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January 22, 2018
The Marionette Maestro
Cover photo: The Lancaster Marionette Theatre stage
The Lancaster Marionette Theatre, cozily situated on 126 North Water Street, is much more than a tiny brick-and-mortar relic to Lancaster City. It’s a diverse collection of sensibilities—aesthetically, it’s not unlike discovering a jewelry box inside of a life-sized dollhouse—that undoubtedly speaks to a litany of enthusiast types. Whatever your niche may be, the performing arts, the city’s architectural history, or a fascination with string puppets, the Lancaster Marionette Theatre has been providing patrons with memorable experiences for nearly three decades.
“This building is a dream come true,” says Robert Brock, the theatre’s longtime showrunner.
That dream began on Christmas Day 1959 when Brock’s father, Bob Broucht, made a puppet theatre for his sister Anne. Brock, as fate would have it, immediately fell in love with the creation. In fact, he loved it so much that Anne accused him of stealing it.
“My sister has accused me of many things, but this is one I must confess to.”
While the homemade puppet theatre planted the seeds for this wondrous journey, Brock’s love of puppets truly blossomed by way of the Girl Scouts. In the early 1960s, Brock’s mother, Mary Lou Broucht, led a Girl Scout troop whose meetings he would regularly attend. At one point, the troop worked on a puppet project and he had the good fortune of taking part in it. Brock often emphasizes this whenever Girl Scout groups visit the Theatre.
Brock continued to nurture this childhood passion as a student of Lancaster Country Day, participating in the school’s theatre department under the leadership of Jeanne Clemson. Much later, he majored in Musical Theatre at the Boston Conservatory and Theatre at Franklin and Marshall, forging strong professional relationships along the way. Many of his favorite teachers have remained lifelong friends and advisors.
The skills and experience Brock amassed during his more formal years have proved invaluable. “I did a lot of technical work in the theatre, props, sets and costumes, hair and make-up,” he says. “All those skills I use when building the marionettes, sets, and lighting.”
Brock also credits his work at the Fulton Opera House during high school as well as his time after college. “I tell people I grew up at the Fulton. I had terrific mentors.” (Fun fact: most, if not all, of the Theatre’s seats were donated by the Fulton).
Among Brock’s other influences are the Bil Baird Marionettes that were featured in The Sound of Music. He considers it one of the best marionette productions ever captured on film. “I knew Frank and Fiona Sullivan who worked for Bil and puppeteered for the film. They also taught Julie Andrews and the children how to operate the marionettes for their close-ups.”
Brock cites the Salzburg Marionette Theatre in Austria as the biggest inspiration for the Lancaster Marionette Theatre. “I was first there in 1984 and over the years I have developed a close relationship with them. They are the best in my opinion.”
As one can imagine, a lot of work goes into a show. To help people better understand that process, it’s customary for Brock to provide theatregoers with a guided tour twenty minutes prior to the curtains going up. Patrons are encouraged to arrive early so they can partake in these tours, as they’re afforded a glimpse into the museum and workshop portions of the Theatre. During these tours, Brock is often asked how many people are involved in producing a single show. The answer, much to everyone’s amazement, is quite simply one. He preps the lights, music, sounds, and stage, all while breathing life into his creations. Yes, it’s literally a one-man show done in the Cabaret style.
“I often say ‘I am the Artistic Director and Founder of the Lancaster Marionette theatre, where I write the scripts and music, make the marionettes, perform the shows and clean the toilets.’ I can also say that in German. It always gets a laugh.”
Brock concedes that a dream personified can be rife with challenges. Keeping pace with the 21st century, for example—an era when technology is constantly evolving—is one that comes to mind. “It is wonderful when it all works. It is a challenge to keep all the balls in the air. Keeping our ticketing site current, keeping up with social media, sending press releases, managing our website, reaching fundraising goals.”
The marionettes themselves are a major undertaking, involving countless hours of design, assembly, and refinement. Many of the marionettes displayed in the museum are comprised of wood, clay, and other traditional materials, but Brock is also an advocate of reusing day-to-day items such as plastic drinking bottles and cardboard from discarded food packaging—an effort seen in his newer creations.
When pressed if he has any favorite shows, Brock indicates that it’s typically the one he’s presenting at that time (in this case, Rumpelstiltskin). “Shows that I know well and have been in the repertoire for some time are easier to perform. I can focus more on the puppetry and not worry about my lines and hitting all the sound and lighting cues.”
Brock is always thinking of making new shows. “Ideas are easy,” he says. “I have tons of ideas about shows I’d like to do. Making it a reality is difficult as is funding and finding sponsorship.” Currently, he’s expressed interest in producing the following: Robin Hood, King Arthur, The Canterbury Tales, and a piece about Lancaster and the Civil War.
As demonstrated in my viewing of Rumpelstiltskin, Brock is a truly delightful puppeteer. Watching him switch back and forth between characters while hitting all lighting and music cues with such masterful punctuality makes it well worth the price of admission.
For show schedules, ticket purchasing, and other information, please be sure to visit the Lancaster Marionette Theatre’s events listing on Yapsody. If you wish to make a donation, you may do so at the Theatre’s webstore. And as usual, you can follow them on the social media trifecta of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.