Have All the Puppets Gone?
Francis thinks they need a home of their own
brims over with brilliantly conceived and fashioned puppet figures.
There are fine artists – sculptors and painters –
who have created puppets fit for the most up-market gallery.
There are theatre designers who have made sets and costumes
and figures second to none in the world and a joy to look at,
even out of the stage lights. Most of them appear in a single
show – maybe the show is revived, even revived again –
but then they disappear. Are they re-fashioned and re-costumed
to play again in another production? Rarely – very rarely.
Are they proudly displayed in theatre foyers, in permanent exhibitions,
in museums? Yes, a few, a tiny proportion of those that have
strutted and fretted their hour upon the stage. But most are
then seen no more, no matter how gorgeous or interesting or
historically valuable they – and the show they played
in - were.
There are hundreds of them – and I speak only of Britain.
I speak also from the heart, since my late husband Derek Francis
made some exquisite puppets that I know not what to do with.
A few are on display in Bridgnorth, thanks to Michael Dixon.
Michael has some exhibition space in his home, and the puppets
are lovingly cared for – it is a sort of residential home
for retired puppets of which he is the Warden – and they
constitute the beginnings of a fabulous national collection.
This article was prompted by a privileged viewing of the late
George Speaight’s superb collection of toy theatres, books
and papers, and the sad inevitability of its break-up. He said
to me more than once that he did not like to think of it in
other than private hands, but if a centre dedicated to puppetry
in all its forms could boast a caring librarian, perhaps he
might have approved.
A national collection should be housed in some permanent building,
as part of our national heritage. My dream is to persuade the
English Heritage or National Trust authorities – or some
individual with imagination – that the dedication of a
mansion to puppetry would bring great rewards.
Look at it like this: you and your family, visitors to this
country, historians, anthropologists, theatre students, hear
that there is a beautiful house in attractive surroundings –
but with a difference. Part of its interior décor consists
of cases of puppet figures carefully curated so as to show off
the best of our puppetry heritage. The glass cases hold sets
of figures beside which are video monitors showing them in action
in their stage settings, sometimes with their operators. The
video demonstrates part of the production with some words and
music, together with the method of making and operating. In
many of the rooms the glass cases alternate with a wonderful
variety of puppet booths and stages, theatrically lit, with
suggestions of appropriate music issuing out of them.
But that’s only the beginning of the possibilities: the
great variety of scenographic solutions used by producers today
must be in evidence, with and without the puppeteer operators
(simulated!) in view, and exhibitions displaying the work of
a single era or country or company – such as the magical
material-based exhibitions mounted by theatre-rites, in fact
the building should reflect the past, present and possibly future
riches of the puppet scene as extensively as possible. And of
course there should be a viewing theatre for television and
cinema creations; everything from full-length features to TV
series to ads and pop music videos. In the great house’s
library there is a second-to-none collection of books available
to researchers, who come from near and far to study.
In the great ballroom or one or more of the barns there are
programmed performances of every kind: on Saturdays and Sundays
in the winter, for the public, and at any time for schools and
colleges. There are toy theatre and Punch and Judy fairs and
festivals, but we are not limited to these. In the summer there
are a series of shows in the grounds, from the giant celebrations
and processions of Emergency Exit Arts through the street theatre
of such as Horse and Bamboo to traditional glove-puppet booths.
In the bedrooms, converted to educational and therapeutic uses,
there are hi-tech facilities alongside the simplest of resources
to teach and aid. As in the Centre in Atlanta, USA, demos and
workshops are beamed out on television to schools, which pay
a reasonable fee to receive the live telecasts.
There can be workshops every day for every stage of ability:
for babes and teachers; for professionals and would-be professionals.
There is space for a Foundation Course in Professional Puppetry,
an intensive pre-college year-long course that teaches the fundamentals
of the art form: materials, jointing, finishing, techniques
of manipulation, basic history and dramaturgy (the kind of plays
or scenarios puppets do well).
Obviously I envision all this in a fine country house in lovely
surroundings, easily accessible by road and rail. Families will
flock, serious students will trickle, wanting workshop and masterclass
sessions, pros eager to produce and show will stream and the
mansion will be a colourful sea of pleasure and industry.
It will be staffed by a dynamic curator, a part-time conservationist
and two or three full-time staff, including a fundraiser, apart
from the usual caretakers of a stately home open to the public.
There will be lots of volunteers too, to explain and watch over
There might even be workshops for puppeteers to rent space for
their coming productions: the workshops will be rented free
– or almost – to puppet makers who help to conserve
the figures. It will cost a lot of money to run, but there should
be a decent income from the punters and students plus a number
of benevolent donors to sponsor it. And everyone knows that
an exhibition of puppets attracts bigger crowds than almost
any other kind.
It will not be the old-fashioned idea of a museum – not
at all. The exhibits will change regularly, and will never feel
musty. They will attract loans from some of our greatest puppeteers,
who will be delighted to see their work properly honoured. The
puppets will be pleased to show off too, outside the boxes which
usually imprison them from the time they step off the stage
and in the eye of the public once more.
It is a dream, but it is achievable, if a few people believe
in it enough to take action to make it real. There are already
moves afoot by the puppetry community which may – if funded
- constitute the first steps towards realising this dream; that
is, to survey and catalogue collections for a national archive.
The tide is flowing strongly for puppetry… Someone –
seize the day!