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”
Advertisements

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.

_____________________________________________

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.”

“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