Cashore Marionettes create life with a pull of a string

Michelle Nelson

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Photo credit: Michelle Nelson

Photo credit: Michelle Nelson

Backstage, Old Mike hangs lifeless from a string. His leathery face – furrowed with wrinkles of a hard life – stares straight ahead, as he waits for his cue.

Once the light hits the dark stage, Old Mike shows a glimpse into his life – digging through trash cans, begging for money, and sleeping on a park bench. It’s hard to imagine that Old Mike stands about 14 inches tall, his face and body are made from papier maché and wood, and his movements are controlled by strings pulled by Joseph Cashore.

The Cashore Marionettes performed in the Plaza del Sol Performance Hall on Oct. 15, giving a one-day performance for a few hours that depicted the artistry, engineering, and lives of the marionettes.

Tickets were $2 due to a grant provided by State Farm Insurance that made the show affordable to students and community members, said Therri Donnelly, marketing director of the performance hall.

The audience turnout was not as expected. Donnelly said that due to the budget cuts, funds for advertising have been cut, and it was difficult to spread the word about the performer on campus.

Not only have the cuts affected the campus, but also grade school campuses, who had to miss the show because funds for buses have been cut, and it is costly to take children on field trips, said Donnelly.

Joseph Cashore is the creator and puppeteer of the Cashore Marionettes. He is world-renowned, traveling internationally with his band of marionettes telling stories without the use of dialogue, through puppets and music.

Kathy Anthony, managing director of the performance hall, said that she brought the Cashore Marionettes to show a different aspect of puppetry, aside from the traditional furry Muppets most people have become accustomed to seeing.

“The internationally acclaimed Cashore Marionettes redefine the art of puppetry,” Anthony said. “Their moving and humorous performance has astounded audiences around the world. They are unmatched in artistry, grace and refinement of movement. The audience member forgets that he is looking at a marionette. The characters become real.”

One such character who becomes real is Maestro Janos Zelinka, strumming a violin in the opening act. Zelinka, an aged, white-haired musician, seems to tune out the world around him, and completely become absorbed in the music.

Zelinka, like the other marionettes, is controlled by an elaborate system of strings and pulleys. Each marionette has a sophisticated operation mechanism that allows Cashore to recreate their life-like movements on stage – such as Old Mike wiggling his toes in the missing soles of his shoes.

“Each one of these controls, each part on the top, is a little different. Each one is designed to allow the marionette to do what it has to do during the performance,” Cashore said. “This is really an experiment. This (the body of the marionette) is determined by anatomy here, this is trial and error … deconstructing and reconstructing.”

Cashore studied fine arts at the University of Notre Dame and at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

“I thought I was going to be a painter, that’s what I studied mostly,” Cashore said. “I did take drawing and sculpture, I think all of that helps with what I’m doing now. I just kind of got into this as an accident, it started as a hobby. I was doing it because I enjoyed it and it was fun, I liked solving problems. I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a career.”

At age 11, Cashore made his first marionette, out of a few clothespins, string, wood and a tin can. It wasn’t until after college that Cashore started to produce more marionettes.

Self-taught, Cashore studied movement and wanted to recreate life in the bodies of the marionettes.

“All the pieces are based on observation,” Cashore said. “I see something that I think would be a good puppet piece, I have a little notebook and make a drawing of who I think the character is, and I’m thinking of what kinds of positions I’ll have to get the body into to communicate the theme, the main idea of the piece.”

With no dialogue, the movement of the marionettes is critical to the storytelling element of the show.

“I do a lot of experimenting of the positioning of the strings and the distribution of weight throughout the body are probably the two most critical factors in influencing movement,” said Cashore. “I choreograph the movements to music, so that the movements are significant to the theme.”

This movement allows the audience members to use their own imaginations to draw conclusions about what they see onstage. Like little actors on stage, the marionettes deliver Oscar award-worthy performances.

“The marionettes are capable of expressing a wide, wide range of ideas and themes,” said Cashore.

One of the themes Cashore explores is the theme of compassion, with Old Mike. During Old Mike’s performance, he lifts his sorrowful face to the audience and his puppet master, with hands outstretched for help.

Drawing from his experiences in living in Philadelphia, Cashore said he encountered many homeless people and became inspired to tell their story on stage.

Anthony said that the humanity of the vignettes captured her attention.

“‘Simple Gifts’ reminds us that we are all one,” Anthony said. It is about the beauty, joy and wonder of life. The characters have depth, integrity, and humanity and are portrayed in a full performance unlike anything else in theater today.”

Cashore received several awards and grants, including the Henson Foundation grant, founded by Muppets creator Jim Henson, that promotes puppetry to adult audiences. Cashore’s shows are directed to adult audiences, yet they can be tailored for children as well. However, he said that it is a constant struggle to remind adults of the magic of storytelling behind marionettes.

“It’s a never-ending uphill battle, because this country, particularly, it’s assumed that if you’re doing puppets or marionettes that you’re aiming at a children’s audience, and that’s not really the case,” said Cashore.

“Anyone who appreciates artistry would love the show,” said Donnelly. “The marionettes are breathtaking … the music is just beautiful.”

For more information about the Cashore Marionettes or to see a list of upcoming performances visit www.cashoremarionettes.com.

For more information about upcoming performances at the Plaza del Sol Performance Hall visit http://www.artsnorthridge.csun.com/.