A history of the Puppet Centre | part five
Puppetry, its status and its use in theatre and onscreen continued in a sharp upward trend. By this time more practitioners from the other performing arts were discovering its treasures. For instance, the London International Mime Festival included six puppet-led productions, and the Edinburgh Festival was following suit. Most of these shows were for adults.
There was still some way to go in convincing these same practitioners of the specific professional skills and sensibilities attaching to performance with puppets, and that the need for specialist classes and courses was as necessary as ever. Promoters and all the ‘hubs’ of the art form, in particular the Puppet Centre, provided these courses, raising bursaries for the students and engaging the best teachers and mentors in the field.
From January much of Puppet Centre’s energy was channelled into preparations for a high-profile celebration of its 21st anniversary in the autumn. On the 26th, at a meeting of the Board, with Loretta Howells now in the newly styled post of Chief Executive, PCT received the Organisational Review prepared by Russell Southwood. This identified some concerns about the Centre’s activity, including staff overload and the severe reduction of its educational workshops and courses due, of course, to the present lack of an education officer on the staff. Elizabeth Lynch volunteered to head a new Educational Working Group.
The Centre’s growing collection of puppets found a new home in March in Wandsworth and some items were sold. The Touring Exhibition was christened ‘Fantasy in Action’, and received £20,000 from the Foundation for Sport and the Arts. There was a friendly and useful meeting of three of the puppetry support organisations and PCT was involved in the London festival of theatre for young people for which Rachel Riggs was a leader.
From April to May Linda Theophilus was hired to curate the touring exhibition, this one designed to involve and promote the puppeteers local to its regional exhibition venues. However the PCT’s application for museum status had to be dropped, as sufficient finance was not forthcoming.
A monitoring exercise by the Borough of Wandsworth concluded that ‘for a national organisation they [the PCT] are very active in the local area’. BAC was regularly programming puppet productions. An important Board meeting on 11 May clarified the newly constituted Limited Company and its differences from the former Trust Constitution.
On 5 June John Thirtle, another indispensible Board member of the Puppet Centre and a great puppeteer, died. He was a founder of the Centre and a tireless activist for the good of puppetry, a co-director of the company Playboard Puppets and a respected friend to many.
Fiona Ellis, a champion supporter of puppetry and its development, left the Gulbenkian Foundation. Most of the funds from that quarter have since dried up.
Theophilus fell ill, so Jacqui McColl took over as exhibition curator of Fantasy in Action. Its first venue was York City Art Gallery where it was enthusiastically received, with many local puppet companies and practitioners promoted.
On 6 June the PCT staged a spectacular evening of performances called ‘Titans of the Toy Theatre’, the ‘Titans’ being George Speaight, Peter Baldwin and Robert Poulter. This was one of a number of fundraising events such as a reception attended by the Mayor and the Chair of the Chamber of Commerce, and an evening performance at the restaurant Simpson’s-in-the-Strand.
In September a workshop on performing for television was run by Francis Wright, and an educational project ‘Shadow Me!’ received nearly £8,000 in grants from the Peter Minet Trust, the Sir John Cass Foundation and the London Arts Board.
Almost the whole month of October was dedicated to the 21st anniversary celebrations, with a Great Puppet Party on the 1st, many puppet productions within BAC’s Festival of Visual Theatre, workshops on Punch and Judy (Edwards and Chandler), Making with Junk (Nenagh Watson), Manipulating Marionettes (LeDrew), Model Theatre (Robert Poulter), a talk by Roger Law of Spitting Image fame. Some of the Puppet Centre’s collection of figures were on display in BAC’s exhibition spaces and performances throughout the month included work by Norwich Puppet Theatre, Forkbeard Fantasy, Storybox, Green Ginger, the DNA Cabaret, and a community project. Guests included international UNIMA’s Honorary President, Henryk Jurkowski (Poland), and its President, Sirppa Sivori-Asp (Finland). Grants and donations came from several sources, as did editorial publicity, and the success of the whole enterprise helped to raise the profile of puppetry and the Puppet Centre.
The AGM on 26 November in BAC was a landmark occasion when the new Constitution of the Puppet Centre Trust Ltd. was inaugurated. Glyn Edwards continued as Chair and Brian Cook as Vice-Chair of the new Board, which also consisted of Keith Allen, Dave Bennett, Penny Francis, John Phillips, Rachel Riggs, Antonia Rubinstein and Tim Webb. The first four members (out of a possible 30) of the Advisory Panel were nominated: they were Ted Beresford, Clive Chandler, Teresa Grimaldi and Lorraine von Gehlen. Loretta Howells was the Executive Director, overseeing the radical changes, one of which was the reconfiguration of the Centre’s main space to be serviceable as a small performance venue.
The first three-year degree course in puppetry was established at the Central School of Speech and Drama. The post-graduate course had merged with a multi-disciplinary Masters degree in Advanced Theatre Practice. In fact by this time an increase in Higher and Further Education courses offering a puppetry option could be noted.
By this time our printed magazine, ANIMATIONS had a circulation of roughly 500 sold copies.
A week of puppet events was staged in January in collaboration with Tom Morris and BAC. Support was offered for a week of work – ‘Shadow Me!’ – led by Riggs, Manju Gregory and Roshana Plashkes for local children with special needs.
February brought worrying news of a serious financial deficit because of overspend on Fantasy in Action. The Board approved a ‘loan’ from the Hanson legacy to cover the debt. The National Puppetry Support Organisations held their inaugural meeting on 23 March.
In April the new PCT Constitution was put in place. The Trust was constituted as a limited company (the Puppet Centre Trust Ltd.) with charitable status, the organisation simpler. A small Board was to be guided by a broadly-based Advisory Panel, representing the broad national interests, institutional and individual, of practitioners and enthusiasts . Strict Standing Orders ensured that the Board would not become a self-perpetuating clique and is to be elected by the Advisory Panel. The Friends of the former Trust retain their status and have the right to vote for members of the Advisory Panel.
Jessica Souhami’s highly regarded shadow puppet company ‘Mme. Souhami and Co.’ closed in May, for health reasons. The company archive was donated to the Puppet Centre.
In June Glyn and Mary Edwards resigned as co-Chairs. No replacement was made: the Trust decided to try out a ‘Revolving Chair’ policy. Glyn applied and was awarded the editorship of ANIMATIONS, as Phyllida Shaw had signalled her resignation.
Loretta Howells wrote a strong indictment of Arts Council policy and attitude towards puppetry, published in ANIMATIONS. The death was reported of respected veteran marionettist Eric Bramall, also of Dora Beacham, a staunch and valued supporter of both the Puppet Centre and before that the EPA.
In August the PCT was involved in a new adventure: a festival in a commercial shopping centre. Puppets at the Pallasades (sic) was an event organised by Clive Chandler in Birmingham with major input of the Puppet Centre and its resources. It attracted a ‘pairing’ grant of £80,000 from ABSA (Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts) and was an all-round success.
The 11 October saw the first meeting of the ‘shadow’ Board of the new limited company, and the formal dissolution of the old constitution (from 1 October). The Handspring Company of South Africa performed Faustus in Africa at BAC with consequences, which eventually led to the Royal National Theatre’s production of War Horse, co-directed by Tom Morris.
Edwards produced his first ANIMATIONS as editor – it had 32 pages and some major changes in the content, with the Puppet Centre featured as one of a long list of puppetry support organisations.
On 3 November the AGM and Puppeteers’ Day were held in Brighton as part of the ‘visions 96’ festival that included a Forum held in conjunction with British UNIMA. John Phillips was Acting Chair, though still Hon. Treasurer. He reported a worrying overdraft of £8,000. The latest Directory of Professional Puppeteers was published. It was proudly reported that the exhibition Fantasy in Action has acted as ‘a catalyst for [puppetry] activity in all the areas it has been shown, creating jobs for puppeteers with its associated performances and outreach work’. The hope was expressed that Puppet Centre had been ‘launched into a new era’. In the same month, on the 19th and 20th, PCT presented two Toy Theatre evenings, especially for Friends.
On 28 November at the second meeting of the new Board of Directors, Loretta Howells, in a long term action plan for the Centre, showed that the goal of an ‘independent National Puppet Centre’ was still alive, with a three-year strategic plan to progress and underpin the dream. Another more immediate plan was to prepare an education and training strategy guided by the Education Working group (which had replaced the Education Unit of the Trust).
This year can be summarised as another year of intense activity by PCT on all fronts with no major changes, but with a steadily deteriorating financial situation. Priorities were the search for funds for an education officer while implementing various educational events through the good offices of the Working Group. It was clear that the national picture of puppetry education had moved on. The working group wrote: "there is almost a complete and efficient regional structure through which to communicate and elaborate", and "the Puppet Centre could work through the other support organisations to help deliver a national service", thus making closer ties with the other PSOs. However it was also necessary to report that there was (and still is) an almost complete absence of scientific research into therapy and education with puppets.
The success of Fantasy in Action was encouraging, as was an assessment of the PCT by the London Borough Grants unit which described it as a "highly valued national resource". However, as with the Arts Council, this praise was soon worthless, as will be seen.
November was a let-down after the euphoria of October. At the AGM, held in the Green Room in Manchester, The Chair, Dave Bennett, resigned, and there was no replacement. Breckman and Co., the Trust’s trusty auditors since it began, was regretfully replaced with Liles Morris; their representative being Charles Bennett, who soon expressed grave concerns about the financial situation, not helped by LBG’s announcement of further funding cuts, and another change of policy at the Arts Council which also boded ill. It looked inevitable that the Trust would have to draw on the Hanson Legacy to alleviate the deficit.
Over the coming weeks and months, well into 1998, negotiations with the Wandsworth Council culminated in a move of the PCT’s collection of puppets into a small schoolkeeper’s cottage in Tooting which afforded shelter and security, but which necessitated repairs and upkeep. The Trust was able to accept the situation only because of the Legacy fund and the tireless (unpaid) work on the move and care of the puppets undertaken by Jane Eve and Jane Phillips (who regularly travelled from Wales), Mark Eve and Peter Charlton.
In July PCT was experiencing serious cashflow problems, with fewer sales and reductions in grants. The policy of the ‘revolving Chair’ having proved unsatisfactory, a permanent Chair was elected - Clive Chandler. It was soon clear that his chief concern was with the national vs the regional status of PCT, an ongoing question partly caused by changes in the terms of reference of PCT’s main funder, LBG. Loretta Howells and Allyson Kirk, the only two members of staff at this time, reported that the Centre had in the period between 29 June 29th and 20 September 20 dealt with 538 phone enquiries and 179 visitors. That branch of PCT’s work was as healthy as ever.
The rest of 1998 saw evidence of PCT’s unquenched dynamism. Fantasy in Action had bookings well into 1999. Collaborations, workshops, other initiatives continued, a highlight being the Gala Evening of ‘New Model Theatre’ in the Centre’s own ‘cathedral’ space, decorated for the occasion most beautifully by the talented Mr. Alexander. The decorations stayed in place for the Christmas season when Joe Gladwin gave seven public performances (97% capacity) of his model theatre version of Cinderella, one amongst at least 20 other productions with puppets to be seen in the Capital that year.
This year brought the news of the establishment of another ‘umbrella’ organisation – Puppeteers UK. The organisation, consisting of a consortium of puppetry membership bodies, professed many of the same aims and objectives as those of the Puppet Centre. Clive Chandler, Brian Hibbitt and Ray DaSilva were the chief movers and shakers. The news was potentially bad for the PCT which had been set up in 1974 with funds from the Gulbenkian Foundation, on the strict understanding that it (PCT) had the backing and cooperation of the other national bodies then existing – the Guild and British UNIMA – which was provided. Any hope of a united front for puppetry under the shelter of the Puppet Centre was severely weakened, if not removed, as PUK was set up to be just that, an ‘umbrella body for all puppeteers, as its logo demonstrated.
In March the death of the well-loved puppeteer Christine Glanville, was reported. Her archive was bequeathed to the PCT.
The Puppet Guild (BPMTG), British UNIMA and the London School of Puppetry all held events in the Centre. PCT was the only building-based puppetry body with a staff and publicly accessible resources.
Loretta Howells was offered the post of Producer at the Little Angel Theatre and tendered her resignation from the Puppet Centre as from October.
The Centre’s 25th anniversary, also in October, was celebrated as a ‘Jubilee Week’. It banished worries and happily showed the depths of friendship Puppet Centre had earned from the profession, through the generosity of very many of its associates. Donations in the form of shows and money were offered and the management of BAC granted free spaces for exhibition, meetings, workshops and shows, and a high profile within their own Festival of Visual Theatre. An entertaining show, RAW, was commissioned for the Jubilee, created and excellently performed by Sue Buckmaster and a team of skilled puppeteers. The DNA company staged a cabaret to a packed audience in the BAC café. During all this BBC TV filmed part of a children’s programme on puppetry for the Knowledge Digital Channel.
At the AGM on 9 November Allyson Kirk was named Centre Manager, retaining responsibility for the exhibitions. Keith Allen had begun to design a simple website.
Fantasy in Action was reaching the end of its viable life, due to the wear and tear of the touring schedule. It had attracted high attendances. Now two new smaller exhibitions were to be put into service: one to be called ‘Puppets on the Move’ and the other ‘Shoot the Puppet. Shoot the Puppeteer’, a series of photographs which the Trust hired from John Field.
1999 ended with the staging of An Evening of Light and Shadow by PCT for the Wandsworth Arts Festival.
As the year advanced, it was clear that the Puppet Centre was in crisis. The tipping point came when the London Borough Grants unit, our only remaining core funders, withdrew its grant altogether, which, considering the glowing report it had given PCT not many months before, was a shock. Help was needed, and with the aid of a small grant a freelance consultant was hired. Chandler recommended Kate Gant as freelance consultant in the post of Associate Development Director, to advise on the immediate future.
Brian Hibbitt as Acting Treasurer, on examining the accounts pronounced himself unhappy with them. He reported that the actual deficit was £13,000. The Centre lost £2,000 on the Jubilee celebrations. Donations were sought to make up the shortfall and Loretta Howells generously offered £1,000. Since ANIMATIONS regularly lost money, it was decided to suspend publication for the time being, from the October issue. It became a quarterly, and was to be produced online. Four or five newsletters were produced during the following year, to bridge the gap.
Savings had to be found in every area of PCT’s operation, and all remaining staff were made redundant. Kate Gant generously offered to forego the last months of her contract, and Glyn Edwards gave up his editorship of Animations. The PCT was fighting closure as firmly as possible. For the time being it was forced to rely entirely on voluntary help to keep the Centre open and available for enquirers and visitors. The mainstays were Charlton, Dean and Francis, with others.
For the Board, Chandler urged that all activity should be concentrated on London for the time being, and PCT accepted the PUK offer to take over production of the Directory of Professionals. The Guild took over the job of the ‘What’s On’ service from the ANIMATIONS pages.
At the AGM on 16 November Chandler resigned as Chair and also as Board member. He was and is the Chair of PUK. As a (perforce) London-based organisation PCT is no longer eligible to be a member of the National Puppetry Support Organisations.
For the financial year ending 31 March 2000, Puppet Centre staff recorded the receipt of 1,200 visitors, over 1,000 letters, 2,000 phone calls and 172 emails. In spite of the situation, the Centre continued after March to receive and respond to large numbers of enquirers and some visitors. The gloom was palpable, but the support of the volunteers and the sympathy and practical suggestions of Tom Morris were greatly appreciated.
In 2001 London Borough Grants changed its name and its terms of reference, which now excluded PCT as a possible client. However this meant that PCT was able to resume its role as a national body.
Some of the ‘practical suggestions’ were actioned and a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel began to intensify. It was decided to let the PCT office to a theatre company (Frantic Assembly), which would – as soon as permission was granted from Wandsworth – bring an immediate improvement to the cashflow. Second, a visit to the Arts Council officer in charge of ‘non-text-based performance’ was immensely cheering. David Micklem was clearly impressed by PCT’s reputation and achievements and was instrumental in finding funding for a consultant, John Sharples assisted by Rebecca Smith, hired to draw up a four-year Business Plan. In the meantime two Masterclasses led by the world-famous Director of the Czech DRAK company of puppets and actors, Josef Krofta, successfully, if minimally, reinforced the finances, and so did an appeal to our Friends for donations. Cheryl Henson and Jane Phillips both contributed very generous amounts.
Penny Francis as Acting Chair recorded thanks in her Annual Report (to the Board in December) to all the many PCT benefactors, but most warmly of all to the (now confirmed) Hon. Treasurer Brian Hibbitt. He had conducted a major reappraisal of the accounts, showing how it might be possible to keep the Centre open, if we continued only with the activities and staff which could be realistically afforded. Cautiously it was decided to hire a part-time development officer – Katie Richardson – who manned the Centre for three, then two, afternoons a week.
And so the two-year nightmare period ended, far from happily ever after, but at least with our finances improved, and the Centre, enjoying the support of the sector and of numbers of other theatre and television practitioners, hopeful of continuing its services to the arts of puppetry.
The next episode, last in the present series for Animations Online, will tell of even more radical changes for the Puppet Centre Trust.
This history has been written from the available papers, programmes, meeting minutes, pictures and Animations magazine itself and of course my firsthand memory. The full details will eventually be posted on the Puppet Centre website, and will include the names and deeds of the scores of people who have been involved and the practical and moral support they gave, and there’s hardly one, volunteer or staff, who is not remembered with affection and gratitude.