How Puppeteers Use Performance to Communicate Research
BU undergrads partnered with researchers to communicate abstract findings through expressive performance
This article was first published in The Brink on May 21, 2021. Video by Jason Kimball.
How do you communicate abstract research concepts in four minutes or less to an audience without any scientific training? If you ask Felice Amato, a Boston University College of Fine Arts assistant professor of art education and creator of the class, Thinking Through Puppets, it’s all about “crafting metaphor.” In her class, undergraduates teamed up with master’s and PhD students from across BU to convey the graduate students’ research through puppetry performance, culminating in an end-of-semester “puppet slam” showcase, which was held on April, 23.
Over the course of the semester, the puppetry students met five BU graduate researchers and learned about their dissertation work, on topics including civil forfeiture, anthropomorphism in 20th-century literature, protein folding and its relation to disease, American Sign Language learning for deaf and hard-of-hearing babies, and reentry employment counseling for formerly incarcerated people.
From there, the puppeteers got to work creating short performances to tell the story of those research projects, learning the wide array of puppetry approaches as they go: ranging from shadow puppetry to “crankies”—a physical contraption that’s cranked to move parts and puppet characters, resembling a side-scrolling video game—to the classic Muppets style.
“I think what I’ve learned is that there’s no ‘right way’ to communicate something through puppetry,” says Shana Kilcawley, an undergraduate in the College of Health & Rehabilitation Sciences: Sargent College. “Every [puppeteering] approach serves its own purpose and can elicit a different feeling.”
The final pieces were performed over Zoom to an audience of friends, parents, researchers, and professionals in the puppetry scene.
“Making a show beautiful and magical takes a lot of effort,” says undergraduate Shanara Mahaarachchi of BU’s College of General Studies and College of Arts & Sciences. “At first I’d assumed that puppetry is a childish thing, but it is so thought-provoking.”