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Puppetry in the UK

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Dorothy Max Prior reports on the Puppet Centre Trust’s event at Suspense London Puppetry Festival 2009

‘British puppetry is alive and thriving but where is it happening most, what are the hotspots, opportunities and trends across the country?’

This question was the starting point for a symposium produced by the Puppet Centre Trust as part of the Suspense festival (London’s ‘first festival of adult puppetry in 25 years’ which took place at various venues October-November 2009).

For this occasion, the Puppet Centre Trust invited a number of artists and programmers from across the UK to share their thoughts. The panel comprised: Simon Hart, Puppet Animation Scotland; Clive Chandler, Puppeteers UK; Joy Haynes, Norwich Puppet Theatre; Alison Duddle, Horse + Bamboo Theatre; Helen Hodge, Blind Summit; and Rachel McNally, Bristol Festival of Puppetry.

The symposium was chaired by Professor Anthony Dean, dean of faculty, faculty of arts, University of Winchester (and chair of the Puppet Centre Trust board), and the event was introduced by Peter Glanville, artistic director of Little Angel Theatre and the Suspense festival.

Before the panel presentations started, the platform was offered to archivist Michael Dixon of the British Puppet and Model Guild, who had news to share about the launch of The National Puppetry Archive. This, we learnt, is a project aiming to bring collections of puppetry together – not physically, but virtually, linking the Guild’s own digitised collection with other museum databases around the country, be that puppetry-specific collections or more major national arts institutions such as the V&A. The archive collection is displayed online using the eHive collection management system. The National Puppetry Archive and its collection are administered by The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and co-curated by Michael Dixon and Ray DaSilva. The Guild’s own collection is currently being digitised and added to the database, forming the basis of the online archive. Anyone wishing to add items to the archive (which could include information about past or current puppet theatre work, puppetry memories, copies of documents, photographs, etcetera), or to discover more about how it all works, was urged to email Michael on archivist@puppetguild.org.uk

Following this introductory item, Professor Dean then opened up the symposium proper by inviting Joy Haynes, of Banyan Theatre, to open the session with a short presentation on her work on the redevelopment of Norwich Puppet Theatre.

Joy spoke of her involvement with Norwich Puppet Theatre (NPT) as an opportunity to be part of something bigger; to work with international companies; and to give a broader context to her own work with Banyan.

She spoke of the difficulties to be overcome at NPT after the departure of artistic director Luis Z Boy. With no core funding from Arts Council England (following what NPT on their website describe as ‘the funding hiatus in 2008’), the organisation was placed in a position where it needed to readdress all its ways of working.

It was acknowledged that artists needed to be key to the process, and the NPT board invited artists to submit an A4 sheet of ideas and thoughts on the future. Now there is a programme of masterclasses and events being developed that are geared towards professional development (see the Training news in this edition for details of a Steve Tiplady masterclass, an NPT collaboration with PCT).

Joy flagged up the unique artistic heritage of Norwich Puppet Theatre, which was founded in 1979 by Ray and Joan DaSilva, and subsequently nurtured under the directorships of Barry Smith and Luis Z Boy, and spoke of the ‘passion for the artform’ being at the heart of the organisation.

Next to speak was Clive Chandler of PuppetLink and Puppeteers UK who started with a reflection on the seminal publication on the state of the art of puppetry in the UK, On the Brink of Belonging (Keith Allen and Phyllida Shaw, 1992). How much things have changed since then – though ‘not necessarily in the way anticipated’, said Clive!

He went on to speak of the differences between operating as a regularly funded organisation versus the demands of applying for project funding – and how, without organisational structure, there can be an enormous strain on resources.

He also spoke of the work of PuppetLink. Based in the West Midlands, ‘presenting puppetry for all sorts of people in all sorts of places’, the organisation works across the region, and includes ‘high culture, low culture, the contemporary and the traditional’.

Clive pointed out that although ‘anyone can apply for funding’ in fact few puppetry organisations or companies are funded on any sort of regular basis. There was a need, he felt, for the infrastructure to be funded, not just separate projects, and cited systems in other countries – Hungary, for example, where there are funding ‘contracts’ of between five and seven years.

A cross-panel discussion that then ensued about the Scottish situation gave the Chair the opportunity to invite Simon Hart to speak next!

Simon Hart is the director of Puppet Animation Scotland, and of the Manipulate Visual Theatre Festival, an annual event ‘dedicated to the advocacy, development and celebration of the artforms of puppetry and animation in Scotland’.

Simon spoke of the Scottish sector’s specific qualities and needs: it is a separate country; it is a smaller sector. There is information and support to be given and received across the UK, but it is key to recognise that Scotland’s needs are different to England’s. He spoke of working on a five-year plan to increase the strategic importance of puppetry/animation within the Scottish sector.

He said that ‘puppetry ticks so many boxes’ that it had a unique credibility with funders, something which should be exploited in the drive to get more funding support. What was crucial was to ‘get the stats’.

He spoke of the Puppet Lab’s Big Man Walking, which he co-produced. The highly successful Scottish project reached new audiences and was seen by many thousands of people in urban and rural communities across Scotland.

Rachel McNally spoke next, on behalf of the Bristol Puppetry Festival and Puppet Place, representing the South West of England.

The first Bristol Festival of Puppetry (2009) was presented by Puppet Place in partnership with the Tobacco Factory Theatre and Aardman Animations.

Puppet Place is an artist-led venture for puppeteers based in the South West. Some of the key artists involved work with Green Ginger, Pickled Image and Aardman.

Many of the puppeteers in the region are working in small-scale companies, and many are working with both live and film animation. Puppet Place exists to support all – whether creating live work, making short film, or setting up training and professional development initiatives (such as Green Ginger’s Toast in the Machine programme).

She spoke also of artists finding ways, through Puppet Place, to support each other on issues around creation space and funding applications.

Adding to the debate on regular funding versus project funding, Rachel pointed out that being an RFO (‘regularly funded organisation’) certainly provided security, but that the big bonus of project funding was fewer organisational demands, enabling you to ‘keep light on your feet’.

Helen Hodge of Blind Summit Theatre was the next speaker. She told the symposium that taking on her current job as Blind Summit’s manager she’d had more opportunity to gain experience of the
puppetry sector.

Blind Summit’s HQ used to be in co-director Mark Down’s house – working on a kitchen table or in a corner of the bedroom. It has taken nine years to get to a point where there is enough in the kitty to allow for a proper workspace.

The company is growing steadily, and has just made their first mid-scale touring show – this show the first to be developed from a classic text, George Orwell’s 1984.

Helen pointed out that this show was ‘only 20% Arts Council funded’ – even a company that receives funding support needs to work hard to gain the full amounts needed to create a show.

Helen cited Blind Summit’s eclectic work with numerous collaborators (including Anthony Minghella/ENO on Madama Butterfly) and the success of the National Theatre’s War Horse as examples of puppetry crossing the divide into public consciousness, taking puppetry into the mainstream.

Alison Duddle of Horse + Bamboo was the final speaker from this distinguished panel. Horse + Bamboo are based in Lancashire (in the North of England) and make visual theatre that often incorporates puppetry and mask work. Their work is ‘driven by music’ and could be described as ‘visual art with narrative’.

They have RFO (‘regularly funded organisation’) status with Arts Council England, and they own the building they are based in. But, Alison points out, ‘a building needs people’.

Alison spoke of the advantages and disadvantages of being an RFO: ‘a lot of money we receive goes on processing the money we receive’. And in reference to Rachel McNally’s comment on being able to step lightly, she talks of RFO’s having ‘heavy shoes’.

On the other hand, it was ‘so fantastic’ to have a space that was also a centre, where work can be shared – very different to the isolation of a one- or two-person company.

In summing up the presentations, and extrapolating the key issues, the Chair, Professor Anthony Dean, gave these as the vital points for further reflection and discussion:

Anthony also, as a provocation, asked us to consider: Does puppetry want to belong, or does it like its status as performing arts ‘outsider’?

  • The potential for facilitating the exchange of skills between artists
  • The setting up or development of puppetry ‘Creation Centres’ in one form or another
  • The importance of festivals as part of the puppetry support structure
  • The value of international comparison/exchange
  • Development of audiences for puppetry (particularly adult audiences) and issues around programming and publicising work

There followed a lively discussion, with many further points and comments from the panel and from the floor, which included the following:

Clive Chandler said that some forms of puppetry were more likely to ‘belong’ than others.

Penny Francis, PCT board member and contributing editor to Animations magazine, said that with regards to audiences for puppetry, it was important to ‘get the numbers’.

Rachel McNally flagged up the importance of acknowledging puppetry outside of traditional spaces as being part of the equation – and of valuing cross-artform practice.

Joy Haynes questioned the very term 'puppet theatre’ when so much of the work being discussed was a ‘fusion’ of forms. She asked us to consider the interesting developments of ‘traditional skills with new media’. 

Peter Glanville, artistic director of Little Angel Theatre and Suspense festival, expressed a personal interest in the development of object theatre – and in particular valued the exploration of object and space. He also referenced interesting developments in object manipulation such as the exploration of organic materials (for example clay). Speaking of Little Angel’s programme, he outlined the value of participation (for both adults and children) as a way of building new audiences for puppetry.

Linda Lewis, the Puppet Centre Trust’s director, spoke of the importance of including street arts in the puppetry sector; this was endorsed by Simon Hart. [Editor’s note: see the letter from PCT director Linda Lewis in this edition, with news of a new initiative for puppetry within street arts and outdoor performance, led by PCT in collaboration with other organisations.]
 
Punch professor Glyn Edwards said that he ‘steered clear of the black box theatres’. Puppetry in public spaces was a long-standing tradition that it was vital to acknowledge.

Clive Chandler noted that giant puppets such as those in The Sultan’s Elephant were often not even viewed by public or critics as puppetry.

It was noted by numerous people that there was a need to value traditional puppetry skills: acquiring expertise takes time and money.

In response to questions focusing on social and political issues, Simon Hart said that ‘puppetry can be anything; puppetry has an edge’ and that the artform of puppetry was perfect for political theatre, citing the work of Paul Zaloom.

Peter Glanville concluded the debate with a reflection that the world was ready for a new level of engagement with ‘the whole idea of puppetry’.


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The Puppet Centre Trust’s Puppetry in the UK symposium took place on Wednesday 4 November 2-5pm
at The Little Angel Theatre as part of Suspense Festival 2009.
To find out more about plans for the next Suspense, join the mailing list here.
To find out more about PCT’s plans for 2010, see the website or email
administrator Emma Leishman for further information.

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Images left to right:
Blind Summit’s 1984, photo Stephen Dobbie; Clive Chandler and Mr
Punch; Banyan’s Cinders; PuppetLink

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