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You win some, you lose some
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a reflection on the occasion of PCT's 30th birthday by Penny Francis.


The celebration of the Puppet Centre’s 30th birthday was heart-warming, with several people present who were responsible for its foundation in 1974, including Maurice Stewart, David Currell (its Chair for many years), Mary Wolf (who as Wandsworth Borough Arts Officer installed us in the brand new Battersea Arts Community Centre) and Brian Harris, the Arts Centre’s first director.
The event, excellently stage-managed by our present Director Beccy Smith, took place in the café of the arts centre. Included in the evening were three good entertainments freely offered by DNA (Adam Bennett), Ronnie Ledrew, and the new company Unpacked, a group of puppeteers and actors from the Central School of Speech and Drama who are already having some success as a professional company.

Naturally I found myself looking back over the last thirty years and reflecting on the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the puppetry landscape in that time. Although there were promising new artists in the 70s, most were semi-pro, and less than a handful performing work for adults. Caricature Theatre of Wales led the field in experimentation and a diversity of artistic input, also in its level of grant-aid, but the Arts Council was still insisting that it ‘did not fund puppets’, whilst at the same time subsidising the Cannon Hill Arts Centre and thus the puppet theatre within it, and the Polka touring theatre of actors and puppets. Barry Smith was insisting that puppetry had its own language and was an autonomous art form, just as Gordon Craig did for theatre at the beginning of the 20th century, and the artistic environment was slowly putting emphasis on non-literary, visual genres of production. The PCT sensed the prevailing winds of change and saw a huge need to promote the art form in any way it could, insisting that this ‘well-kept secret’ of theatre deserved to be widely known, and its vocational practitioners recognised.

A New Landscape to Explore
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, we have a landscape in which opera, ballet and national theatre companies are all attempting to employ puppetry, with varying degrees of expertise, and the dedicated puppet companies present shows to children and adults of a standard and with production values rarely encountered in the70s. Most of the best companies and puppeteers are presently subsidised by the Arts Councils, local authorities, foundations and charities, and some are at the cutting edge not just of children’s but of adult theatre too. Very sadly, Caricature and Cannon Hill are no more; many of the pioneers of the 60s and 70s have gone to their maker (John Wright, Barry Smith, John Thirtle, Alistair Fullarton), but the influence of each of them is strong.

I have been insisting for some years now that any performing art of any substance needs an infrastructure to support its artists: its own organisations, critical and academic analysis, literature, magazines for enthusiasts, schools, festivals, and so on. All these exist and have grown since the PCT was born, but in small proportion to what exists for the other performing arts, for dance, opera, acting, scenic design, even circus and mime with their smaller constituencies. For lack of attention and/or funding we have lost the Scottish HND course at Anniesland College, we have lost Animations magazine as a print publication, two pillars of the infrastructure. However, Animations still exists online and seems to be fairly widely read, and British UNIMA has just filled a gap with a new magazine called Puppetry Notebook. The first issue is substantial and promises very well. More and more theatre and design schools are including puppetry in their courses, and several writers have books in preparation. Although fragile, the situation is hopeful overall.

A Worry For the Future
But I must end on a despairing note: a serious blow to the development of puppetry and visual theatre in Britain has very recently been dealt by Arts Council England’s officers in South East England, which has announced to the directors of the visions festival, held every two years in Brighton, that its subsidy can no longer be guaranteed. The director Linda Lewis has resigned as a consequence. Visions, an international showcase of new, carefully chosen work, has always been seriously underfunded, but each festival has somehow managed to build on the last, in quality and quantity, until 2004 which saw the best yet, a truly meaty programme of excellent work from other countries combined with some of the best that Britain could offer. The festival went out on a limb for innovation and the little-known; it provided a unique showcase for new British work; it invited forums, masterclasses and critical commentary.

Whilst not intending to be highly commercial, it is a highly-regarded International festival yet also an enormous success as a regional festival with high attendances at many shows from a very broad range of people from the local community. It seemed to be entirely in line with the Arts Council’s policy of aiding experimental, multi-disciplinary work and supplementing the national scene with, as it were, fertilisation from abroad.

I would like to urge all puppeteers, visual theatre artists and companies who include these art forms in their work - including of course the many individuals and companies who have benefited from visions in past years - to write to the Head of Arts and the Drama Officer of Arts Council England, South East (Sally Abbott and Rebecca Ball respectively), to urge them to keep the visions festival as a fully-fledged International festival and to provide the festival with the necessary financial support. Visions has such a very modest budget, and the festival is one of such a tiny number of festivals in this country compared with every other European country. Most of them number their national and international festivals of puppetry and associated theatre in fives and tens. We number ours on the fingers of one hand. We must do everything possible to keep the character and values of visions in their present ever-developing form. Please do add your voice of support for visions. You win some, you lose some. This we cannot afford to lose.

Sally Abbott -Head of Arts
Rebecca Ball - Drama Officer
Arts Council England, South East
Sovereign House
Church St
Brighton
BN1 1RA

See www.artscouncil.org.uk

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