Strings attached

by Artist Development Fellow

Georgina Parfitt ’13, a resident of Kirkland House concentrating in English, was awarded an Artist Development Fellowship to attend workshops presented by Blind Summit, a puppetry troupe in London. Her work with Blind Summit will inform her production of a series of short plays. This summer she is also in attendance at the International Student Drama Festival as a member of the Harvard production CryHurtFood. Parfitt has been involved in Harvard theater as an actor, writer and director. This semester, she is working on an original piece, The Dragons are Dead, in which she uses stream-of-consciousness, poetry, and shadow puppetry. Parfitt plans to be a fiction and stage writer.

Today, I started my training at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre. I am to learn how to operate long-string marionettes and perform with them in the theatre’s summer show The Wild Night of the Witches.

The theater is a small building with green doors, and without a front or open foyer; it is instead tucked away between a church and a library in a passage off the high street of Angel, Islington. It has been hot in London this week. The lights of shops and restaurants make it hotter. But Little Angel is in the shade, and now is a quiet season; The Witches is the next show on and, until it opens, the theater is all ours.

First, we learned to walk. The marionette puppet is a wooden painted puppet with all the joints you’d expect—shoulders, knees, neck—and the control is made from bars of wood around which your hand claws, loosely if you’re practiced, fist-wise if you’re new like me and my classmates. There is a leg stick that hooks into the control with a string on each end for each leg. For the puppet to walk, your hand should gently and rhythmically twitch between index and ring fingers under the stick. At the same time you must keep the heavy body of the puppet held over the moving legs.

The puppetry community is quite small, it turns out. Ronnie Le Drew, my teacher, has been involved in most of the puppetry I can remember seeing on children’s programmes and adverts. Some of the puppeteers from the theater have been asked to help with the puppets for the Olympics. Everybody seems to know everybody else and it all runs in the family. And there is something old-fashioned about the craft and its practice.

If you watch videos of marionettists from the sixties, the movements are the same and so is the construction of the puppet, more or less. Marionettes have not had the same modernisation as some other forms of puppetry. Companies like Handspring and Blind Summit have brought rod and table puppetry into a new era by following the progression of fringe theatre, to be ruder, more abstract, more ambitious. But marionettes still move the same way, and I am learning the craft just like Ronnie did; there is always something in a marionette that reminds me of Mr. Punch and sitting on a lawn in front of a candy-striped tent for a Punch and Judy show.

The security of the art form is beautiful, I think. Unlike a lot of art I try and projects I set for myself, there is nothing untidy or half-done about marionettes. There is a right way, and a traditional way. It is not a skill you can blag. But also, I think, as I look forward to learning how to move the puppets' arms and shoulders to express emotions and react to other puppets, that the uncanny resemblance of a marionette to a human and to its marionette ancestors has so much potential in the world of confrontational art that we are increasingly interested in.

[Caption: "Duches"]