Past the restless elementary school students waiting to see Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer; past the ticket booths where they wait; past the Worlds of Puppetry Museum; and upstairs in a small room at the end of the hall, sits the Distance Learning Division of the Center for Puppetry Arts.
The division consists of only one office and two rooms but has reached over 350,000 students through video conferencing since it started in 1998, and is ready to reach a wider audience through new video-conferencing technology, which makes the educational programs more accessible for educational institutions across the globe.
“We can really go anywhere,” Patty Petrey Dees, director of the program, told Global Atlanta. “If the school has an Internet connection, high-speed Internet connection which most do, and they just need a computer with a built-in webcam, a microphone. It doesn’t have to be external. They just connect it to a projector or a whiteboard and make it very large. And it’s all live and interactive.”
The Distance Learning Division offers arts-infused workshops and puppet shows for children and adults throughout the U.S. and six foreign countries: Australia, Canada, England, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan.
The improvements in video conferencing technology come at a time when the Center for Puppetry Arts recently completed a 15,000 square foot expansion at the intersection of Spring and 17th streets location. The grand opening, held last November, also included the opening ceremony for the Worlds of Puppetry Museum, a collection of works from master puppeteer and producer Jim Henson during his career, and puppets from around the world.
The video conferencing improvements including Cloud-based technology that allow schools without the latest in high-tech equipment or tech savvy teachers to participate. “We’re constantly trying to instill that comfort factor for teachers with little experience using technology,” said Ms. Petry Dees.
She added that schools faced with budget cutbacks in either the arts or technology are now able to benefit from new services. “That’s where we’re crossing that boundary now because of Skype, FaceTime and Google Hangouts…There’s nothing holding us back in the next five years,” she added.
And the program’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. It has received awards every year since 2008 from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration, a national leader in aggregating content for organizations that use videoconferencing.
The program also has received community honor awards from the Jim Henson Co. and a highly prestigious award from Microsoft Corp. for making the program available to schools in low income neighborhoods.
Founded in 1978 by puppeteer Vincent Anthony, the Center for Puppetry Arts also promotes puppetry arts through its performances, educational programs and the museum where visitors can learn how Jim Henson’s characters came to life and see such iconic puppets as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy perform.
In addition, the museum has a Global Collection that highlights the history of puppetry in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas.
Ms. Petrey Dees started the Distance Learning Program in 1998 while serving as the center’s education director. The center has been one of a number of learning centers, including Zoo Atlanta, which benefited from the Video Conferencing and Telemedicine Act passed by the Georgia General Assembly.
The Distance Learning Division offers both puppet shows and curriculum-based workshops developed for grades K-12. There also are professional development shows and workshops for teachers with applications for geography, science, math, literature and art classes.
While puppeteers performing on stage in the center’s shows cannot deviate from the scripts and even must sign contracts saying they won’t, the rules are more relaxed for the Distance Learning artists. Their scripts are prepared in advance, but they are not required to follow them to the letter.
Lead Puppeteer Jeffrey Zwartjes told Global Atlanta that the classroom audiences are more mercurial and forcing the puppeteers need to be more adaptive to specific situations.
“Especially with the puppet show I think you need a lot of improv skills,”Mr. Zwartjes said. “Because you’ve got all these factors coming your way. The script isn’t set in stone. It’s more of an outline.”
To learn more about the center’s activities, click here.