Sometimes a two-person act must turn into a one-man show out of sheer necessity. Such was the case for puppeteer David Simpich, who first began performing marionette shows with his wife, Debby, in the mid-1980s. As their family began to grow and his wife wasn’t always able to perform with him, Simpich realized he needed to do something nearly impossible: come up with a concept for a full-length, multicharacter puppet show that could work with only one performer.
“One of the things I realized is that by simplifying the staging, I could bring myself out as part of the action,” says Simpich, who will perform his popular one-man marionette version of Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts from February 25 to March 2.
Simpich himself plays Dickens as a sort of puppet master, manipulating and voicing the characters in the classic tale. The piece, originally written in 1990, was the first of many that Simpich created for himself as a solo performer. “The reason this idea came to my mind was that whenever I read Dickens, I always felt he kind of hovered above the stories,” he says. “You kind of sensed his presence.” Though Great Expectations is a long novel with many characters and subplots, Simpich created a somewhat condensed version focusing on the central characters and their stories. His version runs about one hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.
The show utilizes a support, or gallows, above the stage where Simpich hangs as many as seven marionettes so several characters can appear on stage at the same time. “I do have to work that out very, very carefully,” he says. “Depending on who’s talking, I can remove that puppet from the gallows and walk it around, or I can keep several characters talking to each other on the stage at the same time. Because I’m playing Dickens as the narrator, I can bring the props and puppets on and off in full view of the audience. But there are also parts of the show where I disappear, and you’re not really as aware of my presence.”
After creating Great Expectations, Simpich went on to adapt both A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist as one-man shows, also with the concept of Dickens as puppeteer. Over the years, Simpich has created a total of 16 one-man shows at his Simpich Showcase theater in his home city of Colorado Springs.
Simpich says that the larger-than-life characters in Great Expectations, like Miss Havisham, the embittered old woman who wears her wedding dress for years because she was abandoned on her wedding day, are perfectly suited for portrayal through puppetry. As in all of his shows, the poly-form clay puppets in Great Expectations were designed by Simpich himself. Learning the difficult art of constructing puppets was actually something of a family affair: Simpich is the son of famed doll designers Bob and Jan Simpich. “I grew up learning the sculpting, costume design and painting techniques and transferred that into puppetry,” he says. “The designing process, which takes about a year, is still one of my favorite aspects of doing a show.”
Learning all the lines and developing all the stage action and voices can be a painstaking process, as well. “It’s something I’ve had to practice a long time,” he says. “It’s kind of like learning to play a musical instrument. When I’m rehearsing a show, I’ll spend quite a long time drilling and warming up. It’s an imaginative process, learning how to send the character down through the strings into the marionette.”
Simpich says that all of his shows are designed with a family audience in mind. At home in Colorado Springs, about 80 percent of his audience members are adults, he says, but Great Expectations is a show that’s also well-suited to schoolkids from second grade and above. Ultimately, Simpich says he sees his show as a way to introduce audiences to the classic book itself. “It’s a way to celebrate Dickens’ ability to create a strong story that has some really important things to say,” he says. “Telling it this way can really make the theme apparent for new audiences.”