UConn is expanding its unusual puppet arts program

November 2, 2013 • Business

In this Oct. 29, 2013 photo, Bart Roccoberton Jr., director of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts Program, stands in the school’s workshop in Storrs, Conn. UConn is one of two schools in the nation to offer degrees in puppetry. (AP Photo/Pat Eaton-Robb)

STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Tim Lagasse knows how to get to Sesame Street. He worked there.

For him and many other puppeteers, the road goes through the University of Connecticut, one of two schools in the nation from which a student can earn a degree in puppet arts.

“They call us the UConn mafia,” said Lagasse, a 1992 graduate who now works for Disney, bringing to life the main character in the children’s TV show “Crash & Bernstein.” ”You end up on any type of puppet project, and about 20 percent of the people on the job went to the University of Connecticut.”

That number may soon grow as the university expands its puppetry program, which has become an international showcase for the school. Part of that involves moving its Ballard Puppetry Institute and Museum to the new Storrs Center [auth] development.

The museum, which is named for program founder and famed puppeteer Frank Ballard, houses a collection of more than 2,000 puppets from around the world. The new building also will include a performance space.

“We want to do kids performances, performances for adults, artist residencies, where a puppeteer working on a new show can work in the space,” said John Bell, the museum’s director, who also will teach classes in the new center. “We want this to be, not a daily part, but at least a regular part of life on campus.”

Both the museum and the Puppet Arts Program have been located since 2002 in the remote Depot campus several miles from the main campus. Before that, the program had been run out of the basement of a dormitory.

Puppet Arts program director Bart Roccoberton Jr. transformed the space into classrooms and workshops, which are filled with the products of his students’ imaginations. Visitors are greeted by a hallway lined with rod puppets from a recent production of “A Christmas Carol” and a 7-foot polar bear that stands guard in one corner. Roccoberton’s desk is in the building’s studio, somewhere under the marionettes and the foam head of a 12-foot-tall red queen from a corporate skit put together for an insurance company.

“Puppet people never throw away anything,” he joked. “We allow them to stay creatively engaged. If things are moving or shifting, I don’t ask them to clean.”

Twenty-four students are enrolled in the program. One master’s student is working on building a 25-foot dragon to be used in a performance of the musical “Shrek” in Florida. Other students are creating puppet dogs for an upcoming school production of “Legally Blonde.”

Most of the classes are taught by Roccoberton, who studied under Ballard at UConn and took over in 1990 after his mentor retired and students waged a successful fight at the state Capitol to keep the program funded.

Roccoberton frequently brings in guest lecturers to teach their specialties, such as stop-action animation, biomechanics or music composition.

“Most puppeteers are trained through apprenticeships, which give you a real specific type of knowledge about a certain type of puppetry,” Lagasse said. “At UConn, you learn everything from building to performance to how to do puppetry for the camera.”

This fall, the school doubled the full-time puppetry faculty, adding renowned puppeteer Margarita Blush as an assistant professor who will focus on performance and directing.

“The potential for influencing the future of American puppetry is now partly with me, and that is super exciting,” Blush said.

While the museum will move in December, the Puppet Arts program will remain in its current space. Roccoberton said they have been asked to increase enrollment and are still deciding how to do that.

In two years, the puppetry program will celebrate its 50th anniversary. To mark the occasion, UConn will host the 2015 national festival of Puppeteers of America and an international puppet festival.

“The school, the president, the dean, have all embraced us, which wasn’t always the case,” Roccoberton said. “We were constantly on the cutting block. But they would decide that we were getting good international press and were not costing them any money, so they let us keep going. And now, here we are.”

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