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Penny Francis takes a look at the UK puppetry festival scene in 2005. Additional reporting by Cath Connolly, Clive Chandler Peter Charlton, Andrew Smaje and Simon Hart.
Photos: Mikropodium from the Dynamics festival; Harlequin from the Norwich Puppet Theatre; Peter Ketturkat at Skipton Festival

This has been a bumper year for British puppet festivals, in spite of the seriously bad news of the rumoured end of visions festival in Brighton, at least in the form we knew it. Our perennials, in Bath and all over Scotland (Puppet Animation), took place around Easter, both seemingly in good health; the Buxton event seems set to become a regular, this being its fourth edition, and at least four Punch and Judy celebrations have occurred in the regions and in London, not to mention at least one Toy Theatre event. New to the festival programme have been no less than three major festivals, one in Birmingham, Dynamics; one in Skipton, Yorkshire; and one in Norwich, celebrating twenty-five splendid years of the Norwich Puppet Theatre.
Each festival is remembered for its unique flavour, some distinct ingredient of the event brought to it by its progenitor, its chief organiser and the back-up team she or he has chosen. Bath, with a mainly adult programme, has Andrew Smaje; the Scottish one, for children’s work, has Simon Hart who has won good subsidy and has just shifted his base to Aberdeen; Buxton’s engine is driven by Peter Charlton and mixes children’s and adult shows; the new Dynamics in Birmingham had Clive Chandler as chief chef (a satisfying tautology) backed by the Puppeteers UK organisation and the Midlands Arts Centre; Skipton was a small friendly festival set in a charming market town, the only one with a woman (Liz Lempen) at its head; the Punch festivals were organised by a band of ‘professors’ from the Punch and Judy associations and are always characterised by jollity and camaraderie, attracting family audiences wherever they are staged.

All of them have a greater or lesser international component, and most depend heavily on the financial support of the local municipality and Arts Council. Sometimes private sponsorship is found too, but that furrow is still a hard one to plough: puppetry may have risen tremendously in standing in the arts world and even the arts funding world, but the suits behind the desks still flinch at the idea of associating their corporate logo with – what was that you mentioned – puppets? Business people can be a cautious bunch. However, in Skipton they seem not to be, since an impressive number of businesses and shops provided sponsorship to the festival.
Naturally the idea behind each festival is to present the art form in the best possible light, or the best possible light in the opinion and to the taste of the organiser(s). Linda Lewis, who recently retired as artistic director of visions, wanted only modern, mixed media shows; Simon Hart has a very outgoing festival – he is outgoing himself and the festival goes out all over Scotland, bringing shows of uneven quality to families in remote areas, with the accent on Scottish companies. Peter Charlton is eclectic in his tastes, and chooses accordingly, as long as, in any given show, undiluted puppetry is recognisably to the fore. Bath’s Andrew Smaje, low-profile and serious, reflects these attributes in his festival, and produces modern shows of high quality, with the largest proportion of foreign groups.
The first edition of the almost spontaneous festival in Skipton, in the Yorkshire Dales, was an unexpected delight. Unexpected because they seemed to find funding and venue so quickly, against all the odds, also because Skipton is a market town far from big cities, and might have attracted only a few visitors from round the country. In the event, the publicity and the word on the street were so positive and widespread that very many people came from different areas of Britain, even finding accommodation hard to find - because of the festival! Skipton is a perfect place for this kind of festival: all the shows were in more or less the same location – the Town Hall –in the centre of the town of narrow cobbled streets, its market and congenial shops and pubs. I’ve only been to one festival town I’ve enjoyed as much, and that was Sibenik in Croatia.
In Skipton the shows were usually full, the townspeople taking the event to its heart, and in fact creating a demand for several extra performances. If puppeteers are thin on the ground at some festivals, there were plenty here, and the social side of things (meaning the meetings in cafes and pubs) was lively. The spirit and soul of the festival were the Lempen Puppet couple, Liz and Daniel, looking slightly overwhelmed by the hordes of spectators, and spreading warmth and welcome to everyone. Diana Bayliss was an important collaborator: she performs as Black Cat Theatre, and gave the premiere of her ambitious shadow/dance/video production of Shakti. For me, the discovery of the festival was the gentle quirky humour and superb wood craftsmanship of the German one-man Laku Paka with Hare and Hedgehog and Alfred. These and two shows by Indefinite Articles, Pinocchio, and Banyan’s Cinderella Ashputtel, gave me most pleasure – of the ones I saw, that is.
Performer, teacher and Puppet Centre Trust board member Cath Connolly also enjoyed both of these and writes: ‘It was a joy to watch these two amazing performers captivate a sell-out crowd with their excellent puppetry’. Both were modest, one-person, original, witty, using objects as much as figures, with live sound and fine artistry in the performing.
Cath was also ‘inspired by some interesting cabaret pieces. A special mention must go to Rough Daddy by the Wright Stuff. This had everything I could ask for in a cabaret piece, being simultaneously politically astute and non-PC and was wonderfully performed by Steve Wright – with a little assistance from Di Bayliss.’

Astoundingly, there were over 2,500 attendees over three days. 400 questionnaires were handed out with 124 respondents. The responses were extremely favourable with very few negatives to be derived from them and they presented some interesting findings.

Dynamics in Birmingham was, reports Clive Chandler, by far the biggest of the year’s celebrations. Well-supported by Arts Council England, Urban Fusion and, yes, a good sponsorship deal too, the festival had a £100,000 budget, and aimed to provide a national focus for the art form, also to be on-going - the next one planned for 2007. It was spread all over the region and boasted audiences totalling 15,000 in 100 venues over three weeks, although houses were disappointingly thin for some of the mac (Midland Arts Centre) performances. Chandler writes: ‘Performing companies came from Hungary, Portugal, Czech Republic, Canada, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and Slovakia. The programme also included 15 UK companies. A major new work King of The Castle (based on Macbeth) was specially commissioned, with Steve Tiplady as director. Other work ranged in scale from the tiny figures of Toy Theatre and Mikropodium to the giant processional figures of Walking Tall; from the small-scale of Hand to Mouth Theatre’s Here Be Dragons to the full-scale marionette production of Mozart’s The Emperor’s Feast by Karromato (from the Czech Republic) which was stunningly beautiful and also very funny.’

The sixth Bath festival, in the Easter holidays, presented shows that sold out for almost every performance, which might surprise some since it’s a showcase of puppetry for adults – but ‘audiences respond with an ever greater thirst and understanding of the artform, every year’ says director Andrew Smaje. Three international companies were programmed: from Holland, Schicklgruber by Neville Tranter who also taught a Puppet Centre masterclass on the subject of voice and lip-sycning for the puppet; from Germany, Two Old Ladies by Quaide & Paiva, a German-Brazilian combination; and from Portugal, Paz Tatay with a whacky glove show, The Murder of Don Cristobal, featured in a whole Sun-Day of Punch, curated by Rod Burnett. The festival is taking a ‘sabbatical’ and will be back in 2007. Its absence will leave a significant hole in next year’s celebrations.

Buxton is a historic and elegant town in Derbyshire, and the puppet festival there was pronounced by its chief producer Peter Charlton, Chair of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild, now 80 years old (the Guild, not Peter), to be the best of the lot so far. It is staged with the collaboration and much support in kind and kindness from the Buxton Opera House, which offers two of the three venues for the shows, most performed by members of the Guild. Charlton brings a Christian ethic to the Buxton event, evidenced in the Church service at the opening – as indeed a church service with Punch in the pulpit always opens the Punch and Judy May Fayre in Covent Garden. A mix of genres included an exhibition, workshops and classes, street theatre, toy theatre, Punch, Japanese shows from Nori Sawa and the young Yamabiko-za group which proved to be a hit. The other hit, writes Peter, was a British company called Babbling Vagabonds with their Lonely Giant which filled the Opera House: a welcome production for a big stage, ‘full of wit, charm and good puppetry’.

I can write at first-hand about the flavour of the Norwich birthday event, presided over by the ineffable Luis Zornoza Boy. Every performance was in the converted church that is the Puppet Theatre, so it was a compact occasion, with a well-filled programme. On arrival it was clear that the theatre was in festive mode: the foyer was full of puppets from its history and a fair number of people from its history too, notably the theatre’s founder, Ray DaSilva, warmly welcomed.
The present artistic director (the said Luis Boy) was present throughout, taking care of the punters, the performers and the VIPs (the Arts Council officer came to most performances), while the other lynchpin, general manager Ian Woods, flew about to attend to pressing practical concerns. The range of shows on offer was wide and carefully chosen, from ancient traditional forms (from Spain and Portugal) to the most avant-garde (Conica Laconica and Tabola Rassa – both from Spain). For me, and for most, the highlight was the Tabola Rassa version of Moliere’s The Miser (L’Avaro); I’ve written about it before – it’s a simple tabletop setting with puppets made of bath-taps, showerheads, pipes and so on attached to pieces of cloth, manipulated by two consummate actor-puppeteers. It was very fast, very rude and extremely funny. The audience was entranced and gave it an ovation. Funny how the simplest means coupled with a brilliant idea can usually result in triumph.

The other triumph was part of the cabaret – and also from Spain. If you ever want to include a cabaret act in your festival or your corporate entertainment and you have plenty of warm water to hand (the Norwich Puppet Theatre didn’t on this particular occasion, and the efforts involved to fill a large barrel with water from electric kettles and saucepans to make it warm enough not to give the performer hypothermia were manic), then Diego Stirman is your man. He did an act purporting to be a demo of the ‘traditional underwater Vietnamese puppet show’: for this, he needed ritualistic arm movements, some distressing sock puppets, the removal of his clothes and the donning of flippers and snorkel, so as to immerse himself in a not-quite-large-enough tank to do the puppet show. He couldn’t stay underwater, however many times he tried (and once he tried a little too hard and seemed to be gone forever). The stage got pretty wet. We were in pain with laughter.
However amidst the laughter there came Joao Paolo Cardoso’s production, Miseria, (Suffering). It was a philosophical piece with a tiny detailed set on a tabletop about an old man who trades with Death for his immortality. The poetry of it was evident, and it’s a show I should be happy to see again – but with a summary.

All-in-all, the festival was another feather in the cap for UK puppetry.

The statistics furnished by Simon Hart for the 21st Scottish Puppet and Animation Festival are impressive: three workshops for adults, many shadow workshops for kids; four foreign groups (two from Germany, one each from Bulgaria and Ireland); 256 events in 131 venues and a 100% rise over 2004 in audience attendances, now 18,700. The Scottish festival’s list of partners and sponsors also make impressive reading. The Festival, known as PAF, is now undergoing an organisational review for the Scottish Arts Council that will inform its future growth and development. The SAC’s recently completed Review of Puppetry will also play an important part in this process as a contribution to the whole Scottish landscape which is urgently in need of investment to realise its potential. The review can be read on the Scottish Arts Council website –

An especially rich year, 2005, containing some jewels from at home and abroad, in decent proportion to the number on view. My only wish is that next year will see more mid-scale shows for larger venues. Miniaturism, dearly as I love it, is only one aspect of puppetry. It is a sign of the times that few larger-scale puppet-led productions are a successful part of the present British touring scene. There ARE mid-scale shows like Babbling Vagabonds’ Lonely Giant and Jade’s Cake wherein puppetry is an important component - but too few. The artform is of course everywhere to be seen in all kinds of theatre productions, and most of them are medium scale, like theatre-rites’ The Thought that Counts and the new Oily Cart If All the World were Paper, but they are more ‘theatre with puppets’ than ‘puppet theatre’.

The feedback from organisers and attendees to the many UK puppet-theatre festivals testifies to the ever-improving health of our artform. But there’s no room for complacency, though I suppose there never is in art.

Contact details for the festivals mentioned in this feature: Bath Puppet Festival 2007:
Buxton Puppet Festival: Peter Charlton: See
Dynamics: Clive Chandler: See also
Scottish Puppet Animation Festival: Simon Hart - see
Skipton Puppet Festival: Liz Lempen See
Visions: Colin Matthews
Norwich Puppet Theatre: Ian Woods email See
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