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Puppet Arts: Ancient and Modern

By Laurette Ryan

When naturally gifted artists are deciding what to study or where to go after high school, it is often their mentors at school who help open their minds to unique, exciting pathways in life.

That was the case for Esme Roszel, a sophomore at the University of Connecticut studying for her degree in puppet arts. The puppet arts program was introduced in 1964 and is one of the few in the country to offer a master’s degree. Many colleges offer puppet arts as an elective in their theater arts programs, but UConn has given this fantastic art form its own place.

In high school, Roszel’s many talents were recognized by her teachers. They allowed her complete creative control over their 2015 production of Shrek the Musical. Roszel designed sets and costumes in addition to performing in the production, which was nominated for a Massachusetts Educational Theater Guild Award in several categories, including her designs. This work helped bolster her portfolio for college applications.

Roszel was born into a family of artists and grew up in love with the arts. Her creative side was nurtured and encouraged from childhood. She tells a story of how she and her childhood friends would scour yard sales to buy stuffed animals. They took them home to cut them apart and sew them back together to create their own characters for telling stories and performing shows, letting their imaginations rule the day.

Puppetry is as ancient as human history itself. Early humans gathered around fires and told stories, animating them with masks and props. Shadow theatre—one of Roszel’s passions—has been historically noted as early as the first millennium BC and is thought to have originated in Central Asia, China, or India. Evidence of this is found in both ancient Chinese and Indian texts, though the art form made its way to Britain, Germany, Italy, and France by the seventeenth century. Called “ombres chinoises” by the French, shadow theatre was often referred to as “Magic Lantern” elsewhere.

As Roszel sought out her path after high school, one that might incorporate her love of the performing arts, she was astonished to learn of UConn’s puppet arts program. Admittedly, she says, at first it sounded like “clown college,” but after she looked into what it had to offer—the history of puppetry and its technical and creative aspects—she felt it was the program that most perfectly aligned with all her artistic abilities.

At first it sounded like “clown college,” but after she looked into what it had to offer—the history of puppetry and its technical and creative aspects—she felt it was the program that most perfectly aligned with all her artistic abilities.

Roszel was enthusiastic to share her talents in shadow puppetry last year by creating a visual shadow-theatre piece to accompany the UConn Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. The symphony tells the story of an artist gifted with a lively imagination who, in the depths of despair, poisons himself because of hopeless and unrequited love. It is a rather dark piece, and after she acquainted herself with the story, was excited to meet the challenge.

In 2017, her friend Shane McNeil wrote and produced Doc Foster’s Twisted Tales—an original puppet show for which Roszel designed stage props and was a lead puppeteer. Hosted by the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut, the show is portrayed as “a wickedly macabre puppet show anthology combining hand and shadow puppetry with crankies” (a side-scrolling reel of images). This show brings four original tales of terror to life as told by the eccentric Doc Foster and his misfit troupe of performers.

Puppetry is both technical and creative. Different types of puppetry lend distinctive tones and emotions to the stories. Whereas hand puppets can be whimsical and fun, shadow puppetry may be dark and mysterious. Crankies, as they are called, lend storybook or fairy-tale qualities to the action.

Today, we don’t realize how often we are affected by ancient and modern puppet arts. When most people think of puppets, the first thing that comes to mind is Jim Henson’s Sesame Street. The art is so compelling that many adults even enjoy Henson’s creations, such as those in The Muppet Show, a primetime television show of the 1970s and 1980s.

Henson said that the most influential event of his childhood was the arrival of a television set into his living room. Through it, he saw and became interested in puppetry. Throughout his high school years, he created puppet shows. After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in home economics, he produced coffee advertisements and developed some experimental films. In 1958, he founded Muppets, Inc.

Henson experimented with techniques that changed the ways in which puppetry was used on television. He believed that television puppets needed to have “life and sensitivity.” He was a pioneer in making characters from flexible materials, allowing them to express a wider array of emotions, whereas wooden puppets could not.

For Roszel, having a program like the one at UConn allows her to perfect and explore her art in a supportive and innovation-rich environment. When asked about her dream postgraduate career, she was introspective. “I want to make shows,” she said. She specifically has proposed a puppet musical. (Roszel is a songwriter—her original songs are accomplished and entertaining.) Like many artists, she was almost apologetic to admit that it really isn’t about the money; it is about creativity. But if she can make money at it, then all the better. It is the age-old artists’ dilemma—it is the need to create that feeds the soul and often outweighs the urge to replenish the bank account.

Like many artists, she was almost apologetic to admit that it really isn’t about the money; it is about creativity. But if she can make money at it, then all the better. It is the age-old artists’ dilemma—it is the need to create that feeds the soul and often outweighs the urge to replenish the bank account.

I’ve always been curious to know how the spark of creativity is ignited within an artist. Roszel has had many influential family members who were—and are—artists. But she felt particularly proud of her Aunt Patty, who passed when Roszel was in middle school. “She was always painting, singing, creating. I looked up to her like crazy because it was like Christmas when she was around. Because she got it—she was an incredible person.

“And the Beatles!” Roszel exclaimed. The Beatles were another great influence because she was, as she put it, “obsessed with the Beatles. They made so many people so happy. Their amazing energy left an indelible mark on the world!”

When asked what advice she’d like to offer other young artists like herself who are just embarking on artistic journeys, Roszel says, “If you like to do something, do it! I’m fortunate to have family support. I always need to be creating something, whether it has an obvious payoff or not. That’s what works for me. Don’t throw away any ideas. My motto is to finish, even if it isn’t perfect. As an artist, it may never be good enough for you, but it is always better to finish.”

For creators who never believe their work is “good enough,” I think this is probably the best advice of all: create, and let it go. Finish it, and move forward. As humans, we are destined to do better every time, and the act of process is never-ending. It truly is all about the journey—not the destination.

Puppetry is a unique and fascinating topic. This ancient art, in days gone by, connected people to one another. In its modern forms, it is an exploration of ideas, fantasies, and whimsy—storytelling that connects us all.

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