by John Bell - Director, Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry
Long in the forefront of puppet studies since Frank Ballard (1929-2010) began teaching puppet classes there in 1964, the University of Connecticut has recently deepened its commitment to puppetry by expanding its Puppet Arts Program, and building a new home for the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. This flourish of activities has placed UConn’s twin puppet programs at the center of the university’s cultural life, and helped build awareness of UConn puppetry in Connecticut and around the world.
“My arm is bruised because I have to keep pinching myself,” Bart Roccoberton, Director of the Puppet Arts Program, says, “to remind me that this is all actually happening.” Since 1990, when Roccoberton succeeded Frank Ballard as its head, the Puppet Arts Program has been training students to design, build, direct, and perform puppet productions for theater, film, and television, as well as to teach, curate, and administrate.
Since Bart Roccoberton’s arrival at UConn 1975 as a student of Frank Ballard, the Puppet Arts Program, as he puts it, “has gone through remarkable growth and transition. We are no longer fewer than ten students working under one professor in the overcrowded basement of a men’s dormitory.” The Puppet Arts Program moved from the basement of a Main Campus dormitory to an expansive new Depot Campus location in 2002, “an exceptional facility,” as Bart puts it, “that includes a high-tech classroom, library, movement/rehearsal room, computer lab, fabric room with a dye vat, well-equipped shop and studio space for each individual student.”
In the past few years, the Puppet Arts Program has also more than doubled its staff and faculty with the addition of an executive assistant, Barbara Zizka; Paul Spirito as Technical Supervisor; and Margarita Blush as Assistant Professor of Performance and Directing. Margarita, originally from Sofia, Bulgaria, studied acting and directing for puppet theater at the Bulgarian National Academy for Theatre and Film Arts, and thus brings particular new skills to the program. In addition, after many years as the part-time director of the Ballard Institute, in 2013 I was named an Associate Professor of Dramatic Arts, and now teach classes in puppet history, theory, and practice.
The UConn program currently offers BFA, MA, and MFA degrees in Puppet Arts, and with its teaching staff more than tripled, has the capacity to accept more students into its programs. As Bart Roccoberton puts it, “For the past fifteen years, we could have no more than twenty-four undergraduate and graduate students. Now, however, with additional faculty, we are looking to increase enrollment, and are seeking creative students who are willing to work hard to develop their skills and expressions.”
With the newly expanded puppetry studies faculty, the Puppet Arts Program will continue to focus on “history, theory, conceiving an idea, writing, design, fabrication and performance,” as Bart Roccoberton puts it, but can now offer students the ability to concentrate on three different tracks: Design/Fabrication, Performance/Directing, or History/Theory.
Separate from the Puppet Arts Program, the Ballard Institute was born from efforts by UConn alumni, faculty, and friends of Frank Ballard, beginning in 1987, to preserve the puppets he designed, built, and collected, as the effects of his Parkinson’s Disease made it harder for him to manage these resources. The Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry was so named in 1992, and took up residence on UConn’s Depot Campus (a mile and a half from the Main Campus) in 1996. In 2007 this community project was officially incorporated into UConn’s School of Fine Arts, and I was named the Institute’s director.
UConn has long lacked a village center. For years, the only life adjacent to the campus was a small strip mall. In 2002 a group of merchants and community members created the Downtown Mansfield Partnership, to “strengthen and revitalize the commercial areas in Mansfield” (according to its 2003 Annual Report), by creating “a vibrant town center with restaurants, retail, office space, housing and a town green.” Dean David Woods of the School of Fine Arts spearheaded the idea of re-locating the Ballard Institute to this new downtown center, and when she assumed office in 2010, UConn President Susan Herbst spurred the project further with the support of the new Fine Arts Dean, Brid Grant.
The new Ballard Institute at Storrs Center is comprised of three galleries, a workshop, a performance space, and offices, all located within a complex just off the new Town Square, across the street from UConn’s School of Fine Arts. The Institute space is closely tied to the UConn Co-op Bookstore and a café—Le Petit Marché—by entryways and display cases connecting all three entities. In addition, the back wall of the theater can be opened directly into the bookstore, so larger audiences can spill out into that space. Although our public spaces have moved to this impressive new location, we continue to store and manage our collections and archives on the Depot Campus.
The new Ballard Institute offers performance spaces for student work, such as Anna Fitzgerald’s Reverse Cascade, which inaugurated the new theater. UConn students also work at the Ballard Institute as curators, archivists, and collections managers.
Puppet Arts graduate student Sarah Nolen curated Spectacular Extravaganzas: The Rod Puppetry of Frank Ballard, and Art History student Hannah Kennedy co-curated The World of Puppetry: From the Collections of the Ballard Institute.
Puppet Arts student Gavin Cummins is working on the preservation and organization of our puppet collections, and last year MFA student Seth Shaffer catalogued and digitized the Puppeteers of America Audio-Visual Collection, which is now available for viewing at two computer terminals in our lobby.
The new Ballard Institute offers all sorts of possibilities for exhibitions, performances, workshops, scholarly forums, and symposia. With three rooms of gallery space we can offer a variety of different exhibitions from our own collections, and welcome guest curators and exhibits of work from farther afield.
Our third current exhibition, Puppets Through the Lens: Photography by Richard Termine, allows us to showcase the work of one of Frank Ballard’s first students at UConn.
In the coming months we will host exhibitions of work by Amy Trompetter, Blair Thomas, Anne Cubberly, and Sandglass Theater; and guest curators will create exhibitions devoted to Rufus and Margo Rose, Frank Ballard, and other aspects of our collections.
Our programming includes regular Puppet Forums, which this season feature director Roman Paska, photographer Richard Termine, Grant Hayter-Menzies (author of Shadow Woman: The Extraordinary Career of Pauline Benton), Dartmouth College Professor Robert Herr (speaking on “The Radical Politics of Mexico’s Post-Revolutionary Teatro Guiñol”), and Puppet Arts students Anna Fitzgerald and Sarah Nolen. In addition, in cooperation with UConn’s Dramatic Arts Department, we are hosting “Objects, Environments, and Actants,” a symposium that will bring together scholars and artists from various disciplines to discuss the ways that new studies in material performance are connecting traditional puppetry with other aspects of theater and performance. We also plan to host regular performances of puppet shows for families, children, and adults; and a puppet film series.
Our museum front desk is manned by over a dozen UConn students, and the recent addition of our new Program Assistant, Emily Wicks, has doubled our administrative staff.
We especially look forward to hosting the 2015 National Festival of the Puppeteers of America, where we can share our excitement about UConn puppetry with the larger puppet community, and present workshops, performances, meetings, and exhibitions in sites around the UConn campus, as well as in the new Ballard Institute at Storrs Center.