UConn’s puppetry program is one of the greatest in the country, a fact that most people — even UConn students — don’t know. UConn is the only university in the U.S. that offers a Master of Arts degree in puppetry. Several alumni of the program went on to work on some of the largest puppet-related media in the world, such as “Sesame Street.”
Right in the middle of Downtown Storrs sits the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, one of the largest puppet collections in the country. It keeps thousands of puppets of every variety that one could think of. Felt puppets used on “Sesame Street,” handmade marionettes that are almost 100 years old and even an entire exhibition on shadow puppetry are housed within the institute.
Ballard also hosts regular puppet shows, including a weekly Saturday morning show titled “The Fall Puppet Series.” The fall series made its debut on Saturday, Sept. 16 with a marionette performance of the classic fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty,” presented by Stevens Puppets. Walking into the theater, there were a few rows of chairs as well as some tiny benches for children. The cloth stage at the front of the room seemed to be completely handmade, its age made apparent by the fading paint and off-white tint produced by maturing fabric.
While waiting for everyone to file in, the puppeteer and mastermind behind the show, Mack Raynor, kept the kids entertained by performing basic magic tricks and cracking goofy jokes. After some quick announcements and promotions for upcoming performances and puppetry events, Raynor walked behind the stage, furled the curtains and lowered in the first marionette. The puppet’s voices were provided by a recording, complete with musical interjections for scene changes. The marionettes were hand carved and painted by Stevens Puppets’ founder, Martin Stevens, almost 70 years ago.
The marionettes sauntered around the stage for 40 minutes with enthusiastic voice acting and occasional witty interjections by Raynor himself. The puppets were in fantastic condition for being over 60 years old and for being used regularly at shows like these. It was a standard, classic fairy tale affair: simplistic and childlike but not without humor that adults could chuckle at with the kids.
The audience was more diverse than what one would imagine, with there being a wide range in ages across audience members.
“Seeing a classic tale like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ from a new perspective is always such a pleasant experience,” said Theo Vietzke, a first-semester business major. “This rendition was even better because I’ve always had an interest in classical puppetry.”
The show ran for a total of about 45 minutes and afterwards, Raynor appeared in front of the stage to provide quick insight into the mechanics of a marionette. He showed the audience the layout of all the strings and the simple mechanisms that allowed the puppets to move.
Afterwards, he invited the entire audience for a quick peek behind the curtain, sending several toddlers in the audience into a fit of joy as they lined up to walk behind the fabric stage walls. After a quick look around, the whole event wrapped up in just over an hour’s time.
The show was a brisk, funny and entertaining way to spend a Saturday morning. If you have kids to bring or an interest in puppetry, “It’s a fun way to spend a Saturday morning, and [Stevens Puppets] puts on a great show,” said Sara Shaye, a mother attending the event with her 3-year-old. The Ballard Institute holds regular events year-round and will be hosting a puppet-making event at the Celebrate Mansfield Festival in late September.
Featured photo courtesy of Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry Instagram.