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  • Hannah Hightman

Sophie Wilkes



There is so much care involved in the creation of Sophie Wilkes’ marionettes that I almost flinch when she asks if I want to handle them. Not because I don’t want to touch them– I would actually love nothing more than to jump into the realm in which they exist, a world where impish deer steal anthropomorphic vegetables– but because I’m afraid my clumsy, unskilled hand will ruin the illusion that this world exists at all. Even though Wilkes has crafted these puppets with lasting materials, they are so ethereally beautiful I can’t help but feel I’m not worthy of operating them.


At the time of this interview, Wilkes just got back from working in the fabrication workshop at Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater, where she has spent the past few summers honing her craft. She describes it as a magical place, where children are driven into euphoric hysterics by the puppetry, Joanna Newsom is a regular, and Pee-wee Herman used to grace the halls. She’s also taken part in a wood carving puppetry residency in Prague, which is where she created the two marionettes she has with her today. I am stunned by their ability to look alive, even when no one is puppeteering them. I never thought garlic could look so pensive and so wise. They don’t look of this time period, which is intentional. I want to say something poetic, like ‘it’s as though they’re vested with some ancient magic.’ But really, what’s on display here is Wilkes’ hard work and exceptional craftsmanship.





How did you become involved in puppetry?

I think I’ve always really liked puppets. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I first got to college. I went to NYU. I was in the Gallatin program, which is like designing your own major type stuff. I took a class called Puppets and Performing Objects, and I just loved it so much. We had to make one puppet a week and perform with it. I am definitely not a performer at heart, so that really pushed my boundaries. But I loved it, and I thought I’d pursue puppetry as a hobby after that. Soon it became my entire life. After that class, I took another class with Ralph Lee. I got to be part of the last class he ever taught. He would bring in puppets he made as a kid, so like they were 70+ years old. He’s more of a traditionalist in some ways. Through those two classes, I kind of learned the scope of this field. I did a puppetry residency in Prague which was also very formative for me. It was like a wood-carving residency. We made toy theaters. I saw so many puppet shows through the theater school there. I would pack up and move there if I could. That residency is when I knew I was really going to pursue this.


What are some of the differences between Czech puppetry and puppetry in the U.S.?

When you think of puppetry here in the States, a lot of people think of the Muppets. Of course I love the Muppets! But puppetry in the Czech Republic has been around since the 16th century. It’s very influenced by Baroque wood carving. There’s a lot of characters they come back to time and time again. There’s stop motion puppets there as well– the stop motion scene in the Czech Republic is insane. While I was over there I got to see some of Svankmajer and Trnka’s original puppets in this random warehouse in the middle of nowhere. It was awesome. I think a lot of the puppets made now in the United States aren’t intended to last a long time, and in the Czech Republic there’s this idea of legacy that I really admire. When I make puppets, I try to maintain that idea.


What was your experience working at Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater?

I actually just got back from working there in the fabrication workshop this summer. I’ve worked there for two summers now. Bob Baker’s Marionette Theater is the oldest marionette theater in the United States which is kind of crazy. There’s over 2500 puppets there, stockpiled everywhere. The building that it’s currently in was a church before it was the marionette theater. The old location is now a secret casino. It’s still standing. They had to move after Bob Baker died a few years ago. The community came together to relocate all of his stuff. I first started as an intern, and my first day there was life changing. My first task was to archive and organize a bunch of Bob Baker’s belongings, which included cookbooks and records, not just puppet-related things. Midway through the day, they were like ‘We just want to tell everyone to keep it down up here, because Pee-wee’s being interviewed downstairs. I looked and Pee-wee Herman was there. It was incredible. Stuff like that is always happening there. Joanna Newsom is there all the time.


Can you tell me about the marionettes you have with you today?

This one is like a little deer man. I made him while I was in Prague. He was for a puppet show that I made that didn’t have any words because it was intended for young Czech children who probably don’t speak English. I think the kids liked him the best because he was the villain. The other one I have is my little garlic puppet. He’s my personal favorite. I really wanted to make a little garlic head. He’s also carved out of wood. I made a third one. It was a little mushroom guy. But I gave that one to my mom so it’s at home. The show was set in a garden, and the mischievous deer was taking their vegetables.


Why do you like marionettes specifically?

I like how much you can control them. I like the way that they move. I like that they are so separate from the puppeteer. We really believe that they’re their own entity. I think that’s the most interesting.


Who are your biggest inspirations?

Bob Baker. People I’ve worked with who have been in this industry for a long time are inspiring. Basil Twist is so inspirational. Older European puppeteers, like Joseph Skupa, and Trnka and Svankmajer.


What do you think makes a good puppeteer?

For me, it’s easier to be a puppeteer than an actor. A good puppeteer doesn’t think about themselves. There’s the actual skill of puppeteering which can be so difficult. The puppeteers who have to be on stilts, for example, there’s height cutoffs and stuff because it’s so physically challenging. Someone who can really absorb themselves in the act of making something else come to life, and rousing life into an inanimate object. You really have to believe that. I think puppeteers are generally very open people. I think it’s because not everyone wants to do something like this. It’s very special.


Photos by Patrick Grady

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