A history of the Puppet Centre | part four

1990

So to 1990 and our sixteenth year: the now customary game of musical chairs was played by the staff, with the departure of Keith Allen and Philomena Gibbons, and the installation of a locum to take Philomena’s place (Sian Rees). Plenty of good news accompanied these sad tidings, including a large donation from the National Arts Collections Fund for the purchase the Hogarth Collection's puppets. Three of the PCT Board members conveyed some of the precious figures to the Royal Academy building in Piccadilly where the Collections Fund committee were charmed by the puppets and, I was told, awarded us a grant of £4,500 on the spot!

In BAC and beyond, classes and courses increased, with greater emphasis on professional development. The Centre’s traffic flowed as busily as ever. And in May the third Vision Mix festival presented a Cornish company, Forkbeard Fantasy, as its central attraction: it was a riotous success. In the same month we got news of restored funding from the LBGU for an Education Officer, the post soon filled to our great satisfaction by Anna Ledgard.

As if the puppet world had not suffered enough significant loss of its most talented artists, we learned that on 16 May the renowned Jim Henson had succumbed to a sudden, fatal attack by a vicious infection. His death was mourned on both sides of the Atlantic. Rarely has a man been more sincerely beloved, nor more widely missed. Memorial services were held in cathedrals in New York and London, such were the numbers wishing to attend. His generosity was legendary, and included aid to the Puppet Centre, in money and in kind.

As to the rest of 1990, another Bursary was awarded, this time to David Mason, an exceptional puppet maker; and in September a three-day International Symposium on the 'Fulltime Training of Puppeteers' was organised in the Lilian Baylis theatre adjoining Sadlers Wells. Among a distinguished line-up of speakers was Margareta Niculescu, now the head of a Higher Education School in puppet theatre attached to the Institute of Charleville-Mézières, of which she was also the Director. Delegates from other schools were there, with an example of the work of four graduates of the school in Sofia, Bulgaria. They showed advanced comedic skills in a show titled ‘A Policeman’s Tall Tale’. The Symposium resulted in a printed report, and brought the possibility of further and higher education training in puppetry a step nearer. PCT’s Education and Therapy sub-Committee also held its first meeting that autumn, and a rich programme was planned, under the dynamic leadership of Anna Ledgard.

The 1990 AGM was a stepping stone to radical change after a summer of serious financial difficulties. Held on 29 October in Glasgow at the Scottish Mask and Puppet Centre, it marked the resignation of the longserving Keith Allen, of myself as General Secretary (subsequently elected to the PCT Council), the appointment as Development Director of Cath March, the appointment as Administrator of Ruth Glaser, with Anna Ledgard continuing as Education Officer. Six workshops and courses were scheduled, an addition being an inspirational weekly course in improvisation and performance techniques invented and run by Luís Z. Boy. A three-fold increase in the number of Friends was reported, as was an imminent make-over of the Puppet Centre’s magnificent space.

The Chair’s Report included mention of a nine-page list of companies, individuals, schools and various institutions which had during the past year contacted the Puppet Centre for help and advice of one sort and another. Perhaps the most significant development was the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation’s initiative of a major Enquiry into the state of British Puppetry. The Annual Report was prepared and presented by PCT’s staff, not by the Chair. Cath March was installed as Development Director in November. Her tenure was marked by many changes in the organisation and in the design of the Puppet Centre’s space. 1990 was rounded off by a gathering at the Little Angel in which Professor Liu De Shan talked about Chinese shadow puppets, of which he owned a vast collection.

1991

The death of John Wright, founder and director of the Little Angel Theatre, occurred in March 1991. He was a great sculptor in wood, a teacher of many future puppeteers of note, a friend to scores of people, and a pillar of the British scene. The day in 1975 when he agreed to join the Puppet Centre’s Council was a cause for celebration. In his honour the annual Bursary was named the John Wright Bursary.

The newly named John Wright Bursary was awarded to Sue Buckmaster, a theatre-maker and puppeteer, steadily acquiring a reputation for outstanding original work for children. Throughout the year, in London and the regions, there were workshops and parades around the theme of the Jamaican Masquerade JONKONNU initiated and co-curated by Cath March for LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre). Puppet Centre’s AGM featured its colourful parade within and without the BAC building, but the performance was plagued by transport problems and the non-arrival of half the performers and their masks. 1991 was in all a turbulent year, when the Centre’s finances seemed to be within a whisker of giving out, but with a continuation of exciting initiatives for puppetry.

1992

The 1992 John Wright Bursary was won by two Devon puppeteers, Tony Gee and Martin Oates. Still based in Devon, Tony Gee’s workshops for able and disabled puppeteers are by now almost legendary. The fourth edition of VISION MIX was staged from 3-7 March, this time presenting the extraordinary French shadow puppet company Amoros et Augustin. Their shows were on the grand scale, and they filled BAC’s ‘Council Chamber’, its biggest performance space, with Señor Z, the dramatic story of the bandit Zorro.

It was the last of the VISION MIX series. All the arts in Britain were having to close or to adjust themselves to the further cuts in statutory funding from all the public funding sources (plus ça change…). Those puppet companies doing consistently excellent work happily bucked the trend, and several received either a promised annual grant, or a ‘project grant’ for a one-off event or production. In the latest document ‘A National Strategy for the Arts’ the Arts Council listed puppetry alongside Drama, Mime and New Circus, quite reasonably. Weirdly, neither of the two English theatre buildings dedicated to puppetry received annual subsidy for their core costs – and do not to this day.

Puppet Centre’s Education Unit in 1992 produced an Education Pack: 'Alive and Kicking'. Contained in an attractive folder of printed, illustrated information sheets, it was intended for teachers wishing to have puppetry in their armoury as a learning tool. Another 1992 publication, the result of the initiative of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, was a substantial booklet entitled 'On the Brink of Belonging', the culmination of the in-depth Enquiry into puppetry in Britain, its professional works and its infrastructure. It included words of praise for the Puppet Centre, its raison d’être and its work. A great deal of information and many recommendations were to be found in the booklet’s pages, and it was widely distributed. Its conclusions were of some positive use to the art form, since the tone was encouraging, and it still makes interesting reading. Curiously, a few well known puppeteers from British UNIMA and the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild took exception to its findings, a reaction that somewhat undermined its success.

'Animations' lost its Editor of 15 years’ standing, with Phyllida Shaw replacing me, after I was offered the post of Course Leader on a new post-graduate Diploma course at the Central School of Speech and Drama, puppet theatre’s first entry into higher education. Here was one more advance we could hardly have dreamt of a few years previously, one more reinforcement of puppetry’s status and infrastructure.

Once again the Arts Council changed its policy towards the theatre in general and puppetry in particular. The new guidelines for subsidy brought good cheer to puppeteers: the art form was to be given ‘Priority Status’ and there was to be a targeted ‘Project subsidy’, a ‘Puppetry Encouragement subsidy’ and a Puppetry Festivals subsidy. However the offer of Priority Status after less than six months was withdrawn in the following spring! The Arts Council has played cat and mouse, or bat and ball, with the Puppet Centre for most of its life.

At the October AGM, held in Manchester’s Green Room, David Currell resigned, after 18 years in the Chair. Tim Webb of Oily Cart bravely took his place. Anna Ledgard made the transition from Education Officer to Executive Director with responsibility for educational matters. Lobbying and collaborations continued to be a frequent element of PCT’s activity – in 1992 with the Crafts Council, our longterm allies, for an exhibition 'Crafts into Performance', and, with the ongoing project of the Jonkonnu workshops and parades in the regions. The year was crowned by the establishment of the London School of Puppetry by Ronnie LeDrew and his wife Caroline Astell-Burt. The School is thriving still, even if the courses are more often run in Yorkshire than London.

1993

January 1993 was notable for the delayed launch of the Central School of Speech and Drama’s one-year post-graduate programme of theoretical and practical learning through the Advanced Diploma, with six recruits. Naturally with myself as course chief there was a close tie with Puppet Centre and its resources, as there was with the Little Angel, where Christopher Leith was from March the Artistic Director.

Specialised workshops and courses were now spreading widely to many regional centres, with puppetry options in schools and colleges as well as arts centres. Another advance was noted in the saga of puppetry’s dealings with Equity. It was announced that puppeteers’ contracts would ‘come into line’ with drama and light entertainment performers, a promise that took some time for Equity to implement fully.

In July the festival ‘Fantastic and True’ staged in Brent under the direction of poet SuAndi, was an ambitious collaboration of Puppet Centre with the great LIFT event, on the theme of cultural identity. Schools and colleges combined to tell stories with giant puppets, directed by Ronnie LeDrew and Jane Phillips. Other festivals in which Puppet Centre was involved were planned, in Brighton, Bracknell, Manchester and Bristol. In other countries the numbers of international festivals were multiplying exponentially. The ripple effect started by Puppet Centre and a handful of Centres abroad was becoming a tidal wave.

August brought the first intimation that the Centre’s Trust Council was considering a change in the PCT Constitution’s structure: from that of an unincorporated Association to a Limited Company with charitable status. At the AGM Tim Webb was in the Chair, Brian Cook Vice-Chair, Mary Wolf Hon. Treasurer and me, Penny Francis Hon. Sec. Cath March was to leave at the end of the year, and Anna Ledgard became both Chief Executive and Director with educational responsibilities. But with no other permanent staff to assist with the running of the Centre Anna found the burden too heavy, unsurprisingly, and returned to her arts educational work in the following year, to work with the LIFT team. She was sorely missed. There are few practitioners of her calibre to be found.

Because of Puppet Centre’s accessibility to the professionals and its unequalled knowledge of their work (‘if we don’t know, we know someone who does’), producers, bookers and the public regularly came for advice on the engagement of puppeteers. When this was questioned it became necessary to draw up a policy on the methodology of Puppet Centre’s recommendations. PCT as honest broker acted as a kind of curator, recommending only what was deemed to be suitable to the needs of the enquirer and of good quality, based on experience, feedback and other criteria. The Directory was a useful source of information, and yet another of these was published at the end of 1993. At about the same time came the disturbing news that the finances for the 'Fantastic and True' project showed, on revision, an overspend of £9,000!

1994

1994 brought a wonderful surprise in the shape of a £60,000 legacy from a Miss Helen Hanson, apparently an admirer of the work of the Trust. It was to prove a life-saver. That year it was decided that the proposed change in charitable status to that of a Limited Company was desirable for financial and legal reasons, for example a possible expansion in our trading activity or in the event of the acquisition of a property. Many ‘reforms’ to the way the Trust was run were mooted. The former Represented Organisations (now numbering nine) would continue to field one representative on the PCT governing body with the same rights as the Council members and the Friends. The Puppet Centre Trust would keep its title but with more emphasis on the ‘Trust’ in future references. The new Trust would have 20 full members, 10 co-opted members, with an Executive Committee drawn from these 30 members. Instead of the former Trust Council there would be an Advisory Body of people drawn from the old Council, to represent most of the British regions and puppet hubs, such as the Puppet Place in Bristol and the SMPC in Glasgow. The changes were radical, and had to be put to a general meeting for ratification. They had far-reaching consequences, not all of them beneficial.

Another organisation undergoing profound changes was the Arts Council of Great Britain, which after April 1994 became Arts Council England, with regional Arts Councils devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Clearly the national mission of the Puppet Centre (and any other national organisation) looked precarious in that context. Would it too have to reduce its remit to England only? The new Arts Council England announced that it would henceforward accept applications only for innovative puppetry productions and ‘festivals of national importance’. A National Lottery to provide money for Sports and the Arts was now set up as a publicly funded supplement to the arts councils, proving a useful source of subsidy for a good number of puppeteers.

As for Puppet Centre, the new Business Manager and the Development Director, hired to lead the Trust into less turbulent times, lasted only a few months. There was a change of Chair at the AGM in October, from Tim Webb to Glyn and Mary Edwards, with several significant departures from the Council including that of Maurice Stewart, one of the Puppet Centre’s most active founders. The advent of Allyson Kirk as General Administrator with responsibility for the exhibitions and the appointment in early 1995 of Loretta Howells as Director brought in a much-needed period of stability. Howells and Kirk worked well as a team, and the future of the touring exhibition ‘Art of the Puppet’ looked healthy, especially after the award in November of a £20,000 grant from the new Foundation for Sport and the Arts.

The 1994 AGM in BAC on October 25th included the presentation of a fine exhibition of the puppets of the Hogarth Collection, to be displayed for six months. A memorial celebration was held in memory of Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth, including many entertaining and moving tributes. The attendance was excellent, and the attendees were treated, as usual, to a varied programme of discussion and performance. In 1994 the Puppet Centre was 20 years old, and on the cusp of another period in its life full of upheaval, with many changes and new activities. Read all about it in the next episode.

Credits

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.

Quotes

"The ripple effect started by Puppet Centre and a handful of Centres abroad was becoming a tidal wave."

Additional Info

Want to find out more? Visit our scroll-through history for a year-by-year breakdown.

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