The sounds of the drill press, band saw, belt sander and paint brush strokes created a steady rhythm as the puppeteers continued to build and fine-tune their marionettes in the basement of the Rufus and Margo Rose Theater Barn. It was two days before the first National Puppetry Conference performance at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT., and at 11:30 pm, and there was still much work to be done.
Madison J. Cripps was dividing his time between practicing a routine with his jester-like leprechaun marionette and a flashlight that he was pushing through a cardboard tube stuffed with plastic wrapper, in an attempt to create the impression of worms crawling toward the surface for his shadow puppet piece.
“That’s just crap in a tube,” said participant Michael Lamason of Cripps’s experiment. “That’s what I love about this place; there’s always something to experiment with.”
It's referred to as the "hub of the conference" because to a large extent, a lot of the planning, scaffolding and design takes place in the shop under the auspices of several skilled builders and advisors.
Christine Papalexis, former president of the L.A. Guild of Puppetry and puppeteer for "Batman Returns" and "Alien Resurrection," was finishing the costume for her marionette Pierrot the clown, which was mostly built before she arrived to the conference. The adjustments made on the puppet and the silky tan-colored clown outfit were only half the task for Papalexis, who had to practice a routine that involved a balloon and a humiliating on-stage defeat. It required a lot of rehearsals, but with the assistance of world-renowned puppeteer Phillip Huber, it allowed her to develop the act and learn in the process. “The coaching of Phillip Huber, having the opportunity to work with him, makes all the difference. That’s the main reason I came here,” said Papalexis.
So exactly what skills are needed to become a puppeteer?
Jonathan Little, participant in the puppetry conference as well as an assistant to master craftsman Fred Thompson, points to the eclectic nature of many of the puppeteers who are not only skilled performers, but have training in fine arts, design and construction.
“I think as many skills as a puppeteer can have is so crucial-whether you’re trying to create a narrative or story-the more styles of puppetry or techniques you have-they all help reference each other,” Little said. “It’s the only art form that encompasses all the other art forms-it kind of stems from the one-man show idea."
Emerging artist Dana Samborski added that the different disciplines involved in becoming a puppeteer reinforce each other, allowing the artist to grow holistically.
“By performing, you become a better builder because you realize what goes into building,” Samborski said.
All of these skills are developed in the shop, which functions as a kind of laboratory for the puppeteers.
“Most people arrive with their puppets well under way if not completed-the name of the game is to develop the piece, not the puppet,” said master craftsman Fred Thompson. “My job is to provide everything for them, so they can build their own work…Whatever it takes to help the participants realize their vision-I think that’s our job here."
Fred Thompson started working at the O’Neill with marionettist and builder Jim Rose in 1996. In 2000, Thompson became master craftsman, although he says he prefers to be called a “shop supervisor.”
During one of his practice sessions at the shop, Cripps handed Phillip Huber his marionette. Huber began manipulating it to walk seamlessly, creating the impression that the puppet was alive. According to Cripps, it is Huber’s unparalleled ability to operate the puppet that makes studying at the O’Neill so special.
“Phillip has a level of sensitivity and an extreme playfulness about him when he is manipulating a new marionette –he is hypersensitive about movement-and it comes through in how he works, and watching him, I’m reminded to remain playful,” Cripps said.
Phillip Huber, puppeteer for the feature films “Being John Malkovich,” and “Oz, The Great and Powerful,” said he practices up to 14 hours a day when he is preparing for an upcoming performance.
“The marionettist has to go beyond the technique to actually instill life,” Huber said. “You see through the character’s eyes. You breathe through the character and you feel the emotions of the character and you have to be able to project those down through the strings.”
When Huber was working on “Being John Malkovich,” he had to fulfill the requests of director Spike Jones, who often wanted Huber’s marionettes to move in certain ways to evoke a particular emotion. But if the puppet was not designed to make a motion that the director wanted it to, Huber would have to go back to the on-set shop and re-string the puppet.
All of the technique needed to be a successful puppeteer is practiced here in the O'Neill shop.
Anthony Rais, puppeteer and magician, regularly performs in venues in Las Vegas, such as The Paris Hotel. This is his ninth conference at the O'Neill, but he still comes away with new techniques learned in the shop.
“You know, being a puppeteer in the lay world is very difficult because you're with dolls and you're insane,” Rais said. "Everyone gathers from all corners of the world to share their knowledge of the same thing we have in common..You would think people who have an act don't want anyone to be better than them, but not here-everyone gives of themselves."
Rais improved upon his swan ballerina puppet, Birdina Cluckanova. During Rais's routine, the bird gives birth to a chick in the middle of the act. Huber helped Rais find an alternative way to string his puppet so that the head would be free of the strings, which allowed the puppet to move more freely during the ballet act.
For Kat Pleviak, puppeteer and co-founder of the Sea Beast Puppetry theatre located just outside of Chicago, IL., the O'Neill community and the assistance of Huber is what makes the puppetry conference so invaluable.
"Why the O'Neill's so great is that we can come here to workshop our ideas with our peers-which makes us better artists-but I can come here and get help with other really experienced people and make our work better,” Pleviak said.
Pleviak, who is taking the Advanced Marionette Manipulation strand under the direction of Philip Huber, brought a mermaid puppet to the conference. Huber helped her adjust and manipulate strings to make the mermaid look as if it were swimming.
And the conference has allowed emerging artist Alex Griffin to develop a new work with the assistance of the resident company of puppeteers. Griffin's piece Northern Lights, a work about assimilation and the transformation that a troll has to make to become accepted into society, was able to be workshopped in the rehearsal rooms and in the shop.
“The building is something that I usually do-but with the help of the skilled people in the shop- I was able to get together a full show," Griffin said. "A lot of the set pieces are integral to the story and how the main character interacts with the set pieces helps to tell the story.”
The puppets that were worked on in the shop, were used during the June 20-21 puppetry performances at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center.