scene from Stefano Brancato's 2009 production of IcarusWhen director/designer Stefano Brancato characterizes his forthcoming theatre workshops as "boot camp," the description is initially surprising, considering that the focus of the week-long area courses is puppetry. After all, as the 30-year-old Brooklyn resident says, "in a lot of puppetry, the performer, the puppeteer, is in a kind of static position," and not necessarily part of a piece's main action.

Yet for the two workshops that he'll be conducting through Davenport Junior Theatre - one designed for ages 10 through 18, one ages 18 and older, and both running June 14 through 19 - "boot camp" does seem an appropriate phrase, as Brancato states that he and Junior Theatre's artistic director, Daniel D.P. Sheridan, were hoping to "break the rules a little bit" in terms of what a puppetry course could entail.

"When we were trying to develop what the curriculum would be, we wanted to incorporate a physical element," says Brancato, who holds an MFA in puppet arts and directing from the University of Connecticut. "And in ancient civilizations, puppetry and mask work were very closely related, so the workshops are going to be this sort of blend of puppetry and mask performance. We'll be making puppets, but we'll also be discovering how the performer's body can be a main source of emotional expression."

It's an artistic blend that the instructor himself has long been practicing, as Brancato's immersion in puppetry began while pursuing his BFA in acting from Marymount Manhattan College, during a stage collaboration with noted theatre veteran (and Tony Award-nominated composer) Elizabeth Swados.

"We were creating an original piece for her theatre company, Company M.U.D.D., called The Golem," he says. "It was based on the Hebrew myth, and she wanted puppets in it. And I had never designed anything in my life. But she was one of my idols growing up - she's done lots of experimental theatre - and I would have done anything for her, so I said I'd do it. I created these four puppets, and then this 18-foot-tall Golem puppet, and ... .

Stefano Brancato in rehearsal"And it was so weird," continues Brancato, with a laugh, "because it was like this Pandora's Box of creation inside me that I never knew about. I was a performer, but it turned out I also knew how to sculpt, I knew how to paint; I never had training, I just sort of had a knack for it. And over the course of about four years, I became the company's designer and created projects with Liz, designing masks and puppets for all of our shows together."

His fascination with puppetry eventually led Brancato to the University of Connecticut - the school, he says, "is the only one in the country that offers a master's in puppet arts" - and to the Connecticut Repertory Theatre, which staged a 2009 production of Brancato's and collaborator Michael Bush's Icarus, a large-scale spectacle that employed puppets for its telling of the Greek myth.

"I think that puppetry is kind of a brilliant way to bridge the gap between what you can see in your mind's eye and what you can create in the real world, on stage," says Brancato. "And that's what we want to focus on in Davenport. That you can create anything that you can dream up."

While both Junior Theatre workshops will give registrants a primer on the arts of puppetry and mask performance, Brancato says that the primary focus of the teen course "is really going to be about creating an ensemble, and creating little vignettes and stories. Depending on what talents the ensemble comes with, we're going to use different means of performance - puppetry, acting, dance, music - and find ways to incorporate those talents into whatever pieces we work on.

"With the adults, however, we're also going to be doing something along the lines of pageant puppetry," continues Brancato, "which involves giant puppets that are probably going to be around 28 feet tall. And I've also been tinkering with this idea of kite puppets - puppets you actually fly in the air - and performing a piece with these giant puppets that we make."

As the workshops will also introduce participants to the ancient tradition of shadow puppetry and the 18th Century art of toy theatre (which Brancato says involves "miniature proscenium stages with full productions that are created inside them"), their instructor expects that both courses will give participants a better understanding of the range of artistic expression covered under "puppet arts." Yet above all, Brancato hopes that burgeoning artists will take from the courses a renewed sense of artistic discovery.

"The mentors I had growing up in the theatre," he says, "were always challenging me, yet also giving me this sort of carefree attitude as an artist - this idea that anything is possible. And I think it's that element of confidence that you want to develop in artists. Especially young artists. You want to allow their imaginations to go wild, and then help them figure out how to bring that imagination to life."

Davenport Junior Theatre will host puppetry workshops with Stefano Brancato June 14 through 19, with the 9:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. workshops designed for ages 10 through 18, and the 6-9:30 p.m. workshops for ages 18 and older. The courses will conclude with a 2 p.m. public showcase performance held during June 19's Juneteenth celebration in LeClaire Park. For more information, and to register for the week-long puppetry workshops, call (563)326-7862 or visit

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