By Nancy Means Wright
One will do anything, it seems, to market a book. Anything, I’d heard, from running into the street to stop traffic to wrapping up in Saran Wrap, waving a romance novel. I wouldn’t have the nerve for that, but I had a new book coming out and wanted to do something exciting to promote it. Something, perhaps, with marionettes.
The book was Broken Strings, featuring Fay Hubbard, a failed actress turned puppeteer who appears in two of my earlier Vermont mysteries. She’s a well meaning woman with a plethora of human failings–failings and foibles that marionettes, those universal mimics, might bring to life. For even a finger puppet can make someone laugh, or cry–or alter that person’s thinking.
I decided to launch the novel through a Burlington, Vt bookstore with a performance by my son’s Very Merry Theatre. Never mind that his players, aged 9-15, had never operated puppets, and some were barely tall enough to hold up the 18-inch marionettes my spouse’s puppeteer mother had made some fifty years ago.
I wrote a semi-humorous, semi-sweet adaptation of Sleeping Beauty–the play that poisons a character at the start of my mystery–called it “The Witch, the Wheel and the Sleepy Princess,” and we were off, with eight kids in the roles, and on a June 13 date dictated by the bookstore.
But after three rehearsals, parents reminded us that June 13 was graduation day for three sixth graders. And one homeschooler’s parents discovered on Amazon that my novel was a “murder mystery,” and withdrew his boy. So we postponed the show until September when my son Donald would be starting up his fall theatre groups. Don was dubious about using the marionettes, but the bookstore proprietor said “Marionettes are key.”
Eighteen kids signed up for the production and my son said he hoped I wouldn’t mind writing in parts for all of them. At full count, I had eight marionettes and one hand puppet frog. So I added a pirate girl, three witch’s slaves, an apprentice I called Poison Ivy, a chorus of birds, and twin queens–in separate scenes that we might use the same queen puppet. Llyn, my spouse, had already turned two used American girl dolls into rod puppets by running a stick up their torsos, then adding strings. But after assigning parts, Don realized the two queens didn’t have enough lines, so could I add a scene for just those two? Oh dear.
Luckily I found a Red Riding Hood hand puppet in a musty box, and turned her into a queen–not a twin, but a cousin. And since both need royal gowns, I hired a friend to make them. I bought another female hand puppet, along with a raven, bee, and butterfly, whom I labelled Blue Fury Fly, as the witch’s slaves.
An email popped up: “Mom, could you write three songs for the play?” So I wrote a love song, a pirate song, and a “I love bugs and poop” songs for the bad guys. A follow-up email announced: “Mom, rehearsals start tomorrow night. We’ll need you and Llyn there to train the kids for the puppets. Okay?”
Okay. And the kids were thrilled with the puppets. The younger ones went wild, bouncing and swinging them about. The frog lost a leg in the first ten minutes, and a queen’s head came loose–Llyn dutifully sewed, and screwed them back on. Crowns, buttons and hats popped off, strings tangled, snarled, and broke. We had to attend every three-hour rehearsal so he could do repairs and I could adjust costumes and tongue-twister lines.
A week later an emergency e-mail arrived from the bookstore publicist. Would we mind performing a week earlier than expected due to a major mix-up in the bookstore’s event schedule? And in the next sentence: we’d be pleased to know that the store would film us for local TV! (the exclamation point was the publicist’s, not mine.)
With four days to go, the lead princess, an exuberant young actress with a lovely singing voice, didn’t know a single line. Others were just as shaky. The dress rehearsal was a disaster. As prompter, I worried I’d be the one to speak half the parts–did I want to be on TV croaking like a frog or witch? My blood pressure soared.
My heart was pumping fast the day of the show as spectators jammed the bookstore, with standing room only (eighteen kids bring a captive audience). It was the first time the players had use of the space and makeshift stage, so the blocking would be skewed. The store manager had put out a donation box and a pile of my latest kid novels, Walking into the Wild (aptly named in this instance)–but forgot to mention them. Copies of my mystery, Broken Strings, which had inspired this whole venture, were tucked away, unobserved, on the bookstore shelves.
But the kids surprised us. The princess sang out every line (learned in just 24 hours)–or ad-libbed those she didn’t know. The boy handling the frog got a chortle each time he spoke; the sewn leg only dropped a few threads. The audience laughed at lines I’d feared would be lost as the players, in black, squinted down to work their marionettes. When the backdrop ‘set’ jarred loose, a parent scuttled backstage to hold it up through the rest of the performance. Wooden heads clunked at the end as the prince smooched his slightly battered bride, and mothers sighed.
And no broken strings! Well, hardly any. The kids sang and played their hearts out, parents were proud, my son was delighted, and so was I. And then dear reader, my man and I drove home, packed up the weary marionettes, gulped a couple of gin and tonics–and went straight to bed.
“Enough,” I said, as I hit the pillow.
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