Growing up in Jersey City Heights, Mike Leach very much lived up to the lyrics of an old nursery rhyme about being a soldier, sailor, tinker, or spy.
While dreaming of a possible career in law enforcement, the military, espionage, or the submarine service, Leach did a lot of odd jobs after dropping out of high school, such as pumping gas in Secaucus. He eventually found a job at an ink company in North Bergen and did so well the company wanted to relocate him when it moved to Boonton. He declined, and looked for work closer to home.
While preparing for the Puppetworks production of “Cinderella” at Merseles Studios Theater in Jersey City, Leach remembered that he and his friends went to Macy’s to apply to work as elves during Christmas season. He took the audition seriously and was hired.
Bored with the work after a time, he wandered behind the stage of a puppet show and began to fiddle with the marionettes. When manager of the company caught him, she didn’t punish him; she asked how long he had been working with them.
“I told her this was the first time,” Leach said, although he had seen a puppet show previously when attending PS 27 in Jersey City as a kid.
Because of his natural skill and other apparent instinctive theatrical talents, the company hired him. Eventually he became the chief puppeteer and executive director of Brooklyn-based Puppetworks – and thanks to Jersey City Theater Center, he has brought the show back to the city where he grew up.
A dedication to tradition
Although he dropped out of high school and never went back, Leach has a fierce dedication to maintaining many of the traditions of the craft. Flashing a smile that makes him look a lot like comic Jim Carey, he said he always puts twists of his own into even the most classic tale.
In doing fairy tales like “Cinderella” and “Pinocchio” (scheduled for later this summer at the JCTC), the production is as close to the original story as possible – although he noted many of the Grimm Brothers originals are too graphic for young audiences and must be modified. The productions done by Puppetworks are based on the Perrault versions, adapted for marionettes by Nicolas Coppola.
“But this isn’t Disney,” he said. “We are doing theater with real actors. We’re just doing it in one third the scale.”
The musical score is usually some classical piece. Sometimes, such as with “Hansel and Gretel,” if there is an opera associated with the piece, he includes it.
“Kids may be watching marionettes, but they’re also hearing an aria,” he said.
The character voices are pre-recorded. This allows the puppet masters to pay close attention to performance, and by using classic marionettes, he and another puppet master can duplicate movement and emotion.
Although each marionette – from the most complicated character to objects like scissors – has a handle attached, puppet masters will do nearly anything with the strings to get the most realistic performance.
He said marionettes have a remarkable range of moment that allows the performance to seem very real. But he refuses to hide the strings. He wants the audience to know they’re seeing a show and to somehow suspend belief.
“I want the people in the audience to imagine this together,” he said.
Theater in one third scale
Although this is billed as theater for children, these performances are an education in culture and craft. In the past, puppetry of this kind was a closely-held secret. What went on behind the curtains was hidden from the audience.
“Before the play, I go out with a marionette and I show them how it works,” he said. “I also explain theater etiquette and that they are there to watch, laugh, but not interact.”
Later, after the performance, he comes out again to answer questions.
“There is a reason why these are classic,” he said. “They usually have something to say.”
He does not talk down to the students, treating them as intelligent people to whom he is trying to explain the workings and meaning of theater.
But Leach is whimsical, and all performances have their own special touches that won’t be found elsewhere. He is always looking for moments where he can get the audience to gasp or laugh unexpectedly. He also has the puppets do things that seem like magic.
“But this isn’t magic,” he said. “Everything we do is staged.”
For the most part, tricks work that make the audience forget the strings and actually think of the marionettes as alive. He also said staging is as complicated as full sized theater – with the added complication of multiple strings.
He calls this “guerrilla” puppet theater, partly because unlike other companies the performance uses two puppet masters, not three, and each is often required to operate two puppets at the same time, one in each hand. When characters move across the stage, puppet operators above have to duck around each other in a dance nearly as complicated as the one taking place on the stage. And the puppets do dance, touch, kiss, and much, much more.
The performances are heavily rehearsed, and videotaped, then studied and rehearsed some more.
These performances have a history that goes back to the Middle Ages when puppets were used to tell religious stories. But puppeteers being who they are, he said, soon went beyond what the church wanted.
“So we got thrown out of the churches,” he said.
Like Shakespeare and other full-sized theater, puppet theater tries to convey more about the world than just what the church wanted to teach.
His puppet company largely relies on classic fairy tales for its material. Most of them have become staples and are still relevant and socially acceptable.
“There are about 15 we can still do,” he said. “Many of the others are tainted with racism and stereotypes that are no longer acceptable today.”
With only one exception, his company has never done a contemporary work.
“We want something that has proven itself,” he said. “I tell people when they suggest something [contemporary] to see me in 300 years to see if it still works. Then I’ll do it.”
A good space for production
Leach said he was extremely pleased with the efforts of Merseles Studios’ owners who developed a performing space in Jersey City that allowed him to bring productions previously done only at Puppetwork’s main facility in Brooklyn.
While the performances are being done on a traveling stage, he said Ben LoPiccolo, a developer responsible for reconstruction of Merseles Studios as well as nearby White Eagle Hall, has been invaluable, providing a stage that is perfectly suited for staging the shows.
Olga Levina, co-owner of the studio, said kids who attend the events also will get a tour of the art gallery, so the performances will serve to give them a richer artistic experience.
Puppetworks, which began operating under its current name in 1980, continues the live theater traditions of Nicolas Coppola. The company received an award for its outstanding contributions to the art of puppetry in 2011 from the Puppeteers of America.
The production is part of the Jersey City Theater Center Kids program, an ongoing effort for children that features positive messages specifically designed for younger audiences.
The production opened on May 11, but will run through mid-July on Sundays at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. Suggested ages are 3 years old and up. Advance tickets cost $8 for children, $9 for adults. At the door, the tickets cost $10 and $11. Group discounts are available for 20 or more. For directions or more information go to http:/www.jctcenter.org.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.