John Bell glides through the crowd that is marveling at the many forms of Shakespeare puppets on display at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry. Bell, the director of the museum since 2007, stands tall among the crowd in a blue sports coat, white and blue plaid shirt, and red tie. Every now and then, he stops to greet those that he knows, thanking them for attending the opening on a windy Saturday in February. The museum, located on the University of Connecticut campus, was established in 1987 and, since then, has continued to showcase various forms of puppetry from throughout the world.
There is a group huddled around a glass box that has a bottle of boiled linseed oil and an empty jar: the classic interpretation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The display is from Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare, condensed versions of Shakespeare plays using found objects. In recent years, puppetry has begun to broaden the terms of what qualifies a puppet. At the forefront of this idea, Bell pushes the boundaries of what people consider puppets.
While Bell’s art form requires him to spend a lot of time out of view of his audience, he is clearly comfortable in front of a crowd. At well over six feet tall, he could easily come across as intimidating, but he aims to make sure everyone else is as comfortable as he his. Standing next to a ten-foot cardboard puppet of Ophelia from the Vermont theater company of Bread and Puppet, Bell introduces the curator of the new Shakespeare and Puppetry exhibit, Dr. Jungmin Song.
“I’m nervous,” Song said with an anxious laugh. “I know you’re nervous,” Bell responded, while he stood next to Song as she introduced the exhibit, and even held her hand for a moment when she asked him to. With Bell’s encouragement, Song gave insight on the various pieces in the Shakespeare and Puppetry exhibit, from Macbeth and Lady Macbeth as wrestlers to pieces from Tiny Ninja Theatre’s Shakespeare performances.
Bell speaks as if he wishes there was a puppet attached. Before he got into puppetry, Bell got his start acting when he was in high school in Illinois, but it never had his full interest. He saw that the various groups involved in a theater performance never really interacted with each other. When he saw Bread and Puppet Theater while studying at Middlebury College in Vermont, everything changed.
“When you build a new puppet . . . you try to figure out what the puppet wants to do.
“They’re making costumes, they’re performing, they’re playing music, they’re singing whatever, they’re schlepping, they’re writing. And that aspect of puppetry, which is definitive of the form, you know, all puppeteers are always doing all of that in some degree or another. That really appealed to me.”
Making puppets is the one of the most important parts of puppetry, and even though many puppeteers are the creators of their puppets, they aren’t always the ones in control. Before even starting to build a puppet, meticulous thought and planning goes into what that particular puppet is going to look like and what it is going to do. Paul Vincent Davis, a legendary hand puppeteer who attended the exhibit opening at the Ballard, explained it very simply by saying, “You have to know what you want that puppet to look like. You have to know what you want that puppet to do.”
Puppets often take on a life of their own, and a puppeteer must learn how to perform the puppet. “When you build a new puppet, or you come upon a puppet that you’ve never worked with before,” said Bell, “you try to figure out what the puppet wants to do.” With this in mind, it is extremely important that a puppeteer makes sure to build the puppet to perform in the way that they want it to.
The other factor that drew Bell to Bread and Puppet Theater wasn’t just that everyone had a part in every facet of the production, but the content of the shows as well. Bread and Puppet was founded in the early 1960s in New York City before moving to Vermont in 1970. The roots of the theater are deeply connected to the counterculture movement in New York City during the 1960s, particularly in opposition to the Vietnam War. The group was part of some of the first protests against the United States’ involvement Vietnam. “You can make art, you can make theater, you can make music about what’s happening right now,” says Bell, “and you can talk about these things that seem to be important to you.”
With a lot of other art forms, such as traditional theater or even movies and television, it can be hard to talk about current issues. However, puppetry allows performers to talk about more pressing issues. According to Blair Thomas, a puppeteer based in Chicago, puppets can be used to represent a group and not just an individual. “You can have a character that that becomes more universalized,” said Thomas, “so a human character could represent a fascist government or a single person to represent an oppressed people.”
Eventually, Bell would end up working with Bread and Puppet Theater, which he describes as an “avant-garde activist puppet theater,” touring all around the world and exposing him to the various forms of puppet theater in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. It opened his mind to all of the different interpretations of puppetry throughout the world and has influenced much of his work, most notably Great Small Works, the collective he helped found in 1995.
Although he’s been the director of the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry since 2007, he didn’t start teaching puppetry at UConn until 2014. Before that, he had taught theater history in New York City and for seven years at Emerson College in Boston. He has taken on more of an academic role while still performing with Great Small Works when there is enough time.
When it comes to Bell’s impact on the field of puppetry, Thomas knows exactly how important Bell is to the art form, not just as a creator and performer, but as a scholar. “He’s helping people start to understand how much puppetry does reflect our experience of the world,” said Thomas, “And he’s a real leader at that in the United States with his writings and publications.”
Puppetry has always had a way of taking on issues that are much bigger than a hand puppet. Bell is drawn to art forms that let artists express themselves the way they want to no matter what the subject matter. Whether it’s performing puppetry with Great Small Works, with his wife Trudy, or running the Honk Festival—an activist music festival that Bell and Trudy started in 2006—he is always working to represent something that is much bigger than himself.
The Wednesday after the exhibit opening, I caught up with Bell in his office in the museum. Bell surrounds himself with art— from a black-and-white papier-mâché puppet sitting on the floor, to a marionette hanging off the top of a bookcase. However, anything within his reach is just moments away from becoming part of a performance. “The audience is not going to say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not Macbeth. That’s a dummy hand grenade’, you know,” says Bell while holding his red water bottle in one hand and a dummy hand grenade in the other. “No, they’re gonna go, ‘Okay, now what happens?’”
This idea of object performance is what influences a lot of the art that Bell is interested in, and it goes further than the theater. “I think there’s all sorts of ways that the world of things, that performance of things is part of our lives, but we don’t necessarily think about it.”
Even sports can be seen as containing some element of puppetry. In its simplest form, the main goal of many different sports is object manipulation. Like puppets, the object has its own set of rules and isn’t going to do what it doesn’t want to do. “You need to know what the ball wants to do. You need to know how to handle the ball. You know, you keep your eye on the ball. The whole game is about where the ball is.”
As kids, we pick up a cardboard box or a stick, and our imagination turns it into anything. The cardboard box becomes a car, a rocket ship, an entire city. The stick becomes a wand, a superhero, a shifting gear. We make do with what’s lying around. That’s a form of puppetry, and, somewhere along the way, we lost that notion of just picking up a couple random things from around the house and having fun. John Bell seems to have never lost that connection, illustrating with just his water bottle and dummy hand grenade how art always surrounds us.
With much of the world on lockdown, the performance of puppetry, along with visiting the Ballard, has been put on hold. In the meantime, artists have had to find a way to reach their audience without seeing them in person. The museum is hosting online workshops on its Facebook page to keep its audience engaged.
As for the future of puppetry, Bell thinks it will be many different things. However, in its simplest form, puppetry is a performance, and even with a lot of the world relying on digital technology, puppetry will always have a human element. “I think live puppet performance will continue to be a strong cultural presence … although people don’t always recognize what it is.”
Conor Breen is a Blue Muse Staff Writer
Headline Photo Credit: Dr. John Bell, courtesy of Take Magazine