YSU professor sets stage for minor in puppetry availability to students

By C. Aileen Blaine

The checkerboard floor of one of Bliss Hall’s workshops adds to the wonderland-like ambience of the puppet construction zone, where students of all majors can experiment with an age-old form of art. 

Theater and dance department professor Todd Dicken is one of the faces behind Youngstown State University’s recently added minor in puppetry. He created the program in fall 2020 to provide students with the opportunity to express and diversify their educational experiences through a creative avenue. 

The minor’s two tracks were the brainchildren of Dicken and Cliffe College of Creative Arts Dean Phyllis Paul.

“When we originally started [the program], we realized that it was more set up for theater majors, so I went back through and I set up a list of courses and divided it up so that we actually have a minor for non-theater majors,” Dicken said.

The introduction to puppetry course offers non-theater majors an overview of the history of puppetry and its various styles and ranges. It also provides students a chance to experiment with the different aspects of what goes into a show, such as script-writing and performance techniques. Later courses focus on collaborative efforts between group members, as well as the construction of puppets themselves. 

Dicken said one of the accomplishments he’s most proud of is helping non-performance arts students come out of their shells and expand their horizons. 

“[I see] the students that prefer to work behind-the-scenes in theater, or the ones that have not done performance, coming from the outside and really opening up — just allowing themselves this opportunity to explore,” Dicken said. 

The recent Donald P. Pipino Performing Arts Series show featuring the Tanglewood Marionettes’ production of “Perseus and Medusa” is just one steppingstone toward Dicken’s goal of exposure in the community.

“Prior to this, we really didn’t have any kind of puppetry going on in the community,” Dicken said. “[I’m] trying to get everyone in Youngstown, Ohio, to understand that there’s a variety of formats to this, and the value to it.”

Todd Dicken demonstrates a simple hand puppet to show the different styles of puppetry.

Dicken and his lineup of friends have even had a small claim to fame in the shape of Captain COVID, who made an appearance in one of Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus updates earlier in the pandemic. Made from a dried gourd, golf tees and felt, he was eventually “vanquished by a can of Lysol.”

One message Dicken stresses for prospective students is that the program can help them expand their horizons and try new ways of expressing themselves, whether through hands-on construction, scriptwriting or collaboration with other students.  

“There’s an incredible set of skills that students can develop as they work into puppetry,” Dicken said. “For students who may be uncomfortable performing, it gives them a way of opening themselves up to that.”

Dicken refers to a particular student — an engineering major — whose puppet was abducted by his friends as an example of how the courses’ impacts can be positively felt across campus.

“[The student] came in, and he didn’t have his puppet. And I said, ‘I know you have it done — so where’s your puppet?’” Dicken said. “He said … ‘Some of my buddies found my puppet, and they were having so much fun with it that they ran off with it and [were] running through the building with it, and I lost track of it.’ … In the next class, he came back with it.”

For those interested in learning more about classes available through the puppetry minor, visit YSU’s course catalog under the department of theater and dance.