At the new headquarters of Brunswick Little Theatre in Southport, N.C., Frank Blackmon leaned forward in an overstuffed chair and secures a chisel in one hand.
In the other, he held a 3-inch piece of bare wood. He made notches in the wood to shape a forearm as he explained that the Marionette Workshop he formulated for BLT is a unique artistic offering. He targeted those who could learn to use power tools, and three women followed through on taking the twice weekly, month-long class.
“The ladies get to use power tools,” Blackmon said, satisfied he is teaching them the proper way to use them.
A few yards away from Blackmon, Debbie Skillman of Southport, N.C., wore safety goggles as she guided a small piece of wood around the blade of the band saw.
“I’m fascinated by it,” she said of the art of puppetry and marionettes. “Puppetry is often taught to children in children’s theatre.”
A marionette is a type of puppet with jointed limbs and operated overhead by pulling wires, rods or strings. A puppet is a cloth object in the form of an animal or person that fits on the hand. Blackmon said the productions of “The Lion King,” “War Horse” and “Fant” have helped make puppetry popular on stage today.
Skillman, a retired music teacher, has been involved with Brunswick Little Theatre since 1983 and 12 years ago organized Stagestruck Players, the youth division of the community theater for those 8 through 18.
Working at a table in another part of the room, Luci Tramposch, 17, of Supply, N.C., chipped away at Plaster of Paris. Encased inside was the head made of clay for her marionette. She said taking the class is her senior project, a graduation requirement. She graduates from Brunswick County Early College High School in 2016 and plans to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in biology and performing arts with a minor in Spanish.
“I’ve never had an opportunity to work with woodcarving, and I enjoy it,” she said. She has helped her father build shelves and make storage boxes, but she said this class adds a new dimension to her experience. “I am very interested in theater and the performing arts. I’ve been in four BLT plays.”
Blackmon’s fascination with marionettes goes back to his early years. His fifth-grade teacher recognized his interest in marionettes and asked him to make some for “The Ugly Duckling.” His class then performed the play at a school assembly. He cut his mom’s broomsticks for parts and made a swan from Styrofoam.
Blackmon’s career includes his service in the Navy and covers 22 years at what is now Duke Energy before he retired in 1994. He then returned to college and earned a bachelor’s degree from UNC-Wilmington. For eight years he taught math, science and technology at South Brunswick Middle School in Southport before retiring from that career in 2005. His interest in marionettes, however, never waned.
“It’s a perfect blend of engineering and art,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of it. I’ve always been into robots, too.”
Tramposch is making a female marionette, but she didn’t know what its personality would be.
Skillman said she planned to make a “general person. At first I wanted a witch.”
“There’s a whole process to making a marionette,” Blackmon said. “The tricky parts are heads, feet and hands.”
He lifted a string of a duck marionette hanging nearby. “This is actually fishing line. It is very strong.”
Blackmon began the class by having students make paper models of Woody from “Toy Story.” That progressed to tracing arms, legs and torso on wood, then cutting the parts out on the band saw.
Blackmon said it takes 52 pieces cut from wood to make a marionette. Some pieces are glued together to create three-dimensional forms. The head and neck are separate pieces made from other materials. The parts are attached with steel pins driven through tiny holes, which allow the limbs to move. The strings or wires are slipped through these holes and made long enough so the marionettists can manipulate them out of sight of the audience.
Blackmon has prototypes so students can see a finished marionette, which he said takes about 40 hours to make. Painting faces and bodies, finding doll clothing or making clothes, and acquiring wigs are all part of completing a marionette. The ones his students were making were 18 inches tall.
“This is risk-taking,” Skillman said of the class. “You have to be able to carve to do this. It’s doing things I’m not comfortable doing. It’s an art class. You design your actor.”
Tramposch and Skillman both said, almost in unison, that the hardest part of the class was cutting “teeny, tiny pieces of wood.”
The workshop was made possible by a grant BLT received from a consortium of local art councils, and Blackmon studied under Fred Michael, former puppeteer on “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He envisions BLT presenting “The Sound of Music” with marionettes sometime in the future.