Life on a String
I visited Susan at her home in Cedar Mountain, NC, about an hour from my home. It’s a rural and farm community, dotted with workshops of potters, painters, woodworkers, iron crafters, and sculptors. Susan is all those. She sculpts the head and body parts of each puppet in clay. Then she pours Plaster of Paris over it to create a mold. She fills the molds with liquid Neoprene rubber that hardens to create the head, face, hands and limbs. For hand puppets, where more flexibility is needed, she uses a non-hardening Neoprene.
She creates hair using textures from feather boas to yarns. She paints the features and skin tones, and designs and sews the costumes to dress the puppets. Most of the eyes in the marionettes are moveable; they wink, blink, flirt, and show an amazing amount of personality. The personality is part of each puppet’s performance. She has trapeze artists, jugglers, dancers, singers, trumpet player, and one that can blow up a balloon! So, of course, she engineers the mechanics to do these amazing things as well. She creates the choreography, produces the music, and writes any scripting.
The challenges for Susan are not unlike the challenges other artisans, including authors, face every day. Marketing is major, and expensive.
Susan has 700 preschools in her data base. She markets mostly to preschools, libraries, and senior living centers. Convincing clients this is a profession, not a hobby, and the need to charge, is awkward, and a challenge authors understand. Finding suitable venues for her performances is difficult; a stage is necessary.
There are also physical challenges in her craft. Her puppets can weigh as much as ten pounds. Their performance is around three minutes each, the length of a song. She holds the ten pounds arm’s-length from her body the entire time while using all her fingers to operate each body part, the mouth, the eyes, and orchestrate any trick they perform, requiring total concentration. Some tricks require arm movement on her part, such as swinging the trapeze for the circus performer. For this, she holds her arms out in front of her, swinging the trapeze and manipulating the marionette with the other hand, for about four minutes. My back aches thinking about it! And of course, there is the hauling of equipment, setting up and taking down. She is an absolute professional.
I love puppets, but I’d never met a professional puppeteer. It’s been delightful seeing her workshop and tools and learning how she assembles the parts to create these lively characters. I thought you might enjoy it as well. It’s the season of Toyland, isn’t it? Imagine living on the end of a marionette string?
Follow the puppets online at mountainmarionettes.com.