“Ladies and gentlemen, the curtain is about to go up.”
These are the last words Robert Brock speaks before a show at the Lancaster Marionette Theatre begins. Fittingly, they are the first words spoken in a new documentary about him, too.
“Marionette Land” is the second full-length documentary from Lancaster filmmaker Alexander Monelli, after 2017’s successful “At the Drive-in,” about Lehighton, Pennsylvania’s Mahoning Drive-in.
“Marionette Land” is less a look at the theater, a Lancaster institution that celebrates three decades this year, and more an examination of the wonderfully eccentric Brock, 63, who writes, performs, directs and builds marionettes. (And, as he is keen on mentioning, he cleans the toilets at the theater, too.)
For once in a lifetime of stagecraft and performance, it is not “Robert Brock Presents,” but rather, “Presenting Robert Brock.”
“Marionette Land” makes its debut Friday, albeit virtually, as a selection at the Philadelphia Film Festival. The screening begins at 8:15 p.m. and features a Q&A session with Monelli and Brock after the film.
“I’m someone who was sort of born in the wrong era,” Monelli says. “So for me, seeing something like (the theater) was awesome. Walking inside was all I needed to want to do a film about it.”
Behind the curtain
Monelli moved to Lancaster in 2012 to take a job at Franklin & Marshall College. He set out to learn the area the way you’d think a filmmaker might — by creating short films about the people who interested him. Shorts came in the form of spotlights on people with interesting hobbies, such as a juggling duo, a hula-hooper and an 80-year-old magician.
However, it was a chance encounter with the Water Street theater that set Monelli on a path to making his film with Brock, the 2014 short “Man with Puppet.”
“He intrigued me as a person,” Monelli says. “But I always felt like there was so much more there, because the short is a fun eight or nine minutes. I knew instantly that the person you saw on stage was not fully him, and that’s why I initially wanted to go do the feature.”
“He’s very modest,” Brock says when reminded of the short film. “It won best documentary and best homegrown at the Lancaster International Short Film Festival. But I always have to say that, he never does.”
In the meantime, the two stayed in touch.
In July 2019, Monelli reached out to Brock and discovered that he would be doing one of his popular shows, “Divas and Dames,” potentially one last time, which set the wheels in motion.
Shooting began in November, as Brock prepared both for holiday shows, as well as the theater’s impending 30th anniversary in 2020.
“I laid out my rules — this is my film, not yours,” Monelli says. “I don’t like the subjects to have a say in the film. I let him and Mary Lou (Broucht, Brock’s mother) know that this was sort of a dictatorship in terms of production and what I end up using and not using.”
“That was the hardest thing,” Brock says. “I’m used to being in charge of everything, and once you sign that release, it’s Al’s picture. So I would try to direct, and of course he would have none of it. But he’s a Monelli! He doesn’t spell it the same, but he’s as talented as Liza and Vincent.”
Like Brock, Monelli is also something of a one-man band, photographing, editing and directing “Marionette Land” himself. That’s not a coincidence.
“We are both extremely detail-oriented. It’s like a painting. I’d rather do the sketch and put the color and the shading and depth in, instead of having other people do it. That’s just how I like to work, and how he likes to work. You can’t explain it unless that’s how you feel.”
A life of performance
The person and persona of Brock are fully on display in “Marionette Land.”
Over the last 30 years, Brock has perfected the art of doing it his own way. Despite never receiving professional instruction, Brock creates all the marionettes, which he molds from clay and wood. Culling from a lifetime in musical theater, including in performances at the Fulton, he writes and performs original music to accompany public domain creations such as “Peter Pan,” “The Wizard of Oz” and “Aladdin.”
Shows at the Lancaster Marionette Theatre last around 35 minutes, but as “Marionette Land” shows, the feeling the audience receives lasts much longer.
For fans of Lancaster Marionette Theatre, the movie will serve as a fascinating look at how one man can be responsible for so many facets of a show. For those unfamiliar with the theater, it’s a startling look at the power of one person’s imagination.
“I love sentimentality. It gets a bad rap, but I feel like when you do it right and it’s accompanied by the exact opposite emotions, it works,” Monelli explains. “If the whole movie was sentimental, I don’t think it would work. But when you put in things that are a little more mature or adult — like when he talks about mental illness or curses or something — it works.”
In the film, Brock recounts his struggles with depression and mental illness over the years, conceding that arguably the most important relationship of his life is the one between himself and his audience.
“If I don’t perform, what the hell am I gonna do?” he asks at one point in the film.
Brock’s mother factors heavily into the film, as she is not only a ticket-taker and bookkeeper for the theater, but also Brock’s roommate in the residence above the theater. The emotional core of the film rests in scenes between the two, whether they are playfully bickering or expressing admiration for one another.
Due to Monelli’s method of editing while filming, there are scenes from as recent as July of this year featured in the film. It’s not a spoiler to say that Brock’s plans for 2020 were somewhat upended once March rolled around.
“I didn’t want people to think, “Oh, this is just some COVID movie,’ that would break my heart,” Monelli explains. “For me, the COVID thing is essential not just because of how it affected the theater, but because of how it affected him personally. It took away his audience, which he talks about as his only salvation throughout the film.”
Though principal photography had technically ended, Monelli filmed a few extra scenes in early summer while wearing a mask and keeping a distance.
“When he came in, I brought my tape measurer out,” Brock says with a laugh. “I did it as a joke, but I did take it very seriously.”
Monelli also supplied Brock with a camera of his own during April and May so that he could shoot additional footage on his own, notching Brock an “Additional cinematography by” credit.
As he continues to wait for regulations to loosen up so that the theater can open its doors again, Brock has remained busy sprucing up his YouTube channel with new videos. Hopefully, he says, he can start filming complete shows and a planned variety show on the channel, “Lancaster Marionette Motion Picture Studio.”
Ideally, “Marionette Land” finds a distributor at the Philadelphia Film Festival and is widely released sooner than later. But Monelli anticipates Friday’s screening to be the first and only viewing before 2021.
“He built this world, this life to be exactly the way he wants it,” Monelli says. “To me, that’s heroic. He’s never embarrassed, he never hides who he is, and that I think is empowering. He found his thing and he went for it 1,000%.”