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Look, See, Do

Cariad Astles reflects on the evolution of Central School’s International Student Puppet Festival

The fourth international student puppet festival was held at The Central School of Speech and Drama between the 5th and 8th May 2010. The festival was started in 2007 as a means to bring together students and teachers of puppet theatre to share work and ideas in a spirit of collaboration and co-operation. Regular student puppet theatre festivals are held in a range of Eastern European countries where puppetry training schools have a long tradition of state support and where cultural awareness of the value of puppetry is deeply embedded within the country’s past. The puppetry training school in Bialystok hosts a biennial festival with magnificent hospitality, inviting puppetry academies from Europe to share student performances. The delightful festival in Estonia, Tallinn Treff, was begun two years ago in a similar spirit, and this year the World Puppet Festival in St. Petersburg will host a range of schools’ performances from around the world. There is no similar regular festival in Western Europe, however.

The festival in London was set up with a relatively modest remit, and with more limited funding, but as a forum to celebrate, discuss and share the incredible range of puppetry work being developed across institutions and elsewhere within the UK. The aim was partly to recognise that puppetry training takes place not only within dedicated courses, but also across other courses and as part of ongoing professional development. The first festival hosted students from many different courses, both within and outside the Higher Education sector, including students from technical theatre training courses, design and performance courses and children’s theatre training. Since then awareness of the festival has grown and it has now become a regular feature of the School’s activities, funded, administered and produced by the Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre (CETT), based at CSSD, which has organised and curated a vast range of theatre-related activities, from conferences, symposia and talks to practitioner-based networks and professional projects.

Applications to the festival come mostly from within the UK, many from students on performance or fine art courses wishing to showcase their work. The last two years, however, have seen a substantial increase in the number of applications from both overseas institutions and from individuals not representing institutions. The 2010 festival was the first time that applications outstripped places in large numbers, an indicator of how much the festival has grown. The choice of invited companies is based on the wish to include a range of institutions, styles, newcomers and international participants.

The festival traditionally hosts performances, talks/demonstrations, installations, films and a series of professional workshops, affirming its commitment to the value of training. This year, workshops were run by Manooka (on the uses of the marionette to create comic and dramatic physical performance); Pickled Image, with the indefatigable Dik Downey (on puppetry manipulation); Creature Encounter (street and outdoor performance) and Emergency Exit Arts (large-scale processional performance). Companies invited included students from the University of Leeds, Royal Holloway University of London, Central St. Martins, CSSD, Wimbledon and Rose Bruford; the international groups invited included the Ernst Busch puppetry academy in Berlin; students from the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa; the Kenyan Institute for Puppet Arts and the University of Tehran. Sadly, the groups from Nairobi and Tehran were unable to obtain visas in time to permit them to travel to London; it is increasingly difficult for international artists, even when invited, and needs months of preparation.

The style of work presented was very varied and included tongue-in-cheek ‘soft sculpture’ animation; exquisite finger puppetry; paper theatre; bunraku and table-top inspired performances; installations and films inspired by the St Pancras church crypt and by people’s visions of their future; and an extraordinary radical and challenging piece by Nenagh Watson, Creative Fellow at the Central School of Speech and Drama, exploring the unchartered territory of ‘puppetry without ego’ through the presence, animated or otherwise, of umbrellas.

The Crisis Creative workshop for homeless people presented an epic and enthusiastic performance featuring Western urban landscapes in search of meaning, with the widest range of puppets in one show I have seen for a long time; students from Royal Holloway presented an evocative Bauhaus-inspired fertility ritual to the moon; students from the puppetry and Collaborative and Devised Theatre courses at Central presented an excerpt from the Blind Summit-directed performance Call of the Wild, based on the novel by Jack London, with cardboard huskies. The mumming company Root and Branch performed two outdoor performances; theatre students from South Africa presented The Story of an English Soldier, a harrowing account of one man’s experiences in the trenches, with table-top puppetry and live text. The work presented also included children’s performances (with schools’ audiences) by graduate companies (the festival also invites proposals from people who have graduated in the last three years, or who are new to puppetry in the last three years); participants from recent years’ Incubate programmes and a show and talk by a recent graduate.

The highlight of the festival for me was the wonderful performance by Astrid Jensen from the Berlin School with her finger performance Gradual Approach to a Marriage, which took place within the folds of an extravagantly long wedding dress, and featured the old Persian tale of Adam and Eve with Lilith in the Garden of Eden. The performance, which had few words, employed comedy, excellent manipulation and visual storytelling and engaged its audience throughout.

The festival team are in the process of redesigning the remit of the festival; the Centre for Excellence at Central finishes its work this July and it is likely that the festival will change accordingly. In particular, the festival will be looking at the development of more discussion forums to explore the work; collaborative projects between institutions both within the UK and elsewhere, and further means to develop puppetry training.


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Image credits, top to bottom:

CSSD Student Puppet Festival: The Boy From Centreville, directed Catherine Alexander. Photo Patrick Baldwin
Nenagh Watson’s Conversations with an Umbrella. Photo Jemima Yong
Jemima Yong’s Walk at CSSD Student Puppet Festival 2010. Photo Jemima Yong

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