The Ballard Institute explores puppetry and production design with Carl Sprague

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On Feb. 24, the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry held an online forum with its director John Bell and puppeteer and production designer Carl Sprague. Sprague has worked on hit films like “The French Dispatch,” “Twelve Years a Slave” and “La La Land,” and frequently collaborates with director Wes Anderson. He is also known for his work with Czech marionettes — a skill passed down from his great-grandparents.  

Sprague gave viewers a glimpse of the art sprinkled throughout his home, showcasing interior and exterior sketches of various sets, including his ongoing work for “Swan Lake.” Sprague also shared experiences from behind-the-scenes processes, detailing what animatic storyboarding looked like for “The French Dispatch.”  

As part of the talk, Sprague walked over to his handmade puppet theater — an homage to his family and a time capsule of Austria-Hungary.  

“WHEN YOU GO TO THE THEATER, YOU’VE GOT A SEAT AND YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE. WITH FILM, YOU CAN BE ANYWHERE.”

Carl Sprague

“I’ve got this little Eastern European world over here in my backyard,” Sprague said when asked where he finds inspiration.  

Beginning puppetry as a child, Sprague quickly became familiar with the string and rocker mechanisms of rod marionettes. His theater houses a vast array of puppets, props and backdrops created and collected over the years. Some of his puppets are even sent away to go on tour with ongoing productions. Sprague, fascinated by the complex history of his line of work, is currently developing a show about how puppetry came to America.  

Sprague explained the pitfalls of using too many puppets in a scene — one simply doesn’t have enough hands. His grandfather, a mechanical engineer, invented a device that aimed to solve this problem, revolving four couples of puppets in a dancing motion.  

“Something got tangled and the Cinderella ballroom scene became carnage,” Sprague chuckled, recounting what happened when he got his hands on the invention.  

While his love for puppetry remains, Sprague primarily works with set design.  

Sprague explained the difference between the two fields: “When you go to the theater, you’ve got a seat and you know where you are. With film, you can be anywhere.”  

“I’VE GOT THIS LITTLE EASTERN EUROPEAN WORLD OVER HERE IN MY BACKYARD.”

Carl Sprague, when asked where he finds his inspiration

When working on films, the level of interaction with the cast and crew varies depending on the job. Sometimes Sprague spends the whole time sketching away off-set, while other times he’s invited to act in small on-screen roles.  

“Wes’ last set was in Spain. I never went to Spain, but I drew the heck out of it all the same,” Sprague said.  

While he’d dabbled in acting, Sprague explained that he wasn’t best-suited for it. A similar thing drove Bell to puppetry, he chimed in — he could put on spectacular performances without ever having to show his face.  

The Ballard is currently selling tickets for their March showing of “Replay,” a dark comedy about unpacking baggage. Their ongoing exhibit, “Hecho en Puerto Rico: Four Generations of Puerto Rican Puppetry,” will be running until May 7 at their location in Downtown Storrs.  

Stay tuned for their virtual “Spring Puppet Slam,” highlighting performances from professional puppeteers along with UConn puppet arts students. And if you missed the online forum with Sprague, the Ballard has the conversation available to stream on their Facebook and YouTube pages.  

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