Black shutters hug the windows, while the flower window boxes above loom over the sidewalk, waiting for an audience. A historic marker proclaims that a famous puppeteer was born nearby. The white door left slightly ajar wears a sign, “Sold Out.”
From the moment you walk into the Lancaster Marionette Theatre, the magic surrounds you, and what Robert Brock has created on Water Street in the historic downtown is something out of a storybook. From the John Durang Puppet Museum to the backstage tour and, most of all, to the delightful marionette performance itself—everything about this charming building is full of Brock’s heart and soul.
I asked him what makes the Lancaster Marionette Theatre so special.
“Without sounding egotistical—my passion for what I do, the beautiful theater and the museum space I created,” he replied.
When I first heard about this quaint theater, it gave me visions of memories growing up watching “The Sound of Music,” particularly the famous scene of Maria and the children performing with their marionettes while singing “The Lonely Goatherd.” When I ordered tickets to see “Peter Pan,” I did not know what to expect, but I was looking forward to sharing the experience with my 12-year-old son.
Brock, a native of Lancaster, fell in love with theater and puppets as a little boy when his dad made a puppet play theater for his sister one Christmas. He later went to the Boston Conservatory and majored in musical theater.
In 1990, Brock’s Hole in the Wall Theatre opened with hand puppets, but, 10 years later, his shoulders gave out, and he switched to all marionettes. Last January, the name was changed to the Lancaster Marionette Theatre, and, with it, came renovations that included a new “green” lighting system.
There are so many parts of creating each show: making wooden-carved puppets, creating patterns for costumes, cutting out the material, sewing clothes, sculpting clay for the heads, painting the marionette, writing the script. These are just a few of the steps that Brock takes.
“Everyone seems to be impressed that I am a one-man show—including building, writing, performing, ticket sales, social media and cleaning the toilets,” he said.
Perhaps that is what makes this small theater so unique. The audience gets the chance to meet the founder and artistic director during the backstage tour. As he explains that it takes him 50 to 60 hours to build each marionette, Brock exudes charisma and passion, which is picked up by the audience members.
He still performs some of the same shows each year but continues to create new concepts. During the tour that day, he told the crowd about a project he is working on about dinosaurs.
“Ideas are easy,” he said. “Turning them into reality is a little tougher.”
My son and I arrived on a recent Saturday for the last performance of the year of “Peter Pan.”
There was a large group of young children attending, and the theater has a policy that everyone must be quiet during performances. This policy was explained and delivered from one of the staff before the show, and it was aimed at the children so they could understand. Somehow—it worked. I did not hear a peep throughout the 35-minute show.
“[Famous puppeteer] Shari Lewis used to say, ‘Never write down to children,’” Brock explained. Perhaps, I thought, that was the key.
While children make up a large part of his audience, Brock believes theater is important for everyone. That’s why he writes his scripts with adults in mind, and his unique “LEGENDS: Divas & Dames” is specifically meant for grown-ups. “LEGENDS” is a combination of marionettes and live performance.
Does Brock still enjoy what he does as much as when he started Hole in the Wall Theatre more than 25 years ago?
“Yes,” he replied emphatically. “Sometimes more, sometimes less. But I am a very lucky person to be able to do what I love. Without my parents’ help and support of our board of directors and a small group of dedicated volunteers, none of this would have been possible.”
My son and I left that Saturday with a new appreciation for puppets. It was amazing how Peter Pan was brought to life with just one man—with music, strings and some pixie dust.
Lancaster Marionette Theater is located at 126 N. Water St., Lancaster. For more information, visit www.hiwpuppets.org.
Author: Carissa Bannister Kauwell