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Heidi Rugg.

Presenting a book report in front of her fifth-grade classmates was the “most horrible, terrifying thing I could imagine as a new student.” Heidi Rugg’s (B.I.S.’21/UC) family had just moved to Virginia Beach, Virginia, when the then 10-year-old was tasked with preparing an oral presentation on a biography.

While at the library selecting her book, she also checked out a how-to book on making puppets. As she would later in life, earning her Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies from Virginia Commonwealth University, Rugg combined the two for a successful solution.

“I set off to make a marionette of [Anne Frank],” she says. “Once I made it, I presented it and realized it was very easy to talk in front of my class through the puppet. It became my thing; for the next two years, whenever I had to do an oral presentation, I made puppets.”

Rugg, founder and director of Barefoot Puppet Theater in Richmond, Virginia, joins VCU Alumni July 31 for “Thinking Outside the Socks,” a virtual puppetry workshop and performance. Here, she talks about her passion for puppetry and what alumni can look forward to.

What is Barefoot Puppet Theater?

Barefoot Puppet Theater is a touring puppet company with a mission to activate joy and curiosity. We bring performances to libraries, schools, museums, theaters and other venues. Barefoot Puppet Theater shares works of puppetry on stage as well as provides artist-in-residence workshops and educational programming. I also lead master classes on puppet mechanisms, puppet character voices and incorporating fiber arts into the making of puppets, specifically felt making and working with wool. Occasionally, we’ll collaborate with other companies on commissioned projects.

How did you get into working with felt?

It started off with just a real concern about the environmental impact. Originally, I was trained in working with and building foam puppets. Many of the adhesives and solvents utilized, as well as the basic materials, are terrible for the environment. Because I have children and work with youth a lot, I wanted to find alternative materials. I ended up going on this kind of wacky journey into fiber arts. Sometimes I use raw silk, handmade papers or recycled materials. I have scoured Richmond-area thrift stores in the past for wool sweaters, which I intentionally wash to create just the right fabric. It’s a bit labor intensive to travel all over town to go thrifting, but it’s fun. Also wool sequesters carbon! It is approximately two pounds of carbon for each pound of wool. I could “geek out” on felt and fibers for hours.

How did you get into puppetry?

Growing up, my dad was in the Navy. I was born in Hawaii and then we lived in a bunch of places. In fifth grade, we had just moved to Virginia Beach [Virginia], and my teacher gave an assignment to do a book report. We had to do an oral presentation on biographies in front of a classroom, which was the most horrible, terrifying thing I could imagine as a new student. I did my presentation on Anne Frank. I decided to check out a book from the library on making puppets and realized I had all the materials around my house. I set off to make a marionette of her. Once I made it, I presented it and realized it was very easy to talk in front of my class through the puppet. It became my thing; for the next two years, whenever I had to do an oral presentation, I made puppets.

I am somebody who enjoys making things, and I care about the things that I make. When I was originally a student at VCU in the ’90s, I went on a study-abroad program and visited Germany, Austria, Italy and the Czech Republic. When I came back to the U.S., I clearly recall the moment I decided to pursue puppetry. When you’re in your early 20s, figuring out what you want to do with your life is freaky. I had a thought: What if I did puppet shows? It would combine all of my interests: two-dimensional art, three-dimensional art and children’s literature.

In January of 1994, I was driving to a friend’s house to register for classes. On the way, I totaled my car and decided to take a semester off. During this time, I attended a puppetry festival in Minneapolis-St. Paul run by Puppeteers of America. I saw some top-notch work, and it was an inspiration to me. I also met a puppet builder in Maryland and ended up with a year-and-a-half apprenticeship. Between various other jobs, I found myself in the puppet studio building puppets whenever I could.

What encouraged you to go back and finish your degree?

When I first started at VCU, I was in the School of the Arts, and I was having so much fun. If college were free, you know, I would be there forever. I never intended that the decision to take a semester off would last as long as it did. Once I started building my own shows, touring and traveling, on occasion I would think I could go back and finish my degree, but I realized that I wouldn’t be able to continue traveling and working in my field.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, my entire life as I knew it was canceled. There would be no puppet shows. By July, I realized it would last longer than people initially thought. I decided to call VCU. I was curious about how many credits I needed to graduate anyway, and I found out it was only 12. That was very grounding for me, to feel like I was doing something positive for myself during this difficult year of being disconnected. I do wish I had made the decision to go back for that semester a little sooner than August, because preparing to be a college senior was interesting. I did six credits a semester, so I never felt overwhelmed.  I was a little worried because college and classes have changed a lot, but it was all fine.

Can you talk a little bit more about your senior capstone project and why you brought puppetry into it?

Initially, I didn’t plan on bringing in puppetry to the capstone project for my Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies. For the project, we had to find a problem and develop a solution. So many issues with education were exposed in the past year, whether it’s related to inequity in relationship to standardized testing, racial disparity or economic disparity. Then adding a layer of technology and disconnectedness to a child’s way of learning was what sparked my project purpose. I was focused on issues related to education and how education systems run in other countries. We create a lot of silos for our areas of study. Math is math, art is art. I learned through the interdisciplinary studies program at VCU that a lot of problems require an interdisciplinary approach. You cannot solve all of the world’s problems with one subject. You need a combination of different people with different skills and ideas to help create the solutions.  I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to understand what interdisciplinary studies is. It seems difficult to comprehend how you can connect English with science. My cheat answer is art. Anytime you incorporate any artistic discipline within a subject area, it automatically becomes interdisciplinary. By creating an association between, say, visual arts and math, you will invariably pull in other subject areas. One night, I was explaining the concept to my daughter, and when she didn’t quite understand it, I pulled out one of my favorite puppets, a squirrel. There I was explaining interdisciplinarity with my puppet, and she was laughing. I wondered how my professor might feel if I did something like this in my elevator pitch. I went to her office, and she laughed and encouraged me to do it. For my project, my puppet characters described how they designed degree programs that supported the things they need to do in the world.

What are we going to learn during the July 31 workshop?

I’ll have examples of puppets talking a bit about how they’re made. I also love for people to be able to make their own puppets at home. There are different puppets I will perform a show and tell with, including glove-style puppets and what I call emoji puppets. During the pandemic, I have learned to appreciate Zoom for my shows and workshops with children. I was able to modify one of my original skits from 1997, and I can get really close to the screen and engage with the children that way. This program is really great for ages 5 and up and their parents. I love to start out by asking people where they have seen puppets before. Interactive sessions are always the best, so it is wonderful if we can be present on screen together whenever possible.

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