Every Hero Needs an Origins Story

As I’ve already mentioned in the blog, my Watson project was born from my time spent exploring the theatrical metaphor of ‘Man as Marionette’ from various practical and theoretical perspectives. But there was a major hitch in all my efforts— I’d never actually worked with a marionette before. As I delved deeper into the subject matter, I discovered that a great number of the thinkers and artists who furthered the ‘Man as Marionette’ concept also hadn’t worked extensively with marionettes. On one level, this is understandable; essays like Heinrich von Kleist’s On The Marionette Theatre, Edward Gordon Craigs’s The Actor and the Uber-Marionette, or Roland Barthes’s Essays on the Bunraku Theatre suggest that these authors were more interested in what the marionette did to the spectator (i.e. to the people, i.e. to them) than the mechanics of performance. But on another level, this is unfortunate; anyone who has been onstage can tell you that there is a large gap between concocting ideas intellectually and actually realizing them in performance.

My decision to make the Czech Republic the first stop of my Watson was born from my desire to start filling in the experiential gaps in my relationship to the ‘Man as Marionette’ metaphor. So the first big ‘Watsonian’ thing I did after arriving was work with Mirek Trejtnar, Leah Gaffen, and all the folks at PiP (Puppets in Prague) in a two-week Marionette Carving workshop. Which brings me to the aforementioned “hero" of this post: my marionette! He doesn’t have a name because I’m just no good at coming up with names. (Anyone who saw my mime show might recall that this character is nameless, as well.) But this puts him in good company as far as I’m concerned— Odysseus, Clint Eastwood, and one of my favorite Spaghetti Westerns, My Name Is Nobody. At the very beginning, however, before this nameless octogenarian had a three-dimensional life, he was just a drawing:

                 

This was the sketch I sent to Mirek in Prague before I began the workshop to give a general sense of what I had in mind. I was kind of thinking of Jacques Tati when I was drawing him, and I had just come off of a performance of my mime show in San Diego (hence the suspenders), so I was basically dreaming of an ideal me at 80. Here are a few other sketches:

                

Although I had initially thought that he would be a wire puppet, with a large rod going through his head and neck and into his trunk, after trying out a bunch of different marionettes I decided to make him a string marionette instead. This gave him a greater range of mobility (and the hunch and waddle). At first, it made him a bit more unwieldy than his wire brethren, but I’d like to think I’ve begun to compensate for that as I’ve gotten better at manipulating. Suffice to say: I’ve yet to have buyer’s remorse. In fact, I absolutely love the way his limbs relate to gravity.

Once the details were more or less squared away, I drafted a to-scale technical drawing that would serve as a guide through the carving, as well as a useful stencil for eventually drawing the shapes onto large blocks of wood. Here is the technical drawing:

                 

Then, using the front and side profiles drawn onto a block of wood as a guide, Mirek cut out a 2D/3D version of his head on the band-saw:

                 

Which I then began to carve…

                 

…and carve…

                 

…and carve…

                 

…until more and more details emerged from the wood…

                 

…and it started to really look right. I should add that I didn’t do all this alone, and was quite fortunate to work under the watchful eyes (and sometimes hands) of a couple wood-carving professionals and all around wonderful people.

Following the head, I turned to the body, the arms, hands, legs, and feet:

                 

                 

                 

It was now time to connect the majority of the parts together. For his legs, I opted for the traditional style of hinge joint formed through connecting two wooden parts at the knee. For the arms, I went with a newer style of construction, connecting a long piece of circular leather into each shoulder and then nailing into place a mid-arm piece and the forearm/hand piece so that his arms can bend at his ‘elbows’. A more traditional technique involves connecting a tubular piece of textile at the shoulder and at the forearm. You can also use wooden hinges similar to the legs. It ultimately depends on aesthetic preferences, what actions you envisioned for the puppet, time, money, and available materials (and not often in that order). And of course, the same goes for the legs.

Here is Mr. Nobody in all his headless glory.

                 

I couldn’t attach the head and neck yet because they connect to the body through another piece of leather and without their strings, they would just flop over.

Following this, we moved to painting and costume. Because these really are hand-carved, individual marionettes, we tried to showcase the technique as much as possible. I kept my costume to a bare minimum and painted in thin layers that wouldn’t gloss over the carved wood. This, of course, isn’t mandatory, but I quite like the wooden look so I tried my best to respect it.

                 

                 

Pants can be tricky because if they fit too tight they’ll get in the way of the leg movements. Fortunately for me and my guy, I always pictured him with too-big trousers, so we were okay.

It was at about this point that I finally gave him eyes. I would say that my marionette’s eyes wound up looking exactly like how I never realized I’d imagined them. I knew I didn’t want realistic eyes, but that was also because I just hate drawing eyes. So I was kind of stuck one day while fretting over how/what his eyes would look like when suddenly Zdar, one of our professional overseers, quietly came over and put two green beads in my hand. They were perfect! Just what I would have envisioned, had I known something like that was possible.

Actually, I experienced this moment many times throughout the process— since this was my first time carving a human figure out of wood, I would often struggle to see what needed carving next, only to exclaim a big “Duh!" to myself whenever one of the professionals pointed to an area that needed more rounding or more depth. In the end, it wasn’t so much the carving technique that eluded me (though that was hard) as much as it was possessing an eye for global shapes and little details.

Anyways, here is my guy pre and post optic surgery (as you can see, I painted the beads black).

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And here he is all put together!

                 

The suspenders are hand-sewn into the pants, but the pants are held up by a nail in the front (covered by the button) and a nail in the back. There’s also a nail hidden behind the first layer of bow-tie fabric. Special thanks to Dana for help with the pants pattern and the front pleat, and the Pomona College costume department for teaching me all I know about sewing!

Once done, all that was left to do was string the little dude.

                 

He has nine strings. Two for the head, two for the shoulders, two for the hands, two for the legs, and one in the back. If he were a wire puppet, he’d only have four strings for his hands and legs. The head and shoulder strings collectively distribute the weight and upright support that the wire provides all by itself.

                 

My marionette’s leg strings are mostly hidden by his pants, as you can see in this rather inappropriate photo of my guy remembering his younger days when he really could rock shorts like that. Also, he’s letting the glue I put around his eye-hook knots dry so that they’ll stay fixed for (hopefully!) a long, long time.

                 

And that about wraps it up! Once the glue dries, he’s all set to go. I was caught off guard by how quickly the process accelerated. One day he was just a head and then suddenly, he moves! I hope that my quick account of the process didn’t further accelerate things too much. While writing I was reminded of those cooking shows where the chef puts a pre-baked casserole into the oven and immediately pulls out a finished one to save time, so I apologize if there appear to be large jumps in process or (dare I say,) logic. The work took somewhere around 10 to 12 days, including lectures on materials, aesthetics, functionality, and history.

But I’d be remiss if I ended with a picture of his pants up, so here’s one last photo from my marionette’s performance debut, playing a Czech professor who teaches rather boring English:

                 

Since this show, Old Mr. Nobody has already made quite the career for himself. You might have seen him most recently playing Děda Vševěda in a production of “Tři Zlaté Vlasy Děda Vševěda" (translation: “The Three Golden Hairs of Grandfather Know-It-All.") in and around Prague. I couldn’t be prouder of my little guy!

Samuel GoldComment