Tales From the O'Neill: Puppetry Conference in Full Swing

By Sophia Saifi
June 12, 2013

The Blue Gene is the only pub at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. A single-storied log cabin adorned with old Playbills, the pub comes to life after 10 PM when it's flooded with varied patrons. On the night of June 5, it hosted the unofficial launch of the 2013 National Puppetry Conference.



Puppeteer Estee Taylor's saucy Jessica Lange-esque marionette sang Etta James while a snarky Black Eyed Susan turned down her puppeteer Madison Cripps's romantic advances. It was the first open mic night of the season, and the walls of the Blue Gene rumbled with laughter.

That Wednesday was also the start of the Puppetry pre-conference. From June 5-7, participants attended classes on skills such as directing for the puppet theatre, mechanics, toy theatre and writing. The workshops were directed by stalwarts of the world of puppetry including Eric and Inez Zeller Bass, Jim Kroupa, John Bell and Robert Smythe.

The three days of the pre-conference were just a taste of things to come. The 23rd annual National Puppetry Conference officially began June 8. In 1990, through the efforts of puppetry artist Bart Roccoberton and with the aid of The Rose Endowment for Puppetry set up by Jane Henson, a future for puppetry at The O'Neill was established. The conference has become a cornerstone for the puppetry community in the United States.

Pam Arciero, the current artistic director, has been involved with the conference from its inception. "We encourage people to take chances in order to grow," she said. "Failure is probably one of the best teachers you're going to have in order to grow. And the way you develop is to take that risk, fail and then try it again."

Over eight days, participants will create plays and productions that will showcase their varied talents, which include acting, singing, puppetry and poetry. Arciero stressed the importance of the diverse skills needed to be a puppeteer saying, "With puppetry you have to have such a specific skill set. It's not that you're just writing it down, it's not that you're just singing, it's not just that you're acting, it's not just that you're moving – it's all of those things, and you have to do them all pretty well."

On the evening of June 8, the 60-plus participants sat in a circle, pitching the projects they planned to work on in the upcoming week. Jean Marie Keevins, associate artistic director of the conference, encouraged them to throw out ideas "like spaghetti and see what sticks."

Some of the ideas included mice at the Met, "Jurassic Park" in puppet form, a man who broods in a whale and an abundance of ukulele players, and these ideas are going to be shared with the conference on the morning of June 15.

With the high caliber and commitment of the staff and participants involved, the results, as always, look promising.

Tickets and more information are available by calling (860) 443-1238 or visiting theoneill.org.

The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center was founded in 1964 and is based in Waterford, CT. Programs at the Center include the Puppetry Conference, Playwrights Conference, Critics Institute, Music Theater Conference and the National Theater Institute. The Monte Cristo Cottage, O'Neill's childhood home, is also owned and operated by the group.