PDC Meeting Three

The third Puppetry Development Consortium Meeting took place on 29th October 2015 at Little Angel Studios just before the opening of the Suspense Festival.

Attending were Joy Haynes (Chair), Sue Buckmaster, Sean Myatt, Slavka Jovanovic, Alison Duddle and Natalie Querol. Apologies were given from the other PDC members Keith Saha, Mervyn Millar, Corina Bona and Darren East.

Updates On Consortium Planning

  • There was a discussion about remaining places on the consortium. Sarah Wright was approached following the meeting and she has joined the group for the remaining time. A short biography for Sarah has been added to the list of Consortium Members.
  • Eddie Berg was approached to act as an independent chair for the next meeting to look at the potential of a shared digital platform for puppetry as an artform. Eddie had acted as a facilitator for previous meetings during the Working Together to Strengthen Puppetry conversations and could work from an informed point of view. Eddie’s presence would be both valuable to give PDC Chair Joy Haynes the freedom to speak as Director of Norwich Puppet Theatre and to bring his extensive experience of cultural organisations to bear on this process. You can read a short summary of Eddie’s recent work here.

The main theme for the meeting was Touring Opportunities and Challenges. This topic was chosen in advance of the Networking day on 3rd November 2015 Little Angel Theatre/Suspense Festival had planned with some administrative assistance from the PDC team.

This day was to consist of the showcase of 2 performances from the festival programme (The Three Stages of Lazarus by Christopher Leith and Beatrice from Tidsrum Theatre) plus a 3-hour discussion with speakers Chris Pirie from Green Ginger, Molly Freeman from Smoking Apples, Heather Rose from House, and Samantha Lane from Little Angel. The debate aimed to look at working directly with venues, the network models in existence or consider puppet-based organisations forming a new network to tour.

Michelle Dickson, Director of Touring for Arts Council England and lead for Strategic Touring joined the group with Kate Anderson, Director of Bloomsbury Festival and Puppet Centre Board Member.

PDC members had identified some opportunities and challenges the to discuss at this meeting to inform the wider group conversation. Slavka Jovanovic gave a snapshot of the landscape as LAT saw it. Some of the key points made were about the impact of scale on touring puppetry.

  • Puppetry tends to be made in small scale spaces, often for family audiences both of which affect the ticket prices/earned income whilst production costs are rising.
  • Mid scale are perceived as difficult venues for puppetry, it is sensed that work has to have a known title or personality to be successful.

Another strand of thought was about the programming pattern of bookers which affected the economic viability of touring puppetry.

  • Venues were offering fewer bookings mid week and rarely for more than one day/night of performances.
  • Working in schools was noted as becoming more and more difficult leaving expensive gaps in weekly schedules.

It was reflected that the same climate was true for all touring companies and venues.

A number of themes emerged from the conversation:

The Adaptability of Puppetry as a Medium
Puppetry can work in lots of spaces, not just the intimate venues that are the natural homes for table top sets or marionette bridges. Puppetry naturally creates a world and transforms space, occupying it with a different set of materials. It has strength in working in constrained places. It can also go to larger venues by using imaginative definition to bring a smaller audience group onto a large stage for example.

Puppetry is uniquely positioned to be meet lots of people and places. Identifiable saleable aspects the groups noted quickly were that puppetry is:

  • Storytelling with pictures
  • International
  • Political
  • Not Elitist

Working with Existing Networks
There are lots of networks there already and companies might want to address their aims rather than making a separate body to promote puppetry specifically. Groups included:

Previous experience of working with existing networks was mixed. There was an acknowledged fear that the networks work well when companies are invited to join them but for some organisations it creates a 2-tier system. There was a strong desire to make things work for schemes, venues and companies.

Marketing/Branding for Audiences and Bookers
Natalie Querol gave an uplifting example of a group of young women she had worked with in the North East on a Go and See trip to the Edinburgh Festival supported by Bait CPP. Despite a lack of experience attending theatre this group actively chose to attend “puppetry”. The trip was hugely successful, Bruce was a real highlight and they are now programming work for their community locally.

There was a sense that the “cultural elite” also understand the offer. There was concern that a group of audience members who attend theatre now and then may be working from preconceptions about puppetry. Moreover programmers fear audience assumptions which leads to a vicious circle where the artform may not appear in an entire season.

It was proposed that a scheme is considered to counter barriers for programmers. The Made in Scotland Showcase was referenced – their branded reception and brochure that creates “a mini energy” could be a possible way of bringing new bookers to the artform.

Strategic Touring
Michelle gave the group some updates for this funding stream and the options that might be relevant to the sector at this time.

There is an evaluation process at the moment to look at the process of applying for partnership funding. ACE acknowledges the hours it takes to write this bid and that, whilst the process is incredibly informative for successful applicants in delivering the work, it may not be as useful if the funding is not awarded. Her top tips for considering an approach were:

  • Check that the proposed work is a model for change rather than a project
  • Test the evidence for all partners
  • Consider a pilot bid for strategic touring, it can start with 2 venues
  • Highlight areas of skills development, leaving the landscape better than when you found it
  • Check you meet 1 or 2 priorities well (Importing Art, Mid Scale, Diversity on stage and off)
  • Ask the team for advice, applicants can approach with an idea still in development

Natalie Querol has written an accompanying report from a personal point of view regarding these ideas and those explored at the Touring Network Day which can be found here.

Other business discussed at the session included the Devoted & Disgruntled Event at Suspense Puppetry – Shackled by the Past? It was very well attended and particularly attracted young people. Sian Kidd and others brought the question of a union for puppeteers. There is a difficulty in categorising for some existing bodies such as Equity – are puppeteers technicians or artists?

Ahead of planned meetings there were discussions about shared digital platforms and leadership. The group talked about the word Leader in puppetry and how it provoked fears for others in the community. With the diverse skill set in puppetry and changeable fashions it was understandable that there could be misunderstandings that any body would seek to represent the views of all. In fact this topic will be a technical term as it was clarified that the PDC is extremely unlikely to constitute as a body that bids for funding, instead individual PDC members will act as lead in collective bid writing for agreed initiatives creating new opportunities for engagement.

The PDC has been sharing information in social media using the following hashtags:

#puppetgathering for posts about networking opportunities for puppeteers
#youthpuppetry for posts about youth theatre and puppetry
#puppetrytraining for posts on skills development, workshops and other training opportunities
#puppetryonline for posts about digital opportunities for puppeteers
#puppettouring for posts about touring opportunities for puppeteers

The members noted that it made it possible to trace trends, enabling all puppeteers to use democratic data in their applications or other statistical analysis.

There is a sixth hashtag the PDC would love to hear feedback on:
#puppetryweek a collective campaign to raise the profile of puppetry around Puppetry Day.

If there is a sense that the community supports this drive then work would start to promote activity around the international event 21st March 2016.

The PDC is funded by Arts Council England to the end of the financial year. For more information about any of the on-going conversations don’t hesitate to contact the PDC co-ordinator employed by Puppet Centre Trust Bethan Tomlinson at bethan.tomlinson@puppetcentre.org.uk