Puppets, actors in partnership in Olympia Family Theater's 'Three Tales'

Contributing writerMay 23, 2014 

The audience will have the opportunity to watch “Three Tales with Eight Tails” puppets and the puppeteers together during the Olympia Family Theater show.


The collection of three fairy tales, adapted by Mark Gerth of Olympia, is a puppet show with a difference.

“I didn’t want just a puppet show, meaning just puppets showing,” said Jen Ryle, the theater’s artistic director. “The actors are visible manipulating the puppets, which is fascinating to watch. It adds to the overall effect of the performance if you can see the facial expressions of the actors and then you can see how that is translated through the movement of the puppet. They become one.”

The puppets also interact with the actors. In “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” Heather Christopher plays the troll.

“The three billy goats gruff are all puppets, so there’s a nice sense of scale there,” said Gerth, who co-directed the show with Deane Shellman and created the puppets. The largest goat is a marionette about 3 feet tall.

The show ties together that tale with “The Bremen Town Musicians” and the lesser-known “Queen Bee,” in which three princes go out to seek their fortunes.

Gerth built nine marionettes for the show, as well as some shadow puppets. He previously built the Bunnicula puppet for the theater’s 2011 production of “Bunnicula” and the Large and Terrible Toad puppet for the 2010 production of “Frog and Toad.”

“I wanted to make them somewhat large,” he said of the puppets. “I wanted the entire audience to be able to see them fairly easily.”

To keep puppets up to 3 feet tall light in weight, he made them out of Styrofoam and foam insulation, glued together in layers and cut to shape.

Gerth studied puppetry at The Evergreen State College with Ariel Goldberger and worked with Goldberger’s now-defunct puppet troupe Naked Puppets.

His passion for puppetry was sparked by his interest in sculpture. “It’s an opportunity to do sculpture and then make it do something,” he said. “Puppets are three-dimensional, movable sculpture.”

There is also an art to manipulating the puppets, something most of the cast of “Three Tales” had little experience doing.

“Actors are used to using their bodies as a tool for conveying information and emotion,” he said. “Now, instead of just using their bodies, they have to convey that through the puppet.

“There’s a lot of potential in puppetry,” he added. “It’s one of my favorite ways of telling a story. It has a lot of flexibility and a lot of power.”

It also invites the audience to move away from the conventions of everyday reality.

“When you are watching a TV show or a movie or a play, you are willingly suspending your disbelief,” he said. “You know that these people are actors, but while you’re watching this movie, you are suspending your disbelief and buying into the idea.

“The power of puppets is that not only are we asking people to suspend their disbelief and believe this story, but we’re trying to convince them in some way that these inanimate objects are alive.”

His puppet for “Bunnicula” did just that. At a post-show Q&A, one young viewer asked how the puppet had moved.

“The puppeteer was on stage moving the puppet around, but the boy had so bought into it that he didn’t see the puppeteer,” Gerth said. “He believed. That’s the goal. That’s what happens when it really works.”

‘Three Tales with Eight Tails’

What: Olympia Family Theater wraps up its eighth season with an original adaptation of three classic fairy tales starring both human actors and puppets.

When: 7 p.m. Friday, plus May 29 and 30 and June 5 and 6; 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, plus May 31 and June 1, 7 and 8; 4:30 p.m. June 7

Where: The Black Box at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $16 for adults; $13 for students, seniors and military; $10 for children 12 and younger. For the May 29 show, pay what you can (the day of the show with cash or a check).

More information: olyft.org or 360-570-1638; for tickets, olytix.com or 360-753-8586

Also: The show is recommended for ages 3 and older.

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