American Puppet Modernism forum discusses modernist puppet history


Students and community members attend the the opening of a new exhibit at the Ballard called American Puppet Modernism: The Early 20th Century on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. The exhibit runs through July 1. (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)

In conjunction with their American Puppet Modernism: The Early 20th Century exhibit, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry hosted a forum of the same name Thursday in Storrs Center.

The American Puppet and Modernism: The Early 20th Century forum began with Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry Director John Bell, who defined American puppet modernism as when “traditional forms find themselves in new contexts of life in the United States.” After his brief primer on modernism, Bell continued his portion of the presentation by discussing the history of women in modernist puppetry. Bell took a particular focus on Ellen Van Volkenburg, an extremely influential female puppeteer. She pioneered the small theater movement with the Chicago Little Theater and is even credited with inventing the word “puppeteer,” Bell said. Hazelle Rollins, another great modernist female puppeteer, was wildly successful in her mass production of marionettes used for educational purposes.

Puppetry Journal Editor Steve Abrams continued the conversation on modernist puppetry by discussing what constitutes as modernist puppetry. Abrams mentioned how many modernist art movements originated in Paris and focused on shapes with modernist puppeteers particularly paying attention to rounded figures. Abrams also discussed Remo Bufano, a highly influential modernist puppeteer. Bufano was heavily involved in Broadway productions and often used modernist music to accompany his work. Abrams said, the use of modernist music in puppet theater is usually another good signifier that a puppeteer is modernist. Bufano is also well known for his role in the Works Progress Administration and his role in their 1939 performance of “RUR,” which Abrams described as “one of the most famous puppet shows that ever happened.”

The final panelist Andrew Periale spent the majority of his presentation discussing the Yale Puppeteers. Periale particularly focused on Forman Brown but did spend a significant amount of time talking about other members as well. Inspired by Tony Sarg, Forman came together with Roddy Brandon and Harry Burnett to form the Yale Puppeteers. The Yale Puppeteers are perhaps most well known for their role in the creation of the famous Turnabout Theater in California which was often frequented by celebrities. The three men used modernist techniques such as stripping away the scenery, exposing the puppeteers to the audience and incorporating witty and modernist songs into their performances.

In between each panelist, UConn Puppet Arts Program Director Bart Roccoberton Jr. expanded on what was brought up by each speaker, providing additional insight on American modernist puppetry.

Neda Izadi, a graduate student of puppetry, found the event gave her some powerful insight into American modernist puppetry.

“Especially because I am an international student, I don’t have any information about modern puppetry in America, so it is very interesting for me to know the people who are working in this major, about progress, what’s happened, how they inspire from traditional types of puppetry,” Izadi said.

The American Puppet Modernism: The Early 20th Century will be on display in the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry through July 1, 2018.

Lauren Brown is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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