A history of the Puppet Centre | part seven

2007

By 2007 a proportion of the books, the paper archives and all the puppets were in the care of Michael Dixon, who was named Puppet Centre Archivist and given permission to act as curator and guardian of the collections. They could on occasion be hired out, and Dixon would photograph the puppets, for uploading to a website, ‘The National Puppetry Archive’, already under way but in need of funds.

2008-9

2008 and 2009 saw production of the second and third editions of Animations in Print. Number two was Animated Advances and the third and last Animated Bodies, linking puppetry and dance, was produced with funding from the Centre for Excellence in Training for Theatre (CETT). In spite of energetic searching no further money has been forthcoming for Animations in Print so far, although Samuel French was soon stocking it, and no fourth issue has been prepared. These publications stand as testimonials to the beauty and influence of puppetry in the contemporary arts, and one can only hope the series will one day be re-launched. The editor of all three was Max.

In November of 2008 the six companies commissioned to produce scratch performances of ‘Adventures in Dance and Puppetry’ presented their pieces in the BAC Grand Hall on 22 December. The producers were Beccy Smith, Steve Tiplady, Sarah Wright, Luck and Lee, Idolrich and Ivan Thorley.

On Christmas Eve, 2008, Querol resigned, and Smith agreed to act as Interim Director until new staff could be installed. In the event Smith herself became the new administrator, and later the Director.

In August of 2009 the PCT office was surprisingly requested to up sticks and move once again, to a very small space on the second floor of BAC, with room only for a couple of desks, chairs and a table. Micklem explained that the new policy of BAC was to use every available space for performance (or, as it turned out later, bedrooms for artists). A ‘visitors’ centre’ such as PCT was deemed no longer in keeping with the activity of the building.

So the ground floor office was emptied of everything remaining from the Centre’s early years except the barest minimum of administrative materials. The most used books of the Library went to the Central School of Speech and Drama (CSSD) as arranged. Of the books sent to CSSD only a quarter were put on the basement shelves, the rest remaining in boxes, some sent to another storage facility. Access is difficult.

Again it was necessary to throw out quantities of papers and this time to lose the in-house library altogether. By now the Puppet Centre had ‘little to offer’ the punters, but it was still active: for the public the information resource was still in demand, and for the professionals bursaries were still awarded, and a handful of events were taking place. The Board consisted of eight members, (and the Advisory Panel of five, but it was never called on to advise). Professor Anthony Dean remained as the Chair, with Brian Hibbitt as Hon. Treasurer.

In August 2009 PCT appointed a new Director, Linda Lewis (formerly the Director of the groundbreaking ‘visions’ festival held in Brighton), and an Administrator, Emma Leishman. The new appointments brought an injection of fresh energy and purpose to the organisation.

Lewis’ policy was to emphasise the presence of Puppet Centre in all the many activities she undertook, to intensify and spread out the programme of CPD and to give the website an urgent and complete re-design. This would go out to tender. (‘M/A’ is the company chosen). It was to be the main marketing tool for the Centre, with Animations Online clearly integrated within the web pages. Lewis, also put the editorship of Animations Online out to tender, as the present arrangement was not sustainable financially.

Lewis then embarked on preparations for an ambitious project centred on giant, carnival puppets, which would herald and chime with the 2012 Olympics. It was to be a two-day Conference on street arts to be held in the centre for Carnival Arts in Luton, entitled ‘Big Ideas’. Jessica Bowles got to work with Lewis on the preparations , and a substantial grant from ACE was successfully applied for.

On 15 December the first showcase of work undertaken by the graduates of the Residency programme was a well-attended success, but CETT is unable to fund any further Residencies after 2010.

2010

In January 2010 the new Residency candidates were selected: Raven Kaliana, Unpacked Theatre, Annie Brooks. Stephen Novy resigned from the Board after two years’ valuable service.

On 9 June a memo to the Board from Lewis (in PCT lever arch file), after discussion with a lawyer, stated that ‘unless the PCT went into liquidation it was unlikely that we could pass on the responsibility of ownership [of the collections] to another person or organisation.’ However there was nothing to prevent us from seeking funding for the cost of maintaining and storing the collection ‘and that paying someone to look after it on our behalf would not impinge on our charitable status.’ (memo to the Board from Hibbitt, 9 June 2010.)

At a meeting on the 14th of July 2010 Lewis stated that ‘it was time to manage things differently and also to do different things’, one of which was the updating of the database undertaken by Emma Leishman, among many other administrative tasks.

On 7-8 October the Big Ideas Conference was held and was a tremendous success, even making a profit. Among others, PCT’s collaborators were Emergency Exit Arts. A User’s Guide publication was paid for by Winchester University to mark the event, and PCT was subsequently asked to programme a series of workshops for the Centre for Carnival Arts.

Money was running very low again, but the PCT was saved by a grant from Greater London Arts towards core costs.

2011

‘Puppetry Snax’ was the name given to the showcase of work ‘in development’ for adults presented on 28-29 January.

That February Lewis reported a meeting with ACE which was considering PCT’s application for ‘Portfolio’ or regular core funding. Two new ACE officers expressed themselves ‘keen to know what the Puppet Centre does’ which after nearly forty years of negotiations with the Arts Council was surprising.

Lewis was at this time programming a series of CPD workshops and masterclasses, starting with a workshop on the mixing of screen animation and live performers with the company ‘1927’ which was so well received that another was planned soon after.

The Travel and Training Bursary Scheme was now worth £1,000 for one established artist and £250 for two emerging artists. For this first round Seonaid Goody won the £1000 prize, Jeremy Bidgood and Mischa Twitchin the £250 award.

On 11-12 March Lewis and myself visited the Dixon facility in Bridgnorth where a small team of helpers listed the books and other PCT archive items. That summer there was a meeting to deliberate on the future of the national puppet collections and archives, to which Jane Pritchard, Archivist of the V&A Museum, was invited. She accented the need for careful weeding out of items of little value, to prevent any such project becoming too enormous to handle.

In April the Residency programme was re-launched: three companies had been chosen from 48 applicants. They were to be Resident Artists at the Farnham Maltings (Kristin Fredrickson), Bristol Old Vic (Corina Bona), and Birmingham’s mac (PifPaf). The artists got £2K towards expenses, free rehearsal space and mentoring.

In spite of the invaluable work of PCT, the appeal to ACE for core funding was unsuccessful. The Council inexplicably demanded ‘proof of resilience’ and evidence of a ‘higher profile’. In the light of recent events these demands seemed ironic. A month or two later ACE made it clear that it was now accenting ‘talent development’ as one of its priorities, suggesting that Puppet Centre become the co-ordinating body for all the education and training initiatives now on offer. Schemes with the most impact on the sector were also suggested; research into the factors that attracted people to puppetry, and an explication of PCT’s plans for expansion and its aspirations for the future. The PCT, we were told, should be able to provide statistics. It was hard to imagine how a much diminished organisation with two part-time staff could respond to such demands, but PCT did its best to rise to them.

Meanwhile the CPD programme offered a workshop on ‘Making Plaster Heads’ (Matt Jackson) and another held in Bristol on ‘Ephemeral Puppetry’ (Nenagh Watson).

A useful product was a small illustrated booklet which PCT published in collaboration with British UNIMA, containing the details of many British companies ready and willing to accept invitations from abroad. It was to be launched at the Charleville festival in September and given away to relevant people and organisations.

Lewis was practising extensive networking to heighten awareness of the Puppet Centre and what it had to offer on behalf of British puppetry. Before the end of the year she had organised a Masterclass by the South African Handspring company, a seminar on Directing for puppetry and a workshop on choreographing puppets.

IN September came the next round of the Travel and Training Bursaries, the winners being Drew Colby (£1000), Iklooshar Malara (£500), Darren East (£250) and Isabel Brown (£250).

Also in September came a grant of £10K for re-branding the PCT and re-designing the website.

Regretfully the Centre had to say farewell to Emma Leishman-Tonkin in November, but her replacement, Louise Alexander, was well chosen and a worthy successor.

2012

For 2012 Lewis and Peter Glanville invented a new series of colloquiums called ‘Puppetry Provocations’, staged in partnership with the Little Angel Theatre. Penny Francis took the chair for the first one in March, posing the question ‘What can puppeteers do to be more employable in theatre?’ The discussions were revealing and interesting, in all five of the Provocations. The event in May was run by Mark Down; the next in August by Peter Glanville, during the Edinburgh festival; the fourth in Brighton by Beccy Smith (September) and the last in Norwich by Rene Baker .

The PCT continued on its increasingly poverty-stricken journey. At the beginning of May the much-respected and long serving Editor of Animations, Dorothy Max Prior, resigned and a new editor was urgently sought. Another resignation was by Board member Peter Charlton, who had given so much to the Centre, most if not all of his work unpaid.

On the plus side, a £60,000 grant was received from ACE, there was good feedback on the new website, and the first PCT Newsletter was printed and issued to about 700 recipients. Training Bursaries were won by Anna Ingleby (£1000), Yore and Isabel Lyster (£250).Workshops were offered on ‘How to Access Crowd Funding’ and another on the techniques of the Paper Cinema company.

An unusual collaboration in June was with the Wellcome Foundation who, during a season of exhibitions and events on the subject of neuroscience, asked Puppet Centre for contributions by puppeteers and academics to a weekend of discussion and presentations called ‘Objects of Emotion’. Stephen Mottram and Nenagh Watson gave individual demonstrations of their work’.

- Helen Babbs was chosen as the Editor of Animations Online in July, an interim period of optimisim for PCT and for puppetry in general. Not only were puppets a significant attraction of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, but the Centre had its funding application for the second of Lewis’ major projects ‘Puppetry in Opera’ approved by Grants for the Arts (ACE).

- Another event in July was the consolidation of the North-Western network, held in the Z-Arts building where one of PCT’s Resident companies, No Nonsense, was based. Workshops on ‘Manipulation and Movement’ (leader: Al Nedjari) and ‘Voice for Puppeteers’ (leader: Dolly May) received excellent feedback.

- The following Travel and Training Bursary awards were won by Lesley Butler (£500), Becca Phillips, Soledad Zarate, Liat Rosenthal and Hannah Mulde (£250 each).

On 9-10 November 2012 Lewis produced one of PCT’s major successes, to rival that of ‘Big Ideas’. This was PUPPETRY IN OPERA staged at the Barbican Arts Centre, in collaboration with the Royal Opera House’s John Fulljames and Trinity Laban Centre, with prestigious international practitioners as speakers, including Stefan Fichert, William Kentridge, David Pountney, Nori Sawa. Introduced by Barbican’s Head of Theatre, Louise Jeffries, the weekend of talks, presentations and works-in-progress ran smoothly, with good attendances and social interaction. The D’Oyly Carte Foundation supported the programme of workshops for young opera and puppetry artists. Opera was proven (if proof were needed) to be an effective partner of the arts of puppetry, one that has employed puppets more and more in recent years.

December brought more interesting events: there was a week-long course on Writing for Puppetry (Part One), held in Devon in collaboration with the Arvon Foundation, and a ‘Critical Voices’ seminar on the writing of critical reviews of puppet productions.

2013

In 2013, with the financial situation ever more precarious, PCT nevertheless continued its series of events, workshops and showcases, at the same time maintaining its nationwide networks. Every effort was being made to respond to the Arts Council’s demands, but concern was expressed at the Board meeting in May at the Council’s unrealistic demands for continual restructuring and change.

Inspirational workshops throughout the year were run by Drew Colby (Hand Shadows), and Anna Ivanova Brashinskaya (‘Show Me a Story’), the latter magically creating animated figures with minimal resources, mainly paper. Michael Makin repeated his ‘How to Book a Tour’, and ‘Directing for Puppetry’ was led by Mervyn Millar, Joy Haynes and Liz Walker. PCT engaged Rene Baker for a series of workshops entitled ‘Listening to the Material’ which were held in venues across England, and there was a second edition of ‘Critical Voices’.

With some help from the Garfield Weston Foundation there were other projects and collaborations, e.g. with the Victoria and Albert Museum, and with Artsdepot.

PCT’s Board was strengthened by the addition of Sue Buckmaster and Mervyn Millar, and in May Kate Anderson, an experienced and well-regarded arts administrator was invited to join which she did in October, , at first as an observer. Ruth Eastwood acted as facilitator at a Board ‘Away-Day’ in July. One outcome of this was agreement on the usefulness of another kind of awards scheme, a Prize, which would raise the profile of puppetry and attract sponsorship.

The end of the year brought deepening concern about finances. The latest bid for funding from the Arts Council was unsuccessful. At the AGM on 11 December more cuts were implemented: the Director could be afforded for only one day a week, the Administrator for three days and the Editor’s employment was halved. Closure became a probability.

By contrast, on the same day, Phelim McDermott of the Improbable theatre company held one of their famous ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ sessions in the BAC Grand Hall on the subject of ‘What Shall We Do About Puppetry?’ About 80 people attended, and the outcome was heartening for the Puppet Centre which attracted the largest discussion group, most of them young puppeteers, who displayed strong moral support for PCT. They were unanimous in wanting a strong (stronger?) ‘hub’ for the puppetry community. As a consequence Lewis set up three focus groups to meet in February and March 2014, one for puppeteer-performers, one for designers, makers, writers, and one for ‘general theatre makers’.

2014

Finally to 2014, where this story must end, with PCT becoming less and less active throughout. Linda Lewis resigned in April, finding it impossible to do justice to her work on only one day a week. She remains a support and consultant and hopes to be able to organise her third major project, ‘Puppets and [Screen] Animation’ in due course. Her replacement was Kate Anderson (‘Interim Director’), to work part-time with a brief to do little but attract funds.

In March the Board decided it could no longer afford the insurance nor the storage of the puppet collections, and gifted them to the National Puppetry Archive, a subsidiary body of the British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild.

In June, with admirable efficiency, Anderson produced a new Business Plan which was given to the Arts Council with a request for vital funding, which in August was refused. Many letters of protest were written to ACE’s Head of Theatre and its Chair, with the argument that puppetry, being a distinctive art form within theatre, does not get a fair proportion of the total arts subsidy. ACE declares that it does not regard puppetry as a separate genre, but will look ‘sympathetically’ on a bid to strengthen puppetry’s infrastructure. The bid should not only be for PCT, but should represent the needs of the nationwide puppet hubs, for example Bristol’s Puppet Place, Norwich Puppet Theatre and the Little Angel.

The American magazine Puppetry International asked for an article on the Puppet Centre which was provided by Francis and Matthew Cohen.

A highlight of 2014, the Puppet Centre’s 40th anniversary, was a spectacular birthday party on 16 November in the Grand Hall of BAC. The cavernous, empty space presented a challenge to the small group organising the party, led by Penny Francis and her super-efficient assistant Roxana Haines. The result was a triumph for the designers in the group, Ivan Thorley and Alison Alexander, who on the tiniest of budgets turned the hall into a colourful ‘shoestring fairground’, with help in every area of activity from Caroline Partridge, who was also the splendid Master of Ceremonies on the night, and a small army of volunteers.

Mervyn Millar was in charge of the finances, which in the end became a not inconsiderable job, as the donations poured in and the Great Puppet Party actually turned a small profit, to everyone’s surprise. About 250 people came, many who had served the Centre in earlier days, and the evening was crowned by music from a DJ and the freely-given shows, traditional and modern, static and on-the-move, by some excellent puppeteers, about 13 companies and individuals, too many to list here, but all of them in the archive of the Centre. I made a speech pleading for those present to prevent the closure of the Puppet Centre.

Jessica Bowles resigned from the Board that November, having proved herself one of the most active and valuable of any contributing member.

A Steering Group of regional companies and individuals was set up in December, and Anderson prepared an application for funding its work, including the engagement of a researcher to compile data on the whole sector. The funding was received, and a series of meetings were planned, into the beginning of 2015. Puppet Centre – if funds are received – is to be the co-ordinating body.

2015

Since 2015 is still young and while so much is happening in the puppet world’s struggle to match the giant steps forward it has made in the last 30 years, I will postpone the end of this history. Presently it looks to be continued in another context. Perhaps PCT’s records, its initiatives, its Library, its exhibitions and showcases, its events and forums, its bursaries and workshops, its immense networks may be lost. Or perhaps the great sum of its experience will be gathered up and somehow, somewhere, continued for the good of the art form, the artists and their future. We’ll soon see.

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

"Perhaps PCT’s records, its initiatives, its Library, its exhibitions and showcases, its events and forums, its bursaries and workshops, its immense networks may be lost. Or perhaps the great sum of its experience will be gathered up and somehow, somewhere, continued for the good of the art form, the artists and their future. We’ll soon see."

Additional Info

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

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