It takes confidence to stand in front of a television camera next to one of the stars of a network television show, Robin Lord Taylor of Fox’s “Gotham,” while dressed for a Hollywood awards ceremony and holding a puppet on your hand. Just a few weeks later, standing in the woods on UConn’s Depot campus, Sarah Nolen ’15 MFA, a recent master’s graduate in puppet arts, demonstrates the same understated confidence directing a production crew.
Nolen hopes to instill similar attributes in young girls through her work as a puppeteer and film director with the help of a $10,000 grant she received after winning a Mister Rogers Memorial Scholarship in April during the 36th College Television Awards, part of the Television Academy Foundation.
The grant funds, supported by Ernst & Young LLP, are being used by Nolen to complete a pilot film for a children’s television show called “Treeples,” which uses several young actors and puppet characters to tell stories that encourage girls ages 6 to 9 to be independent, smart, and confident. The film is part of MFA project work.
“Each episode is a different girl dealing with a problem at school,” Nolen says. “She leaves school and escapes into the woods to work out the problem with the Treeples. These three friends support her, they show her that she can tackle anything. When she returns to school, she’s prepared to face the issue.”
The primary puppet characters, who live in the woods, are Kira, the Explorer, who is the most independent; Zodi, the Athlete, who is the hard-worker; and Maya, the Maker, the artist-scientist of the group. There is also a Monster character that is the manifestation of each girl’s fears. Nolen designed and built the puppets and then auditioned child actors to cast several young girls for the project, which was filmed in early May at locations in and around Mansfield, including the UConn campus.
In her proposal for “Treeples,” Nolen provides educational objectives for the program, citing research conducted by the Geena Davis Foundation that found children develop “gendered behaviors” much in the same way that they develop other actions, including through watching television programs. She hopes to show the pilot at upcoming film festivals and eventually develop a full season for television on PBS Kids or Nickelodeon.
“Growing up, I loved watching strong women like ‘Xena: Warrior Princess,’ ” Nolen says. “The studies show girls are more prone to playing housewives and not taking action, are more prone to talking than taking action or to be the straight-man and not the funny man. That’s kind of the point of “Treeples,” to show that girls can be confident, funny and they don’t have to subscribe to any social norms.”
Nolen grew up in Austin, Texas, and became interested in puppetry as a youngster. Her website includes a photo of her doing a puppet show inside of a cardboard box that serves as a television set. She later earned a degree in cinema and television at Southern Methodist University, using puppets for her film projects. While there, she heard about a summer puppet workshop conducted by Sandglass Theater that was being held at UConn, where she spent three weeks soaking up all she could learn about puppetry and telling visual stories.
“It was the first time I realized there’s more to puppetry than the Muppets, more than Sesame Street,” she says.
After completing her undergraduate degree, Nolen worked as a production coordinator in television for nationally-syndicated programs on networks including CMT and HGTV. But she continued to think about puppetry. After work, she went home and made puppets and did shows at local comedy houses in Texas.
“I realized I wanted to do puppets full-time,” Nolen says, recalling that she still had the phone number of Bart Roccoberton, director of UConn’s Puppet Arts Program, whom she had met at the Sandglass Theater workshop. “He said if you ever want to go to grad school, let me know. I called him. They were accepting applications that week. I heard back, and threw everything in my Subaru and came to Connecticut.”
Immersed in the MFA program, Nolen has flourished. Her solo puppet works were selected for the National Puppet Slam in both 2013 and 2014, and she has performed as a puppeteer at UConn Puppet Slams, Puppets in the Green Mountains Festival, as a puppeteer for the Boston Pops Orchestra, EnvisionFEST Hartford, and The Out of Bounds Festival in Austin. She also developed the Skip Toumalou puppet for the 2013 UConn social media campaign ad “Jump In,” where she was the writer, designer, director, and puppeteer.
“Sarah’s an absolute leader, a wonderful example of a creative individual,” Roccoberton says. “Our relationship has driven me to stay ahead of her and sometimes catch up with her. Her work has always been exemplary. When we need something done, her hand is always first in the air. She’s also the last one to leave.”
Nolen says she arrived in Storrs with a strong knowledge of film, but the faculty and resources in the Puppet Arts program have allowed her to make “Treeples” possible.
“I didn’t have access to puppeteers in Texas, space to build puppets, to rehearse, or to the faculty who know so much,” she says. “What we do here is unique. There isn’t a program like it. This project wouldn’t be possible without the MFA set-up here.”