PDC Summary and Action Plan

Following a year of conversations between the Puppetry Development Consortium Members, colleagues from across the puppetry community and critical friends we have collected the ideas we shared together in the PDC Summary and Action Plan.

The next phase of work is ambitious but, we hope, reflects the needs of artists, audiences and funders. Please do let us know what your thoughts about the summary document and our Action Plan by contacting the PDC coordinator Bethan Tomlinson

Norwich Puppet Theatre's "Thumbelina"
Norwich Puppet Theatre’s “Thumbelina”
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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

Touring Puppetry – A Personal Perspective by Natalie Querol

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.”

“So what?”

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

PDC Meeting Two

Puppetry Development Consortium (PDC) Meeting Summary

The second Puppetry Development Consortium Meeting took place on Friday 3rd July 2015 at The Boo, home to Horse and Bamboo and The Boo Festival.

There was full attendance including new members Keith Saha (20 Stories High) and Natalie Querol (The Empty Space). Also observing was Simon Hart (Puppet Animation Scotland) and Adam Bennett (DNA) to feed into the discussion on training. Sarah Wright had given input into the conversation beforehand with notes about the position of The Curious School of Puppetry as it evolves.

After the initial meeting in May the puppetry community had had two significant events – the first at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (RCSSD) at the beginning of June hosted by Cariad Astles, and the Puppeteers UK (PUK) AGM hosted by Puppet Place on the 26th June. To begin the conversation for the PDC there was a round up of the discussions and ideas arising from these sessions for members unable to attend themselves.

Several themes seemed to surface during both meetings, chiming with issues raised in the first PDC meeting.

Online Event Calendars

There was a desire to see developments bringing information to existing collective places to share with both the puppetry world and general public. Following thoughts about practice, advertising and accessing training at RCSSD a couple of Facebook groups were formed and have been active since. You can visit:

This precipitated a conversation about the development of a shared online calendar for both training and touring purposes but noting that for sustainability purposes it should be easy to contribute to and manage.

Other online shared resources suggested include:

  • A linear calendar, covering anything that is classed as object theatre
  • A Festival diary
  • A small area online or exhibition explaining the form to people
  • Book lists

A Puppetry Conference

There was a real excitement about a puppetry conference and potential funding sources available by bringing a number of umbrella organisations together. There had previously been student symposium led by RCSSD and LAT in 2011 and 2013. A new conference might be externally chaired, like a Devoted & Disgruntled event or an open space session at a key festival. The PDC as a group has an interest in hosting a larger sector event and would love to see joint project with shared aims for all.

A second meeting for trainers was requested at the Central School event. This is being offered during the Suspense festival and is confirmed on Monday 2nd Nov 10.30 to 1pm in the Studios at Little Angel Theatre.

Puppetry Training: Youth Theatre

The main theme to be addressed for the meeting was about provision for and access to training. Slavka Jovanovic gave a short presentation about her experiences as the Community, Education and Participation Manager at Little Angel, particularly regarding their youth theatre offer. They had trialled a number of models since 2002 and she was happy to share their learning.

Working on the National Theatre Connections Programme had been a point of change for Little Angel both as a challenge and inspiration. As the texts are set across art form this generated a discussion about the need for writing development and libraries of puppetry scripts.

There is an example of the quality of work the youth theatre have been able to achieve online for their version of Macbeth: The One Half World – available on Vimeo.

Keith Saha of 20 Stories High also contributed ideas from his experience of working with lots of Youth Theatres, in-house writers, young people 13 to 30. They include urban art forms that young people use, they are experts in their own form, and 20 Stories High add other, traditional forms. For 20 Stories High it has to be socially inclusive, diverse and free to access.

Puppetry Training: Pathways

Observations were made by several group members that young people weren’t necessarily aware for the opportunities in this field for further or higher education but once discovered they often loved it’s non-hierarchical nature.

It was noted that the cost of auditions can be a huge barrier for talented young people to get to auditions as the fees and train fares are too expensive. Currently the industry does not have bursaries available to make a difference though schools such as Brighton Puppetry School is being responsive to the requests that are made to it by locally based practitioners and The Curious School is being established with funding in place to significantly subsidise the cost to the students.

Other ideas that were aired included:

  • The successful Horse and Bamboo skills exchange
  • The investment in a set of shared resources such as training puppets
  • The approach to other departments in universities – eg. DTI to improve CAD drawings
  • Shared marketing and hosting for workshops
  • Exchanging films of work made by young people

There was a moment for all the attendees to share how they became involved with puppetry as a career and whilst there were a few similar inspirations it really underlined that most common story – that so often it is a discovery made by surprise on the way to somewhere else and through a unique set of circumstances!

Making New Opportunities

All members will look for ways to support young puppeteers as individuals and by using the weight of being part of a larger group. There were a number of funding opportunities that were suggested and the art form makes a convincing case in developing soft skills for young people across ages and abilities, particularly giving those who aren’t confident verbally a way to express themselves.

Applications that will be written will build on what already exists:

  • Running a mini festival to share work, working with 4 or 6 youth groups
  • Developing writers
  • Creating a menu of training opportunities.

There was a brief conversation about accreditation and the value of credits for a CV. Despite an understanding of the benefits of having a clear hierarchy of achievements the general consensus was to be resistant to formal accreditation since the form was so specifically non-hierarchical.

♯puppetgatherings

Following the success of PUPPET SPACE networking event, Little Angel ran another session at the Studios on Wednesday 29th July from 7-9.30pm. On Saturday 15th August there was a ♯puppetgathering at Norwich Puppet Theatre and  13th September ♯puppetgathering at Brighton Puppetry School. Let us know of any more events and we will share the information.

PDC Meeting One

Meeting One – a summary for puppeteers

The first meeting was held on the 8th May 2015 at Nottingham Trent University.

Present were: Joy Haynes (Chair, Norwich Puppet Theatre), Sue Buckmaster (Theatre-Rites), Alison Duddle (Horse & Bamboo), Slavka Jovanovic (Little Angel Theatre), Mervyn Millar (by skype, Significant Object), Sean Myatt (Nottingham Trent University). Members unable to attend: Corina Bona (Bristol), Darren East (Unpacked). Invited for this meeting was Jeremy Bidgood (visiting, British UNIMA); invited to observe were two students from Nottingham Trent, Izzy Hollis and Nicky Charlesworth. Also attending: Bethan Tomlinson (Co-ordinator from Puppet Centre) For more information on the Consortium members contact Bethan Tomlinson.

The consortium hopes to have an open and transparent process of discussion and will publish short summaries of its meetings like this one. For its opening meeting the discussions of the consortium were general and touched on several topics which are summarised below. Most of the discussions are at an opening stage so there is lots of time for new ideas to come into the group from outside.

PDC Identity

It was necessary for the group to address the identity of the Consortium itself. Joy Haynes was unanimously elected as Chair, and the ambition was restated to invite members from regions and disciplines not yet represented, and to open the meetings to visits where practicable from other organisations and individuals. We also talked about representation and diversity and how to be positive about these under-addressed issues. If you have questions about the consortium structure contact Joy Haynes or Sean Myatt

Local Meetings

The group wanted to talk about networking and local meetings. There was a feeling that outside of festivals, puppeteers want to meet up more often to exchange ideas. A range of ideas were discussed, from informal “puppeteers’ drop-ins” in pubs, to more organised events with speakers, or structured exchange of knowledge. To contribute ideas for local networking events contact Mervyn Millar or Slavka Jovanovic

Online Networking

Networking over the web is an important resource for puppeteers. Several members felt that a ‘history of puppetry in the UK’ would be desirable and the consortium will consider enabling this to happen. The existing websites managed by PuppeteersUK, BrUNIMA, the Puppet Centre/Animations and Puppet Place are important and the group were more minded to supplement and offer support to these than to create another separate site. We were also very keen to help all puppetry organisations make the case for puppetry – which requires data and some research to help articulate how influential and successful puppetry is. Some of this activity can benefit from supporters in the academic sector but it will require help and figures from everyone. For ideas on the online offer, contact Sue Buckmaster or Alison Duddle

Key Events

The group felt that focal events like World Puppetry Day offered a valuable way to focus minds outside the sector on the successes of puppetry. We talked about the possibility of organising a Puppetry Week which would allow puppeteers everywhere to talk about their work and build some momentum around what we all do. There were also discussions of the positive publicity of puppetry awards and who might be in a position to offer one – at the Edinburgh Fringe perhaps? If you want to contribute to the debate on events contact Joy Haynes or Sue Buckmaster

Training

The group were keen to have a discussion about training. There will be lots more of this in the next meeting, as Cariad Astles of RCSSD organised an open meeting about puppetry training on 1st June. Six of our members were there and this is to be a focus for our next meeting. We talked about the possibility of different venues offering courses co-ordinating diaries so that there are fewer clashes, and we are hoping to be able to map out what the existing provision is. To offer ideas about training and how best to co-ordinate it, contact Sean Myatt or Slavka Jovanovic

Touring

The group finally addressed the difficulties of touring small and middle-scale work. Different models were cited and the consortium would like to develop some recommendations to make life easier for puppet companies engaged in touring – whether to do with identifying sympathetic and puppetry-engaged venues, or by creating touring networks, or helping with insurance, introductions or recommendations. If you have ideas to help with this initiative please contact Alison Duddle or Bethan Tomlinson

The date of the next PDC meeting is on 3rd July, prior to the Boo Festival, please do get in touch if you have ideas to contribute before then.

Best wishes to you puppeteers.