Virtual Puppetry Residency


Virtual Puppetry Residency (VPR) is an online program for adults interested in practicing the art of puppetry. The six-week program is designed for adults of all skill levels. The pilot season of VPR began June 1st, 2020 and culminated in a showing of participant work on Saturday, July 18, 2020 (International Puppet Slam). Similar to a traditional artist residency program, VPR aims to build a community of participants from a variety of backgrounds. Each week, participants respond to various prompts, including creating short puppet shows and then performing them on Zoom for critique and discussion. While engaging in the program, participants are encouraged to work on one or more independent projects. Season one of the program also featured lessons in puppet making and guest speakers focusing on toy theater and crankie theater. The pilot season reached people around the world, with participants from UK, Hong Kong, Greece, Romania, USA, Australia and Netherlands. The program is directed by Pittsburgh artist and puppeteer Tom Sarver. A fall 2020 program will begin October 1st. For more information on enrollment or to donate, please email (


International Puppet Slam


The following participants of Season 1 presented work at the International Puppet Slam on July 18th, 2020:

Debbie Beale – United Kingdom

Robin Bongers – Netherlands

Roos Buskes – Netherlands

Kelvin Chan – Hong Kong

Kirsten Ervin – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Cindy Franklin – Denison, Texas

Jade Fuda – Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Paul Greggs – Portsmouth, Virginia

Marriolle, The Puppet Maker – Romania

Sam Milford – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Conni Mulligan – North Carolina

Charlotte Oliver – Brighton, United Kingdom

Lois Parker – United Kingdom

Tom Sarver – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Damian Sheridan – Minneapolis, Minnesota


Kirsten Ervin’s show, Bus Stop was performed live at the slam.


Kelvin Chan worked on a folded paper piece during the residency. Story of Hong Kong Orchid Tree Flower. 


Roos Buskes performed live from Netherlands.


Lois Parker performed live from United Kingdom.


Robin Bongers created Making Friends for the puppet slam.


Charlotte Oliver performed live from Brighton, UK. She created a small crankie show titled, Betty Bee’s Adventure.


Cindy Franklin created Hound Dog’s Dream for the slam. This was her first time writing a script, building a puppet show, editing video and exploring green screen.


A  prerecorded show by Tom Sarver.


Jade Fuda created Jangles for the slam. This was her first shadow puppet production.


Gus and Bobby Won’t Go Back to School by Sam Milford.


Hidden in the Flowers by Debbie Beale.


Marriolle the Puppet Maker developed this piece during the residency. She is from Romania and the piece, A Tale of Two Hats is about her parents.


Kindness by Paul Greggs.


Lois Parker created this video, The Fridge, during the residency.


Conni Mulligan presented a show in two parts. Part II was presented live during the slam.



Belly Dancing and Zoom by Lois Parker.


Weatherwood Studios Presents by Damian Sheridan.


A reflection on Virtual Puppetry Residency by Lois Parker.

Widening horizons- from making objects to animating worlds

I joined this programme without any clear idea of what it would entail. I had decided to learn to control a marionette I had bought on holiday about three decades ago by learning how to build one myself. An online course on building a marionette from the Stan Winston School of Character Arts meant I arrived for the first session with a completed figure, strung and on a controller. I hadn’t gone beyond getting her to walk awkwardly as if she had spent too long on a horse for the first time. 

I have a series of audio interviews where people discuss their relationship to belongings that I need to do something with. I had an incomplete idea of using puppetry to provide the visuals for excerpts from these interviews, since having a full-scale sound piece with original artefacts in a gallery seemed unlikely.

I have a problem directly restating words others have said, as I have a horror of words being in my mouth that I don’t agree with. It makes singing in choirs a challenge. It’s left over from a fundamentalist evangelical missionary childhood. I also know that puppets are used therapeutically to enable children and adults to enact issues they cannot confront or tell directly. Objects can carry enormous psychological and sociological weight, for example wedding rings, religious ikons and statuary, or a child’s first lost tooth. Puppetry seemed a possible way of working with challenging material.

I recollect having left the first session with my preconceptions about puppetry completely disintegrated. I realized I had not thought with any rigor about the nature and possibilities of performance. Roos Buskes continued her story off stage, so it felt like a whole life was taking place and we were just glimpsing a portion. That made me realize I had seen ‘proper’ puppetry as being inside a box, like a Punch and Judy show or a traditional theatre presentation. 

The visible presence the puppeteer, without any pretense that they were not there, was another moment of insight. The hands, the whole body, even when the hands being more visible than tiny puppets, all were unimportant in this compelling space of the animated object.

Kelvin Chan animated a leaf as part of his exquisite piece on Bauhinia and that, along with Tom Sarver’s seeming use of anything at hand, challenged my views of what constituted a puppet, and how much the puppeteer could trust the viewer to complete the experience. Allowing the space between the puppet and the viewer to come alive in unique ways for each person is a fascinating potential part of this puppetry process.

The session with Zach Dorn was illuminating in his use of direct camera feed to present work to a large audience from a tiny and largely static set. He also discussed the possibility of working with the most banal of topics. I have an interest in how minute happenings can illuminate large issues.  I am also keenly interested in the crystallization of experience in a vertical rather than horizontal way, where you plunge deep into the beingness of an experience rather than attending to a linear story. There is something about this small /large, planned/ impromptu, separate but engaged method of working which has significant possibilities.  

This programme was engrossing, challenging and frustrating. I can now see how much I need to develop my ideas and skills. I am very grateful to Tom for running this experience so adroitly, managing novices and highly experienced puppeteers with a programme of activities. And on a final note, for sheer joyfulness of performance, the youngest participants Delthia and Odessa are worth holding in memory.








Tom Sarver, 2020


This Artist Residency Project was supported by the Arts in Education Partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency. The Arts in Education Partner serving Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, and Washington counties is Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media.