Ballard Institute brings stories to life with annual Puppet Slam

UConn's School of Puppetry presents live and digital works by undergrads and graduate students in a laughter-filled night of story telling.  (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

UConn's School of Puppetry presents live and digital works by undergrads and graduate students in a laughter-filled night of story telling.  (Eric Wang/The Daily Campus)

The first act of the fall Puppet Slam, presented by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry on Friday, Sept. 15, was a bit like watching an optical illusion. It was like a picture where all you see is a young lady, until you realize that there’s also an image of an old woman. Depending on what you focus on, you can see either one, young or old. As puppetry student Kim Van Aelst performed “Space Out,” a short show in which two characters on a spaceship retrieve a prized object left on a planet below, her hands took on the identities of the two distinct characters.

Looking at the puppets as the characters playing out a part was interesting, but if you switched your focus and thought of the puppets as covering a pair of hands, you realized that something much more complicated was going on. Realizing one person was behind all the aspects of the show--the theme music she hummed, the voices of the characters, the action of the characters, the writing and the script--it’s a bit like trying to sing all the parts in a “Hamilton” song at the same time.

The work presented by the Ballard Institute varied greatly, from the intense to the comical, and from the somber to the absurd. However, no matter how strange the work may have seemed, all the acts were backed by talent and preparation.

The show was hosted by UConn alum Shane McNeal, under the pseudonym of Doc Foster, a Tim Burton-esque persona who later presented a chilling story told with a crank, which allows artists to turn a handle to spool through different drawings on a long sheet of paper. Acts included stories told with a crank, videos using stop-motion and other digital and media designs, a shadow puppet-song duo and a large puppet of a leg (and later an arm).

An act called “Peepers” featured Boston-based artist Veronica Barron putting a pair of toy eyes on her hand and lip syncing a song between herself and the character on her hand. The pair, Barron and her hand, started out friendly enough before the relationship morphed into something more and as the weird factor increased, it changed to a physical argument between Barron and her sighted hand (you can buy a pair of eyes for your own hand at Michael’s in the East Brook Mall).

Whereas Barron’s performance was weird yet humorous. UConn alum Isaac Bloodworth took a more serious tone with his act “Curled” in which he cranked through a story about a young black girl who learned, over the course of the story, to be proud of her hair the way it was. Before performing, Bloodworth issued a warning that he was bringing real-world issues to the stage and some may find it uncomfortable.

“There were a few fun ones,” first semester computer science major Matthew Kirschbaum said of the Puppet Slam. “There were a lot of interesting things.”

The Ballard Institute will be hosting another puppet slam this winter, undoubtedly featuring just as broad of a variety of original work.


Alex Houdeshell is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.houdeshell@uconn.edu.