It’s Always Pandemonium: The Puppets of Bart Roccoberton

April 27, 2019 - September 29, 2019

It's Always Pandemonium: The Puppets of Bart Roccoberton

Curator's Statement

As a graduate student in the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts program, I have spent the past three years under the tutelage of Bart. P. Roccoberton, Jr. Before embarking on this adventure, I had assumed I would be learning basic techniques for building puppets, as well as how to refine my skills as a puppeteer. In retrospect, I realize that notion was only the tip of the iceberg. Bart Roccoberton’s teaching pushes his students in many ways, as artists, craftspeople, and storytellers, enveloping them an entirely new and rich community. As I dug deeper into the rich and wildly varied history of Bart’s career while researching and curating It’s Always Pandemonium, my appreciation for these lessons and opportunities has only increased.      

It’s Always Pandemonium celebrates the ongoing puppetry career of Bart. P. Roccoberton, Jr., from his touring days with his Pandemonium Puppet Company; to his founding of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Institute of Professional Puppetry Arts; and now to his work building puppets and puppeteers as the Director of the UConn Puppet Arts Program. It’s Always Pandemonium features over 90 puppets, masterfully designed and crafted over the past four decades by Bart Roccoberton, his Pandemonium collaborators, and countless UConn Puppet Arts students under his guidance. 

-- Matt Sorensen

Rise Into Puppetry

While studying speech and technical theater in the early 1970s at Montclair State College, New Jersey native Bart Roccoberton was introduced to puppetry by one of his professors, and chose to produce Bertolt Brecht's one-act play The Beggar or the Dead Dog with marionettes as his final project.

After graduation, Roccoberton became the Technical Director of Atlantic Community College's theater program, and began to perform puppet shows with his friend Jim Albertson at the Historic Towne of Smithville. After learning about UConn's Puppet Arts Program, Bart and his wife Marjorie decided to move to Connecticut so he could pursue a MFA degree with Frank Ballard.

Roccoberton met many significant puppeteers at UConn, including German marionettist Albrecht Roser, whom Roccoberton helped bring to UConn as a visiting artist. Roser became Roccoberton's mentor, and his famed paper-sculpture technique has been an important influence ever since. While still a student, Roccoberton also served as Technical Director of the 1976 National Puppetry Festival of the Puppeteers of America in New London, where he met festival director and celebrated puppeteer Margo Rose, who also became a major inspiration for Roccoberton's career.

Pandemonium Puppets Touring Trunk and Sign
Pandemonium Puppet Company
1970s and 1980s
Plywood, duck canvas
Corrugated tin, paint
Pandemonium company member Brad Williams, who was also a skilled graphic designer, created this sign for the Pandemonium touring van.

Mumford Maxwell Mole
New England Puppet & Family Theatre Series
Hand-and-rod puppet
Pandemonium Puppet Company
Designed and built by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, foam, fabric, fur
Mumford Maxwell Mole was built for Steve Stoia, a sociologist and family therapist based in Amherst, Massachusetts, who first hired Pandemonium Puppets as entertainment for his daughter’s fifth birthday party. The performance was so successful that Stoia continued to engage Pandemonium and other companies to perform at various Massachusetts locations. The New England Puppet & Family Theatre Series was hosted by Mumford (performed by Roccoberton), who introduced a variety of performances by Pandemonium and other puppet companies. Mumford has since appeared on local television programs, talk radio shows, and even in China.

Knight 1
Knight 2
Planchette puppets
Pandemonium Puppet Company
Designed and directed by Bart Roccoberton
Wood, fabric
Pantomime, Pandemonium’s second show, borrowed its name from the 19th-century British “panto” tradition of holiday family entertainment, and tells the story of the Princess of the Kingdom of Carollon, who is wooed by two jousting Knights but in the end walks away with the Jester. 
Roccoberton created the planchette or limberjack puppets (based on European techniques dating to the medieval era) from found turned-wood pieces. In performance, the puppets stand on paddles tapped by the puppeteers to produce dance movements featuring swinging arms and legs. Live music was an integral part of Pantomime: Roccoberton played the guitar and melodica, Rachel (Prescott) Butterfield played flute, and the whole company alternated singing and playing percussion instruments, duck calls, and kazoos, depending on their involvement with puppets in each scene.

Pandemonium Puppets

In 1976, while still studying at UConn, Bart Roccoberton created his own theater company, Pandemonium Puppets, with his fellow student and creative partner Brad Williams, and his wife Marjorie Roccoberton. Pandemonium Puppets toured extensively in the Northeast, performing variety shows with live music. For their first show, Potpourri, the company created vignettes with existing puppets built by Williams and Roccoberton. Pandemonium's first original show, Pantomime (1976), featured traditional limberjack puppets. Under the influence of Albrecht Roser Pandemonium increasingly employed his paper-sculpting technique in such works as Elventide (1980), Fabula (1982), and Tales of the Leatherman (1983).

After Brad Williams was hired by the fledgling Nickelodeon cable channel, a series of UConn Puppet Arts students, as well as other puppeteers outside the university, joined Pandemonium Puppets, performing its shows until the company ceased touring in 1986. Members of the company included (in chronological order of participation): Brad Williams, Marjorie (Smith) Roccoberton, Richard Termine, Jan (Rosenthal) Stefura, Rachel (Prescott) Butterfield, Joelen Gates, Jamie Keithline, Bonny Hall, Steve Tillis, Carol Wolfe, Andrew Periale, Bonnie (Meier) Periale, and Rick Lyons.

Devil Violinists
Devil as Store Woman
Devil as Devil
L'Histoire du Soldat
bib puppets and rod puppets
Designed and directed by Bart Roccoberton
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Text by C. F. Ramuz
Costumes by Rachel Prescott
Celastic, faux fur, wood, poly foam
Bart Roccoberton designed and directed this classic modernist theater work in partial fulfillment of his MFA degree in puppetry,  using rod puppets, bib puppets, and shadow puppet techniques to tell the story of a deserting soldier who trades his fiddle (a metaphor for his soul) to the Devil for infinite financial gain.
Albrecht Roser’s paper-sculpture technique was used to design the puppet heads, rod-puppet mechanisms were based on puppeteer Dick Myers’s innovations, and the narrative style was inspired by the Rose Marionettes. Brad Williams performed the role of the Devil, and Rachel (Prescott) Butterfield built costumes and assisted throughout the production process. Bonny Hall was Shadow Master and Pam Arciero performed the role of the Princess.

Moat Fairies
Female Wood Elf
Male Wood Elf
Blue Fairy
House Goblin
Rod puppets, hand-and-rod puppets
Pandemonium Puppet Company
Designed and directed by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, foam, fabric
Elventide, Pandemonium Puppets’ third touring show, was a compilation of vignettes drawn from elf and faerie lore,  performed with live British and Irish folk music. Inspired by Brian Froud’s book Faeries (1978), the production included comical tales of greedy servants, playful wood elves, wish-granting moat faeries, and an eerie shapeshifting changeling.   
Featuring Jamie Keithline, Bonny Hall, and Marjorie and Bart Roccoberton, Elventide utilized rod puppets, a live-hand moving mouth puppet who could swallow food, a transformation puppet, and masked performers.  
Wish Frog
Monkey (above)
Hand-and-rod puppets, masks
Pandemonium Puppet Company
Designed and directed by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, foam, fabric, raffia
Fabula, a sequence of parables from around the world, including some based on Aesop’s fables, was performed with Pandemonium Puppet Company’s signature combination of hand-and-rod puppets and masks.  The many stories of Fabula included The War of the Mice and the Weasels, The Fox and the Crows, and The Lion and the Wish Frog, which was originally performed by Roccoberton and Brad Williams in 1976 as part of UConn’s Nutmeg Summer Theatre Wednesday matinees.
Captain Kidd mask
Dougie Hutchins
The Leather Man
Dan Drummer, the Yankee Peddler
Devil mask
Captain Jedidy
Jedidy’s Tombstone
Jedidy mask
Tales of the Leatherman
Hand-and-rod puppets, masks
Pandemonium Puppet Company
Designed and directed by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, foam, fabric, raffia, leather
The Leatherman was a local legend, based on an actual New England resident who dressed in leather from head to toe, walked long distances, and never spoke. Pandemonium Puppets used the Leatherman to bookend the performances, which featured tales the character might have heard on his travels, about an array of colorful characters: Dan Drummer, the Yankee Peddler (a classic shyster who fired up the audience), Dougie Hutchins and his peg-legged pig, and Captain Jedidy and the Devil. Jedidy made a pact with the Devil for his soul, but when it was time to settle accounts, he challenged the Devil to race him--through the audience--to the state capital, carving pumpkins as decoys to throw the Devil off his trail.

Institution of Professional Puppetry Arts

Roccoberton's longstanding relationship with the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center in Waterford began in 1976, when he was named technical director of the Puppeteers of America National Festival. His work impressed festival director Margo Rose, who then continued to serve as Roccoberton's mentor until her death in 1997.

As a UConn student, Roccoberton worked with Dramatic Arts Department Head John Herr to develop the National Puppetry Institute, which brought guest artists to campus for residencies, lectures, and performances. Through this work Roccoberton developed a reputation not only as a passionate puppeteer, but also as someone committed to developing the scope and presence of world puppetry.

With the approaching retirement of Puppet Arts Program founder Frank Ballard in the early 1980s, Roccoberton and other students organized to insure the continuation of the program, supported by such famed puppeteers as Margo Rose, Albrecht Roser, Basil Milovsorov, and Jim Henson. In 1984, when those attempts proved to be inconclusive, Rose and Roccoberton approached George C. White, founder of the O'Neill Theater Center, to create an MFA puppetry program there. White who had grown up in Waterford with the Rose children and recognized the importance of puppetry, provided an operating budget for the program; accreditation was offered by Connecticut College thanks to Theater Department Chair Linda Herr. The O'Neill program was designed to complement UConn's existing program by balancing Ballard's focus on puppet design and technology with methods for developing individual voices and narrative-based storytelling techniques.

Hua Hua the Chinese Red Squirrel
Long the Dragon
The China Project: The Adventures of Hua Hua & Morley
Hand-and-rod puppet, moving-mouth puppet
Institute for Professional Puppetry Arts (IPPA), Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
Designed and built by Bart Roccoberton
Fabricated by Bart Roccoberton, Susan (Doyle) Tolis, and Joyce (Fritz) Ritz
Latex, faux fur, foam
As part of a project to share American culture with the people of China, Roccoberton and Eugene O’Neill Theater Center board chairman Steve Woods traveled there in 1994 to research puppet and entertainment culture and scout for collaborators. They found one such partner in Hua Hua Zhang, who became a Puppet Arts graduate student, as well as one of Roccoberton’s influential collaborators. Zhang created and performed the character of a Chinese red squirrel--also named Hua Hua--who befriends Morley the American Mole (played by Roccoberton) and explains to him exciting aspects of Chinese life, including the world of Long the Dragon.

The Last Enemy
Giant puppet
Creative Arts Team, City University of New York
Designed and built by Bart Roccoberton
Reticulated foam, reed, raffia
In 1998 UConn Puppet Arts alumnus Richard Termine worked with the City University of New York’s Creative Arts Team on their summer theater program. Termine brought in Bart Roccoberton as puppet designer for the project, and fellow Puppet Arts alumnus Rob Saunders as Bart’s assistant. Together with actors from Israel, Jordan, and Palestine, these collaborators developed a production dealing with bus bombings, extremism, and terrorism in the Middle East. Initial rehearsals began in England, and then continued at the O’Neill Theater Center, where the puppets and masks were added. The production, which used giant heads, hand puppets, shadows, and masks, was first performed at the UN in New York City, and then toured in Jerusalem, Ramala, and Ammon in the Middle East to great success, just before the second Intifada. 

UConn & Beyond

In 1990 Roccoberton followed Frank Ballard as the second Director of the Puppet Arts Program, then located in the basement of Sprague Residence Hall. He worked tirelessly with limited supplies, space, and students to lead the program into its current energized existence in the Puppet Arts Complex on UConn's Depot Campus. He shifted the focus of program's curriculum from large-scale faculty-directed productions to projects reflecting the students' independent voices.

As Puppet Arts Director Roccoberton has directed or overseen scores of student and collaborative projects. He and his students have created works on an international scale, including the Puppet Arts production of Eight Immortals (1999), and Roccoberton has worked closely with UConn's Connecticut Repertory Theatre on such productions as A Christmas Carol, which he directed in both 1993 and 2004, Into the Woods (1993), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1996) Shrek the Musical (2017), and many more. The Puppet Arts Program is frequently involved in collaborations across the United States and around the world, building and performing puppets for the Boston Pops, State Farm Insurance, PBS, and other collaborators.

His deep appreciation for Chinese and Taiwanese puppetry led to Roccoberton's only sabbatical: a 2006 project in Taiwan to build and perform puppets with the National Symphony of Taiwan for a production of Stravinsky's The Firebird. Over three decades as Director of the UConn Puppet Arts Program, Roccoberton has built puppets and puppeteers alike, shaping the face of contemporary professional puppetry on a global scale.

Rhymes With Evil
Hand puppets
Play by Charles R. Traeger
Puppets designed and built by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, fabric
Written by Charles R. Traeger, Rhymes With Evil is a psychological mystery about a creative midwestern school teacher, Lathan Kane, who, after being fired from his job, spends his time at home with his pre-teen daughter Jenny creating handmade toys and puppets. These include the hand-puppet characters Nop and Nam, who were inspired by the Italian Pulcinella tradition. The play premiered in 1986 at the American Stage Festival in New Hampshire, and there were plans to produce it in New York City with Robin Williams in the starring role until he was cast in the film Mrs. Doubtfire. The production never made it to Broadway.

Milky White
Into the Woods
Body puppet
Department of Dramatic Arts, University of Connecticut
Designed by Bart Roccoberton
1993 and 2005
Celastic, foam, wood, terry cloth
Into the Woods, with music by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine, interweaves several fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault. Milky White is the pet of Jack (of Jack and the Beanstalk fame), and one of the special items required by the Witch to cast a spell that will give her youth and beauty; it trades hands several times in the course of the show. Milky White was performed in Into the Woods by Matt Ackerman in 1993, by Mitchell Travers in CRT’s 2005 production of Into the Woods; and appeared once more on the UConn stage in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s 2016 production of Monty Python’s Spamalot.

Scrooge’s Tombstone
Jacob Marley (above)
Frightened Scrooge
Reconciled Scrooge
Spirit of Christmas Present
A Christmas Carol
Rod puppets, masks, props
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
Adapted, designed, and directed by Bart Roccoberton
1992 and 2003
Celastic, wood, fabric, foam, yarn, screening, cold foam, latex, wig hair, plexiglass
Bart Roccoberton adapted Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for a 1992 Connecticut Repertory Theatre production, and served as its director and designer. Produced in both 1992 and 2003, with scenery by Bob Ritz, it was inspired by the music of English pub-singing duo Tony Barrand and John Roberts. Roccoberton worked with UConn Music Professor Ken Clark on musical arrangements, which were sung live by a cast of over 40 UConn students and community members, including local children and musicians. The ghost of Jacob Marley and the spirits were puppets, and the citizens of London were all in masks, thus creating a bridge between the spirit and human worlds.

The Coventry Cycle
Designed by Bart Roccoberton
Celastic, leather
Directed by UConn performance faculty member Jerry Krasser for a 1998 theater festival in Quebec, The Coventry Cycle was inspired by the 14th-century medieval mystery plays (or Corpus Christi Pageants) performed in the city of Coventry, England. The story of Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, from the book of Genesis, would have been presented on outdoor stages to popular audiences. The Cain mask can transform from a calm to enraged demeanor with a new set of eyes.

Naga (Above)
Servant Demons
Rich Man and Woman
Old Woman
Demon King
Servant Demons
8 Immortals
Rod and hand puppets
Designed and fabricated by Bart Roccoberton and Puppet Arts students
Directed by Bart Roccoberton
Co-directed by Hua Hua Zhang
Cardboard, fabric, raffia, brown paper, glue sticks, wire
Created in 1999 as a practical application of Chinese rod puppetry techniques and theories being studied by Roccoberton’s UConn students, 8 Immortals was written in the style of a kung fu movie by Puppet Arts senior Matt F. Green, based on legends of powerful immortals from Chinese mythology.  In addition to rod puppets, the production utilized hand-held light sources, shadows, and stylized puppet stage combat. The show poster was designed by UConn Dramatic Arts alumnus Bobby Moynihan, who later joined the cast of Saturday Night Live. The 8 Immortal puppets were exhibited at and donated to the puppet museum in Chengdu, China in 2012.

The Red Queen
State Farm Insurance Convention
Giant puppet
Designed and built by Bart Roccoberton
L200 Minicell foam, fabric, reed, ethafoam, wood, aluminum
Over the years, Roccoberton has been commissioned by his former UConn classmate Tom Cariello, owner of Corporate Scenographics, to create puppets for business meetings and events. Roccoberton has designed and built puppets for such industrial clients as Lunesta, Digital Equipment Company, IBM Golden Circle, and Comcast. The Red Queen was built for a 2006 State Farm Insurance event which enlisted Broadway composers, writers, directors, and performers to create a spectacular stage show for the company’s agents at conventions in Chicago and Las Vegas. The over-the-top sequence featuring the giant Red Queen puppet was based on Alice in Wonderland, and starred Broadway favorite Alice Ripley as the title character, who learns to become the ideal insurance agent.

Polar Bear
The Winter’s Tale
Body puppet
Connecticut Repertory Theatre
Directed by Dale AJ Rose
Puppet designed by Bart Roccoberton
Aluminum bar, L200 Impact foam, sports mesh, plastic bags  
William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale deals with two kings--Leontes of Sicilia and Polixenes of Bohemia--who were great childhood friends until Leontes accuses his pregnant wife, Hermione, of being unfaithful with Polixenes. Leontes orders the Sicilian Lord Antigonus to seize Hermione’s baby daughter and abandon her in a remote location. Shakespeare then gives his most famous stage direction to Antigonus--“Exit, pursued by a bear”--in this case, a giant polar bear performed by Brian Swormstedt. Scholars disagree about the reason for this seemingly random plot twist: was it retribution for a bad deed, symbolize Leontes’ wrath, or was it an Elizabethan attempt at humor based on the popular practice of bear baiting?

Paper sculpture, paper pattern, and final head of Connor
I’m Your Puppet
Prototypes and giant mask
Silk City Barbershop Chorus
Designed by Bart Roccoberton
L200 Minicell foam, fabric, faux fur, paper
These three objects show Roccoberton’s process for creating a masked polecat named Connor. Connor was the host of a fundraising concert titled I’m Your Puppet organized by the Silk City Barbershop Chorus of Manchester, Connecticut, one of many puppets created for the event. Performed in the 2,000-seat Manchester High School Auditorium, the show brought together award-winning talent from around the world, as well as Puppet Arts students Christopher Mullens, Ana Craciun-Lambru, Kalob Martinez, Nic Parks, and Shane McNeal, who performed as Connor.
The Bell
Rod puppet
Designed and built by Hua Hua Zhang
Directed by Bart Roccoberton
Styrofoam, neoprene, weatherstripping, fabric
Hua Hua Zhang produced The Bell in partial fulfillment of her MFA Puppetry degree from UConn, using metaphor and narrative in a show on the China’s cultural revolution. The production included rod puppets, clear plastic bag puppets, and Czech black-theater techniques.
Little Girl
Sad Dad, from Between the Lions
Rod puppets
PBS Kids
Puppet design by Hua Hua Zhang
Puppet mechanisms by Bart Roccoberton
Directed by Michael Frith
Cardstock, wood, copper wire, springs, foam, string, yarn, plastic
Between the Lions, created by Kathryn Mullen and Michael Frith, was an animated and live-action television program designed to promote reading that ran for ten years (2000-2010) on PBS. UConn Puppetry alumnae designing and performing for the program included Pam Arciero, Jennifer Barnhart, Jim Napolitano, Tim Lagasse, and Jared Jenkins. The program utilized several different types of puppets including these rod puppets, inspired by Marc Chagall’s paintings, which were performed in a Russian folk story.
Bart Roccoberton portrait puppet
Designed and built by Mary Nagler
Hand-and-rod puppet
Foam, fabric
Bart Roccoberton portrait puppet
Designed and built by Frankie Cordero
Live-hand puppet
Foam, fabric
All professors are parodied by their students. In Paris in 1896, playwright and puppeteer Alfred Jarry lampooned his physics professor, Père Hébé, in the play Ubu Roi. Riots followed the premiere, giving birth to the Theater of the Absurd. Roccoberton’s students have been kinder. UConn Puppet Arts students Frankie Cordero (now working with Sesame Street) and Mary Nagler (now a puppet fabricator in Portland, Oregon) created these portrait puppets of Roccoberton.

Arthur Fiedler
Puppets Take the Pops
Hand-and-rod puppet
University of Connecticut and the Boston Pops
Directed and designed by Bart Roccoberton
Co-designed by Bart Roccoberton and Sarah Nolen
Fabricated by Sarah Nolen
Foam, fabric
Approached by conductor Keith Lockhart to design puppets for a Boston Pops concert in Boston’s Symphony Hall, Bart Roccoberton decided to turn the proposal into an opportunity for his pupils, and organized a special puppet seminar for the project with twelve Puppet Arts students. The concert focused on the music of Leroy Anderson, celebrated composer of such classics as “Sleighride” and “The Syncopated Clock.” Roccoberton and his assistant director, Puppet Arts student Chris Mullens, directed six pieces created by the Puppet Arts students to accompany selections of Anderson’s work. Roccoberton animated the puppet version of famed Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler wielded to conduct “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
Photographs by Richard Termine and Abby Bosley.