Open Letter to the Board of Horse and Bamboo theatre

Dear Horse and Bamboo board

I am writing to you all as a co-founder of DNA Puppetry and Visual Theatre which is a small touring theatre company based in England’s North West. I am also writing as a board member of Puppet Centre Trust, a former board member of Horse and Bamboo and on behalf of the Puppetry Development Consortium a collective of leading puppetry organisations and practitioners in England, including Horse and Bamboo.

DNA has benefited enormously from the artistic leadership and support offered first by Bob Frith and then by Alison Duddle, their generous encouragement, advice and use of facilities at The Boo – an important resource for artists and communities in Lancashire and Yorkshire. We have always regarded Horse and Bamboo as a company that puts artistry and the role of the practising artist at the heart of your activities – a passionate, committed, vital and necessary beacon of artistic engagement with the communities of England’s North. Slowly but surely the baton of artistic leadership has been passed in a very careful and considered way to Alison Duddle who has for 17 years immersed herself in the philosophy and practice of artistic engagement with your communities in a very distinct and particular way which is the heart and soul of all of Horse and Bamboo’s activities and mission.

Alison at Horse and Bamboo has been providing leadership, advocacy, opportunities for training and innovation and a beacon of light for those puppetry practitioners seeking opportunity, advice and guidance particularly in England’s North where all of these things are difficult to find.
Without an Artistic Director, Horse and Bamboo risk losing artistic focus, reducing opportunities for innovation, experimentation and risk. This, along with a commitment to provoke, inspire, entertain and challenge communities in England’s rural North are in my opinion essential to the core mission of Horse and Bamboo
It’s important to note that Puppetry Development Consortium has identified Horse and Bamboo as a strategically important asset for the artform of puppetry in England, for the opportunities it provides to artists, the leadership Alison in particular has shown and the training she has promoted. In recognition of Alison’s importance as an artistic figurehead the consortium has made Alison, in her role as Artistic Director of Horse and Bamboo, the chair.

As a board it is your duty to govern the organisation through the good times and the bad, making sure that the organisation achieves its mission with as much successful impact as possible without taking the risk of overstretching limited and sometimes dwindling resources available. Also as a board you need to take responsibility for ensuring that all effort is taken to balance the ambitions of your artistry with your economic viability. I know it can be hard to hold the twin responsibilities of managing the demands of running a building with the ambition of committing resources to the act of artistic creation.

Mark Whitaker – one of your associate artists – recently wrote to the management group of the PDC expressing his concern about the decision to offer Alison Duddle redundancy and to appoint an Executive Producer as the lead role at Horse and Bamboo. I and my colleagues, both at Puppet Centre and within PDC group, recognising Horse and Bamboo’s historic championing of artists, would like to express our concern about the apparent change of focus that this represents for the company: apparently placing administrative leadership as a priority over artistic leadership. We recognise that it takes many different skills to create an organisation and company that is as unique and creative as Horse and Bamboo and we seek your assurance that the board will continue to place artistic leadership at the heart of the organisation. I and my PDC colleagues would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further so that the changes underway are better understood across the whole community.

Kind regards

Adam Bennett
DNA Puppetry and Visual Theatre
dynamicnewanimation.co.uk
adambennettpuppeteer.wordpress.comarchivegallery2-1024x660

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Open Letter to the Board of Horse and Bamboo theatre

Open letter to ACE re Norwich Puppet Theatre

Dear Executive and Non-Executive directors of Arts Council England

Those of us who practice and support the distinct artform of puppetry in England have had  struggle to find opportunities to develop our skills and be inspired in this often very misunderstood and marginalised artform.

One of only two dedicated building-based puppet theatres in all of England is Norwich Puppet Theatre. For many decades this place has been a hive of excellence and innovation in puppetry, out of which many of the current leaders in the industry have found opportunities to train and see great performances as well as get experience and encouragement. Some of England’s best directors, educators, designer/makers and performers in puppetry have all benefited from the opportunities Norwich Puppet Theatre has provided, and many people, young and old, have experienced the magic of puppetry by attending as audience members. A great number of residents of East Anglia have been switched on to the arts by exposure to the performances and activities of Norwich Puppet Theatre.

Recently Norwich Puppet Theatre has struggled to maintain the activity and standing that it once had and now has had to launch a fundraising drive to continue their activities into 2017.

Those of us who support the puppetry industry, as well as the wider industry of theatre and the performing arts implore you to make sure that this vital asset in the infrastructure of puppetry – recognised by all of us as strategically important for the health of the artform in England – is not allowed to go dark, and to support every effort made by Norwich Puppet Theatre to recover and thrive.

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Open letter to ACE re Norwich Puppet Theatre

Could this be a puppetry singularity moment in Britain?

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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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Adam Bennett and Sam Dutton in ‘Meadow’ by Old Saw written and directed by Greta Clough

Please share this post, comment and discuss. I’m happy to answer questions.

Could this be a puppetry singularity moment in Britain?

It’s time for #puppetry to step into the spotlight

A group of active puppetry people and organisations have been getting together and to discuss their top shared priorities. Now a new initiative to support the artform has been launched.

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Atishoo! DNA Puppetry and Visual Theatre

Initiated by the Puppet Centre Trust and including prominent theatre companies Little Angel Theatre, Theatre Rites, Norwich Puppet Theatre and Horse and Bamboo, the group is a ‘coalition of the willing’ working to recommend and develop action to strengthen the puppetry industry in the UK. Consulting with important groups like Puppet Place Bristol, Puppeteers UK and British UNIMA as well as seeking input from the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild and Punch and Judy professors the consortium has now come up with a series of recommendations.

  • to improve access to current training in puppetry

  • to campaign for greater recognition of puppetry as a distinct art form

  • to encourage more and different kinds of artists and audiences to access puppetry in all its forms

There is little formal training in puppetry and although there have been some recent interesting new initiatives in England, it’s hard for people to know what opportunities there are to learn, train and professionally develop.

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Thurtinkle telling tales on the street

The Arts Council of England recently admitted that puppetry is considered internally to be a ‘sub-artform’ – perhaps like juggling is to circus or singing is to opera – just a skill that is applied. It’s important to argue that puppetry is not merely a skill, but an artform in its own right.

Despite currently enjoying a good profile puppetry is still marginalised and not very diverse. Although it accesses rich and poor people all over England, we need practitioners to come from a range of backgrounds and cultures that reflects the diversity of today’s England, so that work can be developed that appeals to all audiences.

I’m hosting a twitter chat about puppetry on Thursday May 26th 2016 at 7pm UK time. Please spread the word about it and join me @adampuppet on Twitter

 

It’s time for #puppetry to step into the spotlight

No puppeteers required?

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Brer Rabbit from Movingstage Marionettes, London

I read with interest an article on an upcoming puppet musical co-written by Alan Ayckbourn in the Lake District this Summer. I hadn’t heard of the Laundry Theatre before, which is a bit surprising as I lived in Preston for ten years and toured to many theatres in Cumbria, but there you go England is wonderful for it’s abundance of lively local venues.

It’s described as  “a new children’s show called Where’s Peter Rabbit? that will star puppets, like the hit stage shows War Horse and The Lion King” and it filled my heart with joy to see those shows described in this way as the importance of puppetry is often sidelined in the way these shows are described despite important puppetry specialists being involved – Julie Taymor directed The Lion King and Handspring Puppet Company were integral to the development of War Horse.

Then I read this line “Their  (Lion King) team told us not to use puppeteers. They said instead we should use dancers and singers, because if they can do those things, then they can make the creatures do it too.” and I thought really? Did they really? So a quick search produced this quote from an interview with Julie Taymor “Rather than expressly hiring puppeteers, I look for inventive actors who move well. A strong actor gives an idiosyncratic performance because he infuses the puppet character with his own personality instead of relying on generic puppetry technique.”

I was slightly appalled. Even more so when I read about the puppets being made by theatre technicians (tremendously skilled and trained though props departments are, designing and making puppets is a rare skill) and, even worse “Director and choreographer Sheila Carter has worked with Ayckbourn on many other plays, but has never directed puppets before.”

So a theatre production company seem to think it’s fine to use puppets, but not puppeteers, puppet makers or even a puppetry director? Not only that but to proudly boast it on a press release? I feel that perhaps the artform of puppetry could do with a bit more respect than that.

There is a blog site which gives a bit more information about the process and I read with interest that the technicians doing the making are not keen on using the word puppets, preferring to call them characters. Watching the videos I can see why. Each fully articulated figure is to be operated by one performer. The tradeoff is that no operation of the head is possible. As a puppeteer, I can testify that if the head is dead, it’s not a puppet, it’s just a wierd articulated costume. No expression is possible. The performers will be using their faces like mad to communicate any emotion. Which of course begs the question why bother? Renowned puppetry director Julie Taymor had detailed answers in the Lion King. I wonder whether Sheila Carter does?

Kim Bergsagel of The Puppet Lab/Vision Mechanics in Edinburgh says “Puppeteers can take an inanimate facial expression and make the audience believe it is laughing, crying, angry-that is the point. Puppetry is the partnering of puppeteer/audience and the investment of belief.” – If the performer has to portray the emotion, the puppet isn’t worth looking at on stage.

Mohsen Nouri, a notable British puppeteer  says “Puppeteers as artists and professional practitioners simply do not have the security or status we need to insure that professional puppetry jobs go to professional puppeteers. Until the false impression that puppetry is ‘easy and anyone can do it’ (and can call themselves a puppeteer so freely!) as well as the false economy in the reluctance by some productions to invest in that unique skill and experience are challenged, then this will continue to happen and get worse.”

Which flags up the wider issue – how much is puppetry actively disrespected in theatre, film and video despite the fact that its popularity is booming sufficiently for the Old Laundry Theatre to use puppetry as a selling point despite nobody being involved who knows the very much about it?

 

No puppeteers required?

Is puppetry and puppet theatre a separate artform?

There has been a tectonic shift going on in the UK recently with many changes and proposed changes going on. The popular and long-running production ‘War Horse’ has encouraged many theatre artists and e producers to consider using puppets, and many more actors are putting puppetry on their CVs or would like to.

A recent article by Rachel McNally Has The Popularity Of War Horse Killed Off Innovation in UK Puppetry? argues that the influence of War Horse on how puppetry is perceived among the broader UK performing arts community hasn’t all been good and in some ways has had an adverse impact, reducing perception of the use of puppets in theatre to specialist tools, mainly for portraying children and animals, where puppetry is capable of portraying so much more than that.

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The Cabinet of Hearts (1997) by DNA Puppetry & Visual Theare

The UK puppetry community is a mixed bag of enthusiasts and professionals and the variety of disciplines – design, craft, performance, visual arts, physical theatre – come together in various ways to create puppet theatre. One thing I’m convinced about is that puppet theatre has strengths that include working in scales other than the fixed human scale of actors theatre, and the ability of both set and performers to transform shape and size, emphasising and illustrating metaphorical power and allegorical potential. In actors theatre the internal journey of the character is at the fore and the play is about revealing the psychological journeys and emotional crises of characters. In puppet theatre the visual and physical journey of both the characters and the staging become vital. The psychological, emotional and spiritual impact of puppet theatre is often carried by the way music and action come together in the minds of the audience, which is much more open to interpretation than theatre of scripts, spoken word and characters.

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The Cabinet of Hearts (1997) by DNA Puppetry & Visual Theatre

In the world of puppet theatre we can see a plastic bag wrap itself around an abstract shape and imagine a life and death struggle taking place. We then can impose a narrative on the action if we like or we can enjoy and appreciate the visual beauty of the scene presented in front of us. This is the freedom that puppet theatre can present to us. Much like animation in film and video there is an enormous variety of options in presentation from abstract form to character driven storytelling.

The work that goes on in making puppet theatre is similar to the work that goes on in making any form of live performance, but there are key differences and a beautifully designed, articulated and manipulated puppet in a presentation doesn’t of itself indicate that the work is puppet theatre. The form is very flexible and as Max Humphries tweeted in response to Rachel McNally’s article “Labels stifle creativity and are shackles on any art form”. Yet without recognition as an art form, an artistic discipline likepuppetry may not get the same support as other ‘recognised’ artforms. There are schools, national organisations, centres for development, publications and representative bodies for the visual arts, music, dance and theatre but in puppetry all of these things exist on the fringes, marginalised and without recognition or support. Puppets are popular and recognised in theatre, opera and dance as powerful tools, yet in the UK puppet theatre itself is struggling to survive.

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Ball Pond Bobby (2007) by DNA Puppetry and Visual Theatre

 

It’s time to make sure that the tools, networks and resources to support puppetry in the UK are supported and developed. Puppeteers and puppet theatre makers need to articulate their concerns and make the wider arts industry understand that well supported centres for training, an industry representative body, centres of excellence and regional support for small touring work as well as recognised artists and groups of national importance are important to the art form, to preserve the rich history and continuing influence of puppetry on the UK’s performing arts scene. Puppet theatre deserves the chance to develop in ambition, production values, influence and followers.

 

Is puppetry and puppet theatre a separate artform?

Dismaland – a puppeteers perspective

Dismaland signRight in the middle of the seafront of Weston-Super-Mare near Bristol is an old dilapidated Lido (bathing resort). This faded and crumbling building is literally on the beach of the Severn inlet which forms the dividing line between South Wales and South West England. This was once The Tropicana – a resort that Banksy has said he remembers fondly. His reputation is such that his work has immense value and he seems to try to make sure that those who profit from this value are those he would really like to benefit as well as commercial art dealers and financial speculators. The Tropicana is raising money to survive and renew itself and this temporary attraction has given the place a much-needed publicity boost.

A few years ago Banksy decided to ‘modify’ the Bristol Museum – with full permission of the museum. A few rooms were for Banksy to display creations, but also carefully placed in the permanent collection were little modifications for the visitor to hunt down and find for themselves. Dismaland takes this concept several steps further and includes work by lots of different artists as well as displays and information stands by community groups and open opportunities for visitors to agree to be exploited as visitors for as much as they feel comfortable with, in the classic theme park/visitor attraction method: overpriced food and drink, a gift shop, paying extra for the ‘have a go’ stands.

Price of entry is absurdly low – 5 pounds online, 3 pounds on the door if you’re lucky enough to get in without prebooking. There are timed session entries so be willing to arrive early and queue for a few hours to get a walk-up ticket. I was lucky as I was on my own and grabbed the final one that nobody else could use as they were in groups of two or more.Dismaland castleThe absurd black and white cardboard security scanners and desks as you enter are silly, but it’s the mock security guards staring soullessly at you that gives you a hint of one of the many really nicely thought-out touches of Dismaland – the staff are all performing the opposite of ‘customer service’. A kind of ‘customer disservice’ in which they are moody, grumpy, depressed, rude and unhelpful.

Once on the site a terrible elevator music is playing over the tannoy with occasional announcements that are knowing and sarcastic. I was pretty much the only person there (apart from babes in arms or pushchairs) who wasn’t experiencing all this through a device, cameras and phones were constantly in between the eyes of the visitors and what they were meant to be looking at. The central display of Sleeping Beauty’s crashed coach lit by the strobe of paparazzi flashes for me had an echo when appearance of the figure of death riding a dodgem car, large scythe in place of the upright electrical pole at the back, was similarly strobe lit by the hundreds of flashes of camera phones in the opening seconds of ‘The Dance of Death’. If people were appreciating the irony, it wasn’t stopping them from indulging in recording every second of their experience.

Dismaland coachDance of Death

Long snaking queues of people waiting to enter the small spaces threatened to intersect in the relatively small open areas. A small outdoor movie screen showed selected animations, there were several places to buy food and drink. A Punch and Judy booth had a sign which warns of scenes of domestic violence. I never find out if there was actually a puppet show that went with the booth.

There were marionettes however. A puppet stage made out of scrap and modern detritus features four almost human sized marionettes with bodies made of clothing and heads and hands made from more scrap and detritus. One head was made from a car licence plate.

Dismaland puppets

They are controlled by aluminium poles jigged about by a bored looking attendant, but he poles are available for anyone at the upstairs bar to have a go at if they want. Not many did.

As a gallery of works of art that offer a cutting edge, dark, dystopic view of present day society Dismaland has a lot to offer, in a format that is wonderfully disrespectful of the efforts of commercial capitalism to commodify activities and displays. The highlight for me was the three classic ‘have a go’ stands you commonly see at funfairs – hook a duck, the rifle range and drive the boats. These were so ironic that it was morally ambiguous to actually have a go – do you really want to hook a duck from a floating oil slick, take pot shots at targets dressed up in bling and black urban street wear or drive boats of refugees to crash into each other among the floating bodies of the drowned?

Dismaland boats

I thought no-one would pay an extra pound or two to indulge in something so uncomfortable, but the occasional visitor seemed to be willing. The rest of us, in our queues, stared on in horror.

Dismaland – a puppeteers perspective