During November the Puppetry Development Consortium has been engaged in a number of conversations about puppetry and touring. These notes are my personal reflections on some of those conversations, a flavour of the discussions rather than a comprehensive report.
Touring theatre of any kind is difficult but touring puppetry seems to provide even greater challenges. I was particularly surprised to learn that even the brilliant Theatre-Rites, an NPO with a long track record of making and touring exceptional work now finds it impractical to mount independent tours. Other established companies such as Little Angel Theatre and Horse and Bamboo, and newer companies such as Smoking Apples are making it work but the general consensus is that it is tough out there and getting tougher.
In many ways the problems faced by puppetry companies are the same as those faced by all theatre companies – fees and guarantees have disappeared in favour of splits, and audiences are dwindling across the board, whilst touring costs – particularly travel and accommodation – keep on rising. Gradually though the particular problems facing puppetry companies were teased out.
Audiences trust programmers to present work that they know and can vouch for but very few programmers are familiar with what’s on offer in terms of puppetry so are unlikely to programme it. Trust was a word that came up many times during these conversations with the majority of programmers also indicating that whilst they have a network of trusted peers from whom they can take recommendations about not-to-be-missed shows, few, if any, of those peers have any real knowledge of puppet theatre and its proponents.
Presenting programmers with filmed versions of shows, or potential audiences with trailers is difficult because filming puppet theatre often misrepresents the work, even more so than non-puppet theatre. Part of the the skill of the puppeteer is to direct the focus of an audience towards the puppet (or away from the puppet onto the puppeteer as appropriate). This particular aspect of puppet magic requires different techniques to work through a camera lens so straight forwardly filming a show as it exists in a theatre can easily leave the viewer focussing anywhere but on the puppet.
A paucity of expertise in marketing puppetry across the sector was identified. There was much debate over whether using the P-word attracts or repels audiences. What was clear from these debates (which are the same debates that were happening ten years ago and, I suspect, long before that) is that there is little evidence either way. In fact there is very little, if any, solid market research into why audiences do and don’t buy tickets for puppetry performances. Even without that information though a quick survey of images used by puppetry companies indicated that some specialist support or training in this area might be useful.
Puppetry, a visual medium, is popular internationally and as such very successful companies like Green Ginger can fill their diaries working outside the UK which is lucrative for the companies themselves as well as beneficial to the wider economy. Puppet Animation Scotland have a lot of experience supporting puppetry companies to tour internationally and observe that whilst text based artists can tour into America and Australia, it’s visual companies that are most able to tour in mainland Europe as their shows aren’t as reliant on audiences speaking English. Those same companies however can struggle to get dates in the England and it’s even harder for less proven artists – it is difficult to see how the next generation of English artists working internationally are going to develop their craft without honing it in front of a local audience.
Some of the potential solutions that seemed to bubble to the surface were:
Introduce programmers to puppetry, supporting joint trips to see and discuss shows so that as well as increasing knowledge of specific companies programmers can develop a sense of the peers with which they share a critical language and might trust to make recommendations.
Develop a touring network including established puppetry venues and venues that have been hesitant to programme puppetry. Reduce the risk – both with regards to quality and cost – to create the conditions in which venues are best able to start programming puppetry.
Support puppetry companies to better market their work – both to potential programmers and to the public. This may include support with filming, image selection and writing marketing copy.
My final observation is that if we are to make a case for particular support for puppetry then we need to be able to answer the ‘so what?’ question:
“We need to support puppetry to tour.”
“Because if we don’t make a special effort to support puppetry to tour then audiences will disappear which will eventually lead to the art form disappearing.”
There are many answers to that question but as a sector we need to find a way to articulate them clearly and succinctly, to back them up with evidence, and to have them on the tips of our tongues at all times.
Natalie Querol, November 2015