Curtain Call: Puppet theater is on the rise as puppet ‘ambiguity’ captivates children and adults
With the thought of winter coming and the possibility that COVID-19 might stick around keeping people working from home, made me wonder what families would do to stay sane. Up through October, at least we could spend plenty of time outdoors, but what happens when the temperature turns frigid and the snow falls fast? That’s when I contacted Emily Wicks, manager of operations and collections at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. After speaking with her and museum director Dr. John Bell, I realized that puppet theater can help us get through the fall and winter.
The Ballard Institute offers online workshops that will describe and/or demonstrate how to make all types of puppets. The Toy Theatre will demonstrate how to build a stage out of a box. Put them together and you’ve got a theater ready for performance. There’s enough information available to keep puppeteers of all ages busy, as well as more creative than ever.
When I think of how high the status of puppetry rose on the theater scene with Broadway’s “The Lion King,” and the success of “Avenue Q,” and “War Horse,” puppets have become welcome at any theater if strings are attached or not.
Of course, there are many different types of puppets. The string and marionettes, the rod puppets, shadow, giant, and many other variations. The Ballard Institute Museum in Storrs recently reopened. “We had just installed two new exhibitions when COVID-19 shut us down. It was a heartbreak,” said Wicks, adding that the museum then tried to transition to virtual events. “John created a forum on Facebook Live which is also available on YouTube Live,” stated Wicks delighted with the turnout for the recent Puppet Slam. “If there’s such a thing as a silver lining with this virus, it’s that our content now reaches all over the world.”
Please note that the museum makes for a great day trip. It’s only open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and it is by reservation only. This is quite an experience and currently features two wonderful exhibitions.
One of the first exhibits you’ll want to check out is the vibrant thought-provoking “Paul Vincent Davis and the Art of Puppet Theatre” exhibit. It includes puppets, props and stages from various theater productions. The other exhibit on display is “Shakespeare and Puppetry,” which includes examples of the ways puppets and objects interpret Shakespeare.
Bell is a scholar, associate professor in the Dramatic Arts Department at the University of Connecticut and is an expert on puppetry as well as a puppeteer. He described the recent puppet success stories on Broadway with “The Lion King,” and others as a rediscovery of the form. It’s a kind of recognition as adult entertainment. He also pointed out that Toy Theatre scenes are well suited for this COVID-19 era because you can put your laptop in front of a computer screen, create flat two-dimensional puppets, use photographs or whatever for backdrops in your theater “box” and you’re ready to perform.
Adults tend to enjoy a new type of puppetry — tabletop puppets. This is when an audience sees the half life-sized puppets as well as the puppeteers operating them. Recently, puppetry has attracted the attention of adults because the subject matter they present is serious. Puppets are powerful. Children who play with dolls and hand puppets are open to anything and everything. They have great imaginations and are ready to play. “Puppets are a natural for children’s audiences,” said Bell, who explained that puppets are people and not people. “There’s ambiguity that is intriguing. We invest in the experience by making it alive. It requires us to bring something alive and that is very satisfying.”
To make a reservation, call: 860-486-8580. Visit the museum and check out the museum’s Facebook page to watch the Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant.
Joanne Greco Rochman was a founding member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and is an active member in the American Theatre Critics Association. She welcomes comments. Contact: email@example.com.