When a star begins to collapse under the weight of its own gravity, one of several things can happen; supernova resulting in white dwarf or neutron star or black hole. In essence it either explodes, settles into a superdense state or creates a singularity from which not even light can escape.
After nearly two years of personally advocating and persuading people that it’s time for a new movement for puppetry in Britain, it feels to me like that moment when the star begins to collapse under its own weight. I also think that several things can happen in the next few months; it can all blow up and splinter apart, it can carry on as before with a lot of ineffective low level activity or – just possibly – a singularity of focus can be created which draws all the disparate elements of the puppetry community together to campaign for a real change in perception and recognition.
The Puppet Centre Trust has just completed a two year initiative called ‘Working Together to Strengthen Puppetry‘ which was a consultation with the wider arts sector on strategies to support particular artforms as well as paying for a consortium of puppeteers and puppetry organisations to meet, discuss and recommend action to identify some specific goals for the sector. This project is now complete and the consortium – now independent from Puppet Centre – is working on a plan to achieve these goals over the next few years.
Puppet Place, based in Bristol, has for a few years now been one of the most active and exciting organisations that promote and advocate for puppetry in the UK. Their work, along with the excellent work of Puppet Animation Scotland, Horse and Bamboo and a few small puppetry groups that have been producing puppetry festivals in various parts of the UK have for the last few years been the backbone of the industry. Little Angel Theatre in London has also been helping to support and develop a new generation of puppeteers and puppetry groups through a development platform, and staging a regular festival of puppetry for adult audiences called SUSPENSE.
While this has been happening, other organisations that represent puppetry and puppeteers have been meeting and discussing their own responses and initiatives.
The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild has been hard at work archiving, documenting and displaying the best of puppetry’s history and heritage in the British Isles. Puppeteers UK has been doing its best to keep puppeteers informed and connected through a regular newsletter. Groups representing Punch and Judy have been developing their own projects and plans, and British UNIMA has been trying to keep connected to the international world of puppetry by assisting in the development of new publications, attending congresses and promoting international festivals.
While all this sounds great, the truth is that most of these groups are at a tipping point. Some of them are struggling to keep going and my assessment is that quite a few may be either ready for a change or ready to step up and take a more pronounced leadership role. An opportunity is opening up in personalities at the sector leadership level as well. With the recent resignation of Penny Francis from both the Puppet Centre Trust board and BrUNIMA, and the upcoming resignation of Clive Chandler from the chair of PUK as well as the composition of the Puppetry Development Consortium changing, this is a rare opportunity for significant change in the puppetry scene.
So, is a singularity possible or will everything splinter into various camps and factions as has been the case of the last 20 years of British Puppetry? I believe that with good will, much discussion and diplomacy it’s possible for an agreement to combine efforts to arise. If all the resources and energies of the various groups were pooled, puppetry could achieve significant strides in supporting the artform, advocating for recognition and gaining increased awareness.
Depending on who becomes the new chair of PUK, and the ambitions and composition of the executive, there could be a real opportunity to combine the resources and ambitions of PUK, the Puppet Centre and British UNIMA by merging these three organisations into one. The Puppetry Development Consortium would naturally and happily be pulled into such a merger. If by some miracle the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and Puppet Place were similarly inclined I think we would be close to creating a singularity. Puppet Animation Scotland should remain separate I think but have a chair at the table.
The advantages of a united effort are many. A single unified voice could create a new movement that would help to support the many theatres, groups, festivals and projects that are struggling to survive and get started. It could insist on puppetry being recognised as a distinct artform with Arts Council England and initiate a campaign for recognition. It could eliminate the need for the various membership subscriptions and combine forces to create a much better set of offers in a combined subscription, helping puppeteers connect to each other, audiences and supporters as well as access European and International opportunities to develop and present work. It could trumpet and award the brilliant work being done on stage, on film and video, on the internet and in communities up and down the length and breadth of Great Britain.
Or, instead of a singularity, we may end up with a supernova or even worse a remnant with lots of gravity but no shine and little impact. On July 1 2016 Puppeteers UK holds an AGM at Puppet Place in Bristol. This could be a turning point. Let’s make sure that PUK continues to be a unifying force in British puppetry as it was when it was set up in 1990, but this time instead of keeping rival organisations at arms length under a big top, promotes a new vision that everyone can benefit from and get behind.
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