The University of Connecticut has always been known as one of the best puppetry schools in the country due to its prestigious Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. And although our resident puppetry museum may be facing new restrictions due to COVID-19, it plans on surmounting those limitations and creating events on a new international scale through a virtual platform.
The museum will be open on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with new social distancing guidelines. Families or groups must make a reservation on their website beforehand, as only one group will be allowed in at a time.
“The museum is free, but we want to organize when people come so they don’t have to stand outside waiting,” Dr. John Bell, an associate professor of puppetry and director of the Ballard, said.
There will be three exhibits featured in the museum this semester: “Shakespeare and Puppetry,” “Paul Vincent Davis and the Art of Puppet Theater” and “The World of Puppetry: From the Collections of the Ballard Institute.” Bell said the museum is also considering featuring puppet installations by puppet-arts students in their store-front windows.
Bell said that although they still have their museum space, all events will have to be online for the safety of both the performers and the audience.
“We’re planning to do pretty much everything online, as we’ve been doing since mid-March,” Bell said. “That will include our puppet workshops and our puppet forums — which are presentations by scholars and puppeteers about their work.”
The Ballard also intends to host its annual UConn Fall Puppet Slam on Friday, Sept. 25, as well as an online Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant for the Celebrate Mansfield Festival on Saturday, Sept. 26. The latter will be in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment.
“For the Women’s Suffrage Puppet Pageant, we’re hoping to connect with different groups of the university, including different student organizations and poetry groups,” Bell said. “Each participant or group of participants would create a short scene with puppets.”
The groups will use flat cut-out puppets, likely from pictures featured in The New York Times’ “Suffrage at 100,” with a backdrop to create scenes about different figures from the women’s suffrage movement. Bell said they are interested in thinking about the complications of the movement in terms of race.
“We also want to think about Chinese American, Chicana/Chicanx suffrage activists and Native American women’s suffrage activists,” Bell said. “We want to look at this century-old event through the lens of 2021, and the kinds of things we’ve all been thinking about in terms of the United States and the history of the United States.”
Bell invites all UConn cultural organizations and student groups to participate in the pageant. Participants would meet with members of the Ballard over Zoom, with some suffrage images and a cardboard box to make the stage with. They would then work together to make three to five minute scenes about specific suffragettes.
“We’ll ask people to come with some ideas in mind and then we’ll say, ‘here’s how we’ll do it: We’ll take this, you’ll have your scissors and your cardboard and we’ll make them into flat, cut-out puppets,’” Bell said. “And then, we’ll make a stage and move them, and we’ll ask people to invent text about this particular person and why they were involved and what they did.”
The pageant will be livestreamed on the Ballard’s Facebook page. Organizations and groups can sign up for the pageant through a Google form on the Ballard’s website beginning early this week. The deadline is Sept. 16, so if you are part of a student organization, make sure to sign up soon!
While both the Puppet Slam and the pageant are likely to garner the highest attendance, the Ballard’s virtual workshops may also be intriguing to a lot of students. The first is going to be run by Leslee Asch, the executive producer of the Jim Henson Foundation, and based around her book “Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater.” It will be on Thursday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m.
On Oct. 22, the Ballard will be holding a forum called, “The Renaissance of African American Object Performance.”
“It’s part of a rethinking or rediscovering of the art of African American puppetry, which is kind of interesting right now with the increased awareness of Black culture, and the situation of African American culture in the United States right now,” Bell said. “Certainly in the puppetry community, there is an increasing awareness of how that field, to some extent, has been not so inviting — the White puppeteers have not been so connected to the Black puppeteers.”
This forum will also be used to highlight an online catalogue of essays, a digital exhibition and videos of living objects projects that they did in 2018 through 2019. Bell said the essays in this catalogue will offer the first ever cohesive look at African American puppetry. He hopes this will be a great resource for puppetry scholars.
In early November, Professor Jungmin Song will hold a forum to discuss her “Shakespeare and Puppetry” that she is currently curating. And the final forum of the semester will be held on Dec. 3, to discuss engineering in puppetry.
“Puppetry is the manipulation of objects, or you know, the use of tools in performance,” Bell said. “Engineering is all about tools for society, and making tools that are computers or screwdrivers or forklifts or irrigation systems. We’re going to talk about the overlap between engineering and puppetry.”
Although performers can’t come to UConn to perform in the museum, as usual, Bell expects the virtual platform to garner even a wider array of performers and event attendees. And although puppeteering can’t function in person this year, he hopes it will still reach and inspire people online.
“It’s a big shift, and I think for performing artists we’re not able to do what is the essence of our work: To be in front of people and to create moments of life or artificial life or reinterpreted life at the same time, in the same place as others,” Bell said. “Like so many things at this moment, we’re trying to adjust, reinvent and take advantage of what we can use, like screens and Zoom and distance presentations, and make the most of that.”