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One Person Marionette Productions/Shows
by Fred Thompson

Ronnie Burkett can best tell you the particulars of his "one man" show but I know his production is quite large, is usually performed for long runs at regional-type theaters and requires the services that such an institution provides. He trucks, (and I do mean "truck") his large productions to each location where his lighting designer, stage manager, et al, set and light the show. He uses a full set. He rehearses (tech rehearsal) and then does an extended run. Anywhere from 4 to 8 weeks is what I'm guessing. Although he is the only performer, operating two to four marionettes at a time, his show requires stage hands, a board operator and ancillary services. His productions usually have 35 -45 marionettes and the current production of "Tinka's New Dress has only 18 characters, but requires 37 different puppets because of costume "changes". He does political and social satire, though his latest piece deals with a darker moment in our history. The fact that Ronnie improvises on stage and engages in exchanges with his audience is amazing to me. He mentioned that this was one way to stay 'fresh". So I would say that Ronnie Burkett is at one extreme of one man marionette shows.

On the other end, Jerry Hartnet performs with the simplest of set ups. He does a good, gentle, variety show, usually on cruise ships, with a quick set-up and a minimum of equipment. When he was here a year or so ago, he used the "house" lighting at a small theater. I would think he'd do the same in a ship's theater. He operated his own sound equipment. His "stage" was a small ladder with an attached "floor" not any bigger than 2 x 3 feet. He just climbed up behind this stage and performed. He was in view from the waist up. I don't recall any backdrop but there must have been something, and a little masking on either side. He had a separate hanging arrangement for the marionettes. The whole set up fit into the back seat and trunk of his car. His show opened with a Marlene Dietrich rod puppet who sang "Falling in Love Again" (what else?) while walking Jerry through the audience to the stage, flirting all the way. His marionettes presented the tried and true "Vaudeville" bits of strippers, "celebs", dancers, etc.

Jim Gamble did a fast-paced circus variety show at Fairfield in the large theater and used their lighting. He had several large folding frames (PVC tubing?) which held up backdrops to mask the marionettes, which hung upstage. I think his wife operated the sound but I'm not sure. He used most of stage apron and operated his marionettes in full view. That is, HE was very much a part of the show. He knows how to "work" an audience which in this case was mostly kids who thoroughly enjoyed it. The adults did too. (those that were willing to let on.) His equipment and puppets are designed to pack for airline travel.

Albrecht Roser does a sophisticated no-frills yet brilliant one man show with Ingrid Hofer as his assistant. Ingrid works as stage hand, sound technician and sometime "flunky" to "Gustaf", Albrecht's alter-ego clown. But Albrecht, alone, works the marionettes. Part of Roser's "contract" is that the sponsor provide a platform of particular dimensions and height which will accommodate his ground cloth. He travels only with his marionettes, lighting and sound equipment designed to collapse and fit into aluminum cases for air travel. He performs all over the world. His lighting is made up of two simple light units on either side of the platform, supported by folding tripods with telescoping shafts. There are no backdrops, but props are used. Albrecht performs on an open stage in full view of the audience, although his lighting is focused "down" onto the marionettes. He adjusts the lighting, ground cloth, props, etc., as part of his presentation; a visual bridge between numbers. He announces each number, lifts a marionette from a masked folding rack onstage, positions himself upstage on the platform with the marionette hidden from view. He then "reveals" the puppet, walks it downstage and "poses"it for a second. Albrecht has stated that the audience should have a moment to "examine" each character. Then he does his magic. Each marionette is designed and built with particular movements in mind and has a control designed specifically for that marionette. While "absolute control" might, to some, suggest that Roser's performances are "routine" or static, take it from one who has seen him perform many times, that each performance is a revelation. Although several of his numbers are specific to a particular time period, all appeal, and there is little doubt that one is in the presence of a master.

Rufus Rose built and performed a one-man show during the period when Margo was "with child' and could not perform their full stage productions. Rufus designed a modified version of their two-bridge folding marionette stage, the drawings of which can be seen in "The Puppet Theater Handbook" by Marjorie Batchelder (McPharlin), and worth the study. This stage allowed him to do complete variety performances without having to leave the bridge. Everything was within reach and he presented a true one-man show. The set up consisted of a folding bridge about six feet long by 18" wide with ladder-type legs at each end and a center leg, all which folded to fit into the "trunk" formed by the bridge itself. The stage floor, maybe thirty inches deep, also a folding box, was fastened to the bridge perhaps eight inches below the bridge floor. It was essentially cantilevered out from the bridge with diagonal under-pinnings to hold it up but had legs to support the front edge. The puppet stage floor was about 24" high. It was covered with a ground cloth. Two light poles were at the front corners of the stage and several reflector spots with snap on glass color filters were on each, behind a metal masking shield. Rufus had designed a switching/dimmer system so that any combination of the lights could be used. The lighting board as well as the music source was hung off the bridge. The tape deck (which had replaced an earlier phonograph) was mounted on the back puppet hanging rail and the switchboard was suspended from the leaning rail. The hanging rail for the marionettes was fastened to the back edge of the bridge and held up by steel rods hooked into the bridge floor. The leaning rail was made up of two pieces of 1" x 4" fir attached at right angles to form a rail for leaning and to hold the drops which were permanently attached to and travelled with the rail. There were two drops, one permanent black and a green corduroy, which could be closed by sliding it on a traveller. The uprights of the leaning rail folded up into the angled piece for travelling. These legs fastened to the bridge floor and were held up by angled pieces of wood which fastened to the sides and front of the bridge. There was masking at each side of the stage off the leaning rail to "hide" the puppets and a skirt along the front edge of the stage. Rufus could be seen in the "spill" from the lights, from the waist up (the drops concealed his legs) , manipulating the marionettes. His "Variety" consisted of some numbers used in the full stage show but built for his one man show. Apart form the usual circus routines, Rufus designed several dance numbers which featured two marionettes. His controls and stringing were designed so that he could operate a marionette in each hand with full effect. The classic Astaire and Rogers dance team, a very expressive Black Jazz couple, and a South American dance team were among his troupe. Rufus also developed "FLOTO", a trapeze clown, who used two trapeze and swung from one to the other without being attached to either with strings. "FLOTO" could also "Skin the Cat." His performing seal, "Oscar" was very popular, could balance a beach ball-on-a-stick at the end of his nose and delighted audiences by playing musical horns, not always at the appropriate time. Rufus' alter-ego was "TOGO" the clown who balanced while sitting atop three stacked tables and who ended his performance by blowing up a balloon, floating into the air and falling into a heap when the balloon broke (with Rufus' help.) The puppets, props, and lighting fit into the two boxes made up of the stage and bridge floors.

If I may venture an opinion, the most daunting part of doing a one-man or any other kind of show is to find and present material in a fresh and professional fashion and to entertain or move your audience. Don't matter to me if it's been done before as long as it's done well.

Fred Thompson

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Last updated 31 March 1996