For kids: These puppets have strings to hold them up

A studio in Prague, Czech Republic, carries on the art of making marionettes.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Do you know the fairy tale of Pinocchio? Before he became a real boy, Pinocchio was a wooden puppet carved by a man named Geppetto. But he wasn't just any puppet; he was a marionette that could move only when Geppetto pulled his strings.

Marionettes are special puppets that, like Pinocchio, have strings attached to their bodies to make them move when a person pulls the strings from above. Also like Pinocchio, marionettes are often made of wood. Some other puppets, by contrast, are made of fabric or other materials and are controlled by a person's hand inside them.

Puppet theater through the ages

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Marionette performance is one of the oldest forms of theater in the world. Wire-controlled puppets made of clay have been found in Egyptian tombs. In the 18th century, musicians even composed operas for marionettes. In Austria, the Salzburg Marionette Theater still performs marionette operas. Italy is considered by many to be the historical "home" of the marionette. But the Czech Republic is a modern-day place of marionette masterpieces. The National Marionette Theater in the capital city of Prague has frequent productions of Amadeus Mozart's famous opera "Don Giovanni."

Prague is also home to the International Institute of Marionette Art. There's a museum there with lots of puppets on display. And the institute holds a marionette festival every year with puppeteers from around the world. Marionettes are so popular in Prague that you can buy them in many tourist shops and see people performing with them on the street.

The history of the marionette here dates back to the 18th century when puppeteers from England and Italy traveled through the region putting on shows. Both adults and children loved the minitheaters, and it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment at the time.

In the 1900s, though, marionettes became really popular. Marionette theaters were built all over the country, and many families had their own theater and marionettes so they could put on their own puppet shows. Czech craftsmen were especially good at carving the marionettes. Even today, there are artists and companies that make them.

The making of a marionette

One of those companies is Truhlár Marionety, which has two shops that sell marionettes in Prague, as well as a studio that makes the puppets. More than 60 artists work for the company, but its main workers are members of the Truhlár family.

Pavel and his wife, Karolína, are co-owners. Mrs. Truhlár is also a marionette painter, as is her mother. Mr. Truhlár doesn't make marionettes himself, but he enjoys producing plays for the puppets to perform. His brother, Daniel, carves the puppets out of wood. The studio also has a person whose job is to design and sew costumes that the marionettes wear. His name is Tomáš Balek.

As the carver, Daniel does his job before everyone else. He has been carving marionettes for more than six years. He didn't go to school for this, but many Czech artists do. He says the first thing he carves is the head. "The head is the most important because that determines what the rest of the marionette will look like," he says. "The head makes the character."

After the head, Daniel carves the body, then the legs, and, finally, the arms. Daniel may also carve additional pieces, such as a broom for a witch to hold. It can take about 10 days for a complete marionette to be carved, painted, and dressed.

But once a puppet is made, how does it "come to life"? Mrs. Truhlár says marionette technology is a very important part of the process. Many of the first marionettes were held up and controlled by a wire rod coming from the puppet's head. You can still see this today. But it's the strings that allow the marionette to move more naturally.

"We use a special Czech design that allows for more movement and makes it easier for the operator," Mrs. Truhlár says. "We also design most of [the puppets] so they can do a specific activity, like ride a bike or do a back flip."

The artists who work in the studio at Truhlár Marionety come from many different backgrounds. Some have university degrees and are professional puppetmakers. Some design marionettes for movies. Some work for a specific marionette theater but also want the opportunity to make their own creations.

Think you could make your own marionette? Truhlár Marionety offers workshops for kids and adults at their studio in Prague. Participants don't get to carve, but they do get to choose the head, body, arms, and legs of their marionette. Then they get to draw its face, paint it, and Mr. Balek designs an outfit for it.

If you can't make it to Prague, you can experiment making your own string-controlled puppet or hand puppet out of paper, cloth, or other materials you find around the house.

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