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Monday, February 1st, 2010

In the hands of a master

Marionettes come alive at New Bremen show

By Margie Wuebker

Joseph Cashore checks out his marionettes prior to a Sunday night performance at. . .

NEW BREMEN - Maestro Janos Zelinka saunters across the stage with hand-hewn cherry violin and bow in hand. He lifts the instrument to his shoulder and places his chin on the polished surface. The haunting strains of "The Lark Ascending" fill the James F. Dicke Auditorium at New Bremen High School on Sunday night.
A steady stream of characters follow, including Beau with a whimsical kite, a young mother with baby in hand and Maura, an old woman delivering flowers to the grave of her beloved. Ramul, a monk with a penchant for meditation and chanting, appears in a flowing white robe. However, the sight of a large straw purse laying on stage quickly draws his attention and he peers inside once, twice and then a third time before drawing out an inflated blue balloon.
More characters, including a trusty steed named Cyclone, hang around backstage waiting for their turn to perform with the assistance of nimble-fingered Joseph Cashore as part of the Lock One Community Arts 2009-2010 season.
Cashore, who resides in Colmar, Pa., created his first marionette from clothespins, wood, string and a tin can, at the age of 11. He admits being startled by the sudden but momentary sensation of the puppet coming to life in his hands.
"It's all about movement," he says reaching for Cyclone and fingering the strings to make the horse paw the ground, gallop across the stage floor and swish its bushy tail. "Movement is a way to communicate and develop a marionette's character and personality."
The talented artist creates his cast of characters from such things as papier-mache, hard, synthetic rubber known as neoprene and molded polyurethane. He also makes all the clothing, paying close attention to styles and designs that compliment each character.
"I once carved mannequins from wood but quickly discovered the more lightweight the better," he says. "The horse started out weighing 5 to 6 pounds until I hollowed out the inside and replaced wood with foam in some places."
Initially his creations measured 3 feet tall. However, he learned through trial and error that movement suffers when the length exceeds 27 inches.
"The time involved in creating a marionette varies from one to another," he says. "Janos the violinist took me six months to complete. Generally the more action involved, the longer the design period."
His cast of characters numbers 20, although he has created more than 100 for manipulators, as marionette puppeteers are known. He doesn't have a favorite character, really, although he has a fascination for Old Mike, who has changed personalities as well as faces and hands over the years. The one-time Mr. Hyde is now a homeless man with all his belongings in a brown paper bag.
"I really don't talk about favorites in front of the marionettes because they could get jealous," he says with a mischievous smile. "My favorite happens to be the one I'm working with at the time."
Cashore uses Dacron fishing line with a 12-pound test weigh to move his characters. It stretches less than other varieties, thereby reducing the likelihood of tangles. Most of his marionettes move with the assistance of 20 to 24 lines, but the violinist and the horse require 36 to achieve needed movement.
He inspects the strings religiously after each performance looking for frays or other imperfections that could spell disaster the next time the curtain rises. Rehearsals are also part of the routine and new marionettes never put in an appearance without two to three months of dedicated work to get "the feel" for the character.
Ramul holds the distinction of being the oldest marionette in the troupe. He has been a part of the family for more than 35 years.
Cashore, who was trying to earn a living as a painter and doing carpentry work on the side after receiving a fine arts degree, had a breakthrough of sorts in the late 1980s. He had always admired Ralph Vaughan Williams' musical score "The Lark Ascending" so he decided to make a puppet that would convincingly play the violin solo.
"It seemed almost impossible to get the quality of movement that I wanted," he says. "When I began to solve the technical problems and gain subtle control of the marionette body, I saw there was the possibility for greater depth of expression."
The maestro, dressed impeccably in a tuxedo with tails, proved to be the turning point of Cashore's career and the impetus for his present productions. He has performed full time across North America, Europe and Asia since 1990.
Cashore gives 100 to 160 performances a year with the assistance of his wife, Wilma. She handles lights, sounds and the movement of props after each marionette heads back stage. The couple dress in black and seem to blend into the black backdrop as the one-hour performance unfolds.
"If the manipulation is good, I seem to disappear into the background," he says. "I only become visible when I foul up and fortunately that does not happen very often."

Future performances:
The Lock One Community Arts 2009-2010 season continues April 18 when The African Children's Choir comes to the James F. Dicke Auditorium at New Bremen High School.
Choir members have been selected from the most needy and vulnerable children in their homeland to tour the world as musical ambassadors. Their goal is to break the cycle of poverty by raising awareness and funds to change the lives of those back home.
The 7 p.m. performance includes popular and native African music, dance and bright costumes.
Rounding out the season on May 8 is a Mother's Day special - "The Velveteen Rabbit" presented by Theatre IV, a professional, national-touring theater group from Richmond, Va.
The timeless message complete with music will transport the audience back to the beginning of the last century. Originally written by Margery Williams in 1922, it is a story of innocence and unconditional love.
Performances will take place at 2 and 4 p.m.
Tickets are available by contacting Lock One Community Arts at 419-733-0252 or visiting the Web site at
- Margie Wuebker
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