the gesture of a marionettist to clarify to non-puppeteers what I do as a profession. I didn’t really get the appeal of marionettes though. They seemed fussy, imprecise, difficult to manipulate and all those strings... so easy to tangle! What a headache!
In general I work with rod or bunraku-style puppets that are manipulated directly through touch, where the expression from puppeteer to puppet is much more instant. The first day of training was a bit frustrating, as I got used to the distance between me and the puppet. We played with short string marionettes to get us started, which hang from about shoulder height to the floor. Most of us felt like we were lugging around a broken body on strings.
Like babies learning to move, we stumbled along, gradually learning to walk, to run, to feel the floor with our hand, to sit, to lie down, to get up. We then moved on to more advanced things like running and jumping into flight, making sure to hit every kinaesthetic beat, not losing momentum in flight, and coming down to land with a light bounce.
My favourite exercise was learning to make our puppets sing. We each brought in a song and practiced making the puppet move as if it was the singer on the recording. First we just focused on the head. Then the entire body. We concentrated on simple gestures and holding poses, rather than dangling the puppet around to the beat of the music, which is so often a beginner’s impulse. With this exercise, we really began to get precise with the strings, sending the most sensitive nuances of intention into the puppet itself, learning to move calmly and swiftly, pulling one string at a time.
Just as we began to get the hang of it, we moved up onto the marionette bridge to use the long string marionettes that we would be using in the actual show, which proved more difficult. The strings were longer and we could only see directly above. We each got to try every character and practiced making them do all the things we tried before. The smallest and simplest things proved hardest of all, like speaking.
As rehearsals went on, slowly but surely, we all began to get more into the swing of it. Being a marionettist takes time and patience, and requires multiple skills – not only understanding movement and timing, but also being able to constantly translate the bird’s eye view of the marionettist to the frontal view that the audience will receive. In addition, those strings catch on anything they can find. With the coolness of a Zen master, the marionettist must be able to calmly, swiftly and seamlessly untangle them without sending a hint of panic through the strings into the puppet.
After two solid weeks of focused, skill-based practice, I was left with a much deeper appreciation for marionettes and their artistic possibilities. While I don’t intend to become a traditional marionettist, the study and practice of traditional skills are the lifeblood of any art form and I found it deeply fulfilling. Just as a pop singer studies opera technique, or a jazz dancer studies ballet, it is the fundamental principals and skills in the traditional arts that so deeply enrich the contemporary.
In a world where enriching and nutritious experiences like this can often be carelessly swept aside, it is essential that this kind of training is offered, as it is so rare to find. This kind of genuine learning, where the torch is passed on lovingly from one generation to the next, is what keeps art alive. I would like to thank our wonderful tutors, Susan Dacre and Ronnie Le Drew, for so lovingly passing on the torch.
Find out more about the Little Angel Theatre's professional training programme at www.littleangeltheatre.com