Marionette exhibition comes to Avery Point

“Sailors, Sea Creatures and Strings: Marionette Puppets from the Collection of the Ballard Institute” at Avery Point includes puppets designed by Frank Ballard for a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” that was staged nearly 30 years ago on UConn’s Storrs campus. (Contributed)
“Sailors, Sea Creatures and Strings: Marionette Puppets from the Collection of the Ballard Institute” at Avery Point includes puppets designed by Frank Ballard for a production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” that was staged nearly 30 years ago on UConn’s Storrs campus. (Contributed)

Some have big noses, pointed chins, bulging eyes and the highest of high cheek bones. And they are all hanging out, dressed to the nines on the second floor of the Branford House at the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut.

But be aware: if you want to visit with them, there are strings attached. Hundreds of them.

Dozens of marionettes and rod puppets that were featured in three maritime-themed puppet shows are on display in a small exhibit at the Branford House in Groton through Dec. 17. “Sailors, Sea Creatures and Strings: Marionette Puppets from the Collection of the Ballard Institute” features three rooms of colorful characters that puppeteers brought to life in stage shows and in the movies.

The pieces are from UConn’s Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry in Storrs, which houses more than 2,500 puppets and design sets, created, built and collected by Frank W. Ballard, a UConn professor who founded the Puppet Arts Program there in 1965. Ballard began teaching at UConn in 1956 and, during his 34-year career, created more than 100 puppet productions. His first show was “The Mikado” in 1968, and his last, in 1989, was “The HMS Pinafore,” which is one of two of Ballard’s productions featured in the exhibit. Ballard died in 2010.

The show is also part of Avery Point’s 50th anniversary celebration and is the first exhibit in the gallery space that once housed the Alexey von Schlippe Gallery. The space is now being used more broadly to showcase UConn academic programs and artwork.

“(The university) wants more collaboration between campuses,” said Matthew Sorensen, a graduate assistant at the Ballard Institute who is studying puppetry and is the curator of the Avery Point show. “We really want to utilize the space.”

The gallery in the Branford House faces Long Island Sound, and the “waves are practically crashing at the windows,” he said.

Because the Avery Point offers degrees in maritime studies, “it was a no-brainer,” Sorensen said, about which puppets to chose for the show.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” was staged at Jorgensen Center for Performing Arts at the Storrs campus. Puppets from the show line the walls in one room of the exhibit. The marionettes, dressed in hand-sewn period costumes, look as if, in a moment’s notice, they could spring to life and start dancing across the wooden floor.

Nearly 30 years ago, it took a dozen students to manipulate 89 puppets, including Capt. Corcoran, a well-bred gentlemen, and Sir Joseph Barge, a pompous naval captain with no seagoing experience, for the production. Cousin Hebe, a Victorian aristocratic lady, wearing a dapper fedora and carrying a parasol, is also on display nearby an eye-patched pirate who is seemingly swimming underwater toward an octopus in toe shoes, as three goldfish dance overhead.

A couple from Houston, Texas, who happened upon the exhibit recently while visiting the historic Branford House, were so charmed by the puppets that they went to their car to retrieve a three-foot stuffed moose they travel with. Linda Ebert sat on the floor and shoved “Mortie” into the swimming pirate scene.

“He has a kinship with them,” she said as her husband, Kirk, snapped some pictures. 

The Eberts, who adopted the stuffed toy after a neighbor was throwing it out, said they bring “Mortie” everywhere and post pictures of him on social media at various locations, including photobombing weddings and attended football games — much to the embarrassment of their daughter, Linda Ebert said. The day of the museum visit, the moose was dressed in jeans and an orange Jack-o-lantern shirt. He was also wearing wraparound sunglasses. The day before, the Eberts were at Gillette Stadium and “Mortie" was wearing a Patriots jersey, they said.

The Eberts said they they have only seen one puppet show, and that was while traveling in Japan.

“I’m in heaven,” Linda Ebert said as she inspected the chiseled faces and detailed costumes. “Up close, they’re incredible.”

Another room of the exhibit is transformed into a scene from Ballard’s 1980 “Ring of the Nibelung.” The lights are dim, and rod puppets float in the air in this underwater scene from the play based on Richard Wagner’s opera.

In adapting the opera, Ballard and his students built more than 110 rod puppets and used projections as backdrops. In addition to premiering at Jorgensen in 1980, the show was presented at the 13th annual International Congress of the Union Internationale de la Marionette in Washington, D.C.

And just so you don’t think puppets and opera are so far removed from modern life, some J.R.R. Tolkien fans believe the “Ring of Nibelung" was the inspiration for “Lord of the Rings.”

The third room in the exhibit features puppets that were created by former Waterford residents Rufus and Margo Rose for a 1960s movie production of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island.” The Roses, renowned puppeteers most famous for the television show featuring their smiling Howdy Doody puppet, adapted the 1880s novel in 1937 and started a touring marionette show.

The young Jim Hawkins, the son of an innkeeper who meets up with pirates while looking for buried treasure, is on full display, along with other characters from the play, including the one-legged Long John Silver and Capt. Smollett, the commander of the Hispanolia. There are pirates in red socks and gold buckled shoes holding mugs of drink. One pirate, Billy Bones, bears a striking resemblance to the late, great character actor Pete Postlethwaite.

Sorensen, who is working on a master’s degree in puppetry, said he hopes visitors come away from the exhibit with an appreciation for puppets.

“The beauty is, there are a lot of different kinds of puppets, and all are unique works of art,” he said. “There’s nothing like (these puppets) anywhere on the face of the planet.”

 

These 'Treasure Island' puppets were created by Rufus and Margo Rose. (Contributed)
These "Treasure Island" puppets were created by Rufus and Margo Rose. (Contributed)
More puppets from 'H.M.S. Pinafore' (Contributed)
More puppets from "H.M.S. Pinafore" (Contributed)

If you go

What: "Sailors, Sea Creatures and Strings: Marionette Puppets from the Collection of the Ballard Institute"

Where: Branford House, UConn Avery Point campus, Groton

When: Through Dec. 17; hours noon-4 p.m.Thurs.-Sun.

Admission: Free

For more information: (860) 486-8580, bimp.uconn.edu

 

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