It’s a known fact that the University of Connecticut prides itself on being “one of only two (soon to be three) universities in the country offering a BFA degree in puppet arts and the only institution in the country offering masters degrees (both MA and MFA) in the field,” as read on the school’s puppet arts homepage. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry is a branch fully operated by UConn located in downtown Storrs where they host tours and workshops among other events. One of these events includes the museum’s annual all puppet slam, where students and other artists are given the opportunity to showcase their puppeteering talents. Although it was held virtually this year, the Ballard did not hesitate in offering mesmerizing performances.
Prior to its streaming, the museum posted an announcement about the show on Facebook to explain it will “feature short works by professional puppeteers and performers from around the United States and across the world and new works by UConn Puppet Arts students and recent alumni.” As someone who has never experienced a puppet show before, the promise of seeing the talents of not only fellow students but also professional artists from around the globe was vastly intriguing.
The event was hosted by Museum Director John Bell and Museum Assistant Kat Folker, who both utilized their emceeing skills during the entirety of the show. With a total of 15 acts and five unique voting ads scattered throughout, the puppet slam introduced a large variety of themes addressed by each puppeteer including topics such as women’s rights, mental health, poetry, history and even coronavirus.
Some acts did not strictly have to do with puppets at all, with the show’s opening performance “A Bear Story (Of Which a Hermit is the Hero)” being a song sung by UConn Puppet Arts alumni Esme Roszel. Twin brothers Noah and Ben Radcliffe acted out the narrative in-costume as Roszel played a folksy tune on her guitar and sang about the hermit, Sheldon, and his dangerous encounter with a bear.
While Roszel’s performance was a prerecorded act, some artists, like Genna Beth Davidson, committed to performing live. Davidson, another graduate of the UConn Puppet Arts program, centered around womens’ rights in her act, “Jovita Idár: A Maiden of Justice.” Utilizing a setup similar to black box theater, Davidson told the story of a young woman who tries to protect her newspaper company from local rangers by creating an artistic atmosphere filled with homemade music and props.
Social justice was not the only subject of the evening as relevant topics such as the current pandemic were addressed in a comedic way. “Tuesday Meeting” by Maggie Flanagan, Abby Bosley, Elise Vanase and Robert Ian Cutler proved to become a personal favorite of mine not only with its unusual scenario but also its genius theme of approaching serious subject matter with humor.
The act took place during what seems like a casual Zoom meeting, but was soon revealed to be a cult meeting designed to summon the dark lord, Gorgath. The three members, who were technically puppets, spent the meeting mostly bickering over issues that came up during the ritual. An example is when Laura is reprimanded by Elder Fangtooth for forgetting her candle.
“Well I didn’t bring mine home with me after the last summoning,” she explained. “I-I thought we’d only be quarantined for like two weeks!”
The Ballard eventually concluded its show with a memorably moving piece called “Dorothea Remembers.” Performed by Linda Wingerter from The Stringpullers Puppet Company, the film shadow presentation encompassed the memories of a woman named Dorothea through the use of “paper cuts, transparent materials, sand and water.” Gentle piano music played along to the movement of water as two figures swam in the ocean. With “Dorothea Remembers,” Wingerter brought an act that exuded a peaceful ambience among the audience.
Despite its virtual restrictions, the Ballard ultimately succeeded in bringing the joys of puppetry to viewers at home. Although this year’s fall puppet slam may have been online, each artists’ performance brought out a certain quality of authenticity, which is the most one can do during unprecedented times.