Mark Blashford is a well-loved alum of the University of Connecticut’s Puppet Arts Graduate Program. I interviewed him to learn more about what brought him into the field and how he’s continuing the tradition in his own way, through Rootstock Puppet Co.
What brought you to UCONN to study puppetry?
I moved from Chicago. I had graduated from Penn State with a degree in Theater, but also studied a lot of Education. When I went to school, I wanted to become the next Mister Rogers, which, who knows, maybe that could still happen. With that in mind, I studied Elementary Ed and Broadcasting for Television, which sort of morphed into theater. Then I did Teach for America in Chicago. I was teaching ninth grade special education, with a focus on math. I was also using a little bit of puppetry in my courses, and that’s where the action was happening for me! After teaching for a year I auditioned and went to UCONN.
Tell us about where you grew up.
I grew up in Carlisle, PA. I love small town, PA! I tend to connect with Midwesterners over rural approaches, like choosing function over form, and sensibility as fashion. It’s funny, you don’t realize how much your culture influences you until you’re pulled out of it. I’ll find myself saying things to groups of people, and then this Pennsylvania sensibility comes through. I latch onto it because it makes me special. I appreciate it now.
How did you get into puppetry? What was that trajectory like?
I think mine is a pretty classic 1990s puppet kid story. My earliest memories of puppets have to do with Sesame Street, Lamb Chop, Barney... and most intensely, Mister Rogers. I think that always kind of stuck with me. I was that kid who really believed in the “Neighborhood of Make Believe.” But I never really said, “I want to be a puppeteer!” I thought, “I want to tell stories with objects and I want to play! I want my work to speak to children.” So, I did an internship at Wolftrap Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, and I met a puppeteer there. The show they did was lovely. It had really beautiful rod puppets, and just a ton of different styles. Some of them were huge, and I thought, “Oh! This! This is what I want to do, but in my own way.” So, I found my way to UCONN.
Even when there are more formal opportunities for puppetry training, like apprenticeships, it still is an ancient art form, and its tradition must continue in all the old ways. UCONN has some of puppetry’s huge pillars. Bart Roccoberton and John Bell, they pass it on, and it’s still a hand to hand education. It just has to be. I think that’s what hooked me. I was searching for my community, something that spoke to my sensibilities, my aesthetic. Once I saw how puppets could tell stories, I knew that’s what I had to do. I think that’s everyone’s story. Mine happened to be in Virginia, watching someone tell fairy tales. And that hooked me, with some German heritage coming out to play, in a wooded open air theater. And I didn’t know this at the time, but all those German fairy tales have so much in common with Jack Tales and some Scotch-Irish fairy tales that get told in Appalachia. That’s the kind of parallel I’m interested in.
Can you talk a little more about those parallels?
The Grimm Brothers kind of inherited these stories from all over Germany. They would hear them from grandmothers, sage women, and kind of steal them. They went all over meeting with storytellers, hearing all these very common stories that were being told all over Europe, and they formally collected them, but the same stories came over with everyone that immigrated to the Appalachian region. All these Scottish and Irish families, that ended up working in coal mines in Appalachia, updated the stories in their own way in their new world, with local sensibilities. They introduce Jack, a sort of trickster, with qualities similar to their own. The story “Jack and the Robbers,” for instance, is essentially the same story as “The Musicians of Brehmen.”
My MFA “Jack and Jill” show was my own version of Jack Tales. I completely changed it and turned it into a coal mining story. I did another story, “Jack in the Box,” that was just a collection of Jack Tales. I’ve been pretty liberal with my interpretations, but that’s the joy of Jack. I wanted to be as authentic as possible. It came out of my own personal philosophy about puppet shows... I want to be working with things I want to play with.
I always want kids to come play with me afterwards, to get a closer look. Puppeteers are very generous with their time and their puppets with that curiosity. I always want the kids to want to touch the puppets! I love going to see the folk art section of any museum, and I love looking at found object toys and puppets, especially early pioneer toys. We’ve inherited so many forms of puppet traditions, but it’s hard to find the indigenous traditions, like Hopi tribes. We just don’t have a lot of our own object history.
Puppetry itself is grounded in something authentic to your community. I think it can only support whatever story you’re trying to tell and enrich it. If people notice it, they might not be able to say exactly why it spoke to them, but they sort of trust your sensibilities. But if it's grounded in a rich tradition, and in your authentic voice, then people believe it. Whatever story you’re trying to tell, whatever journey you’re trying to take them on. They’re here for it.
Tell us about your upcoming performance in your hometown of Carlisle, PA.
I’m doing it as part of a lecture series for part of the Clark Forum on Contemporary Issues at Dickinson College. So I’m bringing this show as an example of using the arts to talk about issues of conservation and water rights. I’m hoping we can bring that to the table after the show.
In my version of “Jack and Jill,” their right to water has been taken away and their water has been monetized. I started thinking about this after learning about Poland Springs and the Nestle company going into Maine and buying up water sources from these local areas. So for these local people, their water supply is cut off and now owned by a multinational conglomeration, which is now bottling and profiting off their spring water. They sell it back to the people it belongs to, and to all people. I think we all will eventually have trouble accessing the water we need. So, in my story, a giant comes to town and takes all the water and hoards it for himself. Jack and Jill come by, just trying to get a drink, and they can’t, so they go up the hill to confront the giant. And eventually they do find a way to get their water back. There is a message in Jack’s theme song, “So Be It! Til You Change It!” Things are going to be the way they are until you get the courage to stand up and change it. Jack stands up to this outsider with such aplomb!
What changes have you seen in Carlisle over the years?
It’s always changing. I think it’s becoming more of an artistic community. The industry that used to exist when I was growing up just isn’t there anymore. But the institutions, like Dickinson College, are stepping in, and there’s some really wonderful entrepreneurs who have moved in and created more opportunities. Restaurants, boutiques... every time I come back there’s something new. Carlisle is a really creative place. They’ve managed to maintain a vibrant community in many forms. I think it’s reinventing itself, and that’s a good thing. I’m thinking of Pittsburgh, which has done something similar through tech and new industry.
I’m noticing now, from my perspective of starting a new business, how people find their place in the economy of things. It takes a leap of faith to put yourself out there and provide this artistic service, and it takes a tremendous generosity of your community to support the arts. It’s an important conversation to have with people both in and out of the arts. In our changing economy, change is constant.
Tell us more about your business.
My new puppet company is called Rootstock Puppet Co. Our mission: “To craft and perform puppet theatre rooted in stories that promote mutual kindness and ecological awareness for the good of people and their environment.” A rootstock is the source of other plants to be grafted onto. It is sturdy and strong, but adapts to new needs.
What is Appalachia?
It’s so multidimensional. It depends what part you’re talking about. Appalachia is where some of America's deepest roots have grown and where my roots have grown as well. I've heard Appalachia described as "homeplace and kinfolk." This is what it is to me. This explains why I always go back to the Appalachian Mountains and its people for inspiration and wisdom. It is from where I draw my grit, my loyalty to people, and my love of the natural world.