National Festival Celebrates the Art of Puppetry

Puppeteers from 12 nations on five continents and from 40 U.S. states will converge at UConn Aug. 10-16 for a whirlwind week of puppet-related activities.

Puppeteers from 12 nations on five continents and from 40 U.S. states will converge on the UConn campus during the week of Aug. 10-16 for the 2015 National Puppetry Festival, a whirlwind week of puppet-related activities including workshops, master classes, and performances.

The festival is presented by Puppeteers of America and is expected to be the largest and most extensive gathering of its kind. It will also mark the 50th year of the internationally renowned UConn Puppet Arts Program, which was founded by the legendary Frank W. Ballard. The last time the festival was hosted by UConn was in 1970.

'Reverse Cascade' by Red Ball Theatre.
‘Reverse Cascade’ by Red Ball Theatre.

Highlights of the festival will include 30 public performances by more than 25 national and international puppeteers, 30 professional workshops, six visual art exhibitions, “Reel Puppetry” film series, a giant puppet parade, and nightly Festival Pub Showcase.

Caroll Spinney.
Caroll Spinney.
Peter Schumann.
Peter Schumann.
Chuck McCann.
Chuck McCann.

Four master puppeteers also will be honored: Caroll and Debbie Spinney of “Sesame Street,” Peter Schumann of the politically radical Bread & Puppet Theater, and Chuck McCann, the New York children’s television star and voice actor.

Wyatt Cenac.
Wyatt Cenac.

Among the performances that will showcase the innumerable approaches to the art of puppetry will be:
• Shadow puppets by Drama of Works of Brooklyn, N.Y.;
• Bunraku and shadow styles of award-winning Bulgarian-born puppeteer Margarita Blush, assistant professor of puppetry and directing at UConn;
• Brazilian hand-puppets by Chico Simões;
• Classic rod puppetry by Chinese Theatre Works of Queens, N.Y.
• Late Night with Eugene O’Neill, a variety show that is based on a late night talk show format hosted by Wyatt Cenac of “The Daily Show.”

There will also be new interpretations of “The Wizard of Oz” by The Frisch Marionettes of Cincinnati, Ohio, and productions of “The Pirate, the Princess, and the Pea” by Crabgrass Puppet Theatre and “White Like Me: a Honky Dory Puppet Show” by Paul Zaloom of Los Angeles. For a complete schedule of performances go to the website for the National Puppetry Festival.

'The Pirate, the Princess, and the Pea,' by Crabgrass Puppet Theatre.
‘The Pirate, the Princess, and the Pea,’ by Crabgrass Puppet Theatre. Crabgrass was founded by two UConn alums, Jamie Keithline ’80 (SFA) and Bonny Hall ’81 (SFA).

Puppeteers of America was formally created in 1937, not long after the success of its first annual gathering of puppetry practitioners in 1936. The national non-profit organization has produced more than 160 national and regional festivals to celebrate and share the art of puppetry. The organization has also published its quarterly magazine, The Puppetry Journal, since 1949.

'Sleepy Hollow' by Drama of Works.
‘Sleepy Hollow’ by Drama of Works.

UConn’s Puppet Arts Program is a subdivision of the school’s Department of Dramatic Arts. The program was founded in 1965 by Ballard, who originally joined the faculty of the theater department as a set designer and technical director. The demand for the puppetry courses soon grew so drastically that the department had to limit enrollment in classes. In 1990, Bart P. Roccoberton Jr. ’90 MFA succeeded Ballard as director of the Puppet Arts Program, which now offers BFA, MA, and MFA degrees in the puppet art form. More than 500 student puppet productions have been presented since 1964.

The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry was created in 1987 through the efforts of UConn puppet arts alumni and community supporters of Ballard to preserve his work and create a national home for puppetry in the United States. The Institute includes a museum and archives and offers exhibitions, workshops, museum tours, lectures, forums, performances, and other programs that promote the global arts of puppetry.

The Festival is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts and an award from the New England Foundation for the Arts. Additional sponsors for this year’s National Puppetry Festival include: UConn School of Fine Arts, UConn Asian and Asian American Studies Institute, UConn El Instituto (Institute of Latina/o, Caribbean, and Latin American Studies), UNIMA-USA, Jane Henson Foundation, and Bob’s Discount Furniture.