UNIMA cites Roccoberton as ‘chancellor of puppetry education’ for his global influence
In 1972, President Richard Nixon made a historic eight-day trip to Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, accompanied by a group of US officials including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. One of the results of the trip was the start of economic and cultural exchanges between the two nations.
In 1994, Bart Roccoberton Jr. ’90 MFA, head of the UConn Puppet Arts program, traveled to China with one of his creations, Mumford Maxwell Mole, as part of a US Information Service cultural tour. Throughout her visit, her Chinese hosts were drawn to the puppet, cradling her like a baby.
âWe kept hearing the expression ‘Da Bizi’ whenever they talked about us. I learned that translates to âBig Nose,â which was their word for stranger, âRoccoberton says. âThe taupe puppet was Da Bizi incarnate. We decided that the television project that we would develop next would have Mumford as the central character.
The visit ultimately led to China becoming a member of the Union Internationale de la Marionnette, known as UNIMA, the international puppet organization based in France and affiliated with the United Nations Educational Organization, science and culture (UNESCO). In 2012, the UNIMA Congress, the international puppet festival, was hosted by China.
Roccoberton’s role in China in establishing a national UNIMA center is only one aspect of the international puppet work that has led UNIMA-USA to present him with a special citation as “North American Chancellor of education and training in puppetry for the twenty-first century â.
UNIMA-USA annually awards the best performances in the art of puppetry since 1975 with its Citation of Excellence – UConn’s puppeteers have received six over the years – but its Special Citations are awarded to ” who have made extraordinary contributions to the organization and to the puppet. ”
The quote says that Roccoberton âserved the field of puppetry with tireless energy, perseverance, skilled leadership and exquisite craftsmanshipâ¦ espousing an international outlook with an openness and love for all forms of puppetryâ¦ developing new audiences for the puppet.
âThe choice of the word chancellor was to show his education and to build the careers of puppeteers in the United States and beyond,â says Kathy Foley, chair of the board of directors of UNIMA-USA. âBart has done a lot of international work that put the American puppet in places where it wasn’t before. The Special Citation category is for people who, over a long period of time, have contributed both artistically, in service, and generally in representation of what American puppetry is about around the world. “
Roccoberton is the twelfth recipient of a Special Mention. Previous recipients include: Mollie Falkenstein, first secretary general of UNIMA-USA; Jim Henson, best known for The Muppets and Sesame Street; Nancy Lohman Staub, creator of the flagship exhibition âPuppets: art and entertainmentâ for the 1980 UNIMA World Puppet Festival; and Albrecht Roser, a leading German puppeteer and puppeteer arts teacher recognized as a pioneer in establishing puppetry as an art form internationally.
“I am honored. These are people I respect,” says Roccoberton of recognition by UNIMA-USA which places him in the company of major influences in his field. “The richness of what I do is success of my students. American puppetry is drawn from all traditions around the world. ”
As a graduate student, Roccoberton helped bring Roser to Storrs as a visiting professor, where the two became longtime colleagues. He adopted Roser’s technique of using paper sculpture as a starting point to create facial features and body parts in puppets, which influenced UConn’s puppeteers for over three decades. Roccoberton was a founding director of the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts and is now production director of the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where he invited international puppeteers to attend the conference and to lead workshops. After working with Hua Hua Zhang ’00 MFA on her first trip to China, where she was a member of the Beijing Chinese Puppetry Arts Troupe, he recruited her to the Puppetry Arts Graduate Program. at UConn.
Roccoberton says that early in his leadership of the Puppetry Arts program, when university administrators asked faculty to include additional multicultural elements in their curriculum, he sent the curriculum for his drama class of shadows, in which students study the history of this form of puppet, beginning in China and moving on to Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Greece, Turkey, France and Germany.
âBart has always had an international perspective on puppetry,â says Andrew Periale, editor-in-chief of UNIMA’s Puppetry International Magazine and former member of Roccoberton’s Pandemonium Puppets. âBart has had and continues to have an impact on the lives and careers of hundreds of budding puppeteers. It certainly had an impact on mine.
Vincent Anthony, Founder of the Center for Puppetry Arts and Secretary General of UNIMA-USA: âBart has been the flagship of our scholarship program. This has been very helpful in allowing puppeteers to acquire much needed knowledge from top teachers for years. He single-handedly recruited Chinese puppeteers to join them as a group, thus creating the Chinese UNIMA Center. This has opened up a large number of Asian countries to join UNIMA. “
Roccoberton says his students are interested in taking advantage of new technologies and materials to build their puppets, even though it continues to be a “hands-on art form.”
âI am constantly learning. I think my students are ahead of me in these areas, âhe says. âThere is a company called Smooth-On that makes endless products in urethanes and silicones. My students are very interested in this. We are setting up projects for them, but they still have to learn how to make plaster molds. They need to know the basics and from there they can move on to working with all of these different materials. We are preparing the next generation of puppeteers. I hope they can take the foundation we have created and move forward. I have to be smart enough to guide them. “