A Visit to the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn
If your familiarity with puppetry begins and ends with Elmo, Kermit the Frog or Pinocchio, get ready for a much wider world of “performing objects” at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn.
To borrow a phrase from Ballard’s director, John Bell, puppetry is “ubiquitous and invisible.” Really, puppetry is everywhere. Take the new Star Wars film Rogue One, or any of the Lord of the Rings films, or even big New York City shows like The Lion King on Broadway. All of these major cultural icons owe their success to the ancient art of puppetry, showcased at the Ballard School’s museum.
The museum’s collection includes about 3,000 puppets sourced from around the world, with a special focus on 20th century American puppets. The puppetry program at UConn was founded in 1965 and is the only one in the country to offer a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees in puppetry. UConn’s puppetry grads go on to work extensively on television programs, in both animated film and live theater, and even designing mascot puppets—like your friend Big Bird or Wally the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
Once on UConn’s campus, head to the thriving new village known as Storrs Center where the university bookstore is located. From there, look for the glowing LED marquee and you will have found the Ballard Institute of Puppetry and its museum.
Inside the museum, glass enclosures display selections from the museum’s permanent collection featuring a wide variety of marionettes, hand puppets, shadow fingers, rod puppets, toy theaters, as well as hundreds of traditional puppets from Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas. The museum also includes hundreds of books and more than 1,000 videos and other audio-visual resources.
Whether an Iranian marionette or an English rod puppet, the puppets all really feel like they could come to life at any moment. And most puppeteers often believe they do. UConn’s collection embodies culturally rich history including some pretty sophisticated rod puppets from the Javanese culture used in the dramatization of epic tales, or French hand puppets used to illustrate the concerns of Lyon silk workers in the early 19th century.
A single marionette puppet represents famed puppeteer Tony Sarg, best known for his work in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade using the very first inflatable puppet, Felix the Cat, in the beloved televised holiday tradition. And, a very sweet set of marionettes tells the tale of Pinocchio with Pinocchio himself, Geppetto the carver, and Jiminy Cricket.
The Ballard Museum offers continual programming throughout the year in its black box theater as well as a series of temporary exhibitions. The museum’s newest exhibition “Obstreperous Puppets” featuring giant flowers, giant animals, and an immersive puppet sea, inhabited by big blue faces, blue dragons, and illuminated fishes reading a Book of the Sea will open at the end of June.
Also this summer, the Ballard Institute will be presenting its popular Summertime Saturday Puppet Shows series of new works by UConn Puppet Arts students and alumni for family audiences. The series will be on Saturdays, July 1 through August 12, 2017. Each show will be performed twice, at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. From Canteen Tales: The Curse of Bread Beard, a story of the wannabe pirate Sidney Salts, as he hunts for the legendary treasure of Bread Beard the Pirate; to “Sheldon Explains It All,” the tale of a turtle, who is scared of absolutely everything, the puppet show series is sure to delight your kiddos.
After visiting the Ballard Museum, have lunch in Storrs Center. The Village Street neighborhood offers quaint outdoor cafes and shops lining the wide, landscaped sidewalks. There is really no shortage of options from Dog Lane Café, Geno’s Grill of Blaze Pizza. For dessert, head to Froyoworld, Sweet Emotions Candy for over 400 different types of candies or Insomnia Cookies for classic chocolate chunk cookies a la mode.
All photos courtesy of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry