At the University of Connecticut (UConn) students in the Department of Dramatic Arts can learn more than Shakespeare and improv or film and television performance, the school also includes full-time coursework in an age-old artform you may not have considered: Puppetry. 

More than that, the University houses the Ballard Institute and Museum, a collection of puppets from around the world open for the public to experience.  

The museum, located on UConn’s Storrs Campus, was initially created to steward the collection of Frank Ballard, a puppeteer and University of Connecticut professor who died in 2010. Ballard started the University’s puppetry curriculum with its first classes in 1964. 

Despite having to initially limit the program’s enrollment due to high popularity, the University has since expanded its puppet arts classes and the museum has grown its collection and its work with the community. Now, it is a place where students and the public can experience the rich history of a nuanced art form.

“We have over 3000 puppets in our collection,” says John Bell, the museum’s Executive Director. “This world of puppetry exhibit has puppets from, as one would imagine, all over the world. From Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. We’re particularly strong with United States puppetry, especially from the 20th century.” 

The museum is a small space, especially considering the size of its collection and the scope of history and culture it tries to represent. The main space is just three rooms, including the foyer, which connects to the campus Barnes & Noble. 

A floor-to-ceiling glass case at the entrance contains parts of their standing collection. At the time of CII’s visit, it was a Puppets of the World exhibit, with dozens of styles of puppets on display. 

The other two rooms house a rotating schedule of temporary exhibits to use the small space to teach as much as possible and offer a new experience even to the museum’s most frequent visitors. 

Until December 17th, the museum is playing host to a collection of traditional Indian shadow puppets. These handmade leather pieces burst with color, depicting Hindu gods and characters of folklore, their stories played out by puppeteers who are part of an ancient style of performance. 

“This is a representation of Rama Sri Rama, the God Rama, who’s the hero or the main figure of the Ramana, one of the two main epics of Hindu culture,” Bell says, pointing to one of the primary figures on display. It sits next to a wall of photographs including one where the puppet is the center of a ritual. 

“This figure is not simply a puppet, but it’s considered a religious artifact or an embodiment of a God,” he continues, adding “It’s not Kermit, that you’re putting in a box after the show.” 

The Indian Shadow Puppet display, which covers the walls of both remaining rooms, was curated, not by the staff of The Ballard Institute, but by a UConn graduate student, Rahul Koonathara. It brings together pieces from his family’s collection of shadow puppets and combines them with photographs of the tradition in action and additional puppets from Southern India. 

Koonathara is a 12th-generation puppeteer, and his father recently concluded a tour of the United States putting on puppet shows and sharing this tradition. 

“This exhibition is really interesting for me because it’s about the way that traditional forms of puppetry are adapted or connect with or are in conflict with modern ideas of culture and performance, which is really kind of a major theme or a major experience of puppetry,.” says Bell. 

That connection between puppetry as an art form and as a form of cultural communication is what excites Bell the most in his position, exploring various forms of this style of performance as it appears across time and borders. Another way for humanity to express its love for stories. 

“I had grown up watching television and Soupy Sales. But every culture has some kind of object performance,” he explains. “You know, there’s puppets and there are masks. There are automata mechanical figures. There are paintings that are performed. There are sculptures that mean things, and people tell stories with them.” 

Bell started his journey into the world of puppets as a college student while studying more mainstream forms of dramatic performance.  

“I was interested in theater when I was in college in Vermont. And so, I was doing acting, and Ibsen plays and Shakespeare plays. You know, mainstream acting sort of influenced by experiments from New York City Theater from the sixties and seventies.” 

That all started to change when he saw a performance from a local puppet theater. In his classes, John was told that theater would take years to properly grapple with the massive current events he and his classmates were witnessing every day. Things like the massacre at Attica Prison, the shooting at Kent State, or the terrors of the Vietnam War were unfolding throughout his undergraduate experience. But that artistic delay wasn’t the case for puppeteers, who were taking on big issues with small performers. 

“They would perform not in a theater, but in a gymnasium, you know, sponsored not by the theater department, but the local peace activist group. Or they would do a street demonstration or they would be part of a political demonstration in Washington. And that idea that you could use puppets to talk about events that were important to you and were happening in the moment. That was super interesting to me.” 

He also discovered that he wasn’t as interested in being on stage as he once thought. 

“A lot of puppeteers are shy, like Jim Henson, you know, we transfer our energies and focus into these objects. So that made sense to me.” 

As Bell has grown in his puppeteering skills and knowledge, he has come to learn that the definition of puppet is much broader than most may assume. In fact, it extends to nearly all forms of material performance or any performance in which you are watching a character, instead of an actor.  

“I think that this, the act of making objects perform, draws us out of ourselves and kind of instantly becomes a communal experience. So we all relate to this other thing that’s not human, but it appears to be human in some ways because it’s moving, you know, the object’s moving, or we’re implying that it moves. It allows us to step away from ourselves and consider — with a bunch of other people at the same time — this sculpture, this painting, this piece of cloth, this piece of wood.” 

This material performance includes everything from shadow puppets and marionettes to animation and even mascots, including UConn’s own Husky. Those mascots, he says, are an important piece of our experience of a sporting event. It just feels wrong without them. 

“I think with this type of performance, we read into the object what makes sense to us. It becomes a symbol. It’s not a realistic object. It’s something in which we can invest our own sense of meaning,” he explains. “So anytime anybody wants to communicate with the material world, we’re getting into the language of puppetry.” 

Despite the small size of its display areas, the Ballard Institute finds expanding uses for its facilities. In addition to the three large displays, the museum also features a small theater space to host performances, and they sponsor additional performances in the university’s other performance spaces, sometimes tied to their main exhibits. On Monday, the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts will host a performance of shadow puppetry, demonstrating its current exhibit put on by a former UConn student.

In addition to the performance space, they also offer workshops on puppetry and puppet building, pushing forward their efforts not just to protect the history of this art form, but to forward its future. 

“What we get to do here is show all different aspects of the global span, the global range of puppetry, and what people are doing now with puppets, things that people are inventing,” says Bell. “Being able to bring together examples of puppetry in our exhibitions as well as the performances we produce, the puppet forum talks we present, and the puppet building workshops. All of that allows us to look at these different facets of puppetry.”

More Oddities:

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

An Emmy and AP award-winning journalist, Tricia has spent more than a decade working in digital and broadcast media. She has covered everything from government corruption to science and space to entertainment...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *