The Ballard hosts discussion on Henson Festivals

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Picture of Front of Ballard Museum
The front entrance of the Ballard Museum of Puttery, located by Storrs Center. (Photo by @ballardinstitute/Instagram)

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn hosted a Facebook Live conversation with Leslee Asch, former puppeteer for The Henson Company. The conversation was centered on the legacy of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater, which is the subject of Asch’s new book, “Out of the Shadows: The Henson Festivals and Their Impact on Contemporary Puppet Theater.”  

The Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater began in 1992 and ran until 2000. Asch served as producing director for the biennial festival, which showcased the best puppetry from around the world.  

Asch began her career with the Jim Henson Company as a puppet builder. She worked on many critically acclaimed television shows and films run by the Jim Henson Company, including “The Muppet Show,” “The Dark Crystal” and “Sesame Street.” 

The conversation was conducted by the Ballard Institute’s director, Dr. John Bell. The book coincided with the 20 year anniversary of the last festival. Asch spoke about many aspects of the book, including the choosing of its title. 

“It could’ve been called ‘Puppets Hit Main Stage,’ it could’ve been called many things, but it was a way of saying puppetry is wonderful and it’s not as well known, at least in this country, as it should be,” Asch said. 

Asch gave some interesting statistics about the size of the festival over the years. There were 136 different productions from 31 countries in 24 theaters throughout New York City. There were 120,000 people at the New York performances and about 400,000 saw the exhibitions. 

One of the biggest goals of the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theater was to bring credibility to puppetry theater. Other parts of the world, such as Europe, have been ahead of the U.S. in this regard, noted Bell. 

“From my own experience, it was so clear as an American like me that the strong tradition of puppetry as art theater was a little different from the states,” Bell said. “That was so much of what the Henson Festivals were doing later in the ‘90s, bringing in this very strong sense of puppetry as modern art, modern theater.” 

The first festival was held in 1992, only two years after Jim Henson died. Asch spoke about how his death made the festival more difficult to organize. 

“Unfortunately, Jim had just passed and with Jim around it was going to be relatively easy,” Asch said. “We still had to raise the money for the festivals but with him there a lot of doors automatically opened.”  

Asch said that some other struggles her team faced while creating the event included figuring out the format and creating a structure for the performances. 

Her book features 156 different photos from various photographers. Asch dedicated the book to Jim Henson and Joseph Papp, a theater owner who hosted the festivals, and both of whom didn’t live to see the festivals. 

“Without the two of them, the festivals would’ve never happened,” Asch said. 

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