Majoring in puppetry at Adelphi University
Sebastiano Ricci spent many hours as a child watching Ernie and Bert on “Sesame Street.” Now, if all goes as planned, one day he just might be the man behind the curtain helping make Muppet magic happen.
When Ricci was 12, he said, he had an epiphany.
“I realized people performing the characters did so as a job,” he said. “From that point on, I’ve focused on becoming a professional puppeteer.”
Ricci, 19, of Franklin Square, said he is still as fascinated by the sheer mechanics of puppetry as he was when he was a kid. His dream job is to voice and operate the lead characters on “Sesame Street,” the educational program geared toward preschoolers that began airing on public television on Nov. 10, 1969. Its residents include Muppets characters created by Jim Henson — Elmo, Big Bird, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and Bert, among others.
“ ‘Sesame Street’ is going on its 50th year; to work on that show would be incredible,” Ricci said. “He [Jim Henson] revolutionized puppetry. He made them realistic, more human. I want to be a part of keeping his legacy going.”
Ricci is on the path to make his dreams a reality. The Adelphi University sophomore plans to graduate from the Garden City school in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in television puppetry, a self-designed major.
Adelphi doesn’t have puppetry classes, so Ricci had enrolled and planned to pursue a degree in communications in digital media production. Adelphi has long had interdisciplinary studies majors, and in the past several years there has been an increase in interest in collaborative programs, said Susan Briziarelli, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. There are about 10 students with individualized programs on campus. Ricci will join their ranks next school year.
“I had the idea of doing my own major for a while,” he said. “I went to Assistant Dean Ruth McShane and pitched her the idea. She was behind me,” added Ricci, who first shared his plans with his adviser, Adelphi professor John Drew.
Ricci will essentially have three majors — communications, art and theater. Students are usually prohibited from taking those classes unless they are part of their major. Ricci’s classes will consist of filmmaking and monitor work for working with puppets, puppet building and sculpture, and acting, with an emphasis on voice and more. Everything will tie in with puppetry.
“If I am in a TV class, and I need to make a 5-minute film, I will use puppets,” Ricci said. In addition, he will do independent studies projects, such as building and constructing puppets and monitoring them. Ricci has already completed most of his general education classes, despite studying in three areas, and should still graduate in 2020 as planned, but there are other logistics to address.
“We are still working out the details of what percentage of each department he will have classes in,” said John McDermott, associate professor of theater. “We and the chairs of the art and communications department are working it out.”
LETTING PUPPETS SPEAK
Ricci is an only child and was shy growing up, which he believes plays a part in his love of puppets.
“When you’re a puppeteer you can hide behind the art,” he said. “The puppet character can say and do things, and get away with it.”
Ricci won’t rely solely on his education at Adelphi to propel his puppetry career. He takes workshops in New York City, including The Voice Class run by the Brooklyn Puppet Conspiracy and at the Puppet Kitchen in Manhattan. The experience has been invaluable, he said.
“I’ve learned so much, like voice acting,” Ricci said. “We’re taught how to manipulate our voices. It’s cool to hear the science behind it, what your throat and body does to make your sound crisper and clearer.”
He has learned mechanics, including shadowing, which involves helping other puppeteers, as well as doing his own thing making the puppets talk, grabbing objects and making realistic movements, all while keeping himself out of view. “There is a lot of multitasking and coordination,” Ricci said.
The classes are also a good way to network, establish relationships in the puppeteer community and meet many of the people he is connected to via Facebook.
Most recently, Ricci was one of 30 people, out of a pool of more than 200 internationally, selected to participate in a three-day “Sesame Street” workshop in Manhattan.
“I learned so much,” he said. “But it was scary to perform before puppeteers, and before some of the gods of puppeteers, people that work on ‘Sesame Street.’ They were watching and critiquing us. It was an incredible experience.”
Ricci also fine-tunes his skills on the YouTube channel he has had for seven years. He originally worked with replicas of established characters but eventually tired of that and wanted his own puppets. He recently learned to build his own characters with the help of a kit and a YouTube tutorial. Unlike some people, Ricci doesn’t sketch out his characters on paper.
“I get a general idea in my head and go with it,” he said. “You start with a bunch of material . . . and you start playing around with the foam, glasses, noses, etcetera, and it becomes a character.”
Ricci’s creatures include Gino Vino, an Italian gangster from Brooklyn; Goober, the clumsy goofball; Joey Pepper, who is excited and optimistic; Frankie, a Southern cowboy; and Fad, the fearless, crazy one. He said their physical appearance determines their personalities.
“If a puppet has wide eyes, he’s going to be hyper,” Ricci said. “Some of the characters are based on characters I knew and liked while growing up, such as SpongeBob SquarePants, or a combination of characters, but I always put my twist on it.”
His puppetry prowess helped him win the 2017 Adelphi University Student Film and Video Festival, but Ricci still realizes it is a niche field. “My parents say I should have a backup plan,” he said. “Even at the workshops, they tell us that the number of puppeteer gigs has gone down. It’s not like the ’80s and ’90s, when so many of the kids’ shows had tons of puppets. Now, it’s all about animation.”
The odds don’t worry him or his Adelphi supporters. “He’s focused, he knows what he wants to do,” said McShane. “He came to us with initiative. He will do what he loves.”
And if he never makes it to “Sesame Street,” Ricci said he will be fine as long as he and his puppets can make people happy.
“Creating the illusion of a living, breathing creature — it’s magical,” he said.
Just because the major you’re interested in isn’t listed among a school’s offerings doesn’t mean it can’t be pursued, at least if you’re a student at Adelphi University in Garden City.
“We’re trying to spread the word that we are developing more collaborative programs,” said Susan Briziarelli, acting dean of the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. “There’s more demand for this. Twenty-five years ago there were far fewer choices when you graduated. But it’s different now, with fields like social media, computers and other newer fields.”
So how do you toss tradition to the wind and create your own major?
1 The first thing you should do is speak up.
“The student is the driver,” said Briziarelli. “We are never going to suggest this. This has to be your passion.”
2 You’ll also need to meet with Assistant Dean Ruth McShane, who has the final say.
“Present your proposal and talk it through together and come up with the different academic areas that would be involved,” Briziarelli advised. “Then you’ll need to bring in each of the advisers in those departments.”
3 And expect to have to convince your parents.
“There’s likely to be hesitation from parents when they think of their child designing their own major,” Briziarelli said. “Parents know what you can do with a math major, but what of something you’ve created? But the reality is, advisers will work as closely with a student in an individualized program as any other.”
Educators at Adelphi realize that interdisciplinary studies are coming to the fore.
“It’s collaborative, more creative,” said McShane. “You don’t have to follow a set path. That’s what education is about; that’s why we’re here.”
— Sheryl Nance-Nash