Piero Corbella, general manager of Carlo Colla & Figli Marionette Theatre explained the mystery of animating a marionette: "It is like learning to play and instrument." After I saw their performance of Excelsior, one of the early repertory pieces developed by Colla, I think he meant: "It is like learning to play Paganini well on a fine Stradivarius."
Indeed, when we spoke about the process of learning how to present this distinctive and legendary marionette work, Piero explained that a year of preparation was required just to be ready to begin working with the marionettes. Part of this preparation involves learning about the construction, costume and movement vocabulary of each marionette. As you can see from the image above, Piero is surrounded by hundreds of marionettes, each with their own history, character and particular movements.
As I explored the basement workshop of the theatre, I witnessed a phenomenon that is quickly becoming a rare event in our time: hand tools, artisans and a process that focused on doing things the right way. The company of Colla maintains a tradition that is as fascinating in terms of its process as it is in performance. As I watched the remarkable show, I kept wondering about the artists above and behind the proscenium. I could hear them moving, almost could hear them breathing and definitely could feel their presence. What remarkable choreography was going on in the marionette heaven above where the strings seemed to soar? What god-like antics and gestures were happening as the life of the marionettes played out on the stage below? What kind of concentration, commitment and investment must be involved in making these marionettes seem so remarkably alive?
After the show, Piero and I spoke about what it would be like for his company to teach some basic principles to my American drama students. I wondered aloud if perhaps in a four week summer workshop, perhaps the best we could hope for was for the students to be able to get a marionette to just walk forward a few steps convincingly. Piero smiled at me and said, "Well, that seems a little ambitious." I pointed out that I would bring him drama students who were agile, deft, imaginative and curious. He smiled again: "Yes, that is good, but the truth is, these are things that we want from the marionettes, not the students."