“Going into the program, I didn’t realize the faculty are among the heavy hitters of the Puppetry Arts world. They are internationally known experts in the field. But they were very down to earth, helpful, and responsive. They never just plopped a bunch of videos on HuskyCT/Blackboard; they were so involved in everything we did.” — Amy West, Graduate, Fall 2018, Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate Program
Amy West, who earned the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate in 2018, shows off her “puppet friends,” most of whom she created during DRAM 5610 - Advanced Hand Puppet Theater. The course was taught by Fergus Walsh, adjunct faculty member in UConn’s School of Fine Arts, Dramatic Arts Department.
Bringing Together a Myriad of Artistic Talent
Sometimes it takes years of experience to decide what we really want to do in life—at least it did for Amy West. Writer, photographer, musician, communications expert…Amy was finally able to bring together all of her artistic passions and expertise as a puppeteer extraordinaire! She credits the Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate program from the University of Connecticut (UConn) with helping her hone her skills—and take her puppetry career to an entirely new level. While she continues in her day job, she fuels her love of Puppetry Arts in all kinds of ways. Lately, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, she has been producing puppet video performances for Facebook Live to help entertain children—and adults—and raise money for Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, Massachusetts. And thanks to her experiences with the online program, she had no trouble at all transitioning to a whole new situation in March 2020, when her employer, the Tufts Clinical and Translational Science Institute, required its employees to work at home due to the Pandemic.
All of her life, Amy West has dabbled in various aspects of the arts—as a writer, a photographer, musician, stage manager, wedding DJ…some for money, some for fun, she says. And of course, she has had many day jobs over the years. “While all of my jobs have been satisfying in some way or other, they have never lit me up the way my artistic pursuits have,” says Amy.
Amy is one of millions of people who grew up in the 1970s, along side Mister Rogers, Sesame Street, and the Muppets. In fact, she can recall crouching behind the couch with her sister and putting on puppet shows with their stuffed animals.
More than two decades passed, during which time she didn’t give much thought to her early interest in puppets—until her niece was born in 2008. “I remember when she was very little, I picked up her Lamb Chop puppet and started talking to her. She was transfixed. Her focus was solely on the puppet; I disappeared in her mind. That made me think about the power of puppetry and an idea started to form.”
Then, as Amy recalls, she visited some friends in San Francisco in 2015. While there, she discovered Puppet Up!, a live show by Brian Henson and Henson Alternative. “It was so interesting because it was a TV-style puppet show, with the performance projected on a big screen. But you could see the puppeteers right on stage interacting with each other. It was really cool. That changed everything for me.”
Puppet video production begins
Amy began making short online videos featuring puppets. Although she wasn’t sure what she was doing, she found that she was able to express ideas in a different way than she might express them herself. “My puppet character was very cranky and forthright in a way I would never be. I tend to be more reserved.”
Fast-forward to 2016, when Amy realized she wanted to up her game by developing more formal skills in Puppetry Arts. That’s when she began looking at various programs and came across the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts Online Graduate Certificate. “The online program was perfect. I could participate while working full-time,” says Amy, who began the program in January 2017 and completed the last course December 2018.
Online? Yes, it’s the perfect venue!
Before she jumped in, she did have one big concern. “I thought, ‘How in the world will they be able to teach the courses online, when puppetry is such a hands-on experience?’” So instead of committing to the entire program right off the bat, Amy signed up for one course, DRAM 5610 - Advanced Hand Puppet Theater, as a Non-Degree student. To her surprise, she discovered the online platform was the perfect venue. “I have always been a bit of a loner, and I’m a night owl. So when my wife goes to sleep, I have time to do my thing. I discovered that online is the ideal medium for me, and especially now, in the midst of the Pandemic, the online learning experience through UConn prepared me for working at home full time.”
Amy also wondered how interactive the courses would be. Another big surprise! The VoiceThread platform enabled her and her classmates to watch lectures, upload performances, and even critique each other’s work. “We could slow the video down and actually circle something that needed attention, for example, if the performer’s wrist was not straight and it was affecting the puppet’s posture. VoiceThread, along with HuskyCT/Blackboard, which facilitates back and forth discussions, really connected everyone in the program. And because of the online platform, we could literally be connected all the time if we wanted to be.” Amy also says that one of her favorite aspects of the program was meeting people from all over the world with different goals and at different stages of their puppetry arts careers. She even had classmates from Alaska and South Africa!
From her first puppet slam to Trustee
While in the program, Amy learned about puppet slams, attending her first at the Puppet Showplace Theater in Brookline, MA. As she notes, this is a cabaret-style adult-oriented show, with short puppetry performances showcasing a variety of techniques, like shadow, marionette, or hand puppetry. She contacted the artistic director and submitted a video she created in the UConn program. She ended up performing that piece at her first puppet slam in 2018. “That evening was so great,” she recalls. “It was actually UConn night. Many people were from its Puppet Arts, MA/MFA programs.” Now, not only is she a regular at the Puppet Showplace Theater’s puppet slams—here’s a piece she performed for the February 2020 UConn Puppet Slam—she also sits on its Board of Trustees. In addition, she has joined several organizations, including Puppeteers of America, through which she attended her first national puppetry arts festival in 2019.
Says Amy: “One of the key takeaways from the certificate program is the notion of puppetry as creative problem-solving. How can I make this puppet look like it’s blowing out a birthday candle? How can I add depth to my playboard, to give my characters set pieces to walk behind and in front of? How can I make this snail shadow puppet extend its body in a comical way? How do I make this cut-out of the moon rise up over this mountain? Figuring these things out—with help from instructors, classmates, and my handy wife—was very satisfying.”
Two years of online learning at UConn also prepared Amy for our current pandemic reality. Since March 2020, Amy has been putting together 30-minute Facebook Live shows to entertain kids and adults, while raising money for Puppet Showcase Theater. “Whether working remotely at my day job or performing in an online puppet slam, the technical skills and adaptability I learned are critical to my daily life and work.”
"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."
An interactive, collaborative sharing tool.
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."
Putting his new skills to good use.
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."
Learning some of the business side, too.
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.'"
Life can take over.
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.
But finally the time was right.
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."
A great way to test the waters.
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.