They’ve Got the World on a String—or a Rod
Students Bring Their Henson-Funded Puppet Creations to the Stage
Sylvia Plath might not have made much sense as a Muppet—try imagining Fozzie Bear in an adaptation of “The Bell Jar”—but that doesn’t mean she can’t work as a puppet. With long, foreboding black arms and a variety of faces (including one birdlike mask), the famously troubled poet takes puppet form in “Dear Sylvia,” a one-person performance piece created by Olivia Brann ’14, M.A. ’19.
“Dear Sylvia” is part of tonight’s Henson Awards Showcase, a celebration of the student recipients of the Jim Henson Fund for Puppetry, named for the renowned Muppets creator who graduated from UMD in 1960. Puppeteer Jane Henson ’55 (Jim’s wife) started the fund that annually supports four students’ puppet projects. The topics aren’t the lighthearted stuff of Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop: Mental illness, pollution, grief and Jungian psychology are all on the table.
“Just like Jim Henson made ‘The Dark Crystal’ and ‘Labyrinth,’ there is a duality,” said Brann. “It’s for children, but it’s for adults as well.”
After a high school reading of “The Bell Jar”—Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s experiences with mental illness—Brann became interested in the writer and eventually created “Dear Sylvia” to “say it’s okay to not be okay, but at the end of the day you do have hope. There is light in the world.”
Kristen P. Ahern MFA ’19 was inspired by the Ghost Festival celebrated in Asian countries, in which ghosts and spirits are believed to emerge from their realm. When she learned that air pollution increases dramatically during the festival, she decided to create something environmentally sustainable inspired by the celebration, using recycled and found materials to build her four puppets.
“One of the things I’ve always been interested in as a designer is the waste that is created as we design,” said Ahern. “We put up plays or musicals or operas for two weeks and then everything gets thrown away or put into storage until it gets thrown away 20 years later.”
Using shipping boxes, bubble wrap, scrap fabric, elements of shelving units and more, Ahern created puppets inspired by fire, water, air and earth. (No puppets will be harmed during the fire component, she promises.)
Also presenting their projects will be Christopher Brusberg MFA ’19 and Lauren Duffy, whose work focuses on the grieving process, and MFA dance candidate Stacey Carlson ’19, whose piece explores Jungian theories of personality.
The showcase isn’t the only puppet-centric offering in the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies this semester; the course “Puppet Cinema: When Film and Puppetry Meet on Stage” gives students the chance to learn about the craft from puppeteers.
Puppetry is “a part of both dance’s history and theater’s history,” said Maura Keefe, interim director of the School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. “It’s a great part of Maryland’s history as well because of Jim Henson’s legacy.”