Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Pulling Strings

Make way for Joseph Cashore and his marionettes.

By Jesse Pool

MARCH 6, 2000:  Joseph Cashore is a little like God. At the age of 11, he took a bit of wood, a scattering of clothespins, a tin can, and brought the pile to life.

That was his first marionette. In the decades since, Cashore has created a sizable puppet troupe. There's the Maestro Janos Zelinka, a messy-haired old man who can play "The Lark Ascending" note for note on his violin. There's Old Mike, a homeless man digging through a trash can to the tune of Aaron Copland's "Corral Nocturne," and a mother rocking her baby and a boy flying a kite and even a horse named Cyclone.

According to Cashore, he is one of about 1,000 puppeteers in the United States. Of those, fewer still perform with marionettes, he says.

"It's not a real popular art form, but I'm doing what I can to make sure it doesn't disappear," he says.

Cashore is an award-winning puppeteer who has performed all over the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Hong Kong. He's received a grant from the Henson Foundation, a Pew Fellowship for Performing Arts, and a Citation of Excellence from the United States chapter of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette.

Cashore can remember only flashes of moments surrounding his first, tin can marionette. He put on a small show for his family and fell in love with the way even his first crude puppet moved.

"The fact that it looked alive for a moment made it interesting to me," he says. "It made me want to prolong that moment for as long as I could."

Cashore didn't create another puppet until he had graduated from Notre Dame's fine arts program. While he worked on it, he realized that he would have to make many improvements on the designs of traditional marionettes to get the range of movement that he wanted.

Cashore has created more than 100 puppets during his career, having taught himself the art mostly by trial and error and by reading the few books he could find on the subject. Nearly all of the puppets -- most around 24 inches tall -- were tailor-made, and since each marionette has a different theme, they all have different control mechanisms, Cashore says. Each one starts as an idea, then a sketch, and then he attempts to build it.

"It's a lot easier to get good ideas than finished pieces," he says.

Ideas for the pieces tend to come from simple, everyday occurrences. Cashore says he tries to keep his creations simple but at the same time captivating.

"Marionettes have a poetic quality," he says.

To effectively give the illusion of a marionette moving on its own, Cashore says you need strings -- the wider the range of movement, the more strings you need. Cashore's marionettes have between 11 and 36 strings, and he's working on one that will dangle from 42 strings.

"I'm not trying to add strings," he says. "I just have to have that many for the range of motion that I need. Coordinating the strings so that they don't foul each other up during a performance is a small feat of engineering."

Cashore says he likes to play to smaller audiences, because when there are more than 500 seats or so, people in the back rows can't see the show as well. Although he says there is no adult subject matter in the show, he recommends it for adults and children who are at least 8 years old. He says children younger than 8 tend to be a distraction to other people in the audience, and some things in the show would be over their head.

"If you wouldn't take them to the symphony, then I wouldn't recommend you take them to a show like this, either," he says.

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