Get Real: Once Upon a Time in Central Park

Get Real with Carla Stockton

Photo by Carla Stockton
Photo by Carla Stockton

My younger granddaughter, now 4, is a tough critic.  She was lukewarm on a popular version of Rapunzel we saw downtown, was adamantly opposed to sitting through an ABT children’s performance and could not tolerate the Radio City Music Hall holiday show.  So I had some trepidations about taking her to the Swedish Cottage Marionette Show for the first time.  I needn’t have worried.

“I LOVED that puppet show,” she announced in her biggest outside voice as we exited the theater.  Everyone walking in unison through the small exit space agreed, and her pronouncement received a burst of appreciative applause.

What a relief.  The Marionettes perform in an intimate setting, a space customized to the needs of the puppet company in 1997 in the model schoolhouse that was imported to America for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and then dismantled and rebuilt in Central Park by Frederick Law Olmstead, the park’s co-designer, when the exposition closed.  By the time a show concludes here, the entire audience has had some kind of bonding experience, so if a child were to exclaim dissatisfaction, she might be set upon by angry stares and admonitions.

My granddaughter was right on the mark.  We had just seen a great show:  Jack and the Beanstalk, which has been around for a long time – it premiered in Columbus Circle – the puppets and the script were built and developed in the 1940’s, in the Swedish Cottage, which was at that time more of a factory, a Puppet workshop.  In those days, performances were held outside in larger venues, but the show has stood the test of time and is one that Bruce Cannon, the Artistic Director, favors  . . .  though he has updated it a bit.

“We like to present classic stories performed in a classic manner.  That’s what we believe puppetry is about, and it’s what our audiences want from us,” explains Cannon.  “Puppetry is the perfect marriage of all the performing arts, and we have an opportunity to show them all off in the very best light.  But sometimes we like to change things up just a bit.”

Photo by Kate Nemetz, City Parks Foundation
Photo by Kate Nemetz, City Parks Foundation

Jack and the Beanstalk’s a good example.  It’s a universal story,” Cannon continues.  “It resonates today as well as it did in 1940. But in the original, they didn’t bring back the cow.  What happened to the cow?  Was she turned into hamburgers or what?  So I rewrote the ending so the cow could come back.  That just brought the whole story to a good conclusion.”

Cannon updates his shows in many important ways. “My audiences come from all over.  Here in Manhattan, we get visitors from around the world and every part of the country, and we have the City Parks Foundation PuppetMobile that takes our stories out to the boroughs and reaches multiple sites in greater New York area.”

The partnership with the City Parks Foundation is one for which Cannon is outspokenly grateful.  “We could not do what we do without the support of the City,” he enthuses.  “We are in a rarefied position to do some real good in return.”

“What I like to do,” Cannon explains; “and I think it’s part of my legacy, is to rework the classics and make them more multicultural, employ multi-media.  For instance, we took Cinderella and placed her in Brazil, made it Cinderella’s Samba.  We did a modern version of The Three Bears and Three Billy Goats Gruff and the Three Pigs where we combined them into a single story called Three. We use film sequences – like shadow puppets on film – moving flats, that kind of thing.  We also use live actors alongside the puppets.”

The giant in Jack in the Beanstalk, like the Genie in Aladdin, is played by a puppeteer (Cannon himself has played both roles) rather than by a puppet, and at the end of the show, when the actor steps out next to the tiny marionettes, the children get an unforgettable lesson in perspective.

Jack and the Beanstalk is one of the few shows currently in the repertoire that is not set in New York City.  “I am a native New Yorker,” Cannon likes to boast.  “Harlem born and bred.  I tend to like New York-centric stories.  So, I try to use New York landmarks and things of that sort.  As the Artistic Director, I like to encourage my writers and artists to incorporate the City.”

H and G

In one of their most popular perenniels, Hansel and Gretel’s Halloween Adventure, Hansel and Gretel experience wildly vivid dreams that take them to some of the most recognizable areas of Central Park, including the Belvedere Castle and Bethesda Fountain, where they travel through a city fantasy replete with pirates and mermaids.  Written and directed by Bruce Cannon and Candice Burridge, with music by Daryl Kojak, the show stars New York City and creates an adventure wonderland for the characters and their audience.

“I also want the shows to reflect the multiculturalism of New York City,” Cannon smiles.  “You can’t have a show take place in New York and not be inclusive.”  Recently on tour, the company’s production of Little Red Hood, a tech savvy retelling of the classic tale, will move into the Cottage Theatre in Spring, and there’s plenty of multiculturalism already on the stage in the holiday show, now playing at the Swedish Cottage through January 30, 2016.

“My Christmas show,” smiles Cannon with obvious satisfaction, “has become a classic hit.  It’s one of our most popular shows, and that’s something .  I took puppets that we had from other shows and wrote them into a cabaret show.”

3 bears
Photo by Kate Nemetz, City Parks Foundation

In The Three Bears Holiday Bash, written and directed by Cannon, the puppets celebrate Hanukah, Christmas and Kwanza in song and dance with multi-media components – including a filmed Kwanza parade and dancing billboards –  as well.  According to Laura Graeber, writing for the NY Times, the lineup of characters is “reminiscent of Ed Sullivan’s work . . .a revue that starts without a hitch but winds up as a comedy of errors,” starring an irrepressible Baby Bear, a not-so-bad wolf, and a very confused Santa Claus.

Cannon has been Artistic Director of the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre since 1997, but he has been part of the family of visual artists, musicians, puppeteers, actors, et al., in the company since the 1970’s, shortly after Mayor John Lindsay issued a proclamation making the company the official Puppet Theatre of New York City.   He found his way to the theatre by way of the CETA program in the 1970s, when he returned to New York from college in Virginia armed with a degree in Political Science.

The degree was even then an expediency;  the young man’s roots were deeply imbedded in music and art.  As a teenager, Cannon attended the High School of Music and Art, a program that encouraged individuality and enthusiasm for collaboration.  When he applied to the CETA program, he was sent to the Marionette Theatre, where a position was created for him, and after some initial orientation and training, he was asked one day out of the blue to operate the follow spot on Peter Pan.  “With my light, I had to be Peter Pan’s shadow,” Cannon laughs.  “Most puppeteers never forget their first roles; I sure won’t.”

From lighting to set design to performance to puppet manipulation to musical integration, Cannon learned all the components of the production.  “You really can’t do any of the jobs here without knowing how to do them all. I don’t consider myself a puppet maker, but I can make puppets, and I teach children how to construct them in our puppetry workshops.  I couldn’t do my job as Artistic Director if I didn’t deeply understand what it takes to do every other job in the company.”

Photo by Diane S. Williams
Photo by Diane S. Williams

Cannon has great plans for himself and the Marionette Theatre.  He has been a kind of artistic ambassador for the City of New York, attending the largest Puppet Festival in the world in France (by invitation from the French Embassy) last summer and participating in the puppetry summit in Montreal. He belongs to UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette), with whom he works to provide programming at their various festivals, and he is working to expand the theatre’s tradition for featuring guest artists by inviting international companies and their shows to the Swedish Cottage.

“The challenge there,” says Cannon, “is to find shows that fit our very specific space.  This house we are in was redesigned to be more historically correct, and is specifically suited to our unique needs, a very intimate, close space.  But we will do it.  We have a mission to carry on our tradition for nurturing puppeteers.”

Over the years, many of the world’s most renowned puppeteers – Shari Lewis, Bill Baird, Basil Twist, Nicolas Coppola, et al., have been featured at the Marionette Theatre.  And today the theatre has a reputation that brings the brightest and the best artists in the country to the Cottage’s door.  Cannon never has to look far for new members of the puppeteering staff; puppeteers and actors seek him out.  “I tend to look for people with a real aptitude and some skills.” says Cannon.  “And I find that the puppeteers who are most successful with us, are the ones that bring a couple of different disciplines to the table . . . If find that musicians and dancers catch on most quickly and show a real affinity for the work.”

Next time I’ll introduce you to Art Director Doug Strich, one of the new stars of the program.  Meanwhile, if you have kids or would like to feel like one yourself, take in the Holiday Bash at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre.  Tickets are inexpensive, all seats are good seats, and the show will have you clapping and singing along in no time.

When you do go,  tell ‘em Carla sent ya.

Photo by Carla Stockton
Photo by Carla Stockton

Carla Stockton - headshotCarla Stockton, MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation.  She is the mother of three, grandmother of two, writer, theater director, filmmaker, teacher and vegan traveler.

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