Don Harms became enchanted with marionettes at age nine when he first saw them. The Peoria, Illinois, native described his early years in the midwest as being conducive to the development of his craft. The basement and attic of his home provided space to spread out, his parents were encouraging, and after school, the time was his. "Marionettes became more consuming than school," he recalled.
After studying painting and literature at Bradley University, plus a year in Paris at the Sorbonne, the puppeteer pursued graduate studies in comparative literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. During those graduate years he began to direct campus live theater productions. He continued to direct after taking an assignment teaching French at the University of Michigan at Flint.
"During the '60's, it was impossible to resist theater," he said. He even gave up what he described as the best regular job he personally had ever had - teaching French in college - to pursue his love of theater.
The late 1960's found him in Austin. "I fell in love with Texas," he said, describing Austin as still undiscovered then. "It was magical, a mixture of rural and urban life." He loved the cultural potential and freshness of Texas. The love of live theater kept Harms involved in the local theater community through the early 1970's. Between productions he studied painting and sculpture.
His earlier passion for marionette theater came to the forefront of his life again after Harms came into a small inheritance which for a decade freed him from money worries. "In the seventies," he said, "I became acquainted with the various methods of puppet construction around the world; I remembered what I had learned as a youngster, and experimented with new ways to construct puppets. Aesthetically I was influenced by African masks. I studied life drawing and painting. My plan was to return to performing, but I was in no hurry. I enjoyed studying. I was in my 40's. My life had been split into different phases - studying literature, teaching, directing plays, acting, carpentry, painting and sculpture. I saw in marionette theater the chance to bring all the pieces together while still pursuing each interest."
"The area in which I did not feel qualified was play writing. So, I went to visit the playwright whose scripts I admire most among my colleagues, Kathy Piper, in Ohio. Kathy lent me the script of Aladdin. With that, I was ready to put the pieces together and perform.
Harms continued, "The first shows were successful, but I wasn't known. I was already in my early fifties. But the Texas Commission on the Arts put me on their touring roster and I began to tour Texas." He's still doing it.
There's an art to looking at marionette theater. The members of the audience bond into a pleasant state of mind by collectively focusing on the puppets. The faces of the puppets are similar to masks. The movements of their wooden bodies are pulled by the force of gravity while also being easily lifted above the force of gravity by the strings. Children quickly identify with the spontaneity of the puppets. Adults who are experienced at watching puppets often come to the conclusion that these puppet actors outdo their human counterparts in expressing the movements and the moments of tenderness, comic aggression, sadness and above all happiness.
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