The O'Neill celebrates puppetry

Above, Conference Artistic Director Pam Arciero, from "Sesame Street," operates Leona Lion from the TV show "Between the Lions" during a workshop in Waterford.
Above, Conference Artistic Director Pam Arciero, from "Sesame Street," operates Leona Lion from the TV show "Between the Lions" during a workshop in Waterford. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo

No conference can boast having participants come from more interesting places than the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Puppetry Conference - places like Avenue Q and Sesame Street and Eureeka's Castle.

Between the pre-conference and main conference, close to 100 puppeteers will be passing their talents along to one another at the Waterford campus, including Martin P. Robinson, who plays Mr. Snuffleupagus on "Sesame Street"; Jim Kroupa, an expert puppet mechanic; Jim Rose, whose parents Margo and Rufus Rose created Howdy Doody and lived in Waterford; Phillip Huber, who choreographed the puppets for the film "Being John Malkovich"; and Ronnie Burkett, a Canadian marionette puppeteer.

Running the conference is Artistic Director Pam Arciero, who learned puppetry years ago from Jim Henson himself. She has since had an impressive career working in TV, and she currently plays Oscar the Grouch's girlfriend, Grundgetta, on "Sesame Street."

"It's the best puppet thing that I do all year," she said about the conference. "It's truly inspiring for me to see all these participants come up with amazing ideas to learn and grow and develop so quickly."

Arciero began working with the O'Neill as a guest artist for the annual conference during its early days. She became the artistic director in 2002.

Since then, she's loved working with the new crops of puppeteers and experts who make their way to the conference each year.

"It's a huge renewal for all of us to come together every year because, as puppeteers, we kind of work out in the world by ourselves. There are not a lot of places in the world that do puppetry on this level. So we have people come from all over the place because there's nowhere else to just go and think about puppets and dolls, you know? It's kind of an odd thing to do," she said.

The most striking thing about speaking with expert puppeteers is their ability to make their puppets come alive. While talking to a reporter, Phillip Huber was constantly making sure to give life to his puppy marionette Taffy, wagging its tail when people came over to pet it and constantly moving his pinky to make it breathe, even when it was getting no attention.

The conference culminates with two days of live performances showcasing what the participants have been working on all week. This year's shows on Friday and Saturday will include some work with Chinese rod puppetry, with a specific focus on stage combat.

In addition, there will be a piece that has been conceived, written, built, rehearsed and performed all during the weeklong conference. Guests are invited to come and see what Arciero and the rest of the master puppeteers have been learning this year and to enjoy some world-class puppetry.

National Puppetry Conference, 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, 305 Great Neck Road, Waterford; $28 ($22 members); (860) 443-1238, theoneill.org.

Right, Participants practice a performance with Chinese rod puppets at the annual O'Neill conference.
Right, Participants practice a performance with Chinese rod puppets at the annual O'Neill conference.
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