Children love to be entertained and one of the best places to find family-fun at a low cost is Central Park’s Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater. The Swedish Cottage began its existence as Sweden’s exhibit for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The cottage so impressed Frederick Law Omstead (one of the men who designed Central Park) that he purchased the structure. Frederick Omstead brought the Swedish Cottage to Central Park in 1877 and it remains there until this day.
Although the Swedish Cottage has been in Central Park since the 19th century, it has only been a home to puppets since 1947 when it was used as the base for a troupe of marionette puppeteers who traveled around New York City performing in playgrounds and school auditoriums. In 1973, a permanent theater, specifically designed for marionette performances, was constructed inside of the cottage.
Thanks to the direction of the City Parks Foundation—which currently oversees the activities in the Swedish Cottage— puppet shows continue to take place both in the theater and via the City Parks Foundation’s “PuppetMobile” traveling show. Hence, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater holds the distinction of being the oldest continually operating puppet company in America. It also hosts free puppet-making workshops and performances in NYC neighborhood parks, schools, and recreation centers.
Since the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater was established, thousands of children and adultsfrom all across the globe have enjoyed its puppet shows. Most of the plays are based on fairy tales or holiday themes but some works, like the now-running “Bessie’s Big Shot,” are original scripts. Noting that the price of admission is quite low—$7 for children and $10 for adults—practically anyone can afford to watch a performance. Hence, the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater is accessible live theater even for many underprivileged and inner-city children.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Bruce Cannon, the Artistic Director at the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, in order to gain a deeper insight into the company and its goals for the future:
Q: What influenced you to get involved with theatre, specifically with children’s theatre?
From a young age, I always had an affinity for theatre and especially musical theatre. As a child, my first exposure to that world was when I acted in a production of “Finian's Rainbow” that was staged here in NYC. In that production, I played the character of "Henry," the boy who somehow understood what the deaf lead character was saying. I also played one of Helen Keller’s friends in a production of the “Miracle Workers.” During my childhood, early teens and young adulthood I also did some dancing and modeling. I became involved in children’s theatre when I came to the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre at the age of 19. Here, I not only discovered children’s theatre, but also the wonderful world of marionette puppetry.
Q: In terms of subject matter, what are the Swedish Cottage plays about and what inspired the ideas for them?
Our plays are primarily identifiable children’s classics. We take those classic stories a step further by adapting them to appeal to contemporary audiences. Our inspiration comes from the times we live in and the children we entertain from NYC and all over the world. I try to strike a balance between the humor and themes that resonate with today’s audience and the classic stories that never seem to go out of vogue or popularity. We often manage to do this by making our productions multi-media and our characters multi-cultural. Even though our audiences prefer the classics, we do create original stories periodically. “Bessie’s Big Shot,” our current production about a cow who joins the circus (closing in September) is one of our more popular original stories to date.
Q: As far as working in children’s theatre, what has been your most rewarding experience so far?
The process of collaboration with other talented artists, theatre professionals and master educators is extremely important and rewarding to me. I love seeing an idea go from a good script to fruition on stage. Our holiday themed production of the “Three Bears Holiday Bash” is my favorite. This is a production that I wrote and directed in 2009 and is one of the most continuously popular shows in our repertoire, quickly selling out its run every season. It proves that with a great idea, a good story line, and interesting characters, you don’t necessarily have to have a big budget to have a successful production.
Q: In your opinion how has City Parks Foundation enhanced the public experience of visiting parks?
City Parks Foundation has definitely enhanced the quality of life in the city through its multifaceted programs in New York City Parks. CPF is one of the greatest things that has happened to New York City parks. New Yorkers and visitors alike get to experience parks in a whole new light due to the wonderful programs that CPF provides. CPF is the only independent, nonprofit organization to offer park programs throughout the five boroughs of New York City. We work in over 750 parks citywide, presenting a broad range of free arts, sports, and education programs, and we empower citizens to support their parks on a local level. Our programs and community building initiatives reach more than 600,000 people each year, contributing to the revitalization of neighborhoods throughout New York City. From the free SummerStage and SummerStage Kids performing arts series to the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre and our travelling PuppetMobile, CPF offers a lot of options in the world of free and low cost performing arts. CPF’s sports program offers free multi-level training in golf, tennis, track and field and also fitness programs. Our free educational programs offer guided instruction in everything from ecology to media training. Finally, our Partnerships for Parks program supports individuals and organizations who want to have an active role in their local parks. All these programs help to keep parks a vibrant part of our city.
Q: What are the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre’s ultimate and long term goals for the future?
Our goal for the future is to continue to do what we do best and that is producing quality children’s theatre that can be compared to miniature Broadway theatre productions. We would like to expand on our Arts in Education Program by offering more hands on learning to children.
Q: Are there any up and coming projects that you would like to mention?
For our 2015 season we will re-visit a Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre classic, “Jack and the Beanstalk.” This new version of the show will feature updated puppets, soundtrack and script. For our touring production for PuppetMobile, we will feature a new production called, “Brier Rabbit.” We also plan to expand on our puppet workshops and birthday party packages.
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The Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater is located in Central Park at 79th Street and the West Drive, just south of the Delacorte Theater. Anyone who is interested in attending a performance or finding out more about the theater should visit the official website: