On May 25th The Spinning Jenny will be hosting the Columbia Marionette Theater’s production of the classic fairy tale “Cinderella.”
Puppetry used to be a popular theatrical medium. We might think of puppet shows as the pre-20th century version of cartoon animation. Today other mediums have largely replaced puppetry as a form of entertainment and story telling, especially for children. Television and movies have allowed live actors to reach vast audiences with a single production, and cartoon and digital animation allow incredible freedom in visually depicting a story.
There are lots of different kinds of puppets—hand puppets, sock puppets, finger puppets, rod puppets, and the marionette. Each type of puppet produces its own characteristic movements. Punch and Judy are a rather famous examples of the fast-paced kind of action that can be achieved with hand puppets. The puppets used in the Muppet Show and Sesame Street are examples the kind of expressiveness and emotion that can be achieved with rod puppets.
The marionette is particularly interesting because the puppet figures are highly articulated. While most other types of puppets only allow only for a small portion of the puppet to move, the marionette is different. The arms, legs, hands, feet, head, and even the mouth of a puppet can be manipulated by the puppeteer. Each portion of the puppet is attached to a control bar by a wire or a string, allowing the puppeteer to mimic the movements of the human body to a degree not possible with other puppet types.
Marionettes first came into use during the middle ages to depict bible stories. The name “marionette” is derived from the Virgin Mary, who was one of the first biblical personalities depicted with this kind of puppet.
Marionettes have had an enduring influence in American entertainment. The late 19th century story of “Pinocchio” was about a marionette who became a real boy, and it was adapted by Disney for an animated feature film. The 1947 children’s television show “Howdy Doody” featured a marionette as its namesake main character.
As technology developed, radio controls were added to marionette puppets. The cult television classic “Thunderbirds” and the subsequent movies “Thunderbirds are Go” and “Thunderbird 6” used this marriage of marionette puppets and radio controls to advance marionette puppeteering to an entirely new level. Prior to this technological advance, the mouth of a marionette only moved in a rather exaggerated and awkward up and down motion similar to the way a classic nut cracker doll worked. The use of radio technology allowed the puppeteers on the various “Thunderbirds” productions to depict more subtle and comparatively realistic mouth movements.
While cartoons and digital animation have largely displaced puppets as way of story telling, there is really no substitute for the charm puppets bring to a story. No matter how good animation gets, there is something special about the use of tangible, physical props in story telling, and puppets, and marionettes in particular, are a great, classic and fascinating medium for conveying a story. Some people may think that marionettes are only suitable for telling “period” style stories, but the Thunderbirds productions prove that they are suitable for any type of story. Marionettes can easily tell old stories as well as new ones.
If you haven’t purchased your tickets for the Columbia Marionette Theater’s production of “Cinderella,” get them now. Don’t miss your chance to enjoy a real, tangible form of story telling.