Rider University receives prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America Grant

European puppetry artists will be on campus for workshops and performance
Diane Cornell

Rider University has been approved to receive a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts Challenge America grant that will bring the art of Croatian puppetry to students in the School of Fine and Performing Arts and to members of the broader community this spring.

The Challenge America funding category offers support primarily to small and mid-sized organizations for projects that extend the reach of the arts to populations that have limited access to the arts due to geography, ethnicity, economics or disability.

This project, also funded by grants from the New Jersey Council on the Arts and the government of the Republic of Croatia, is a collaboration between Rider and the Academy of Arts and Culture at the Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Croatia. It will bring some of Europe’s most talented puppeteers to campus for a series of public performances and educational workshops over a three-week period. They will demonstrate the principles of puppet storytelling and directing, as well as describe aspects of puppet acting and puppet making.

Rider and Strossmayer University have a history of collaboration that includes faculty exchanges, student performances at arts festivals in Croatia and Rider faculty concerts promoting American arts in Croatia, as well as visits by Croatian dignitaries to Rider.

“Puppet theater in Croatia is a way to introduce children to the arts and regular visits to puppet theater performances are a mandatory part of elementary school curricula,” says Boris Vilic, dean of the College of Continuing Studies and a native Croatian.

Puppetry and puppet theater is a traditional art form for children in Croatia and many other countries in central Europe. In Croatia, puppeteers devote special attention to staging Croatian literature and their performances are imbued with the spirit and idiom of folk tales.

“We are excited to help broaden people’s perspectives on the ways puppetry is an art form,” says Ivan Fuller, professor of theatre and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance. “This grant sets the bar for artistic excellence. For the University to receive this state, national, and international recognition is quite impressive.”

National Endowment for the Arts approved 1,187 grants totaling $27.3 million in the first round of fiscal year 2020 funding. Rider’s project is one of just 145 Challenge America grants that were endowed by the organization.

The overall goal of the project, says Fuller, “is to build public awareness and understanding of the art form of puppetry and bring its performance to new audiences, particularly to bring the culture and artistry to underserved communities.”

To reach new audiences, the puppeteers will hold performances for elementary school children from the Ewing Public Schools and for adults on Rider’s campus and at the Nikola Tavelic Croatian Center, one of the area’s largest Croatian-American community organizations in New Jersey. In addition, they will host guest lectures and master classes for Rider students, as well as perform at the Croatian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the National Arts Club in New York City.

A pre-performance presentation will focus on both the historical and contemporary use of puppetry in theater and reflect on its cultural context. For the elementary school audience, two Rider graduate education students will prepare age-appropriate lessons to complement the performance. They will work with Dr. Kathleen Pierce, a professor in the Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling, to develop interdisciplinary curricular materials for participating teachers so that young students will learn what to expect prior to attending the performance.

Rider’s School of Fine and Performing Arts has become one of the top schools in the nation for students wishing to pursue a performance degree. The school engages key professionals through productions, networking workshops and masterclasses culminating in a senior year showcase performing for industry professionals. Its alumni can be found performing on Broadway, with touring companies and in Disney productions, and in the many who lead and teach in dance studios, arts management positions and schools.

Photo caption: Performed in the City Theater Zorin Dom in Karlovac, Croatia, Little Stories of Nasty Sonja is based on the work Sonja's Smart Dog by Russian author Andreja Usačeva. Guest artist Maja Lučić Vuković is pictured on the right.