"Thanks to the knowledge and experience I have been gaining, I'm able to put my new skills into actual use. I'm learning techniques to make puppets take certain actions that you wouldn't think you could, such as having a shadow puppet jump across a pond and showing the surface water actually rippling at the same time. I'm getting puppet arts training from a university with a world-class reputation in the field, while being able to continue working at a job I love." — Brandon Kirkham, Puppetry Arts Online Graduate Certificate Student
Brandon Kirkham, Brandon has been building puppets
professionally for more than 10 years. But with just two
courses from the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate
Program under his belt, he’s taking his work as Design
Supervisor at First Stage in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the
For the Love of Puppets
Brandon Kirkham has been immersed in theater for many years – first as an undergraduate student in Costume Design at the University of Evansville, then as a student in the Master's in Costume and Scenery Design program at Ohio University. Today, he works as Design Supervisor for a children's theater company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called First Stage. As much as he loves theater, there's something about the world of puppetry that's taken hold of Brandon. While the Master's program at Ohio University allowed him to tailor his education to reflect his interest in puppetry, it wasn't part of the formal curriculum and didn't provide the in-depth training he was looking for to take his interest to the next level.
"At the time I was looking into getting a Master's degree, I knew about the University of Connecticut's (UConn) Puppetry Arts Master of Fine Arts program, but decided to stick with theater design," Brandon recalls. "But I had always wondered what it would have been like going to UConn. So when I saw a post on a friend's Facebook page about the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate Program, I immediately knew it would be the perfect way for me to fill in my knowledge gaps and allow me to get a more formal education in puppetry."
Part of the "inaugural" class, Brandon has completed two of the four required courses: DRAM 5607 – Advanced Materials Techniques and DRAM 5613 – Advanced Shadow Theater. Both courses incorporated extensive opportunities to critique other students' work and to be critiqued. Says Brandon: "In any artistic pursuit, critique is essential. We are creating art to be viewed and knowing how your peers see your work helps you understand whether you are communicating your story and characters clearly, or not. I find VoiceThread to be a great platform for critiquing."
So what is VoiceThread and how is it used in the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate Program? An interactive collaboration and sharing tool, VoiceThread allows students to add images, documents, and videos – then other students can add their voice, text, audio file, or video comments. "VoiceThread allows you to be as close as possible to other students without actually being in the same space," says Brandon, who used the tool extensively to provide critiques and in return, received the same level of feedback. "Since the courses are asynchronous, I'm able to provide my critique at a time convenient to me, usually later in the evenings when my wife has gone to bed."
Brandon's experience to date has already made a big impact on his work at First Stage, which operates the nation's largest theater academy for children. As part of his job as Design Supervisor, Brandon is involved with 11 productions a year. Says Brandon:
"We seem to be incorporating puppetry into more shows, which conveniently coincides with my involvement in the online graduate certificate program. For example, Lovabye Dragon, a show we adapted from the book by Barbara Joosse, features three styles of puppets – hand, shadow, and a 14-foot walk-around dragon puppet that takes three performers to operate. I would never have known how to create intricate shadow puppets before I took the Advanced Shadow Theater course with Penny Benson.
"Thanks to the knowledge and experience I have been gaining, I'm able to put my new skills into actual use. I'm learning techniques to make puppets take certain actions that you wouldn't think you could, such as having a shadow puppet jump across a pond and showing the surface water actually rippling at the same time. We also had a session on learning how to use old-school projectors to achieve very intricate special effects, like having puppets appear to weave in and out of trees in a forest."
The program isn't all fun and games. As Brandon notes, "Using Blackboard to have online discussions, we are exposed to a lot of very interesting ethical topics, such as rights, royalties, and copyright rules." Brandon is also required to write research papers. But the effort he has put in thus far has been well worth it. As he says, "I'm getting puppet arts training from a university with a world-class reputation in the field, while being able to continue working at a job I love."
Brandon's final project: Lovabye Dragon shadow music video
Another class project: to emulate the style of Australian puppeteer Richard Bradshaw
"If you can't get to Storrs, the online graduate certificate program is ideal. You can complete the courses from your home or studio, wherever. It's also a great way to test the waters to see if you're interested in getting an MFA in Puppet Arts from UConn. I know my degree will open all kinds of doors for me in the future." — Kimberly Van Aelst, Puppetry Arts Online Graduate Certificate Student
Kimberly Van Aelst lives with her husband and
four-year-old son in Hamden, Connecticut – and
an ideal place to create puppets, especially with
her studio (shown here) located right on their
property, just steps from their home.
All About Timing
Timing is everything, at least for Kimberly Van Aelst it is. Since 2008, she had been interested in applying for a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Puppet Arts at the University of Connecticut (UConn), School of Fine Arts, Dramatic Arts. But life has a funny way of sneaking up on you and taking over. Finally, eight years later, the timing was just right, and Kimberly applied to the program. At the same time, she discovered the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate program and decided to get some credentials under her belt while she was waiting to hear about being accepted.
Who would have thought someone with a Master's of Public Health, specializing in International Health, could end up in UConn's Puppet Arts MFA program? Kimberly Van Aelst did. While working overseas in Afghanistan as a Social Media Project Manager with Handicap International, she met a puppeteer who produced educational puppet films for children to help prevent land mine injuries. As she recalls, "It inspired me and helped me to envision a way to blend puppetry with my public health and occupational therapy background. I started thinking of applying to the MFA in Puppet Arts program in 2008. I remember telling my colleagues, 'One day I will be in the graduate puppetry program at UConn.'"
But like so many of us, life has a way of taking over. Kimberly and her husband, a professional freelance photographer, bought a house, got married, and had a baby. "We put other dreams on hold as we lived in bliss as new parents," says Kimberly, whose Mystic Aquarium wedding in 2011 became a YouTube hit, with nearly 5,000,000 views, when the couple's mariachi band was filmed serenading a Beluga whale!
While Kimberly continued to work in her field, she found time to cultivate her passion for puppetry, performing in puppet slams – in New York City, New Haven, Boston, and even on the West Coast – and with performance companies, such as Drama of Works in Brooklyn, New York. In fact, Kimberly developed a new puppet show piece called "WAAC the Puppet Show,"* which was recently showcased at Dixon Place in New York City during a World War II-themed slam hosted by Drama of Works.
In January 2016, the time was finally right, and Kimberly applied for the Master's program. Knowing she would have to wait to hear about acceptance – then wait several months before coursework would begin – she decided to jump into the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate program and took DRAM 5607 – Advanced Materials Techniques. Says Kimberly, who also took DRAM 5613 – Advanced Shadow Theater to hone her skills in shadow puppetry: "I wanted to start accruing credits, get a feel for the Master's program, and meet some of the faculty. The online courses were fantastic."
So what specifically did she find so worthwhile?
During Advanced Materials Techniques, Kimberly learned all about puppet construction using a wide variety of materials and tools. For example, she says, "We learned how to design a puppet head and construct it out of neoprene latex. Our teacher, Paul Spirito, showed us exactly what adhesives and paints would work on latex, and how to add eyes, a nose, and even a mouth that can move." Kimberly also found VoiceThread, to which she uploaded her various project for critique, to be extremely easy to use.
Even though Kimberly has had a lot of experience in shadow puppetry, taking the Advanced Shadow Theater course from Penny Benson taught her how to use multiple projectors at once. She also learned how to incorporate her body into the performance while greatly improving her masking and rod techniques. "It was so helpful. Penny taught us how to attach puppet joints so they aren't stiff and how arms and legs can move and appear three-dimensional, rather than being flat and lifeless."
When Kimberly completes her MFA in 2019, she envisions developing puppets for local theater companies, such as the Downtown Cabaret Theater in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She encourages anyone with a love of puppetry to give it a try, even for people like her with a background in a field unrelated to performance arts. Plus she says, "If you can't get to Storrs, the online graduate certificate program is ideal. You can complete the courses from your home or studio, wherever. It's also a great way to test the waters to see if you're interested in getting an MFA in Puppet Arts from UConn. I know my degree will open all kinds of doors for me in the future, hopefully helping pave the way for me to develop and perform larger scale pieces in festivals around the world."
* WAAC stands for Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp.