Vernon Community Arts Center hosts UConn Puppetry exhibition

By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon - posted Wed., Sep. 11, 2013
This 'Harem Woman' rod puppet, created by Frank Ballard for the show 'Kismet' in 1975, is one of many on display at the Vernon Community Arts Center at the World of Puppetry exhibition, through Oct. 5. Photos by Steve Smith.
This 'Harem Woman' rod puppet, created by Frank Ballard for the show 'Kismet' in 1975, is one of many on display at the Vernon Community Arts Center at the World of Puppetry exhibition, through Oct. 5. Photos by Steve Smith.

A different looking exhibit has taken over the Vernon Community Arts Center through Oct. 5. The “World of Puppetry” is being presented in conjunction with the University of Connecticut's Puppet Arts program, as well as the school's Ballard Institute.

Institute Director John Bell explained that while the Puppet Arts program focuses on teaching students how to become puppeteers, the institute has more than 3,000 puppets from around the world, which are presented in exhibitions, programs, lectures and workshops, as well as in the Ballard Museum.

“The students in the Puppet Arts program learn about the history and the global context,” Bell said. “Around the world, UConn is recognized as one of the best, if not the best, places to learn about puppetry.”

The VCAC's main exhibition spaces are divided between the two UConn programs.

Frank Ballard passed away three years ago, but began in the early '60s doing puppetry productions. The institute contains many of his puppet creations from over the years, as well as puppets from around the world, including India, going back more than 100 years.

“Puppets are so central to global culture,” Bell said. “When you start looking at puppets around the world, you see the connections to literature, and the connections between cultures.”

Bell said uses of puppets include education, in the form of literacy, and were often used as political satire. “It's really interesting, because it offers puppeteers the ability to critique society,” he said. “People could speak out and make fun of the king. If the government got angry, they'd say, 'I didn't say it. It was the puppet that said it,' which actually worked.”

Puppet Arts Director Bart Roccoberton said the pieces featured in the show were picked to help show local audiences what goes on at UConn. There are examples of current students' work, as well as pieces from productions over the years. The puppets come in a variety of sizes and shapes and are created in a range of processes. As part of the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, the Puppet Arts program is often in charge of creating “characters” for plays.

For a recent production of Shakespeare's "Pericles," Roccoberton was asked for a big fish prop. He asked what the fish should do, and the director said it's simply needed to be brought in from the sea by fishermen.

“I said, 'What if one of them sat down in the middle of it, and its tail kicked up in the air, and its mouth came open and it vomited 10 smaller fish?' He said, 'Yes!'” Roccoberton said. “So, it became a puppet, and that's what we did."

Second-year grad student Dana Samborski, who is an Ellington resident, had several masks on display, as well as a display showing the progress of how he created one of his puppets. "I just like to have my stuff out there,” Samborski said, “just so people can see all the different things you can do with puppetry.”

While puppets are often costructed with sculpture techniques, they are often more complex, having to perform a function (or many funtions) as part of a performance.

“After you make them, a lot of times you have to try out what they are capable of,” Bell said. “They are like tools. A screwdriver is good for some things that a hammer isn't. Part of the interesting process with them is to figure out what they do well.”

“When you're designing a puppet, you want it to do a certain thing,” Samborski said. “If you're designing a puppet that needs to pick something up, or a puppet that needs to dance, you build those differently.”

The UConn representatives said the VCAC was a good fit for showcasing their work. “It's wonderful,” Roccoberton said. “It's a very bright space. The energy that we're getting from the staff and volunteers is really positive.”

“We're really happy,” Bell said. “It's a beautiful space for exhibitions.”

In addition to the puppets on display, there will also be several puppetry events, workshops and performances, including classes for children and teens.

Puppet performances will take place on Sept. 14 and 22, and Oct. 5 and 13.

For a complete schedule, visit

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