Students Create a Magical Production, with Some Strings Attached

March 28th, 2013 / Advancement

When William Shakespeare’s The Tempest opened on campus in February, not all the “many goodly creatures” on stage were quite what the Bard envisioned. Half the roles were played by wooden marionettes, less than two feet tall and operated by strings.

Through the alchemy of stagecraft and storytelling, these pint-sized performers became as “real” and engaging as the flesh-and-blood actors. The half-human, half-puppet production demonstrated the persuasive power of theater—and the magic that can happen when the Lewis Center’s resources are put in the service of students’ imaginations.

Photo by Jon Roemer


Two seniors initiated the production: Lily Akerman adapted the play for her senior project in theater and was one of its cast members; Samantha Ritter created the marionettes, carving them from blocks of basswood and attaching their limbs with leather joints. An entire theater community helped stage their new twist on Shakespeare’s tale of shipwreck, betrayal, and enchantment: Tracy Bersley, lecturer in the Program in Theater, directed the play; professional designers created the set and costumes; and an all-student cast took on both human and puppet roles.

“It was amazing to see so many people working on the show, building sets and making costumes, all for one idea we had,” said Akerman. “The Lewis Center has made a huge difference for students who are involved in the arts.”

Lily Akerman '13 as Caliban

A Spellbinding Tale

One of Shakespeare’s last plays, The Tempest is chock full of magic and drama. The magician Prospero, exiled duke of Milan, has been stranded on a mysterious island for 12 years. His only companions are his daughter, Miranda; the spirit-servant Ariel; and the half-human slave Caliban. When Prospero conjures a storm, the rest of the play’s characters are shipwrecked and cast ashore on the island. Prospero uses his magical powers to control their fates and regain his dukedom.

Akerman, who played Caliban, is a comparative literature major earning certificates in theater and creative writing. In her adaptation, the play can be seen as the story of a puppet master guiding characters through a plot of his—or her—own design. To illustrate Shakespeare’s themes of authority and control, she had human actors play the island dwellers—Prospero, Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban—who are free of social ties because they are not part of civilized society. The marionettes played the shipwrecked city dwellers, still bound by the strings of social conventions.

Samantha Ritter '13 with her creations

The Puppet Maker

Samantha Ritter, who is majoring in computer science and studying sculpture to earn a certificate in visual arts, was introduced to puppets in a Princeton Atelier course led by Wakka Wakka Productions, a theater troupe that incorporates puppets, masks, and other visual elements into its works. The following summer, she won the Alex Adams ’07 Award, created in memory of a former Lewis Center student, which provides funding for an art project. Ritter chose to go to Prague and learn more about making marionettes

In the meantime, Akerman used a summer grant to study masks with the Pig Iron Theatre Company in Philadelphia,  which describes itself as a “dance-clown-theatre ensemble.” The two students met in a puppetry workshop Ritter held after returning from Prague. They traveled to a “puppetry slam” in Baltimore that opened their eyes to the potential of puppets. “A marionette comes to life as soon as you pick it up,” said Ritter, “and it becomes a different person depending on who is holding it.”

After the production closed, Ritter and Akerman continued to collaborate, teaching a puppetry workshop for local high school students. They hoped to rekindle some of the magic of The Tempest, when, Ritter said, “the actors playing with the puppets took them so seriously that we did, too.”