“The Performance of Engineering”: Collision between STEM and fine arts

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The Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry pictured. Despite the museum being closed, the Ballard Institute is still hosting virtual events such as the Facebook Live that was held last night. (File photo/The Daily Campus)

Though the intersection between art and science is often overlooked, the two fields overlap significantly when it comes to the art of puppetry. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry’s discussion regarding the importance of the bond between the two fields featured presenters with different backgrounds in either puppetry or engineering. The discussion was held through Facebook Live on Thursday, Dec. 3. 

John Bell, the museum director of the Ballard, hosted the event. He was joined by Basil Twist, renowned puppeteer and the creator of shows such as “Symphonie Fantastique” and “The Araneidae Show.”  Ed Weingart, interim chair of UConn’s department of dramatic arts, and Jason Lee, professor of mechanical engineering, shared their expertise as well.  

Over the course of the event, the science behind various puppets and scenes from Twist’s shows, among others, was revealed. From the movement of the puppets to the appearance of motion, the shows would not go on without engineering.  

“Puppetry is the performance of engineering,” said Bell.  

In his show “Sisters’ Follies,” Twist described the intricacies of a scene involving flight, recounting how the puppeteers were responsible for the movement of the actors. Not only can they manage the suspension systems, but they have a place onstage as well, effectively invisible, adjusting the positions of the actors themselves. 

In addition to the suspension of actors, puppeteers also incorporate movement into their sets. Choosing the right material to achieve the desired effect requires knowledge of how the materials act in certain situations. This, Lee said, is one application of fluid dynamics.  

Lee went on to describe the process of engineering projects as it is taught to students and gave examples of how each step can be applied to the creation of puppets. He even listed certain ruts that people in both fields can slip into, such as over or underanalyzing details.  

Lee discussed how some of the creativity that engineering students seek can be lost within the more technical classes taught, since there is a heavy focus on the concepts behind the designs.  

“I’d like to see more courses at UConn tie the two schools together,” said Lee.  

For all of the intersections between puppetry and engineering, Bell noted a difference that should not go unrecognized: The focus of engineering is on functionality, while the end goal of puppetry is storytelling.  

Engineering is also known for involving copious amounts of math, which might seem to be a barrier for those hoping to enter the field of puppetry, given the prevalence of engineering principles in the work. However, Weingart revealed himself to be a “pretengineer,” which he described as “knowing the rules of thumb, and knowing when you should call [an expert].”  

As a professor, he believes his students should not consider the more technical details of performance art to be a problem. By teaching the methods and principles necessary for success, he says anyone can reach the level of proficiency required.  

Weingart also mentioned that UConn is developing a new major called theater engineering, which will be introduced in the fall semester of 2022. It will be within the School of Engineering, with a focus on applications to performing arts. 

The Ballard Puppet Museum has continued to offer presentations like this one despite the pandemic and has strived to make the programming free and accessible. All such events are held online.  

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