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Puppeteers Push The Envelope At UConn’s Winter Puppet Slam

puppet slam
A scene from "The Good Oak" by Boston-area arts collective BodyWave.

When you think of puppetry, you may think of the Muppets, or King Friday and the other hand puppets on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. But puppetry can also be a powerful way to convey more adult themes and emotions.

UConn’s Puppet Arts Program, along with the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, explores the edgier side of the art form with the Winter Puppet Slam this Friday night.

One of the featured works will be The Good Oak, a shadow puppet show on a moving scroll called a “crankie.” During the narration, puppet images dance across a moving screen and tell the story of the life of one particular oak tree in Wisconsin.

It’s just one of the many performances slated for this year’s puppet slam at UConn. Puppet slams are much like poetry slams, although puppet slams are generally not competitive.

“Puppet slams offer puppeteers to present work that’s outside the bounds of what we often consider to be the everyday bread and butter of puppet performance, which is shows for family audiences of kids shows,” said John Bell, director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. “You can invent something, there’s a lot of creativity that goes on, people doing things they wouldn’t normally be doing, and that's exciting.”

Bell said puppet slams are not unique to UConn.

“There are slams all across the country. It’s been supported by the Puppet Slam Network, which is a nationwide organization that Heather Henson started. She’s one of the daughters of [Muppets creator] Jim Henson. She started the network to support this national phenomenon of short-form, adult-oriented evening puppet shows.”

This year’s slam features over a dozen performances that run the gamut.

“There’s a show by a puppetry MFA student about the anxiety attacks one encounters on the Pennsylvania Turnpike rest stops with flat, cut-out puppets,” said Bell. “There is a joust, a puppet joust. There’s a ballet performance with a geodesic puppet that was inspired by Buckminster Fuller and [famed puppeteer] Bil Baird.”

Bell said the slam will feature works by students in UConn’s Puppet Arts Program as well as professional puppeteers.

UConn’s 2020 Winter Puppet Slam gets underway Friday night at UConn’s von der Mehden Recital Hall on the Storrs campus.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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