Over Thanksgiving Break, art major Marlon Lewis ’20 went on his first immersion trip to Prague, Czech Republic to hand carve puppets with his Theater 303 class. In January, he will be leaving for South Africa for a semester-long study abroad program.
We sat down with Lewis to hear about his immersion experience and learn more about the Chicago-native’s desire to travel.
Q: For starters, why puppets? And why Prague? What’s the connection there?
A: Our Theater 303 class spent the entire semester learning about Czech puppetry – it’s super connected to their culture. Puppetry has been around for a really long time. When the Czech Republic was under Habsburg rule, German was considered the official language of state, and Czech language and culture was suppressed. The traveling puppeteers continued to perform in Czech and helped the language survive through puppet shows. Over time, puppets have become a symbol to the country.
We went there specifically to make our own puppets with professional puppeteers. Over the semester, we designed our puppets, sent them out to the workshop, and got feedback from the puppet masters.
Q: Before your trip to Prague, had you ever been out of the country before?
A: No! I hadn’t even been on a plane for longer than two hours! When I came to Wabash from Chicago, I didn’t even think of leaving the country. I never thought I’d be in Prague, making a puppet. That was so surreal, yet I didn’t feel out of place. I could tell I was somewhere new, but it felt normal. I jumped right in and did my thing.
Q: Were you nervous?
A: I was nervous about getting lost. Not being able to talk to anybody. I didn’t know enough Czech to get by at all. I could wake up and say, “Good morning.” I could say, “Good day.” And I could say, “Thank you.” But I was also really looking forward to experiencing something that wasn’t American. I wanted to see a different perspective.
Q: What was the shop like where all of you worked?
A: People spend their entire life in puppetry and never get the chance to be in the shop where we worked. That shop has a waiting list!
When I heard that, I was like, “Dang!” We really felt special. And all I could think about was thanking Wabash for using my tuition in a way that I never would have thought of.
Q: How much of the trip did you spend working, and how often did you get to explore?
A: We went over there to do a job. We worked about 40 hours in the shop that week, so it felt like we were workers—not tourists. After our second day, I was wishing that we had the morning to go out and do stuff. To see things in the light. But then I realized that everyone else in the city is doing their job or going to school, so I wasn’t in broad daylight embarrassing myself, trying to figure out where to go!
Q: How different did it feel making a puppet in a workshop in Prague compared to something you create in one of your art classes?
A: It wasn’t a classroom. They were instructing you, but you were on your own. Even though we got a grade on what we made, it wasn’t a studio class where I felt like I was making it for the grade. I really felt like I was making it for me. The puppeteer we were working with is probably in the top five of all time. He brought in a top-10 master carver, who brought in another. To learn under them, to see their abilities, even though it was just for a few days, it was invaluable. Especially since I make art all the time. They taught me thought patterns that I’ll hold onto forever.
Q: How did you decide what type of puppet to make?
A: My puppet is a skeleton. At the beginning of class, we had to choose a Czech person to model our puppet after, and the guy I chose was from the 1800s. He was commissioned by a church to store and organize the bones. So it was like, “What could I do with you?” I’m kind of into the macabre thing. The beauty of it – making it beautiful. I can find positives in almost anything, so I thought I could make something really nice out of this.
So my skeleton is the protector of the ossuary (a room in which the bones of dead people are placed). My original idea was just a huge head. Arms and legs hanging out of the head – I didn’t want a torso or anything. But when I sent that out, the master carver said it would be too difficult for my first puppet.
(laughs) Now my puppet is in a black lining with gold lining and a gold chain.
Q: When you did get to explore, what was Prague like?
A: Prague, at least the parts we were in, wasn’t modern at all. They still have cobblestone roads. Most of what we walked on was cobblestone. Anthony (Williams ’20) and I found maybe two or three roads that were paved.
It’s such an old city compared to Chicago. The structure of the buildings felt similar with the ground level of the buildings being a shop and then people living on top – I see that all the time back home. But there’s really no space between the buildings. We barely have space between our houses back home. People in Indy are always like, “Why are the houses in Chicago so close?” In Prague, you couldn’t even walk between most of the buildings!
Q: Speaking of homes, we heard you all were able to meet with three alums who live in Prague!
A: Oh yeah, I was like, “What the heck?” I didn’t even know where Prague was before this class, and there were three! One alum has been out there going on eight years, and he left the day after his graduation. He initially was working with a church program, and now he works with a monastery. He’s also a football coach for the national Czech football team. Another is an English teacher, and he’s been out there for 3 years. They each gave us their own tour of the city, so that was nice.
It’s always fun to meet Wabash guys. We just all connect so easily. It was crazy to learn that there are people who know what we go through and people who have had similar experiences and are now living in Prague. If I ever want to come back, I know people here!
Q: Now that you’re back, you’re preparing to leave again. How are you feeling as you get ready to study in South Africa for a semester?
A: I honestly can’t wait. I’m so excited for it. That’s really why I was so glad to be part of this class. I was about to be gone for half a year, and I hadn’t even been out of the country for a day! I had no idea what that was going to be like. This trip helped me understand the mindset I’ll have to have as I travel and gave me an idea of some of the challenges I’ll face.
My goal after college is to travel, meet people, and help them better understand each other. Help people become more connected. Whenever anyone asks what I want to do, I always say, “Save the world.” But I have to explore it first.