I'm a puppet maker with a degree in theatre. A former lighting techie, stage manager and producer. And I like to think that with puppetry, the only limit is your imagination. More...
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Marionettes are perhaps the most easily recognised of all puppets. If you don’t know what a marionette is, you should only have to think of Pinocchio to remember.
Marionettes, simply put, are puppets which are controlled by strings. The strings are attached to a wooden control, either an ‘upright’, or a ‘horizontal’. An upright control looks kind of like a wooden cross, and a horizontal control is of a similar design, but lying flat. The strings are attached in a variety of positions in order to easily keep the strings untangled during performance. You can see my teddy bear marionette to the right, which uses a simplified version of an upright control. Choosing between control styles will be decided upon based on the puppet’s needs (ie. an animal marionette will more than likely suit a horizontal control, whereas humans suit an upright), and the puppeteer’s comfort. Some find an upright control more ergonomical to use.
|Canadian puppet, Ronnie Burkett, with his marionette in Billy Twinkle. Photo with permission from Ronnie Burkett.|
Generally speaking, a marionette will have a minimum of six strings, but it can have many more than that. Strings can include: one going straight to the top of the head; one each for shoulders or the ears; one each for the hands; one each for the feet; and one for the lower back. More strings can be added according to the needs of the puppet’s movement.
Trick marionettes are also popular. This type of marionette is strung in a way which allows the puppet to do unusual things, like come apart at the ’seams’, juggle, ‘eat’ food, or do other circus-type tricks. These marionettes can be particularly difficult to work with, and require more experience than normal marionettes.
If you are new to puppetry, I wouldn’t recommend starting with marionettes. They are extremely complicated to learn, both in design and in performance. Begin with a rod puppet, which use similar performance concepts, and work your way up to marionettes.
One of the reasons marionettes are so tricky to use is that it requires a sort of split-thinking in order to manipulate a variety of strings in order to give the puppet life and animation. Strings are not just easy to tangle, but require a certain delicacy to create subtle and smooth movements. The length of strings will also affect how you perform with the marionette.
Marionettes are best used in small to medium venues, but can also be used outdoors. Many more traditional companies use large constructed sets, from which they manipulate the marionettes from above (think the lonely goatherd scene from The Sound of Music), while others perform on the same stage level as their puppets. The choice is often between having the puppeteer seen and having them unseen. Generally speaking, marionettes are about 30cm (12 inches) to 75cm (30 inches) in height, but marionettes can be successfully made to a much larger scale.
While marionettes are not used as much today, they are still performed by many traditional European companies, as well as in original new shows. Some of the traditional shows incorporate many uses of marionettes that continues to make this type of puppet fascinating; they can often be made to do ‘tricks’, such as come apart at the limbs, do somersaults and other circus-type stunts, as well as many other wonderously magical things.
Learn how to make one of these puppets here. An excellent intro to marionettes can also be found here (pdf); with lots of info on different controls, marionettes in different countries, etc. Read about the types of materials needed to make marionettes. Find out how to untangle them here. Read about the myth of marionettes. Additionally, you can find my list of free marionette patterns here. How to string a marionette is discussed here. [links to be added]send feedback / have a question?
Australians may want to buy locally. Where? I explain here.