Alum to Learn Traditional Puppet Arts in Japan

Photo of Zach Dorn puppetry production 'Moon City,' from his website.
UConn alum Zach Dorn '10 (SFA) has won a travel fellowship to spend a year studying with theater artists in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Zach Dorn)

UConn puppet arts alumnus Zachary Dorn ’10 SFA will spend a year in Japan studying traditional Karakuri Ningyo and working with Japanese theater artists, thanks to a fellowship designed to allow young theater directors a year of research and discovery outside of their own culture.

Karakuri puppets are mechanized puppets, originally made from the 17th century to the 19th century, that influenced Kabuki, Noh, and Bunraku theater styles.

Dorn is one of three recipients of the inaugural Julie Taymor World Theater Fellowship, created by the director of “The Lion King” on Broadway.

PhotZach Dorn and his puppetry production 'Tonight a Clown Will Travel Through Time.' (Courtesy of Zach Dorn's website)
Zach Dorn and his puppetry production ‘Tonight a Clown Will Travel Through Time.’ (Courtesy of Zach Dorn’s website)

Dorn, who works with puppets, cartoons, and fast-paced storytelling, exploring themes of dread, enchantment, and disappointment, has previously received support from the Heinz Endowments, the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, and The Jim Henson Foundation.

Bart Roccoberton ’90 MFA, director of puppet arts and professor of dramatic arts in puppetry, remembers Dorn as a student. He says Dorn’s strong ability for storytelling was clear early on in his studies.

“It was in the Hand Puppetry class in the Spring of 2008 that I saw Zach Dorn’s ability to create stories,” Roccoberton says. “[His] story was the most intriguing that semester. Location, characters, and dramatic quest were spellbinding. … From that day forward, I gave him every opportunity to ‘tell stories.’”

Dorn’s senior project, ‘Band Aid Boy,’ Roccoberton adds, “remains among the most exciting theatrical events the Puppet Arts Program has produced.” ‘Band Aid Boy’ led Zorn to be accepted as an Emerging Artist at the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.

As a student in puppet arts, Dorn served as a Geraldine Waring Fellow at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. His responsibilities included curating the first exhibition of the Ballard Institute’s collection of marionettes by Frank and Elizabeth Haines, who were Philadelphia puppeteers active in the 1930s.

“Zachary’s work was quite unusual for an undergraduate student,” says John Bell, director of BIMP and associate professor of dramatic arts.

“After his graduation,” Bell adds, “Zachary invented a new tech-savvy form of live puppetry by livestreaming miniature toy-theater-style puppet shows on the internet.”

Dorn says he continues to evolve his productions: “My style of puppetry changes a lot, doing new media work. I’ve been doing a lot of toy theater recently, which is two-dimensional puppetry. I take cameras and build these miniature dioramas and send the cameras through the dioramas and they live-project.”

Dorn will begin his Taymor Fellowship year in September, studying with Kuro Tanino of the Niwa Gekidan Penino theater and Toshiki Okada of the cheltfisch Theatre Company, who each have received the Kishida Prize for Drama honoring new playwrights in Japan.

He says Karakuri is an overlooked form of puppetry in America. “Most puppeteers don’t know a lot about it. I think just having the experience and knowledge and bringing it back will be very useful to the community here.”

Dorn says he will use social media, such as Instagram and Tumbler, during his fellowship year to provide information for puppeteers about what he has learned.