An open letter to Puppeteers
As someone who has been working as a professional puppeteer in England since 1990, I’ve seen the fortunes of puppetry and puppeteers wax and wane over the last 25 years. For most of us it has always been a fragile sort of living, and I’m painfully aware that most puppeteers live quite a ‘hand-to-mouth’ existence, often isolated in their practice and eager to connect and share their passion for puppetry and love of the art form.
While there are strong networks and leaders in the various kinds and industries of puppetry both nationally and internationally, it seems to me that in England at the moment the infrastructure for supporting and developing puppetry in England is crumbling.
Puppetry has very few ‘majors’ – organisations that are regularly funded and secure. Little Angel Theatre is doing well but has no secure support from ACE, Theatre Rites, Blind Summit and Horse & Bamboo do receive regular support as NPOs which is good but the organisations that exist to advocate for the sector as a whole and support puppetry as well as audiences for puppetry seem to be really struggling to get the message out.
The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild was established in 1925, British UNIMA (the British arm of the International Puppetry Union) was founded in 1963, Puppet Centre Trust launched in 1974 and Puppeteers UK started in 1990. They have all proven valuable and useful resources for those working in puppet and model theatre to connect with each other, work together to gain new followers, find out about training and skills development and promote puppetry. Punch and Judy of course have a special place in the British puppetry scene and have done well in recent years promoting that particular niche of performance. These groups and organisations have been known to work together for common cause, and there is an urgent need for this to happen now.
The recognition of the place of puppetry in the wider performing arts – theatre and opera in particular – waxes and wanes as various productions carry examples of how puppetry adds to these forms, and conversely how poor understanding of the demands of the form can wreck the production process. Recently the astonishing success of the production War Horse has profiled puppetry and created a demand for puppetry to be taken more seriously in the much better resourced performing arts industries.
As someone who has trained in both theatre and puppetry at tertiary level, conducted training and skills development at all levels from beginner to professional, and sought to assist on vocational qualification standards, it seems to me that those seeking to learn how to be a puppeteer have very few accredited and recognised training avenues. Basic foundation training in puppetry skills appears particularly difficult to access. Little Angel Theatre have recently established a new community, education and participation space called Little Angel Studios which I hope will contribute to the training needs of puppeteers, Central School of Speech and Drama have a BA Puppetry Course and London School of Puppetry in Yorkshire have training, as well as Norwich Puppet Theatre‘s International Summer School. Interestingly there has been two new training initiatives, Brighton School of Puppetry and Curious School of Puppetry look promising.
A rising generation of new puppeteers and practitioners are generating excitement and interest in puppetry. These include The Wrong Crowd, Gyre and Gimble, Smoking Apples, Odd Doll, Whole Hog Theatre, Flabbergast Theatre and individual practitioners like Matt Hutchinson directing and Max Humphries designing and making.
I’m very keen to support a united voice and effective lobby for the improved recognition of puppetry. I’d also like to see better and more effective training provision, increased support for strategically important groups and organizations and greater opportunity for puppeteers to do and make great work. We all need to work together to strengthen puppetry and I feel that it’s very important for all puppeteers and puppetry bodies to support current efforts to put together a consortium that aims to do just that. In the 25 years that I have worked in puppetry in England I have not seen a successful united effort to advocate for our artistry and give it the support and recognition that we deserve. With everybody chipping in to support a national campaign for puppetry, giving all those who support us the opportunity to connect with us and give us the opportunity to do what we do best, we can capitalise on the ‘War Horse Effect’ to benefit the entire puppetry sector.
If you’re a member of PUK, BrUNIMA, P&J, BMPTG or any other organization, please appeal to your representatives to support the initiative ‘Working Together to Strengthen Puppetry’ that is currently seeking support to build and develop a national puppetry consortium.