Those looking for a very old school theater experience will find it in what seems the most unlikely of places: the annual Patriots Week, running Thursday, December 26, through Wednesday, January 1, in downtown Trenton.
Amid the more bombastic events — such as the re-enactments of the Battle of Trenton — are three theatrical puppet presentations, shows that would have brought colonists and royalists together — at least as audiences.
“Puppetry has been around long before the United States,” says Tom Tucker of Tucker’s Tales Puppet Theater, a regular feature of Patriots Week. “Puppetry goes back thousands of years. The form we know of today was popular in the 18th century.”
Tucker adds that both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington made journal notes about attending puppet shows, the venues that hosted them, and the number of pence spent for admission. Price, says Tucker, determined the type of show and the showplace. “The hand puppets were pretty much for the street crowd. The middle and upper classes would go see puppet shows as well, but that would be marionettes in a theater. The wealthy went to see Punch and Judy as marionette shows,” Tucker says, referring to the infamous, mischievous, and chronically impolitic Punch — a wily figure that Tucker says was born out of Greek theater and evolved through the ages, becoming Pulcinella in Italy, Polichinelle in France, and Mr. Punch in England in the 1600s.
Calling him “the little man getting away with something,” Tucker says Punch was always having a run in with someone official or dangerous, but he “was always the victor at the end of the performance.” Yet there is more to Punch than just being wily. “Punch and Judy shows would poke fun at the upper class. They were like the Jay Leno of the day. While the well-to-do Punch-show audiences would be refined, Punch wouldn’t be more refined but a little more politically correct. The ones on the street would be more likely to poke fun at anyone. The mayor, the butcher, and any foreign person they weren’t happy with.”
Tucker says that the lower-class Punch and Judy shows were put on mainly by itinerant performers who would raise money by asking viewers for coins or pick pockets. “It was the time honored tradition of the street show,” he says.
Tucker, who runs the company with his wife, Marianne, will not be working the crowd’s pockets, but he will be working the audience as authentically as possible. “Our (shows) are based on the actual information from the 18th century. We pick on the generals, doctors, and butchers.”
Though the Punch and Judy show may be the most historical or traditional that the Tuckers will present during the week, it is not the only one linked to history. “We’re doing three different puppet shows. On December 26 we’re doing the St. George and the Dragon, a very old mummer’s play, and our puppets will try to do the way it should be performed, like a French farce. On December 28, we’re doing a puppet show that we developed on the Battle of the Trenton. It covers Washington crossing the Delaware and the victory in a half hour. Marianne and I direct the show while the audience manipulates the puppets and the props. On December 30 we’re doing Punch and Judy.”
While the St. George and Punch shows are at the Masonic temple, the Battle of Trenton show is where it belongs — outdoors where the conflict actually took place at the corner of West Hanover and Warren streets. “There’s a map of Trenton from 1776 on the street. We do the show on that map,” he says, adding that in case of inclement weather the show will be moved indoors.
The Tuckers, whose main jobs are puppetry (and performing colonial-era music), say they love the art form and its challenges. “It has almost every aspect of theater. It has some much range.”
Tucker’s Tales “is a two-person company dedicated to the promotion of the puppetry art form and the presentation of folk lore and folk tales through puppetry. Not all of our shows are from the genre, but most are folk tales and fairy tales. We have 30-some shows,” says Tucker of the company started in 1981. It became a full-time operation in 1988 and offers shows that run from 30 minute to an hour and range from $425 to $475.
The germ for the company began by accident when the Tuckers volunteered at their Abington, Pennsylvania, church, encountered puppet productions, and got hooked. “We met with other puppeteers, and it captured our attention and eventually our lives. It’s an art form like no other. We found out that there was a puppet guild nearby, got involved with them, and went out on our own. We basically learned by apprenticeship. The puppeteers are the most sharing with knowledge and craft. I have been involved with professional music, and no one comes as close to puppeteers in being willing to share. The reason is that puppeteers feel that the competition is poor puppetry and want to make sure that people are skilled,” he says.
Their own knowledge and skills continue to grow through their participation with other organizations, including Tom serving on the board of directors of the Puppeteers of America and Marianne acting as president of the United States chapter of Unima, the international union of marionettes, headquartered in France.
It is an interesting path for someone who never considered a career in the arts. “My college degree (from Villanova) is in electrical engineering, and I did work in that field before I became a full-time performer. Marianne has a master’s degree in physiology. We met in (Bishop Egan) high school in Bucks County, high school sweethearts who never got rid of each other. I grew up primarily in the Levittown area. My mother was a 1950s housewife, and my dad worked in the telephone company. We’ve lived in Abington for the last 37 years,” says Tucker.
Tucker’s Tales’ involvement with the Old Barracks and Patriots Week started several years ago when the Tuckers performed acoustic and wind instrument music for the Barracks. “It didn’t take long to figure out that we were puppeteers. (Old Barracks director) Richard Paterson had us do shows for other events. Then he came up with the idea of the puppet show on the Battle of Trenton. We worked a few months and created the puppets.” The show premiered in 2006.
“Most puppeteers work in small companies, two or four people who do everything. You’re the builder, the designer, the performer. You get to do it all. You get to control every part of the show. You get to select the actor for the character. It’s the ultimate for the director and producer. A lot of puppetry is aimed for children, but not always. We performed at an event with puppetry for adult audiences. It is catching on in a lot of people’s imagination. Because of all it entails it causes people in puppetry to have a large set of skills. You have to be crazy enough to want to do it and have a lot of skills to make it happen.
Tucker says that among the members of the puppet family he prefers hand puppets, especially since most of their shows call for them. “But we have used every style out there. The Battle of Trenton show has some marionettes, and we’re using some stick puppets. We use rod puppets and shadow puppets, which were a popular parlor entertainment in the 18th century.”
“Marionettes are not wood,” he says, explaining how he and Marianne create the figures. “They’re sewn cloth bodies stuffed with materials. Our hand puppets can be made from anything: epoxy, wood, foam rubber. We look at the show and figure out what we want to do. Some of them take one day or some take two or three weeks. It depends on the puppet. The puppets you see in St. George and Punch and Judy take about three days to build.”
To make a show, the Tuckers divide the work. She creates costumes. He does scenery. Both create the bodies and the heads, and the mainly original scripts are written by whoever had the idea.
“We tell stories and we tell stories well,” says Tucker of the company’s approach. “As far as we’re concerned, the story is what it is all about. It’s like life or theater. What are you trying to say? It’s the story.”
Yet it takes some time to make a story work. “You get a feel, but until you perform it in front of audience a few times you don’t really know if it’s going to work the way you think it should. We’ve been lucky that most things have. If it doesn’t, you take it back and figure it out. It’s like any other theater production; some become ‘Cats’ and some become ‘what was that?’”
“Every show there are a few things we wish we could enhance,” says Tucker. “At the moment I wish there was a lot more business. Right now our biggest competition is the economy. People don’t have the funds to spend on the arts that they did seven years ago. It hurts not just puppeteers but everyone in the performing arts.” But that’s another battle.
Tucker’s Tales Puppet Theater, Patriots Week, Thursday, December 26, 2 p.m., “St. George and the Dragon,” Masonic Temple, Barracks Street (across from the Old Barracks); Saturday, December 28, 12:30 and 1:30 p.m., “The Trouble with Trenton,” Warren Street Plaza; and Monday, December 30, noon, “Punch and Judy,” Masonic Temple. Free.
For more information on Patriots Week, visit patriotsweektrenton.com. For more information on Tucker’s Tales Puppet Theater, go to tuckerstales.dot5hosting.com.