Cinderella's fairy godmother had it easy. With a wave of her wand, she transformed the cinder-smudged girl into a princess.

For the Colla Marionette Company's production of Cinderella, opening Thursday at the Emmett Robinson Theatre as part of Spoleto Festival USA, it takes more than a magic wand to ready the heroine for the ball.

Puppeteer Piero Corbella says "everything you see on stage -- the marionettes, the scenery, the costumes, the props"-- is custom crafted by the puppeteers themselves.

The Colla company, officially founded in 1835, first performed "Cinderella" in 1906.

Corbella says it was the first child-friendly production in the troupe's repertoire, explaining that "in the 18th and 19th centuries, in

Europe and especially in Italy, traditional marionette theater was not for children; it was for adults."

A crowd-of-all-ages pleaser, "Cinderella" is one of the company's most frequently performed productions of the last 30 years.

Some of the more than 150 marionettes in this production date back decades; some of the scenery, more than a century. But the two puppets who play Cinderella (there is the soot-stained girl and the begowned, ball-ready princess) are new this year, custom carved and clad by the same people who manipulate them.

Company members care for the marionettes by periodically cleaning their linden wood heads and bodies with soap and water. Cinderella's house dress and ball gown are laundered the same as humans' clothes. Her wig, made of human hair, one of the most expensive components of a Colla marionette, is washed with regular shampoo.

However, just as the fairy godmother's spell expired at the stroke of midnight, the marionette currently starring as Cinderella may not always be a princess.

"In the tradition of the Colla family, all the marionettes are like actors," Corbella says of the company's 2,700 puppets. "So when we don't need 'Cinderella' puppets for a while, if we find that the face can be used for another role, we use it. They will be or they have been used for other performances."

Any marionette can be stripped of its costumes or hairpiece. Colla's wicked stepmother marionette even lost her head in 1970. It was replaced with one from a 1930s puppet carved to look like Oliver comedy duo Laurel and Hardy.

The comedian's head adds comic relief to an otherwise evil and abusive character, Corbella notes.

Besides the marionette's face, he says, the manner in which the puppet is moved can convey varying moods and levels of drama.

"Because the marionettes have one fixed expression," in Cinderella's case, a blank one, "we have to use the dress, the movement, the colors" to communicate the characters' varying emotions throughout the show, Corbella says.

During the performances, the puppeteers stand on a narrow, railed bridge above the set. It takes a lot of work behind the scenes, and, literally, above them, to achieve the desired effect. But if anything can be learned from the classic tale of "Cinderella," it's that when all the elements come together, whether by magic or by the centuries-old theatrical traditions of craftsmanship and skill, spectacular transformations are possible.

Leah Dennison is a Goldring Arts Journalism Program writer. Reach her at