Professional puppeteer and licensed educator Jan Kaufman was shocked to see some of her closest companions — a ballerina in the midst of an arm gesture, a smiling red-headed doll, a marionette flock of birds poised for action — come to life behind a glass display.
A performer for over 60 years, Kaufman is enjoying her latest role as the star of “Jan and Her Friends.” The exhibition is on display at the FSU Museum of Fine Arts through March 28.
“I had never seen them that way,” says Kaufman. “I see them in my bag that I carry them around in and I see them when they perform, but here they are hung in such a manner that they looked like they were getting ready to do something.”
Kaufman says curator Diana Robertson was inspired by a recent visit to Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts and is appreciative of the way the exhibit celebrates her contributions to the field. Kaufman has traveled to more than 100 countries with her handmade puppets who have been featured in local television programming and have been instrumental in carrying out statewide education initiatives.
When Kaufman was growing up, she would read through her father’s medical books to learn about anatomy and subsequently took her dolls apart to see how their pieces fit back together. Around age 13 she began performing behind a card table at birthday parties. Kaufman says both her parents were extremely supportive, and by age 16 she was creating her own puppets from scratch and attending national conventions.
She continued to perform in her college theater program and enjoyed her time working backstage. After graduating with her BA in Art and Drama from Chapman University, she joined New York City’s Central Park puppet theater and traveled to all five boroughs to perform for students.
“I ended up watching children learn,” says Kaufman. “I could see them connecting with what we were doing and saying.”
It was in the city that she met friend, Jim Henson who would go on to start “Sesame Street” with another of Kaufman’s mentors, Bill Baird. Kaufman says she learned how to build figures, pack puppets, and a wide range of performance skills from these influential colleagues.
Kaufman holds a master’s degree in secondary education and completed doctoral work in human behavior, which contributed to her main path in using puppets to aid local educational agencies, health organizations and police departments. Her shows cover topics including nutrition, alcohol and substance abuse, improving communication skills and literacy.
As far as her friends, there is yellow feathered Billy Bird —described by Kaufman as a “distant cousin of ‘Big Bird’” given her closeness with Henson during the time he was made — who helps children get over their fears of change and trying new things.
Another character is Annie, made in 1979 and a frequent performer at Springtime Tallahassee events.
The brown and lovable Harold Hare was created for a 1980s nutrition campaign and the Becky ballerina marionette has debuted at many school events. Kaufman created each character for a specific purpose and says that even in her “variety shows” she deeply considers her audience.
Read the rest of the story by visiting the Tallahassee Democrat
or read more by downloading the article here