Day in the Life: Puppet arts major John Cody and the art of trickery

In this photo, fifth-semester puppet arts major John Cody is pictured. “Puppetry tricks you into seeing something you’re not,” Cody said. “You’re not actually seeing a living, breathing thing... It’s all one big trick, but it’s fun, and it takes a lot of effort.” (Allen Lang/The Daily Campus)

The Puppet Arts Program is one of the University of Connecticut’s rare treasures. The women’s basketball team consistently makes headlines, but the distance UConn conquers basketball is peanuts to how far it dominates puppetry. Fifth-semester puppet arts major John Cody, whose previous work has included an eight-foot-tall Captain Condom mascot, explains his passion for the art form:

Cody has previously done work “wrangling mascots” for DreamWorks’ “Penguins of Madagascar” at Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo. The job’s duties, Cody said, included “helping the actors put on the costumes, making sure they don’t break, repairing them if they do break, and making sure kids don’t punch them.”

“What’s fun about mascots is they have this element of fantasy to reality,” Cody added. “It’s this totally bizarre thing: a giant penguin who can’t move his face or talk just in the middle of the Bronx Zoo.”

UConn’s Student Health Services approached Cody and puppet arts graduate student Anatar Marmol-Gagne to assemble their “Stall Street News” character Captain Condom. Cody designed a maquette (a miniature model) and then built the full-size mascot while learning along the way.

“You have to build mascots so that they’re very durable,” Cody said. “They’re these giant things that can’t really get dirty. And the human body does not want to go into that shape, especially when it’s a condom. Making that work was not easy.”

Cody’s knack for anthropomorphic contraceptives is based in the wide range of classes undertaken by puppet arts majors at UConn. In addition to upper level classes in puppetry, they study theater, scenery construction, costume design and history of drama.

“Puppetry is the crossroads of almost every artistic discipline that you could think of,” Cody said. “We deal with a wider array of artistic elements than any other form: theater, dance, painting, music, sculpture. All of these things come together. Then outside of art we’re studying anatomy and the chemistry of the materials we’re using. You don’t want to use a glue that’s going to cause what you’re working on to melt and release toxins and kill you.”

Cody has also performed at the Eugene O’Neil Center’s National Puppetry Conference, which takes place every June.

UConn was Cody’s clear choice for college, thanks to the Puppet Arts Program. The university is the only one in the country to offer a B.F.A., M.A. and M.F.A. in puppet arts. Graduate students and undergraduates work together closely in the program, under the directorship of Professor Bart P. Roccoberton Jr. 

“Having a class with Bart is like having a class with a fun, giant textbook,” Cody said. “It’s astounding how much he knows about almost everything, but he also really looks out for the students…He’s very good at being a professor. He’s so supportive of his students and everything they do. Even if his tastes don’t match with yours, he’ll still support you, even if you’re doing a piece that doesn’t speak to him personally.”

The Puppet Arts Program recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Half of that time has been under Roccoberton’s leadership. In August 2015, UConn hosted the 63rd National Puppetry Festival, where Cody performed in “Reverse Cascade” and “The Crane Wife.” He also met Caroll Spinney, famous as Big Bird.

Cody’s personal background is in TV-style puppetry, rooted in a childhood love of “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets,” but he’s enjoyed working in a number of different styles through the program.

“Right now I have a very open mind as to what I’m doing,” he said. “I think that’s something UConn puppeteers have that’s so special. They can not only build, design and perform, but they can do it so many different forms, which is pretty unique.”

Some of Cody’s work is featured in graduate student Sarah Nolen’s upcoming short film “Treeples,” to be screened on campus the weekend of Dec. 12. Cody said it’s about “empowering girls to be confident, curious and adventurous.”

Cody has devoted his life to puppetry and is sure that the art form will continuously have more to offer him.

“It’s hard to get sick of,” he said. “If you get sick of one kind of puppet there’s another kind that’s totally different.”


Christopher McDermott is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.mcdermott@uconn.edu.