Everyone knows The Nutcracker as a ballet and a masterful piece of music, but DCT’s version is entirely unique. Enter a dazzling and spectacular puppet interpretation by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts! We sat down with master puppeteers Kathy Burks, Trish Long and Sally Fiorello as they prepare to open their 15th production of The Nutcracker while launching their 40th season as a professional troupe. They are family – both literally and figuratively! We wanted to know what their experience has been like performing together over the years, and what it’s like backstage while spinning the magic. They all agree that it’s a mental and physical workout, choreographed as precisely as a dance. Despite the challenges, the reward is great, and it remains their favorite piece among the company’s holiday repertoire. Here are some of the highlights of what they had to say:
Puppeteer of the Nutcracker, the Prince and various puppets in Act II. She’s also the voice of Fritz, and a puppet costume designer
I think we know each other so well both personally and professionally, that at times on stage we are totally in sync with one another. It also is great to know you have one another’s back if something goes wrong, which in any live performance is bound to happen! A particular thing that can be very irritating is when you pull your hood down and you realize it’s backwards and you can’t see a thing! You quickly try to figure out how to turn it around on your head without revealing your face! We have bumped into one another, stepped on each other’s toes, poked ourselves in the eye (and lost a contact lens), had a case of the flu, and had small parts of puppets appendages come off during the performance!
Director, voice of the little puppeteer in the prologue
The short answer…it is great FUN. Backstage it is busy and quiet, and carefully choreographed. One must never let his mind wander. The sequence of events must be followed perfectly. Do not change your pathway and do not change your routine without previously informing all puppeteers. And on top of all of this, enjoy what you are doing and never lose your sense of humor. HO HO HO! The fight between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King always elicits excited responses from the audiences and this is a joyous experience for me.
Another outstanding moment comes when a solemn white poodle, the only ballet dancer in the production, achieves a startling leap across the stage, propelled by three puppeteers, who must move with drill team precision.
Puppeteer of Tchaikovsky, Clara & the Mouse King in Act I, and various puppets in Act II, including the dancing Poodle. She voices the Narrator & Clara, and is also the Production Designer.
With one exception, most of us have been performing together for thirty to forty years. That is unusual for most arts organizations. We are indeed a family. As performers, this longevity has certainly developed our skill and craftsmanship, but it has also developed a unique ability to sense each other’s movements and dramatic choices before they occur. This allows us to work together in a more intuitive and creative way. With over fifty characters and manipulated objects in the show, the puppeteers never rest. Because it is a “black theater” production, we work completely shrouded in black velveteen (including hoods and gloves) in almost complete darkness. It is very difficult to see anything that is not on-stage in the light. The velveteen is very warm and during certain physical scenes like the Nutcracker’s battle with the Mouse King and his army, and it can become sweltering. Most of the show continuously moves to the cues and rhythms of Tchaikovsky’s musical score, making it more like a dance than a straight play. As an actor/puppeteer, communicating with an audience is a priority for me. Though difficult to perform, The Nutcracker enables me to accomplish that goal, and always gives me the inspiration and energy to keep it fresh, starting every new performance as if it were the very first one.