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Theater student Kimmy Miller spreads joy, educational messages through puppetry

Kimmy Miller sits on her bed and holds a colorful puppet. The first-year theater student said she developed an interest in puppetry at a young age after watching programs such as “The Muppet Show.” (Myka Fromm/Photo editor)

By Isabella Appell

April 15, 2024 5:08 p.m.

Kimmy Miller is turning her puppetry passion into a profession.

The first-year theater student said her fascination with the art form started at a young age. Growing up watching popular puppet programs like “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” Miller said she gained an appreciation for how versatile the medium is. Puppetry helps people of all ages understand complex topics, which she also strives to accomplish, she added.

“Something about animating the inanimate really draws the audience in,” Miller said. “I really appreciate the puppet aspect of (performances) because that creates a whole other level of communication.”

[Related: Student play ‘You Never Existed’ promises relatable comedy, cultural reflection]

When making her puppets, Miller said the creative process is shaped around the specific needs of each project, whether it’s a play or a short film. Built with seemingly unconventional materials from ping pong balls to aluminum cans, her characters are expanded off of mere ideas and are transformed throughout the process, she added. With past projects, she said she has used puppetry as an educational tool, often molding a personality to fit her audience.

(Myka Fromm/Photo editor)
One of Kimmy Miller's handmade puppets is shown. Miller said she creates her projects with materials such as felt and ping pong balls. (Myka Fromm/Photo editor)

For instance, Miller said she won first prize at the Aquarium of the Pacific’s High Tide Student Film Festival in 2022 for her project on coral reefs, telling the story through a character named Swishy Fishy. The addition of puppetry helped humanize the need to save coral reefs, Miller said. Attaching the environmental concept to a real character helped the audience connect with the topic better, she added.

Sarah Berman, Miller’s mentor and co-creator of the aquarium’s Pacific Pals puppetry program, said Miller’s playfulness will help take her further in her career. In addition to putting in countless hours of practice, Miller also has the tools necessary to prepare for auditions, Berman said. For example, she said taking a multitude of theater, voice and comedy classes is essential in standing out amongst other performers. Miller’s gravitation towards physical media will also contribute to the longevity of her success, Berman added.

“I think (Kimmy) has an old soul that is really mature for her age,” Berman said. “It’s going to take her very far because people are going to want to pull from different wells of creativity that reach farther back than the immediate pop culture.”

When exploring different types of puppetry, Miller said the art form ranges from ventriloquism to marionette to shadow work. There’s a wide world featuring different performance styles across the industry, she added. Having a soft spot for her childhood, however, Miller said she will always gravitate towards the Muppet-like style.

Acting as another mentor, Patty Steponovich, Miller’s art teacher at St. Anthony High School, said Miller’s enthusiasm for puppetry prior to attending UCLA contributed to the success of their high school puppet club. Miller was not only the program’s founder but also led in-depth presentations, created patterns and sewed characters for each meeting, Steponovich said. The club grew from four to over 20 students under Miller’s guidance, she added.

“She wanted to spread love through puppetry and I honestly believe that’s what she did,” Steponovich said. “(She) opened your eyes and heart and gave you something that you didn’t know you needed.”

[Related: Kyreeana Alexander’s ‘We Cool’ reimagines childhood hope for today’s adults]

In addition to her love for the craft, Miller said self-care is key to succeeding in puppetry. Although an enthusiasm for the art is important, puppetry is just as intensive as a sport, she said. Doing yoga, breathing exercises and eating healthy is essential when performing, she added.

“People don’t realize it, but puppetry is a very active profession,” Miller said. “It can push you into very uncomfortable positions: you’re holding your arm up for so long, you get tweaks in your back and stuff like that.”

(Ashley Rivera/Daily Bruin)
Kimmy Miller smiles with a puppet at her desk. Miller has created original puppet designs for projects such as short films and campus theater productions. (Ashley Rivera/Daily Bruin)

When discussing how UCLA has helped expand her skills, Miller said her theater classes allow her to strengthen the basics of technical work. Through her performance in the theater department’s production of “I Swear to God” in February and March, Miller said she learned that people appreciate puppets beyond just her high school. Bouncing ideas off of other puppeteers in the same program as her has been a helpful asset as well, she added.

Focusing on a career in puppetry, Miller said Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, acts as her biggest inspiration to this day. She said Henson had the ability to showcase a multitude of techniques and illustrations through his puppets. She hopes one day to take these characters back and nurture them as Henson did, Miller said.

“I hope to start a business that was like his (Henson’s) to create multiple different films that makes puppetry accessible for all ages,” Miller said. “I just want it to be all-encompassing.”

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