Go Behind the Scenes of National Marionette Theatre

One Father, Two Sons, 114 years of Marionette Performance!
by Guest Blogger: Honey Goodenough, puppeteer
Honey and the Cricket from NMT's "Pinocchio."
Performing with the National Marionette Theatre (NMT) is like performing with a piece of history. The National Marionette Theatre has been part of the Syrotiak family since 1967 when it was founded after the World's Fair in NYC. Father, David Syrotiak Sr. saw his first puppet show in second grade and was hooked. He began building marionettes at age 11, with the guidance of Rufus and Margo Rose. By lying about his age, he started performing professionally at 15 with The Berkely Marionettes.  In the summer of 1953, he toured with the Suzari Marionettes, and later Nicolo Marionettes performing with fellow contemporaries such as Wayland Flowers, Nick Coppola, and Pady Blackwood.
Signed book by Rufus and Margo Rose, pioneer marionettists,
given to David Syrotiak Sr. at the age of 12 (1948)

He enlisted in the Army to qualify for the GI Bill, where he wrangled his way into The Special Services, where he commandeered his own puppet workshop and performed cabaret style marionette performances for fellow US troops. Some of his duties included hosting and greeting performers such as Velma Middleton and Louis Armstrong. After completing his term in the Army, he attended The Silvermine School of Art in Connecticut. His performance credits include Sid and Marty Kroft and Bil Baird, performing shows at the New York World's Fair alongside fellow performers such as Carolee Wilcox, who later became the shop manager for Henson Associates.

A scene from NMT's "Pinocchio."
All four of the Syrotiak children, including Maggie, Catie, David Jr. and Peter have performed and voiced characters for The National Marionette Theatre.  David's wife, Marianna, has performed with the company for many years, and even now the legacy is being shared with Steven Syrotiak, David and Marianna's 15 year old son, who joins the company as a sound tech and crew for their production of "Peter and the Wolf." This week at Puppet Showplace Theatre we are performing "Pinocchio," which is the only show where all four of the Syrotiak siblings voice characters.
Joining a Legacy

I joined the company in January, and began rehearsing under the direction of David J. and Peter Syrotiak.  I first began by running sound for "Peter and the Wolf," and shortly after was invited to perform "Sleeping Beauty" and have now joined them for this week's performances of "Pinocchio."  One of the highlights of the training process has been performing with the Syrotiak brothers, and then receiving notes from their father, David. When you add all their years of marionette performance together it totals 114 years.  In my brief time touring with the company, we have been hosted in some of the most lovely theaters and museums throughout the Northeast. I am proud to say that this native Texan has now toured all of the New England states - sometimes all in the same day!  I enjoy the long drives and the view of the New England countryside as well as sampling the local fare - my favorite being fresh New England lobster! The Syrotiaks are not only are meticulous marionettists, but are equally as passionate about cuisine and are amazing chefs!

Honey rehearsing "Sleeping Beauty" with David Sr.
Housed in the Green Mountains of Battleboro (VT), The National Marionette Theatre has a beautiful workshop/performance space where they rehearse and build all their shows. It is 1600 square feet filled with marionette shows and memories. They house 350 marionettes from more than 20 different shows that range throughout their repertoire. Touring is a conglomeration of performers. Since we all live in different states spanning from Pennsylvania to New York and Vermont, we convene at the studio to collect the show, pack the car, and then drive to the venue for sometimes more than 11 hours.  

The Syrotiak Technique

The Syrotiaks perform with American style airplane controls but with several unique modifications. They use a yoke string on their marionette's arms which connect their puppet's hands and forearms, this creates a subtle automatic wrist action. They also use elbow strings on almost all of their marionettes, which gives their puppets a broad range of action and variety of expression. The most surprising modification for a new puppeteer to their company is that they perform with gloved hands and without a proscenium. The performance and the performers are in full view of the audience at all times. On a number of occasions, our audience  has remarked on our intricate manipulation and performer cooperation throughout the show. Many of the scenes require quick passes from one puppeteer to the next. The backstage action is as delicately choreographed as the performance on stage. Our audiences see a show within a show! 

Honey, David Jr. and Peter Syrotiak after a performance of "Peter and the Wolf"

Journey from Apprentice to Master

After 12 years of training with marionettes in New Jersey and throughout the NYC area, I still consider myself a student of the craft.  I have been fortunate to have  studied with marionette artists such as Phillip Huber, Jim Rose, Nicholas Coppola, Steve Widerman, Kevin Frisch and Jim Raccioppi. The more I learn from the Syrotiak family and fellow performers, the more I learn about the rich history of marionette performance throughout the United States. Now when I compare marionette styles and controls, I not only see the puppet, but also the influences of all the marionette performers that came before me. The art of puppetry is a living curriculum that is best shared through apprenticeship and practical experience. This community truly is a family of performers united by their passion for puppetry.

David Sr, Honey, and Paul Vincent Davis (Puppet Showplace Aritst-in-Residence Emeritus)