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Arts & Culture

A Puppet by Any Other Name

Exhibit Highlights the Art Form’s Variety

By Sala Levin ’10

Punch, brick and Fraggle puppets

Punch (left), Trixie la Brique and Red Fraggle are three of the puppets on display in the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library exhibit, "The Art and Craft of Puppetry," which runs through July 29.

Photos by Stephanie S. Cordle; Fraggle: © 2022 The Jim Henson Company

A brick wearing a tiny tutu might seem to the average person like a head-scratching oddity, or maybe someone’s idea of a decorative flourish for their garden.

But that brick is a puppet, simply because its creators declared it one. That’s the idea behind “The Art and Craft of Puppetry,” an exhibit that runs through July at the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library—that puppetry can extend far beyond the marionettes and finger toys we may be familiar with.

“It’s just the childlike imagination, our willing suspension of disbelief” that transforms an object into a character with a life force, said Drew Barker, UMD’s performing arts librarian and curator of the exhibit.

UMD students and faculty have long been proponents of this particular artistry, starting with Muppet-creating alum Jim Henson ’60 and continuing through classes, performances, workshops and even an alum theater group focusing on puppetry.

To tap into your own youthful sense of wonder, take a look at some of the puppets on display.

“PUNCH, JUDY AND BABY” (above, left) are classic puppet characters, rooted in the 16th-century Italian theatrical tradition of commedia dell’arte, which featured stock characters including the comically pugnacious Mr. Punch. He and his wife, Judy, became wildly popular in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, known for slapstick antics and dark humor. “To see adults and children both cackle with glee that Punch is getting away with it is a kind of strange inversion” of the inherent innocence of puppets, said Barker. (On loan from the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta)

“TRIXIE LA BRIQUE” (center), created in 1978 by Canadian siblings David and Ann Powell, founders of Puppetmongers Theatre, is an example of a “found puppet,” an everyday object that’s infused with lifelike qualities. Using just a scrap of fabric and the skill of a performer, the Powells turned an ordinary brick into a tightrope walker in their puppet circus. Barker noted that his 5-year-old son “did laugh and smile as soon as he saw it,” because he understood immediately that in this case, a brick is not just a brick. (On loan from the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta)

“RED FRAGGLE” (right) nods to Henson, UMD’s most famous connection to puppetry. An animatronic character from his 1980s television show, “Fraggle Rock,” the Fraggle is shown along with its radio transmitter, which a puppeteer would use to control its movements. “I want to show people as much as possible how these puppets work,” said Barker. “Sometimes it’s very sophisticated, sometimes it’s very simple.” (On loan from The Jim Henson Company)

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