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Where Have All the Puppets Gone?

Penny Francis thinks they need a home of their own

Britain 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 the exhibits.

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!

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