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‘Simple Gifts’

Bringing life to marionettes

Published: Sunday, February 16, 2014

Updated: Sunday, February 16, 2014 23:02

Painter Joseph Cashore has always been fascinated by puppets, especially marionettes. He saw his first marionette at a gift shop when he was 10 or 11, he says, and promptly set out to craft his own puppet from clothespins, wood, string and a tin can.

“I was intrigued by it,” Cashore told

“I could see the possibilities of playing with it and doing things with it, the illusion that it could be a living thing.”

He made his second puppet after college while pursuing a career in oil painting, determined to bring a fluidity of movement that would truly bring his characters to life.

After many hours of study and effort, Cashore’s experimenting worked, and, since 1990, Cashore has been traveling the world engaging and enchanting audiences with the truth and poignancy of his stories and the realism of these miniature actors and animals.

As the first ticketed event of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts’ spring season, Cashore Marionettes will perform Simple Gifts Feb. 23 at 3 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium.

“Puppetry purists (and their children) will be entranced by the lifelike delicacy and details of the mastery of this blending of beautiful craftsmanship and artistry with insight and illusion,” says the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

The appeal of Cashore Marionettes’ unique type of theater to both youngsters and adults is what attracted Mary B. Martin School of the Arts Director Anita DeAngelis to the performance.

“We have not scheduled a lot of family-oriented programming,” DeAngelis says.

“Our primary mission is to address college-age students, and I have long wanted to do some family programming. This performance was actually created to attract children, as well as adults. It runs the gamut of human and animal emotion. There is humor, pathos, love, joy and success.”

Like most visual artists, Cashore is an observer of life, and his puppet characters stem from his everyday experiences — from seeing a homeless man on a park bench, a new mother with a baby or an elephant in a zoo.

“I keep a little notebook and if I see something I think will make a good marionette piece, I’ll start to make little drawings of who I think the character is,” the artist says.

“I’m trying to think of positions I have to get the body in to communicate the main theme of the piece. That’s really how the work develops.”

The themes are universal, Cashore says, although the vignettes are accompanied only by music, not words.

In fact, the artist himself is not much of a talker.

“I didn’t start out thinking I was going to have a career as a puppeteer,” he says.

“I liked making the marionettes. I always felt I was too shy to perform with them but I started getting out in front of people and realized they are only watching the marionette if I’m any good …
“Some puppeteers are masters at creating characters with the voice. I’m interested in keeping the marionette alive. That seemed to have more psychological power for the audience, to keep them more engaged. It seemed like the fewer the words, the better the piece.”

In addition, the intricate design and engineering work and Cashore’s skill as a puppeteer have made his marionettes internationally renowned, DeAngelis says.

“The quality of puppets is high,” she says.

“Cashore has performed at the Kennedy Center and has received a grant from the Henson Foundation. The marionettes are very much artistic pieces, each one unique. It will be intriguing to see how he is able to take inanimate objects, these complex puppets, and animate them.”

What is the result of all the observation, design, planning, engineering and animating?
“Brilliant … spellbinding,” says the Calgary Herald.

“Powerful,” says the University of Notre Dame. “Awe-inspiring,” says The Toronto Sun.

“Amazing … a once in a lifetime event,” says Sunrise Theater in North Carolina.

Tickets are $15 general admission, $10 senior 60-plus and $5 for students of all ages. For tickets or information about the ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit

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