by Ian Denny
Originally published in "The Puppet Master"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.