Cabaret Marionettes

by Ian Denny

Originally published in "The Puppet Master"
 - the publication of the
British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild

"Snake Charmer" Marionette by Ian Denny
Snake Charmer Marionette by Ian Denny

There can surely be little doubt that a string puppet is at its most enchanting when housed within its own miniature world of the proscenium marionette stage; as was indeed the case during the marionette's halcyon days when touring marionette theatres would travel enormously elaborate fit-ups to hide the secrets of the puppet's manipulation from the audience.

Although a small number of touring proscenium marionette stages still exist, their immense technical problems with sight lines and masking, combined with the sheer hard work and enormous length of time needed for get-ins and fit-ups of this form of staging, have all but confined proscenium stages to the luxuries of permanent puppet theatres.

Marionette Violinist

For the purposes of touring marionette shows, a simpler style of presentation needed to be developed and so emerged open stage presentation (a back-cloth and possibly wings, but no proscenium) and cabaret presentation (the marionette worked at the puppeteer's feet with no back-cloth, wings or proscenium).

In theory, cabaret presentation is the simplest, requiring only the puppets themselves, but in practice, a vast amount of equipment still needs to be travelled.  At the very least, a rostrum, rails to hang the puppets on, props, masking, spotlights and an adaptable sound system.

As traditional 'scenery' is not normally there in cabaret presentation to create that amazing optical illusion of scale and perspective which occurs on a proscenium stage, cabaret puppets tend to be larger; possibly up to 40 inches tall (which is an ideal height for larger audiences), but a marionette of this size will not move gracefully, in fact, will hardly respond at all without considerable thrashing about of the marionette control, and as the puppeteer is in full view, this does not look very skilful.

Therefore, a height of around 30 inches tends to be about the average, which is still slightly unwieldy, but can be managed without the puppeteer visibly showing signs of strain.

Although plays are perfectly possible presented in cabaret style, the more usual format is 'Variety'; the show content having become as simplified and casual as its staging, incorporating some of the traditional trick puppets from the proscenium shows, such as a Trapeze Artist, Grand Turk, Disjointing Skeleton etc, interspersed with singers and dancers to create a self-contained variety bill, usually without a Compere or even any discernible theme.

All this makes for a very adaptable performance.  Only one puppeteer is required, shows can be shortened by taking one or two acts out or similarly lengthened.  There is no plot to follow, therefore no limitation with age-range or language and sight-line problems are minimal.

One drawback however, is that if a show has been simplified to this degree and is being presented by one right-handed puppeteer, all the puppets tend to enter stage right, perform slightly favouring audience right (of the stalls) and exit stage left. This can become monotonous with the many entrances and exits which are required to present a full show in this way.

For all its adaptability, it is hard to think of an audience today for whom marionette cabaret is ideally suited.  Partly because Variety is a dead medium and partly because of the large number of characters required to compile a suitably entertaining 'Bill', puppet variety is mostly to be found as a short 'added extra' padding out a performance which is sold on the strength of another item, name or title on the programme.

However, a marionette variety routine is an ideal format for anyone wishing to experiment with marionette construction.  There is no essential need for uniformity in design style or construction method, so characters can be made one at a time and added to the routine as they become ready.

Most of what has been written on marionette construction describes the making of figures of around 18 inches in height, which if scaled up to 30 inches will be much too heavy, so where the technical books recommend weighting parts of the puppet, quite the reverse is necessary for a large marionette.  The weight should be reduced wherever and however possible.  Probably the greatest economy of weight can be made, for instance, by shaping the puppet's torso from foam rubber on a thin wooden frame, rather than carving the whole body as a solid block of wood.

Some simplification can be made to jointing.  Wrist, ankle, and waist joints, although preferable, are not always essential, but this is probably where the simplification stops.

The head and the costume of a larger figure become a much greater focus of attention.  They are no longer just part of an overall picture as on the proscenium stage, but the whole picture in itself and as such, demand far greater attention to detail and a more painstaking 'finish'.  Colours need to be brighter and more vivid to stand out from the usual plain black background and faces  more stylised with sharp, clear lines, able to withstand individual close-up scrutiny.

Clown Marionette

The heads of cabaret marionettes usually have at least a moving mouth, if not moving eyes, eyebrows, ears, moustaches etc.  As the puppets' heads are quite large, these are not such a fiddle to install, but have the disadvantage of limiting head movement of the puppet which is a regrettable sacrifice of an elementary manipulation skill for gimmicks more akin to, and perhaps more suited to, the ventriloquist, where the facial movements are intended to compensate for a lack of movement in the rest of the figure.

Very little modification is necessary if using the standard upright marionette control, other than to slightly increase the length of the arm bars and leg bar.  Certain strings may need to be doubled, however to support the extra weight (mainly the head strings).  Fairly long strings can help to retain some of the traditional 'distance' between puppeteer and puppet and increase the 'remote control' effect, but the heavier the puppet and the longer the strings, the more difficult it will be to support the weight.

We used to hear much in the media of the "3-minute culture", suggesting that an audience's attention span is about 3 minutes per item.  In marionette cabaret, 3 minutes is an eternity.  It requires a puppeteer of considerable genius, a routine of great complexity, or preferably both to hold the average audience's attention with one puppet for 3 minutes.  A more realistic average is about one minute per item, with an overall maximum attention span of roughly 23 minutes. 

This is subject of course to the venue, the occasion and humour of each individual audience, but will mean that a great number of figures is required even to present a very short performance if the audience's attention is to be held and pace maintained.  In variety it is usually more prudent to keep the items short and snappy.  Add more items if necessary, rather than be tempted to pad routines out to fill a particular time.

Hawaiian Dancer

Finally, and most importantly, comes the manipulation.  More is expected of a cabaret marionette because it stands all alone, centre stage in the spotlight and the audience will expect it to justify this 'star treatment'. Trick jointing and trick stringing become almost a necessity, but one needs to have mastered the 'basics' of manipulation first, otherwise the marionette will literally  look as if it is running before it can walk.

Strangely enough, some of the more basic 'stature' faults of manipulation (sagging at the knees and floating) will not be so apparent in a rapidly moving variety routine, but bouncing or dragging, ie: making no attempt to move the legs at all, (due to too much of the puppeteer's focus being on some special 'trick' movement) will completely negate anything else that the puppet is doing (however, brilliantly), because it becomes immediately apparent to an audience that the puppet is not supporting its own weight.  The marionette is, after all, only floating in mid air with its feet lightly resting on the stage.  The 'real' skill is in making the puppet look as if it is standing firmly on its own two feet, in charge of its own destiny.

The most successful variety puppets tend to be those where the 'trick' (if any) is kept very simple and unrepetitive (repetition is an absolute no-no).   The puppeteer should be the facilitator who finds the character hidden within the wood and fabric and allows the  puppet's in-built personality to shine through.