Company profile by Penny Francis
Questions: What forms a puppeteer? What calls two educated, articulate, cosmopolitan young women to take – separately – this unconventional career route? How did they meet and map out a common purpose which was the foundation of a puppet theatre company that has been one of the most enduring and admired in Britain?
Answers are never definitive nor complete (we talked about their backgrounds for hours when we met at their Devon home) but some are simple and enlightening.
Jacqueline Ilett, British by birth but spending formative years in West and East Africa, started in theatre as an actor-puppeteer. She fell for puppetry under the influence of puppets she encountered in Munich. Whilst studying Drama and German at Hull University she made a Punch show with Meta Van Delden Paterson, then worked with the Lilliput company of Bernard Lewis, the Little Angel and the DaSilva company (in its Godmanchester-based days). This was interspersed with some acting jobs in rep. but also occasional work for the Polka company under Richard Gill, who gave her no performing roles, oddly, only workshop jobs which she says she really liked: mostly renovation and repair. The experience pushed her to find her own studio/workshop, albeit tiny, where she made her own show which she judged as unsatisfactory – ‘puny’ was the word she used. It was a good time, and provided a solid foundation of experience with some of the great names in puppetry of the sixties and seventies.
The other half of the Jacolly company is a dyed-in-the-wool Devonian. Holly Griffin began as an artist, studying fine art, photography, set design and film at Plymouth Art School. The career path is not nearly as clearcut as Jac’s, and includes deviations into double-glazing, film work, managing a building company and teaching boat handling. She lived on a boat on the Thames for a while but was drawn back to Devon where she bought a crooked little Tudor house with a shop in Dartmouth and started making and selling puppets there. The puppets won a British Puppet Guild award but the lure of boats put the puppetry briefly on hold (and in the hold) when her partner and she exchanged the shop and house for a schooner and set out to sail around the world. But, at Gibraltar, boat trouble and a shortage of money forced her ashore: the puppets came out of the hold and puppet-maker had to quickly learn to become performer. Her success surprised and excited as the bookings rolled in, and an engagement to perform for mentally challenged kids converted her from boats to puppets forever. She headed back to London and – of course – the Puppet Centre, in search of possibilities for work and, if possible, a partner puppeteer to work with. It so happened that Jacqueline had expressed a similar wish for a co-puppeteer, and I, on a hunch, introduced the two. They clicked, and soon headed for Devon where Holly had inherited a house in the village of Yelverton on the edge of Dartmoor. They are still there.
The partnership, starting with almost nothing apart from a van and the house, worked for several reasons, one being that both women have ideals and ambitions that have little to do with commercial concerns. Another reason is that their skills are complementary when they do not overlap – Jac’s playing is strong and her voices excellent. Holly’s design and making talents are equally strong. But both can make and both can perform. Another is an irrepressible humour that shines out of all the shows. (Another is a boundless kindness, but I begin to sound fulsome.)
The company started operations on 2 December 1977. It is 30 years old this year. The first production was about Punch – a pacifist show wherein Punch is converted from his wicked ways and the baby builds a car and drives happily away.
This and other shows attracted the approval of Devon’s Drama Adviser (Drama Advisers are a thing of the past, sadly) and one way and another bookings flooded in. Their first block booking was in a wooden theatre in Aviemore: for three years running they did a month’s season of 96 shows: 4 a day, 6 days a week. They were beginning to earn a modest living.
At first they were able to cope with marketing and admin, but needed professional help by the early 1980s. A few theatre bookings were creeping in to supplement the schools, and the reputation was growing.
Signing up with a prestigious theatre agency in Canada brought them work there for nine consecutive years from 1981. They took part in a famous children’s festival in Toronto, where their funny, well-designed and well-performed Jack and the Beanstalk went down a storm and became a perennial favourite of schools, theatres, libraries and other festivals. Thanks to Jac’s parents now having moved to Ontario, they were able to build and store a replica of the show there.
The company suffered a dip in the success story when they ventured into secondary schools with an informative show about puppetry called Puppetorama. Holly described it as witty and unusual but the response from schools was ‘awful’, and that was the end of that. However the dip was triumphantly overcome with the next offering in which a large moving-mouth hand puppet canine with floppy ears and a ‘winning personality’ was conceived and christened Dogworthy. He is still alive and kicking and is one of puppetry’s funniest characters. He has starred in a number of shows, the first one being the Tale of Dogworthy: a plea for peace, for older children, the story centred on an attempt to blow up the world by a demented dragon. But a series of four more light-hearted shows for younger audiences followed: a Christmas show (including carol-singing mouse and magic Christmas trees); one teaching road safety (written by John Field); Dogworthy’s Summer Magic (a joyful entertainment about caring for the seashore) and, my favourite of the series, Dogworthy’s Magic Showtime, which had me laughing more than was good for me.
Holly, as MC, manages to combine headmistress authority with a wicked twinkle in her eye, and Jac, backstage, is able to give voice to a child, a monster or a grumpy old man while excellently manipulating the figures. Their professionalism is obvious. All of this has resulted in commissions and invitations from bodies such as the National Trust which commissioned a production to celebrate its centenary. Dogworthy starred in this too, with a co-star, an aerial photographer no less, named Deirdre.
Funding from a government body called the BBSRC (don’t ask) enabled a collaboration with the University of Plymouth on a piece about minibeasts which was called Real Bugs. The bugs are huge hand puppets, operated by both players unconcealed, with some shadow puppetry. I saw them perform this at the Natural History Museum. Questions such as ‘what if you could watch a baby greenfly being born?’ and ‘what if you found yourself smaller than a jaw-snapping ground beetle?’ were posed and answered in glorious Technicolor and Giant-o-rama.
Devon County Council has commissioned two pieces on energy saving. Hi Energy was complicated and spectacular, including producing a space station to launch spaceship appearances from to promote the main show. They had not worked on this scale before, nor with so generous a budget: 20 people were involved in the creation, including John Field and the late Mike Bartley.
The second Devon C.C. commission, Astra and the Waste Monster, has been one of their longest running affairs – with one county council regularly booking it five weeks at a time – but Jac and Holly are now excited by plans for a more ambitious second edition of this play, with film, animation and projections alongside the live puppetry. It is already in preparation, and the hunt is on for collaborators: film crew and editor, computer graphic designers, scenery constructors, puppet makers.
In 2006 the Arts Council awarded the company a Research and Development grant for a show called Elf Tales for primary schoolchildren about the nastiness of bullying and ‘the magic of self-esteem’. The mini forum theatre that resulted typically gets reactions from teachers such as ‘a powerful tool for change’.
To date there have been thirteen productions plus a sortie into cabaret, various one-off commissions, workshops (including nine years of running puppetry courses for student teachers) and a series on local TV. From a modest glove show to big-budget commissions, with more and more Theatre In Education work but never forgetting the entertainment quotient, i.e. humour, colour and vitality: it’s a happy trajectory for a puppet company. Jac and Holly seem a happy and fulfilled pair, with a rich circle of friends and interests, and a talent not only to amuse but to support and nurture.
With all the big budgets and technology they are currently working with, the thrill that comes from the reaction of a child to a puppet on Holly’s lap (but it might just as well have been Jac’s) and saying ‘Look, it’s real!’ is still the most potent.
Congratulations on your 30th anniversary, Jacolly!
See the company website at www.jacolly-puppets.co.uk