For Bobby Eure and a few other West Virginia University students, the opportunity to meet the voices behind Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo was an important step toward reaching their goal of becoming successful puppeteers.
It’s just one of the benefits of being a part of WVU’s puppetry arts program, one of only three in the nation and the only one to include creative dynamics.
Eure, who graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Puppetry/Creative Dramatics through the College of Creative Arts’ Division of Theatre and Dance, said meeting Carroll Spinney and Kevin Clash was the kind of exposure to puppetry he could not have gotten anywhere else.
“That was my favorite memory throughout my years at WVU. It was awesome, getting the chance to meet the people behind the characters I grew up watching,” Eure said. “It’s that kind of once-in-a-lifetime learning experience that I’ll take with me forever.”
The fact that there is a puppetry major at WVU surprises most people Eure talks to, he said.
“It’s always interesting telling people what my major is, or introducing them to my puppet, Sherwood T. Anderson,” Eure said. “It’s always a fun topic and a surprise when I bring him out and tell people, ‘this is Sherwood, he’s a nerdy English major who likes words,’ and that he has created his own Facebook page.”
Coming from Texas, Eure said he began the program with an interest solely in puppetry, but later gained a love for children’s theater as a whole throughout his three years.
“For me, puppetry is about working with children, making them laugh, and my ultimate goal in life is to work with children,” Eure said. “Puppetry is a great way to do so, and I have lots of fun. Just hearing children’s laughter from behind the stage when a puppet pops up above the curtain and does something silly, it’s a great feeling.”
Eure had only three options to get a degree in puppetry arts: University of Connecticut, University of Hawaii, and WVU.
Out of three schools in the entire nation to offer a degree program in puppetry arts, WVU is one of two to offer a Bachelor of Fine Arts in puppetry, and is the only one of the two to include a creative dramatics, or children’s theater, component.
WVU’s puppetry graduates work for prestigious companies that include The Walt Disney Co., Nashville Sesame Street Live Touring, Grey Seal Puppet Co., Houston Children’s Festival, Theatre West Virginia, The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, Holden Puppets and Kids on the Block.
Successful puppetry alumni include Greg Ruhe, creative director of Puppet Pizzazz in Texas, and Michael Vetere, a professor of creative dramatics and puppetry at Illinois State University who was recently named one of “Puppetry International” magazine’s best puppetry designers in the world under the age of 40.
Benjamin Levesque, another alum of the program and the first Order of Augusta student from the Division of Theatre & Dance, said the program prepared him for the responsibility of educating children.
“The program really incorporates the arts as well as the educational component to it; puppetry is a great art form, but it is a children’s art form for the most part, and with that being said there is a certain amount of responsibility that one needs to have when choosing shows and building puppets,” Levesque said.
“You want to have some type of redeeming educational value, and a goal toward everything you do. And I think that’s one of the best things that the puppetry program teaches you: how to make your performance really worthwhile for the kids.”
Levesque is currently partner of the Sassafrass Junction Puppet Theatre in St. Albans, and says that the comprehensive coursework in his undergraduate years gave him experience in preparation for the real world.
The most important experiences for the puppetry students often come from working with Joann Siegrist, the program’s director and a former president of the USA chapter of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), the international puppetry union.
“My favorite experiences in school were the opportunities to tour with Joann, and my freshman year I got to do a show in Kentucky for a week,” Levesque said.
“Actually going out and doing these tours, and learning who to talk to in order to set up, what you have to do, and how to book shows made me realize that there was so much more that went into it other than actually performing the show. Experiencing these things on a firsthand basis is exactly what a performer needs in their education.”
Levesque said that Siegrist’s knowledge and pull in the puppetry industry is “invaluable,” and her direction combined with the additional theater component was what brought him to WVU from Assonet, Mass.
“One of the biggest benefits of coming to WVU for puppetry is simply our program director, Joann, who is tremendously supportive of not only her current students, but also her alumni,” Levesque said. “Not to mention, she’s a phenomenal force in the puppetry industry who knows every single person at every festival she’s ever taken me to, and is close friends with Jane Henson, the wife of late Jim Henson.
“Just the fact that Joann got Spinney and Clash to come to WVU goes to show how strong her connections are in the puppetry world.”
Siegrist said WVU’s program is not only distinctive to the University, but also sets itself apart from other programs throughout the nation.
“Our degree program is unique in that it provides in-class, in-depth academic studies for puppetry, theatre for youth, and drama education while also giving students both major and non-major production performance and touring opportunities,” Siegrist said.
“The most important thing that I strive for as director is to train the students to be cutting-edge in these fields artistically, creatively and intellectually.”
Siegrist stressed the importance of young children being exposed to live performances.
“Performing for the kids through class projects gives them the chance to experience a live performance beyond what is found electronically with television, film, and video,” Siegrist said. “Not to mention, they are entertained and at the same time being educated to be wonderful members of a theater audience when they grow up.”
WVU students studying puppetry and creative dramatics take classes in playwriting, directing, fundamentals of lighting, costuming, early childhood education, music skills, acting, make-up, and more.
Siegrist says the future of the program is bright as it continues to advance with the hope of expanding course offerings in animation and exploring more new plays for young audiences.
By Mel Moraes
WVU University Relations/News
CONTACT: Joann Siegrist, Division of Theatre & Dance
304-293- 7443, Joann.Siegrist@mail.wvu.edu
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter.