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  May 1, 2000

Life and Soul of Roccoberton's Career
on Display in Puppet Exhibit

In 1973, when Bart Roccoberton found himself three credits short of his college degree, he put on a puppet show.

With no experience in puppetry, Roccoberton, a speech and technical theater major at Montclair State College in New Jersey, mounted a production of Brecht's The Beggar or The Dead Dog. He built marionettes, immersed himself in research and earned three credits. He also made a discovery that would change his life.

"Within puppetry I found the ability to touch virtually everything that I like to do," says Roccoberton, who directs the Puppet Arts Program at the UConn.

Now, to celebrate his 10th year as the program's director, Roccoberton has showcased his work in an exhibit, "Creating Pandemonium: A Life-Long Pursuit," at the Ballard Museum and Institute of Puppetry in the Willimantic Cottage at the Depot Campus. The show includes his first marionnettes, puppets he created while a UConn graduate student, works from his years directing the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts at the O'Neill Theatre Center, works from touring with Pandemonium Puppets, and puppets from UConn productions.

Roccoberton says that the puppet is "a vessel, in which the audience and puppeteer share souls."

The illusion "of life and a soul in a puppet is done collaboratively with the audience and puppeteer," he says. "The audience has to be actively

involved in order for the illusion to take place. In the human theater you can sit back and watch the show. We simply believe the actor is portraying the role. But that belief is a pretense - we pretend that he is the character. When a good puppet production takes place, the belief is that the puppet is the character," he says.

Roccoberton, who is internationally recognized, has been a professional puppet artist for more than 25 years. He earned an MFA in puppet arts at UConn, and succeeded Frank Ballard, his mentor and the program's founder, in 1990.

"Bart is one of the most hardworking individuals I've known," Ballard says. "I was delighted when he took my place."

In a couple of basement dormitory rooms crammed with molds, masks, tools, and puppets-in-progress, 28 graduate and undergraduate students learn to design, build and manipulate puppets. The Puppet Arts Program is the only training program in the United States that offers both graduate and undergraduate degrees in puppetry.

Roccoberton founded and toured with the troupe, The Pandemonium Puppet Company, and is founder and former director of the Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts at The Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford. During the past 20 years, he has performed in colleges, schools, theaters, museums and libraries. He has created and performed characters for television programs, New York theater productions and special commissions. "It's a career that leads you to places that you never expected to be," he says.

His work in China, where he was invited to create a television program with puppets, for example, continues to amaze him.

"It flabbergasts me that a little mole puppet has led me there several times over," Roccoberton says. "And I've led China into joining the world puppet organization. When I went to China in January to give a small seminar, I arrived to find the entire leadership of Chinese puppetry there for my seminar."

It was also in China that he met and recruited Hua Hua Zhang, China's leading puppeteer, who is completing her graduate work here in May. "I enjoy the program because it is totally different than my training in China," she explains. "In China I was trained only to perform. I never got a chance to develop other skills, like drawing and design."

Bart "is a special professor," she says. He is always available and encouraging, she notes.

David Stephens, a first-year graduate student, praises Roccoberton's knowledge of the field. "He's had a lot of experience in the field both as a performer and as a builder and he is able to carry that over to the students," he says.

The exhibit is scheduled to run through Nov. 5. The museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. For information and special tours call: (860) 486-4605. Suggested admission: Adults: $2; seniors and children, $1.

Sherry Fisher