Puppets And Marionettes have been used in entertainment for centuries. From roadside “Punch and Judy” shows to Broadway spectaculars like “The Lion King,” puppets are well-loved by adults and children alike.

The National Marionette Theatre is one of the United States’ oldest and continually-running marionette theaters. Founded in 1967, it is currently run by managing director David J. Syrotiak who is planning to have a rendition of “Pinocchio" performed at New York City’s Symphony Space on December 9, 2017, at 11 AM and 2 PM. The production will be suitable for all ages and include expertly crafted puppets and scenery.

Recently, David J. Syrotiak gave an exclusive interview where he discussed his experiences working in puppet entertainment.

Entertainment, performances, and puppets

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you find your way into the theater, specifically puppet theater?

David J. Syrotiak (DJS): National Marionette Theatre was started by my father, David A. Syrotiak, in 1967. He was often out on the road doing theater dates and school assemblies, so I didn’t see much of him during the school year. But, in the summertime, I would “bug” him in the workshop to help, until he finally said, “Hey Dave, here’s a piece of sandpaper,” and I was drafted to help out. I’ve pretty much always been a puppet nut, along with my brother, Peter.

He was part of the company until a few years ago when he rotated off-road. There’s still an amazing element of wonder for me. I play with dolls and get paid for it!

MM: How did you come to work with the National Marionette Theatre and how many shows have you performed?

DJS: I’ve been traveling around the country since 1984, and I’ve probably performed an average of 150 performances a year, sometimes with two shows in a day.

Let’s just say it’s been several thousand shows over a long period. And since we usually perform to 300 to 500 people per performance, I think we can say we’ve performed for millions of people all over the world (we’ve toured both in eastern and western Europe, central and South America, Canada, and Israel as well as all around the United States).

MM: Of all the shows, were any particularly memorable to you?

DJS: It was a lot of fun to perform at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, and I also enjoyed performing at the Smithsonian. I always loved playing in little piazzas, in Italy, on a platform, in various town squares. People sit around in bistros drinking wine and enjoying the show. I’d say the seminal performance was when I met wife, Mariana Palade Syrotiak, at an international puppetry festival in France where she was part of the performance with the Romanian company Tandarica Theatre. Mariana has a background in theater and puppetry and is from Bucharest, Romania. She and our son, Stephen, will perform “Pinocchio” with me at Symphony Space.

She’ll perform the Blue Fairy, Stephen will be Pinocchio, and I’ll play Geppetto and other roles. Stephen is the third generation of National Marionette Theatre.

MM: The National Marionette Theatre has some impressive puppets and scenes! Who crafts them?

DJS: My dad, brother and I built this production of “Pinocchio” in 1989 and started touring it in 1991. It has been through two rewrites and one refurbishment since then. Everything is handmade – we carve all the marionettes out of wood, and all scenery and costumes are manufactured in-house. In this business, you have to wear a lot of hats and be a sculptor, playwright, actor, set designer, carpenter, painter, truck driver and moving company just to run the show.

Our marionettes are all based on my dad’s original designs. He would create the "look," sculpt the faces and pass the head sculptures off to us, where we would follow up with making plaster molds (I was making molds today!). Dad is 81 years old, and he still loves painting all of our backdrops. Peter and I fabricate the hard scenery. We all are involved in creating the costumes, and we all do the voices. We test each new show out with a live audience a few times to get the timing right. “Pinocchio” is performed live to a recorded soundtrack with voices of my father, brother, and sisters Katie and Margaret. That way, we are able to do all of the other things we need to do and manipulate the marionettes.

We’re also the backstage running crew – changing the props, lighting, etc.

MM: Be honest, do you have a favorite puppet? If so, which one and why?

DJS: My favorite of all time is a puppet we call "The Skater" in our international show. He’s a Russian clown – a goofy looking guy in an over-sized coat. He discovers some roller skates and tries to learn how to use them. He is always falling, and learns how to get back up again. He’s a really expressive and entertaining character, and I really love to manipulate that guy. In “Pinocchio,” I love working with The Fox. He’s always putting on airs and being very flamboyant when in reality he’s just a poor bedraggled fox –a scoundrel. I love this story and how we can have fun and be broad with the characters.

Plays, shows, and advice

MM: Do you perform classic plays like “Pinocchio” only or do you do original works too?

DJS: In most cases, we present classic stories, since they fit marionette theater at its best. Performing arts venues know that they can draw audiences to a familiar story. In repertoire right now, we are doing “Pinocchio,” “Hansel & Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Peter and the Wolf,” and “Beauty & the Beast.” Our international show “In Concert” is an original one. This is the show we take to Europe. It’s a cabaret-style show, with the puppeteers working up in front of the stage, and dressed in black. In this format, we can be a little bit broader with the story. Each part of the show is a little piece in and of itself, from the comedic to the nightmarish.

It’s for an older audience, and not for kids.

MM: How did you secure a performance at Symphony Space?

DJS: The Performing Arts Director, Darren Critz, called us! He may have seen our La Mama performance in NYC.

MM: What can guests expect from this show at Symphony Space on December 9?

DJS: Expect to be transported back into time, and discover traditional marionettes performing the quintessential story about a marionette! It’s a morality tale: when you do good things, good things happen to you, and when you do bad things, bad things happen to you.

MM: Does the National Marionette Theatre have any other events forthcoming?

DJS: Like last year, this Christmas season we’ll perform four different shows at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts during Christmas week.

I’m in the process of building new pieces for “In Concert,” which will probably be touring next summer and fall in Europe. Check out our website and Facebook pages for updates.

MM: What advice can you offer to adoring puppeteers, puppet makers, or writers of puppet-centered plays?

DJS: Stick with it and be tenacious. Don’t be afraid to take what is in your imagination and put it out into three dimensions. Observe everything. Watch how people move – how that old person is crossing the street walks, or how a little kid is bouncing around so exuberantly. How does that happen? Chuck Jones – the famous animator for Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny, Wile E Coyote) – said that one testament to good animation is that you can understand the storyline when the sound is turned off.

MM: Would you like to discuss or mention anything else about the show?

DJS: Our production of “Pinocchio is less like the Disney movie, and more along the lines of the original Collodi story, which was a weekly series that was later compiled into a book in the 19th century. Instead of "Monstra the Whale," it’s "The Great Fish."

The Fox and Cat dress up as assassins and try to rob Pinocchio. In the original story, Pinocchio is just despicable – really horrible! He gets Geppetto thrown in jail, then goes back to the house and burns his feet off! When Geppetto returns, he tells Pinocchio he won’t carve new feet for him until he learns how to behave. That’s in the book, but of course, we can’t do that on the stage now. Collodi’s version is definitely a little rawer than the Pinocchio in the Disney film, and we try to strike a balance between the two. This show is for families, but it is best for ages four and up.