It’s a nail-biting moment for Peter Glanville, who contemplates the state of play just before the opening of Suspense, London’s first puppetry-specific festival in 25 years
As I write this SUSPENSE: London Puppetry Festival is less than three weeks away and we’ve still got £130, 000 of tickets to sell. Roll up, roll up! Get thee to our web-site www.suspensefestival.com It runs 30 October to 8 November…
Well, we’ll see. It could end up being a financial disaster and we’ll have to wait another 25 years for the next one (Penny Francis set up the last one in 1984), but for now I’ll keep on wearing my optimism hat. There’s no question that the theatre-going public have an appetite for puppetry – the success of Madama Butterfly, Avenue Q, Venus and Adonis, The Sultan’s Elephant, Low Life and War Horse over recent years have all proven this. But will the adult audiences be there to sustain a ten-day festival across seven venues with almost 30 performances, symposia and workshops on offer?
Of course my optimism hat is brimming with encouraging signs. Look at the success of the London International Mime Festival and Spill which both continue to grow as they celebrate, question and re-define the parameters of their respective artforms. There’s also the proliferation of festivals in the UK for puppetry and visual theatre, providing more concrete evidence of a growing interest in the artform and a thirst for examination and exploration of our world through the animated object. Young and emerging artists up and down the country are engaging with the dramaturgy of puppetry.
We also seem to be taking flight at the Little Angel. Over the past three years I have been able to develop a more consistent and cohesive programme of work for adult audiences and practitioners. Our Puppet Grinder Cabaret regularly sells out and we now have an annual adult puppetry season from February to May each year. Recent one- to three-week runs by companies have included The Ding Foundation, Lost and Found Theatre, Paper Cinema, Little Sparta and Wakka Wakka from the US. I have also established INCUBATE (now also supported by Central School of Speech and Drama) and HATCH; the former offering space at the theatre and Central to create new work, the latter offering opportunities to show it in its formative stages. We also have huge demand for our three weekly evening classes for adults each term alongside professional development courses for students and professionals.
So theoretically we’ll be fine. Who better to turn to as capitalism crumbles than a few trusty puppets? Grotesque, poetical, satirical, sophisticated, irrational puppets! As Peter Schumann from Bread and Puppet Theater says ‘Puppet theatre is an anarchic art, subversive and untamable by nature…representing, more or less, the demons of society and definitely not its institutions’.
The work I have programmed for SUSPENSE (with the support of the venues, PCT, BrUnima and a pro-active Steering Group) is not only a vindication of puppetry finally breaking out of the ‘just for kids’ ghetto –‘stop me if you’ve heard this one before’ sings Morrissey from the marionette bridge – but of an artform which leads the way in terms of defining contemporary theatre practice.
So what is on offer? Well, we have some of the best UK companies around – Green Ginger, Faulty Optic, indefinite articles, and Horse and Bamboo – all with new or relatively new work. OK, Rust by Green Ginger was created in 2005 but it’s a London premiere! We’ve also got a range of new and emerging artists at the Pleasance Stagespace – Touched Theatre, Unpacked, Pangolin's Teatime, Bric a Brac and Soap Soup.
At Little Angel we have John Roberts' company PuppetCraft alongside international work from TAMTAM Objektentheater (Netherlands), Compagnie Papiertheatre (France) and Inkfish (US) – the latter an experiment in puppet theatre exploring the life and science of Albert Einstein. I had hoped to bring 8 moments by Zahra Sabri over from Iran, having been in Tehran earlier in the year for the Fadj Festival, but political events have sadly not made this possible.
Hang on, two descriptive paragraphs and no London based companies? I had better mention that Movingstage Marionettes are re-mounting Out of the Heart of Darkness on the Puppet Theatre Barge, Puppet Grinder Cabaret is at The Pleasance and both Athletes of the Heart (with a work in progress called Sick at Heart) and Mischa Twitchin (working in collaboration with Tom Duggan and Tom Lyle on I Wonder Sometimes Who I Am) are at the Rosemary Branch.
From further afield in the UK come Full Beam Theatre (from the South West) with My Baby Just Cares For Me, and The Empty Space (from the North East) with Heartbreak Soup.
So what defines a ‘puppet festival’ beyond being an assortment of performances over a specific period of time? It was important to me that there was a collective of puppetry organizations and institutions involved, and that there was a sense of a ‘hub’, a place for the puppetry community (from London and beyond) to meet, network and exchange opinions.
So, there are three major daytime events at Little Angel. The Puppet Centre Trust are curating a series of discussions for Puppetry in the UK on Wednesday 4 November; BrUnima have organised The Life of Paper, a lecture and performance by Alain Lecucq on Thursday 5 Nov and Central School of Speech and Drama have curated a one-day symposium on Objects in Performance on Friday 6 November including a performance by TAMTAM Objektentheater. Central have also organised a workshop programme including a four-day masterclass with the Philippe Genty Company and workshops by Nenagh Watson and by Maria Dominguez Alba.
PARTY PARTY! Festivals are by their nature celebratory, so we’ve also got an opening bash planned at Jackson’s Lane after Faulty Optic’s performance of Fish Clay Perspex on Saturday 31 October.
It’s heartening to know that when programming SUSPENSE, I was spoilt for choice. There are a lot of companies using puppetry in work for adult audiences and this is good news. Lets hope a few of the ‘major institutions’ take note and start to fund the fragile infrastructure we have to support this work. This is not a fad.
So for now, I’ll keep wearing my optimism hat and hope that SUSPENSE brings many new audience members who get as hooked by adult puppetry as I did when I first saw performances by Philippe Genty at Sadler’s Wells and the Mime Festival.
Images at top, left to right: