Student Spotlight: How puppets helped a WKU music major expand his artistic appreciation

When Liza Kelly, DMA, director of WKU Opera Theatre and an associate professor of music, announced that David Johnson and his classmates would be spending the 2018 spring semester learning puppetry, Johnson was a bit skeptical but ready to try something new.

“When she proposed this idea in the fall, we thought, ‘OK — this could have value,’” Johnson says. “I’ve always trusted Dr. Kelly with anything career-, music- and performance related. She’s one of the best people in our department and so incredibly intelligent.”

That winter, Johnson, now in his senior year at WKU as a music major, found himself at Atlanta’s renowned Center for Puppetry Arts, part of a learning experience made possible by WKU’s Faculty-Undergraduate Student Engagement (FUSE) grants, which support undergraduate students engaged in faculty-mentored research.

In three immersive days, Johnson and his classmates learned about several forms of puppetry. And in a happy coincidence, the students — most of whom were studying opera — had a chance to enjoy an especially relevant performance.

“It just so happened that the Atlanta Opera was working on production of Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ with puppets,” Johnson says. “They were holding these massive stick puppets over their heads and singing Mozart, and we got to experience that.”

Back at WKU, Johnson and his classmates spent the rest of the semester developing their own forms of puppetry based on what they had learned. Students had the option to work in pairs or independently, and Johnson teamed up with a friend to create a sort of projection puppetry.

“You get a normal projector and put translucent shapes over it,” he says. “We made South Park characters out of them and did a performance on the current political environment.”

The FUSE-enabled study also gave Johnson and his fellow music majors a chance to collaborate with art installation students led by Kristina Arnold, head of WKU’s Department of Art.

“Dr. Arnold was part of the FUSE production and her students made some beautiful and wonderful puppets that are still on display in the department,” Johnson says.

By learning about and working with puppets, Johnson says he developed a greater appreciation for performance in general.

“We developed a better awareness of other types of art and performance that we don’t think about every day,” he says. “We think about puppets as kid stuff, but in reality, there’s a lot that goes into this art form.”

That’s one of many reasons that Johnson has advice for any WKU undergraduate student considering participation in a FUSE opportunity: don’t hesitate.

“It’s almost insane not to do a FUSE program, especially if you want to succeed in your field,” he says. “It’s a moment where WKU is giving you money to get experience in something that pertains to what you do — or sometimes it doesn’t! Puppetry doesn’t necessarily pertain to what I do, but it was an experience to learn about something else that relates.”

FUSE grants are awarded each spring and fall. The application deadline for spring 2020 has passed, but visit the FUSE page on the WKU website to learn more about the grants and stay up-to-date with upcoming application deadlines.