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The Potential of Puppetry

Matthew Isaac Cohen and Dorothy Max Prior introduce responses from puppeteers to the Scottish Arts Council’s report on the sector

Matthew Isaac Cohen writes:

The Scottish Arts Council (SAC) published its report The Potential of Puppetry: A Review of the Sector in Scotland [] in April 2005. This policy document, which was five years in the making, represents the first major overview of puppetry in Scotland. It has been compared to the Gulbenkian report, On the Brink of Belonging: A National Inquiry into Puppetry (Gulbenkian Foundation, 1992), which focused largely on England.

Puppetry in Scotland is a relatively small sector, driven less by powerful institutions than by the commitment of individual puppeteers and administrators. While major international puppet companies occasionally appear at the Edinburgh Festivals, opportunities for international training and professional development have been limited for most Scottish puppeteers; puppetry is mostly consigned to the category of children’s entertainment by arts organisers and the theatre-going public. Due in part to this history of neglect, the new attention given by the SAC to puppetry has made the review controversial since its inception. It has been applauded by some for attending to a sector of the arts that has been long ignored, with a promise of increased cash flow to puppet companies and institutions. Others have questioned the logic behind the makeup of the review team, the selection of respondents, and the research methods used.

Now, more than a year after its publishing, the SAC report’s results are beginning to be felt by puppeteers and puppetry organisations….

Dorothy Max Prior writes:

Animations Online surveyed the responses of representative Scottish puppet organisations, and of puppeteers across the UK, to the SAC Review. There were many and varied responses! Some stated that they did not feel that they wanted to express an opinion; some felt that as representatives of an organisation, they didn’t wish to pass a personal opinion without a full consultation with those that they represent; some were happy to give a comment but preferred it not to be published here; some were happy to engage publicly in the debate on the pages of Animations Online.

So we here present a sample of responses, mostly from Scottish puppeteers or organisations, but with one voice from England, offering a perspective as a company funded by ACE rather than SAC.

Animations Online would like to make it clear that the responses below have been reproduced in full, and that the respondents have not seen each other’s submissions. Animations Online takes no editorial stance on the responses, but presents them in order to inform readers of the variety of views held on this matter. We feel that this debate is important for the whole puppetry community throughout the UK as it raises vital issues around the purpose and practices of arts funding, and the implementation of arts strategies, throughout the UK. We are happy to receive further responses, or comment on the responses below. Send to the editor, Dorothy Max Prior, on: [mail to]

Responses to The Potential of Puppetry: A Review of the Sector in Scotland

From Dr. Malcolm Knight, The Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre

smpcThank you for inviting my professional response to the above Review. There are so many omissions, distortions and machinations behind this internal strategic review by the Scottish Arts Council that I can only draw out a few of the issues. This is why a full and formal critique will be published by SMPC later this year (see

"There will be only one core-funded organisation in puppetry in Scotland and that is the Puppet Animation Festival. That's the reality. If you don't like it you'll just have to learn to live with it." (Angela Hogg, Drama Officer, Scottish Arts Council). This high-handed and undemocratic attitude is typical of a certain kind of arts bureaucrat seeking to control both the theory and practice of those of us who do the "real" work and whose "reality" is certainly elsewhere.

The SAC started its Review to examine the potential of puppetry in Scotland in 2000 and took five years of public money and time to produce the poorly researched and highly biased and manipulative document that is now in the public domain. In 2001 they removed our Centre's annually renewable project funding of £10,000 towards the Saturday programme of puppet shows for families and children (employment for puppeteers), masterclasses and creative in-house puppet productions. In one fell swoop the 12-year partnership between the SAC and Glasgow City Council to support our public
programmes was destroyed. The ill will of some and the jealousy and bad faith of others who were seeking ascendancy and hegemony over the sector was to blame for this state of affairs.

The SAC strategic review had a clear responsibility to map and define the sector in a balanced and even-handed manner. The areas for recognition and recommendation were and are: dedicated spaces, touring companies, festivals, networking organisations, and educational institutions. The task was to raise the stakes, create a level playing field and to integrate and involve all parts of the sector.

On completion of the Draft Review in June 2004 I discovered that the Review contained no recommendations for support of the existing building-based puppet theatres/centres (or "dedicated spaces" as The Gulbenkian Report termed them) at Biggar Puppet Theatre and at SMPC. Both professional organisations have been working at local, regional, national and international levels for the last thirty years. Neither building currently receives any funding from SAC towards any aspect of programming, staffing, overheads, maintenance or development. At this point, after a lengthy and futile correspondence with the drama department I was informed by David Taylor, Director of Drama, that the die was cast and that they had taken advice from the Puppet Centre Trust (Penny Francis) and The Gulbenkian Foundation! The Scottish Mask & Puppet Centre withdrew its support from the Review in October 2004 after all protestations fell on deaf ears.

Why is the national arts organisation responsible for championing the arts in Scotland undermining and refusing to acknowledge and reward the two longest established, permanent puppet theatres with year-round public programmes of activity, unique training/educational facilities, documentation and archive resources and extensive museum collections? Incidentally, both dedicated spaces are still run by their original founders and the potential of both buildings is being gravely constrained by lack of appropriate funds.

punch 18There have indeed been some positive developments since the Review: five companies were supported through the Drama department's open funds and two awards were made through the National Lottery Access and participation fund. The Puppet Animation Festival received core funding of £20,600 p.a. between 2003-05 and a further £61,800 for 2006-07 plus £10,000 for a SAC Series of eight Seminars, £4,000 for a feasibility study to go from a three week festival to a year round development agency, and funding for Simon Hart to attend the Titirimundi Festival in Segovia, Spain. PAF has also received special funding to administer the Creative Rehearsal Development Fund (two times £25,000) and a new bursary scheme for puppeteers.

In economic terms the puppetry sector was receiving a total of approximately £50,000 from SAC each year up to 2004. In 2005 this was increased to £155,000. To date in 2006 a further £117,000 has so far been allocated, of which more than two-thirds has been apportioned to Puppet Animation Scotland. The SAC is currently in receipt of £60 million of public funds (80% from the Scottish Executive) and of this grand total approximately 3.87% is spent on puppetry.

Of course, the single-door development agency model with its ready-made touring circuit festival represented by Puppet Animation Scotland is a convenient way for SAC to devolve and control its obligations.
Unfortunately, in so doing, it has violated its own policies on social inclusion, access and cultural diversity. SAC has actually widened the gap between those who have and those who have not. To marginalise those who have been working the longest and who have the most extensive range of skills, knowledge and experience is quite frankly neither desirable nor very clever.

In the puppet theatre sustainable growth and development is the key to everything and not to invest in the human and physical resources of those dedicated individuals and their spaces is short-sighted in the extreme. To think that by excluding issues they will go away is always a mistake. They don't. Issues remain issues.

SMPC takes the view that the role of a Centre is to support, encourage and nurture - not to substitute itself for the voice of the puppeteers and their advocacy organisations. We seek to promote solidarity and friendship amongst puppeteers and the wider community and to address the needs of anyone and everybody interested in the art form. We believe in independence, self-reliance and the spirit of freedom and refuse any attempt to impose over-arching new development agencies such as PAF and Imaginate over the top of what we do. In particular, we resist all attempts to subsume the artform into children and young people's theatre and to co-opt the creativity of puppeteers in the service of non-puppeteers. The know-how, the skills, the traditions, and the legacy should be protected by ring-fenced development funding after so many years of enforced deprivation.

Our creed is simple but uncompromising:

  • Puppets, Masks and Performing Objects are an artform in their own
  • This field belongs to the art of the people. It is ancient, popular and
  • For the State culture is an obligation
  • For the Artist culture is a necessity
  • For the People culture is a right

-To sum up, the SAC Review of Puppetry is mediocre, lacklustre and lacking in the background and experience to make any meaningful difference. The author of the Review did not consult the wide-ranging and authoritative reports and models produced by other countries (of which 40 were on my table in the SMPC library when she came to see me). There was no need to consult these documents because the agenda was pre-set. The decision had already been signed, sealed and packaged and the deal done with PAF. All that remained was to dress up the document to legitimise the strategy and to manage consent from the puppetry community and the wider sector of children's and young people's theatre. There is a reason why the Scottish Executive has removed responsibility from the SAC of running the national companies, and still more reason why it has been downsized into Creative Scotland from April 2007. It remains to be seen whether the new organisation will adopt improved standards of transparency and accountability along the lines of ACE in England, or whether it will remain rooted in the old croneyism and elitism that has haunted it for years. On the face of it, if it handles the question of cultural entitlements among the populace in the same vein as it has treated its cultural ambasssadors of puppetry, we might all be better off just doing the creative work, forging new partnerships with honest folk and simply marching to the beat of our own drum.

From Simon Hart, Puppet Animation Festival

When the Puppet Animation Festival was informed of the Scottish Arts
Council's decision to undertake a review of the artform in Scotland we quickly realised that this was a good opportunity to lobby for further resources in order to realise more fully the two distinct yet related strains of our mission statement.

Firstly, the Festival exists to provide an annual showcase for the best of Scottish puppetry and complement it with the work of leading practitioners from the rest of the UK and abroad.

Secondly, since its inception in 1984, the organisation has also always seen the development of practical initiatives tailored to the needs and aspirations of the puppetry sector in Scotland as fundamental to its success. A strong and confident sector makes for a strong and confident Festival.

As a result of our representations during the Review process the Festival now has a secure and valued position in the arts infrastructure of Scotland along with significantly increased resources in order to maintain this. The event provides Scotland's leading companies with significant amounts of work every year throughout the country, annually sourcing approximately £100,000 in fees and related expenses from Scottish local authorities alone for puppeteers. From 2007 the Festival will also be able to programme two leading international companies every year, allowing Scottish audiences and practitioners to enjoy and be inspired by the creativity and artistry of different puppetry traditions, styles and techniques from around the world. In addition our increased funding will allow us to offer much more high quality work to venues in the further reaches of Scotland, particularly those on its many islands.

In order to differentiate between its single most important core activity
- the organisation of the annual Puppet Animation Festival - and its other activities, we have created an umbrella organisation: Puppet Animation Scotland. Puppet Animation Scotland will administer its new Creative Development Through Rehearsal Fund, which from this year will provide Scottish puppeteers with £30,000 pa to produce new work. PAS will also be responsible for its two annual Creative Apprenticeships that will allow a professionally young puppeteer and animateur to gain valuable working experience with leading professionals in Scotland and further afield. In the future there will also be a range of schemes and initiatives prompted by the interests and priorities of the professional puppetry sector in Scotland. We have always aspired to listen with open ears and minds to the single most important and valuable element of the puppetry sector in Scotland, its practitioners - the people who actually generate the work for everyone else's benefit - and respond positively and practically to their needs.

We have a vital role to play in the further development of the artform in Scotland. Throughout the Review process we did what any well run organisation ambitious for its aims and objectives would do: we promoted robustly our vision and the benefits that we believed would accrue. As a result we have for the first time gained a basic level of annual guaranteed and ongoing funds for Scottish puppeteers. However we do not see this as the end of the process. There is much more to be done and we intend to continue our committed advocacy for puppetry in Scotland and additional resources commensurate with its developing role and profile. We have always made our strong support in principal known - both in public and in private - for other like minded organisations in Scotland and are ready to work together for the benefit of the sector. We believe in a rich and diverse puppetry culture in Scotland where we and other practitioners with their visions, aims and objectives provide the means, the expertise and the dedication necessary for the further health and growth of this rich, exciting and vibrant art form called puppetry.

From Symon Macintyre, The Puppet Lab

puppet labScottish puppetry has for a while been dominated by strong personalities that put personal agendas ahead of a need for a unified and supportive network of puppeteers. However, with the strong grass roots backing, and because of the impact of The Puppet and Animation Festival, there have been allowances for more funding and professional development, an increase in grants available and opportunities for workshops and seminars on puppetry. Now at last, thanks to Angela Hogg and others, The Scottish Arts Council Report has had an immediate and positive impact on the Scottish Puppetry scene with an increase of funding to some of the more established companies and a willingness to fund some experiments in adult puppetry. This has also had an impact with smaller awards for new companies and development opportunities for individuals.

In my opinion the new interest shown in puppetry is becoming the chance to re-establish networks and to start to show the rest of the world the work that has been flourishing here.

From Leigh McCalister, Clydebuilt

The Scottish Puppetry Review has been very positive for the puppetry community for the following reasons. Of course, the first one is the feeling we are no longer alone! After years in the wilderness of the theatre world SAC have realised that "despite low public profile puppetry is providing a vast amount of work for a variety of venues". We are no longer invisible! Funding too has been incredibly important in two ways - one is the encouragement for puppeteers to apply to a range of funds that already exist for smaller organisations. We have applied successfully to these funds twice this year. Secondly, the more solid creation of a fund for professional development. The Creative Development Through Rehearsal Fund is specifically for puppeteers and will be in place this year and next at least (one can never count on these funds being there forever). This fund allows us at Clydebuilt time off the road to create a new show for adults, A Chance to Dream.

The fund encourages puppeteers to think and plan ahead more and widen our skills and work with theatre professionals who can help us improve and develop our work. A last word, much of the success of these positive developments would not have happened without the assistance and support of the Puppet Animation Festival who have brought puppeteers in Scotland together and provided networking opportunities. Many thanks to Simon Hart, the director. PAF's plans fit in with the SAC plan to increase younger audiences and now that the Scottish Arts Council has a better understanding of how the puppetry world works we can tap into their plans and make the most of any opportunities that come our way.

There is lots more I could add but these are the most important issues for us at Clydebuilt. 

From Iklooshar Malara, Garlic Theatre

Thank you very much for sending me the Scottish Arts Council Report to comment on. From looking at it briefly, it does look like a balanced and much needed document and hopefully will lead to much needed funding and professional development for the professional practitioners in Scotland. I wish we could see a similar document from the Arts Council in England.

In terms of moving from a Report to implementing change in the state of funding for puppetry, there are some concerns that I would have from our experience of applying for and receiving funding in England from the Arts Council. I think that each Arts Council region in England seems to favour different artforms according to the priorities of the individual arts officers and this obviously affects the implementation of funding. Any document with good intentions to further the artform of puppetry is dependent on arts officers who have a real desire to implement change.

In the Eastern Region of England at present, the remit to give funding to new companies who have not received funding before makes it difficult for the more established companies to find funding for creative projects and to continue and develop their work. It makes it difficult for these companies to find funding for the essential research and development and rehearsal time necessary for devised work which is exploratory and develops the artform of puppetry.

The size of puppetry companies is also often a problem as they do not have the personnel to fill in the funding forms and follow up the detailed analytical work necessary to make a credible application.

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