Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 2
A great number of people in this country have for years discussed the possibility and desirability of a theatre of and for New Zealand. To some it may seem strange that our first experiment should be a puppet theatre.
In reality it is a most natural and reasonable beginning and solution to the great problem of how to achieve this national theatre that so many of us desire. The Goodwin Marionette Theatre was conceived less as a puppet theatre than as the only available means of having a theatre at all.
In other countries the revival of puppetry has sprung from different sources. In Europe, of course, puppet theatre companies are a continuation of a long tradition, in many cases carried on in single families for generations. Many of them have permanent theatres, running long seasons.
In England the travelling Punch and Judy show, with glove puppets, is the most famous and long lived. Apart from that, puppetry has been a rather "precious" revival of a lost art, and has not produced anything of very great significance.
In America, there are many companies, among them that of the famous Tony Sarg, but as one would expect, their best work has been done for a commercial field. The studio of the Bairds, in New York, can produce a revue for the Follies, a set of puppets to be filmed for Government propaganda, a mannequin parade, an advertisement for cigarettes, anything and everything with puppets. Among them is a character called Snarkie who has become quite a famous person, appearing on Broadway and in the Government film on "Gardening for the Farmer."
However, to return to New Zealand, our puppet theatre was not a revival. It was something new, so new that eighty per cent. of the audiences has never heard of puppets and ninety-five per cent, had never seen them before. This made their progress in some ways easier and in some ways more difficult. The schools of Auckland gave them their first chance to find an audience. The show had been growing for over twelve months, from the work of Arnold Goodwin with his theatre class at the School of Art. The first puppets were very small and crude, and used mainly as figures to "stand-in" to give proportion to sets designed on the model stage. Mr. Goodwin then made the figures for The Tempest, an ambitious start, but one which, by its success, inspired the formation of a real theatre. For two years, the small company played The Tempest, The Reluctant Dragon, and a series of very popular shorts to school audiences. With the small sums earned in this way, they built a new theatre, planned so that it could be quickly erected in a small space and easily transported. During the war the A.E.W.S. organised puppet shows as part of their programme, and the same show that had amused the schoolchildren continued to amuse the tougher audiences of Army, Air Force and Navy. Then came the Theatre's most difficult period, the transition from part to full-time occupation.
With no capital, the first year's work had to be done with a very keen eye to box-office. The Company had an offer from a showman to page 25 tour New Zealand as a side-show on the A. & P. Showgrounds. Two of the Company set off with a tent and a new show designed to play eight minutes, a small puppet circus with clowns and jugglers and performing animals. The hazardous and completely strange life was terrifying, but the venture was highly successful. The next year a discarded school bus was acquired and with their own tent, five members this time set out. It was hard work, Tauranga one day, Fielding the next, and so on through the country to Invercargill, where they were nearly blown over to Stewart Island. Eight minute performances, repeated ad nauseam, proved very wearing and seemed a far cry from the ultimate ideal of a permanent theatre. However, there were compensations other than financial gain. Thousands of people saw and loved the puppets and wanted to see more. Thousands of people who would never have been convinced by a theatre bill-board went into the tent expecting to be "had" in the traditional show-ground manner, and found that they were entertained and got as they put it, "more than their money's worth."
Then came a chance to return to the legitimate theatre with the Community Arts Centre tours of the Auckland Province. Prospero and the Reluctant Dragon were taken down, dusted and painted, and sent on tour again in the old school bus. This was the most. real achievement. Theatre in places that had never seen a travelling company! Theatre to people whose experience was limited to the films twice weekly. They rode for miles to see The Tempest, sometimes played in the local picture theatre, in a dance hall, and sometimes in what appeared to be a disused barn. And they wanted more. There was the rub. With the Company working full time on the road, how to take time for the construction of a new show? The making and rehearsal of a cast for a two hour marionette performance is not a matter of weeks but months. The figures are carved from wood, and when the head and limbs have been jointed and assembled, the most important job is the stringing. Only when the puppet is animated can the balance be tested. Sometimes that means new legs, less weight in the torso, requiring a major operation with brace and bit, or perhaps new hands and feet. Some-times they "live" at once, sometimes they are awkward and never reform, but always they have their own individuality and peculiarities, which remain with them for ever. When they move and do all that is required of them in the part they play, they are dressed. To dress them without impeding their action, in material fine enough to hang gracefully on so short a figure, is the problem here. However, when only 1/8 of a yard is required one can use the most expensive velvets and chiffons, and this indirectly is a most important reason for the existence of a marionette theatre in New Zealand. A medium, with which one can produce drama, comedy, or revue, for a few pounds, and build the most up-to-date and finely proportioned theatre, for a few more pounds, made the existence of a theatre in New Zealand a possibility.
Looking back on the growth and development of the Marionette Theatre, it is interesting to note how every part and plan has been governed by necessity. It was not created from a complete and preconceived plan, or modelled on previous theatres, but evolved from the needs of this particular country. It was therefore the nearest thing to a national theatre that has emerged to date. From that small beginning perhaps a theatre may grow. Perhaps too, the marionette will take his place in the life of the country, and become one of the standards by which we can compare with older countries. It would be good if New Zealand could create a "Punch" or a "Snarkie" so that people the world over could say of him, "He comes from New Zealand, you know, where the footballers and butter come from.'