The Princeton Festival is creating a kind of Spoleto Festival in central New Jersey. Now in its 10th season, the festival — one that brings summer opera, theater, jazz, and chamber and symphonic concerts to the region — is no longer just for grownups.
On Sunday, June 15, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” performed by the Paper Moon Puppet Theater, will offer youngsters a chance to become immersed in the world of the performing arts. It is also something that promises to entertain their adult companions.
The classic children’s tale about the girl with the golden locks who samples the porridge, chairs, and beds of three members of the Ursidae family has been updated to take place in a national park. Mama, Papa, and Baby are reminiscent of the Cleavers of “Leave it to Beaver.”
“They are very civilized, but Goldilocks is wild and enjoys exploring,” says Paper Moon artistic director and founder James Racioppi. “The bears watch TV and are consumers who buy products in a supermarket. Little Bear is obsessed with rock music.”
Goldilocks, who has gone on a camping trip with her father, sets off to find berries. The bears are out shopping for more cereal when Goldilocks comes upon their empty home and makes a mess.
“We don’t perform for children or adults, we do theater,” says Racioppi. “The scenery, effects, acting, directing, and blocking are geared toward a real theatrical experience.” Children might not understand all the dialogue but will follow the story and visual humor. The production is geared for children ages two and up.
But before the curtain even goes up, Racioppi and his team bring out marionettes (Racioppi makes them all, as well as the sets) and introduce them to the audience. Children who have never encountered such creations have a chance to befriend the inanimate objects that will soon embody a character. As children become acquainted, they have been known to hug the puppets. “We show how they move, sit, and walk,” says Racioppi, who is running during a break from rehearsal to chase his three dachshunds, Gracie, Chester, and Lily. He yells at them in the affectionate way a parent yells at a child who runs into traffic. “Get back here, Chester.” He offers toast to lure them back.
A different aesthetic is used for creating each story, says Racioppi, who has about 14 shows in repertory — “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” among others — and each show has about 10 to 15 puppets. There are so many puppets in Paper Moon’s repertoire that they are stored not only in the company’s Atlantic Highlands theater but in another facility down the street and even Racioppi’s garage. They are protected in linen puppet bags, then plastic tubs, and to come upon them at night is less like discovering a village about to awaken than like entering a morgue.
The marionettes are made from wood, cloth, and metal; their heads are either carved or sewn into fabric. Racioppi is an autodidact at the sewing machine. “Sewing yields wonderful faces,” he says. The bodies are made from wood and stuffed cloth, and wood is used to weight them for naturalistic movement. “You have to know where to put the weights so it’s balanced — it takes a long time to get this right.”
The hand puppets are made from cloth and Styrofoam — they need to be light weight so they can be held up. Rod puppets have the eloquence of marionettes, but not the technical difficulties of taking them on the road. Shadow puppets are also used — in “Cinderella,” for example, shadow puppets represent the guests arriving at the ball.
Occasionally Paper Moon offers classes to teach children how to make simplified puppets. If Racioppi recognizes a child who has a gift in the art of puppetry, he will groom and train her or him. “It’s not an easy art to learn — there’s a lot of trial and error, and it requires dedication.”
Ever since Jim Henson’s Muppets in the 1950s, there has been a resurgent interest in puppets. The main characters of Ann Tyler’s 1980 novel “Morgan’s Passing” were puppeteers, and the puppets serve as metaphors — eventually the characters break free of their strings. Companies like Bread and Puppet Theater and the former Mum Puppet Theater in Philadelphia used puppets to explore adult theatrical themes, such as “The Master and Margerita.” Film and stage director Julie Taymor brought puppets to a whole new level in “The Lion King” on Broadway in 1997.
Racioppi, who grew up in Newark in the 1950s, made his first puppet when he was nine years old. “It was a princess. I loved puppets and dolls, and I loved fairy tales, myths, and legends. What better way is there to tell a story than with these characters made of cloth?”
He found a book in the library — he still has a copy — of “Marionettes: Easy to Make! Fun to Use!” by Edith Flack Ackley. He recruited his best friend to put on puppet shows in their neighborhood, drawing, building, and animating puppets to perform to old Disney soundtracks. They used refrigerator boxes to make the stage and then graduated to more sophisticated materials. “We had no budget — we were kids. Those limitations enable you to be more creative with materials. It was an incredible education to use what was on hand. I still do that to this day. Whether you have $10 or $10,000, it takes ingenuity and inventiveness.” (Don’t tell this to his sponsors.)
From the library, he also learned about the puppet traditions from the Czech Republic and Germany.
“My mother was my first critic. She told me if the puppets moved right or were too stiff. She was always supportive.”
Racioppi’s mother was a singer in his father’s jazz band, but then his father ran off and his mother had to give up her musical career to work at various jobs to support her children. “I got into theater music at a young age,” says Racioppi.
He went to Arts High School, Newark, then Cooper Union, where he majored in fine arts, learning painting, sculpture, and drawing. All the while, he was building puppets on his own.
After school he worked as an actor for various theater companies and apprenticed for the Allenberry Playhouse in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, where he learned set design. He toured the country as a puppeteer for Nicolo Marionettes where, among his mentors, was Ruth Waxman, artistic director of Puppetworks in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. Later, in the mid 1970s, Racioppi worked as puppeteer for the “Captain Kangaroo Show,” then for Cottage Marionette Theater in Central Park. By 1989, he knew he wanted his own theater and established Paper Moon in Atlantic Highlands at the First Avenue Playhouse. His team rotates: he brings in new people to train, and they go on to audition for other companies or establish their own theaters, but remain collaborators.
Racioppi is currently working on a set for “Pinocchio.” He designs in miniature, then builds the set at one-third scale — a two-foot puppet, for example, would represent a six-foot person, and backdrops are six feet.
Despite distractions from electronic media — or perhaps because of them — children are especially drawn to puppet shows today, says Racioppi. “Children can invest so much with their own imaginations, and it’s interactive in the best sense of the word. One of the reasons I love doing this is because of what we get back from the kids.”
Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Paper Moon Theater, Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau Street, Princeton. Sunday, June 15, 2 and 6 p.m. $15. www.princetonfestival.org.