Artists talk the business of puppetry at Ballard Puppetry Forum

Forum hosted by Dr. John Bell discussing the business of puppetry with guest speakers Bonnie Duncan, Roxie Myhrum, Matt Acheson, and guest facilitator Dale Edwards. (Jordan Richardson/The Daily Campus)

University of Connecticut Puppet Arts Program graduates and industry artists discussed the nuances of business, diversification and marketing within the puppetry world, at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry on Wednesday night. This was the first of the Ballard’s Spring Puppet Forum series.

Puppetry artists Roxanna Myhrum, Matt Acheson and Bonnie Duncan shared their experiences in the industry with a moderate gathering of puppetry students and artists. Each artist currently helps run or performs in their respective puppetry theaters.

Myrhum, who is the artistic director of Puppet Showplace Theater in Massachusetts, has helped her theater expand its programming and budget over the past few years, through classes, artist networking and puppet-related activities for people of all ages, she said.

Acheson, an alumnus of the UConn puppetry program who has performed at the Radio City Music Hall in New York, said that one of the main issues in the industry is getting past the common stigma against puppets, and doing so through performance.

“Being a lover of puppets, it’s amazing how narrow the public view [is] of what a puppet is,” he said. “It’s about engineering. It’s about kinetics. We’re putting an antiquated thing on stage.”

A major aspect of the industry is shows oriented toward a family or younger audience, especially since many are first exposed to puppets through ‘Sesame Street’ at a young age.

Duncan, who broke into the world of puppetry after spending eight years as a dancer, said that it took some adjusting to create a show geared toward children. Her first show, ‘Squirrels Stole My Underpants”, was the first time she performed for that particular demographic, she said.

“I knew I could make a show I loved and wanted, and that my child would see,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to figure out how to get the show out there.”

Duncan now performs 70 to 80 shows a year, mostly at festivals and theaters and occasionally at schools or libraries, she said.

Another topic that was discussed extensively by the artists was organization, which is key in running a theater business, Myrhum said.

“The challenge is figuring out where to put your focus,” she said. “Because I’m my own boss, I set my own standards. A lot of it is knowing how to make a decision consciously.”

Of course, it isn’t easy being the director of the oldest puppet theater in New England.

“I don’t have a work-life balance,” Myrhum said. “I love working.”

Overall, audience members said that the forum was informative, especially since many of them were about to enter the industry.

“I hope to make a living somehow with puppets,” said John Cidy, an eighth semester puppet arts major who will be graduating in May. “It’s one of the most helpful forums I’ve been to. It’s practical knowledge.”

Other attendees who are already part of the industry said that the forum was useful to them.

“I found their advice on organization was incredibly helpful,” said Natalie Lessard, an aspiring puppeteer who is part of the Boston Area Guild of Puppetry. “The community is very friendly.”

Ballard Director John Bell said he hopes the forums will continue to inspire interest in UConn students.

“Since puppetry, especially now, includes such a wide variety of different forms, we are fascinated by it,” he said. “We want to share that thinking about it. Our hope is that other people from the UConn community would share that fascination.”


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.