Master of puppets: Marionette maven puppetizes classic kids’ stories

Puppet pals: The stars of “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” playing at Puppetworks Nov. 26–30.

Puppet master Nicolas Coppola has more than one string to his bow.

The founder and artistic director of Park Slope’s Puppetworks theater does not just produce puppet shows — he also designs and builds his own marionettes, and operates the puppets on stage.

Being a jack-of-all-trades came in handy when creating his annual holiday show featuring both “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and “Nutcracker Sweets,” which will play at the theater on Dec. 26–30. Transforming Hans Christian Anderson’s story “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” — about a one-legged toy solider who falls in love with a paper ballerina — and ETA Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” — the inspiration behind “The Nutcracker” ballet — into a puppet show was far more complicated than just replacing human actors with wooden counterparts, the professional string-puller explained.

“Many factors must be considered — the number of characters on stage for each scene, actions that are suitable for marionettes, material that will appeal to a wide audience, and the costs of producing the figures, settings, soundtracks, salaries, etc.,” said Coppola.

In both beloved children’s stories, magic allows the toys to talk and walk. But at Puppetworks, the protagonists are brought to life through the art of puppetry. Coppola said that creating each lead character required specialized attention.

“The nutcracker prince is a simple figure with limited movements to suggest the stiffness of a traditional nutcracker,” he said. The one-legged tin soldier proved more problematic — but Coppola found an ingenious, seasonally-inspired solution.

“I gave him a cane — a candy cane — to give the puppet the proper balance and ability to move as the other marionettes do,” he said.

Coppola’s love of puppetry took root as a third grader at PS 200 in Bensonhurst, where the Suzari Marrionettes theater performed every year.

“I recall three of the shows — ‘Pinocchio,’ ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ and ‘Nobody’s Boy’ performed between 1942 to ’45,” he said. “The performance of ‘Pinocchio’ captured my interest most, because from where I was seated, I could view parts of the backstage activity, which greatly added to my experience. I wanted to know more about how the puppet show was done and how it came to be.”

Little did he know then that at age 19, he would be hired by the very same puppet theater, which would later evolve into Puppetworks.

Erected in 1987, Puppetworks’ theater in Park Slope is an outgrowth of the company’s years touring schools and concert venues. Although the little theater has since faced many trials and tribulations — including the danger of being shut down earlier this February due to the city school bus strike — the company is no longer hanging on by a thread. In fact, Puppetworks is trying to expand.

“Our Park Slope theater has limited seating and we are looking for a second theater space to accommodate the school groups we have to turn away due to space limitations,” said Copolla.

“The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and “Nutcracker Sweets” at Puppetworks [338 Sixth Ave. at Fourth Street in Park Slope, (718) 965–3391, www.puppetworks.org]. December 26–30 at 12:30 pm and 2:30 pm. $8–$9.

More from Around New York