A history of the Puppet Centre | part six
The years 2001-2007 were characterised by the shaky emergence of the Puppet Centre against all the odds from the crisis of 2000-2002. Through the generosity of its supporters, and a skeleton staff who have worked well beyond the call of duty, PCT has somehow survived, even after a period when the Centre was manned only by devoted hands-on volunteers. Large numbers of callers and enquirers continued to roll in, until its magnificent rooms on the first floor were taken away and PCT was relocated by the BAC directors, first into a room tucked away on the ground floor and then to a tiny office on the second floor – both hard to find by visitors.
The Centre had to be stripped of its puppets and research materials. Superhuman effort was needed to sort, pack, filter and list the archives, magazines and books in order to send most of them to Michael Dixon’s welcoming facility in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Some boxes of books and archives went on loan to the Central School where some were housed in a basement, where they remain, some of great value, on shelves and in good condition, but not easily accessible.
2001 and 2002 were almost entirely filled with efforts to make up for the loss of our core funding from LBG, which changed its name to Association of London Government (ALG) and its terms of reference. Part of the PCT’s large deficit was reduced by letting its fine inner office to a theatre company, and moving all the office equipment and activity to the big outer room. A fundraising drive brought some generous donations, including large ones from Cheryl Henson and Jane Phillips. The end of 2001 and the AGM in January 2002, with me in the Chair following the resignation of Clive Chandler, brought a radical reassessment of the Trust’s future, with a strengthened Board that now had the good fortune to appoint Brian Hibbitt as its Hon. Treasurer. (He is also Treasurer to the Puppet Guild and to PUK.) There followed a measured reappraisal of the PCT finances, which he found in poor shape, and a reassessment of PCT’s capabilities. Two staff members were made redundant, a part-time Development Officer instated for a few months only, but at least the Centre could remain open, ‘continuing only with activities and staff it can realistically afford’. The information and advisory service remained. Anthony Dean and Peter Charlton, with me (Penny Francis), gave considerable help in manning the Centre and dealing with visitors and enquiries. Charlton ran Saturday workshops for children.
For a short while the funding situation obliged the Puppet Centre to adapt to a regional (London-wide) role only. Puppeteers UK led by Chandler declared itself satisfied with this: PUK was pursuing recognition in the national role. PCT’s professional Directory was handed over to PUK which publishes it online. However in March 2002 the Arts Council reversed its former policy and promoted the idea that PCT should seek funding as a national resource once again.
Clear and complementary roles for PCT and PUK were then thrashed out: PUK would concentrate on serving all the practitioner-puppeteers, with a web-based role as its information base, while Puppet Centre continued as advocate for the art form itself, with professional training and education a priority. PCT’s manned physical base enabled it to help with information and contacts in person. The Arts Council invited PCT and PUK separately to meet with David Micklem and report on the health of British puppetry.
Wandsworth awarded PCT funding for work within the Borough. And two workshops with internationally known directors were staged in BAC and sold out. One was run by the directors of the Czech DRAK company, Josef Krofta and his son Jakob, and the other by the American Eric Bass. Saturday children’s workshops were offered free by Peter Charlton until BAC decided to close on a Saturday.
From April our substantial office was rented to the Frantic Assembly company, most of the office contents going to the safe facility of Michael Dixon in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Letting the office brought in enough income to enable the hiring of an Administrator for a day and a half a week.
On 19 November 2002, PCT invited a number of prominent and experienced arts practitioners known to be sympathetic to puppetry and the Puppet Centre to a Round Table meeting, for a consultation exercise to discuss the development of puppetry and object theatre in England, and the role of PCT. Lucy Neal, co-founder of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), was the moderator. About 45 people were present. The recommendations of the Round Table are contained in a report in the PCT archives, and included:
The need for a new generation of activists
An essential strengthening of the infrastructure
Recognition that boundaries between disciplines are fading
Necessary collaborations and liaisons with the outside world
Lobbying, pressure on people in power
Strong advocacy for the art form
Meeting the demands of the National Curriculum
Marketing the vision
Raising subscriptions from the puppeteers
At the January AGM I confirmed my resignation as Chair. Professor Anthony Dean, now Head of the Department of Arts at the new University of Winchester, became Chair, a position he still holds. The Board welcomed Cath Connolly, a young puppeteer, and Jessica Bowles, a senior Tutor of CSSD. In the same month a second Round Table meeting was held with Lucy Neal again the moderator. A further list of priorities was agreed, on the premise that ‘the Puppet Centre Trust has a strategic role to play in the development of puppetry’. There would be:
A shift of focus to the provision of CPD
The restoration of Animations magazine
Other mission points from Tom Morris’ tabled paper ‘A Future for the Puppet Centre’ were also discussed and agreed (in PF archive).
At this time Karim Ladbon was preparing a bid to the Arts Council’s new lottery funds. Beccy Smith, a recent MA graduate from CSSD stood in for the absent administrator.
In March came the first issue of Animations Online, edited as before by Dorothy Max Prior. Also in March, a large group from Georgia (Europe), the Basement Theatre of Tbilisi, was engaged by PCT and CSSD to play their table-top version of Faust and to give a masterclass on tabletop manipulation.
In July the Arts Council awarded PCT funds to engage a highly regarded consultant – John Sharples - as Lead Advisor on PCT’s Organisational Redevelopment and to produce a Business Plan, assisted by Beccy Smith as Project Manager. In December Smith was also appointed the PCT’s Administrator. No more touring exhibitions were to be undertaken in order to complete the cataloguing of the puppets in the Tooting school house store.
All through 2003 there was an increase in the numbers of people using the Library and in the number of enquiries relating to the employment of professional puppeteers.
There were 34 applications to the PCT/Arts Council England bursaries for the extension of skills in puppetry in 2003, and with great difficulty the final choices were painfully whittled down to tow. The winners were Mervyn Millar, a creator and director of theatre, currently working at BAC and the National Theatre; and Ramon Abad, from the Philippines, whose aim was to develop shadow puppetry, and was recently creating shadows for the Little Angel and Theatre Rites.
Both winners hoped to study with companies abroad: Mervyn with the Handspring company of Cape Town, then engaged in an interesting collaboration with a group from Mali, and Ramon with the Italian company Gioco Vita and some German groups.
The year began with the news that our staunch ally Tom Morris was to become Associate Director of the National Theatre. However a serious blow, announced at the January AGM, was Wandsworth’s refusal to renew the lease on the house where PCT’s puppets were stored, and the place had to be cleared by the end of March. Wandsworth also announced the withdrawal of subsidy from 2006.
On 13 May the great Canadian marionettist Ronnie Burkett, while presenting his show at the Barbican Centre in London, gave a masterclass before an audience of professionals. Another exciting CPD project was christened ‘Moving Words’. It was a pairing of playwrights with puppeteers, the objective being to raise the awareness of writers to the particular demands of puppets. The Soho Theatre agreed to collaborate and provided the venue for a seminar and the final presentations. Funding from ACE and mentoring enabled three pairs to work together before the final ‘scratch’ showing.
A formal meeting with John Sharples in the Chair between representatives of PuppeteersUK and the Puppet Centre was held on 10 June to clarify the respective missions of each and to ‘restore the relationship’. PCT was to resume membership of the PUK Board. The Minutes are in the PCT archive, but PUK questioned their accuracy.
In October John Sharples presented the final version of the three-year Business Plan to the Arts Council whose reaction was largely positive. The Plan outlined the ways with which PCT would achieve its goals, given the restoration of core funding. Sharples ended his work with PCT which offered him very sincere thanks for his work and commitment. At his suggestion Beccy Smith’s job title was changed to PCT Director.
Encouraged by the Sharples report, PCT’s Education Panel initiated a programme of projects entitled Animating the Animators. Included were the Moving Words project, a Research project and the Bursary programme (there was no longer a John Wright Bursary), with workshops run by international experts in Birmingham, Manchester, Norwich and Bath.
At the end of 2004 Michael Dixon, now housing the puppet and archive collections and a part of the PCT library, was offered expenses towards the photographing of all the PCT puppets, to be sent to Jane Phillips for identification and cataloguing.
To raise more income it was decided to clear and ‘neutralise’ the big space to make it suitable to hire for rehearsals. A huge and expensive clear out was undertaken, although it was decided to keep the main part of the library in the space (on high and awkwardly accessed shelves). Animations Online continued but was to become quarterly instead of bi-monthly, and funds were needed to continue employing the web designer Foster and the Editor, ‘Max’, who was finding it impossible to continue on the present financial terms. Beccy Smith as sole employee was similarly finding the workload difficult to manage effectively.
Useful activity included workshops in the National Student Drama Festival run by Rachel Riggs and Rene Baker which helped to raise the profile and the appreciation of puppetry amongst a large gathering of young people. As part of the Moving Words project the introductory seminar on writing for puppetry at the Soho theatre was a success, with 70% capacity. The two latest Bursary winners were Alison McGowan based in Newcastle) and Sarah Wright (Cornwall and London). And David Currell was added to the four members of the PCT’s Advisory Panel (see 1994 notes).
In May a meeting with Rob West and Natasha Davies at Arts Council England (ACE), was reported by Chair Anthony Dean as very positive for the future of PCT, and the report on Animating the Animators was well approved. ‘PCT was probably only three years away from receiving RFO status’, was the message, with ‘only the PR positioning of the organisation in need of improvement’.
Some encouraging developments in June and July included the decision to publish an illustrated ‘Annual’ of the accomplishments of the previous year’s puppetry in Britain (Animations in Print), and there would be a regular PCT Newsletter to be emailed to some 700 people on the mailing list. The Board approved the new website design.
Wandsworth (WBC) signalled its support of PCT’s future plans for the Borough. A new Bursary scheme within Animating the Animators was rolled out, and a Puppetry and Dance project approved. On 22 December the great George V. Speaight died, barely six weeks after his wife, Mary. He was a founder and supporter of the Puppet Centre.
2006 began with a workshop on ‘Directing for Puppetry’, followed by the announcement of the latest ACE/PCT Bursary recipients, Sara Ekenger and Luís Z. Boy. Henceforward there was to be a public presentation of the work of the Bursary winners.
Winchester University was to be the sponsor of the first Animations in Print, to be called Animated Encounters, edited by Max, extensively illustrated, intended as a prestigious marketing tool. The Publications Committee co-opted Matthew Cohen.
Local projects included a pilot of work with the elderly on the nearby Peabody Estate, also with patients in a closed ward in Springfield Psychiatric Hospital, both projects run by Charlton. At a Board meeting in June Beccy Smith, having given notice of her resignation in the following October, was now ‘interim director’ in charge of the induction over the summer of the new ‘Creative Manager’ Natalie Querol.
The final evaluation document of Animating the Animators was printed (in PCT files) and circulated to the Board and the relevant funding bodies. On the whole the report was positive and useful, and there was no financial loss.
A new project called ‘Gathering the Strings’ was undertaken. The project reached out to ‘artists, organisations and audiences across the regions’, as usual with the aim of raising the profile of puppetry.
Showcases of ‘new puppetry’ were to be added to the PCT programme. The first had as its theme ‘puppetry and dance’, and was held in the Grand Hall of BAC. Peter O’Rourke replaced Mark Pitman on the Training panel, and several CPD projects were reported in the pipeline.
The Centre was now open to the public only one afternoon a week, ‘and at other times by appointment’. PCT was moving away from the model of a small visitors’ and art form specific Centre ‘towards a development agency that the Board, funders and artists of our changing sector seem to appreciate’.
In August PCT was obliged to move out of the spaces it had occupied for 35 years, and found itself in a ground floor office on the west side of BAC. Though much smaller, there was shelving for a good proportion of the books, and small work stations for three companies doing residencies. They were Inkfish, Ivan Thorley and Off the Wall.
PCT sometimes acted as an umbrella for fundraising bids and receipts for other companies, such as ‘Bed of Stories’ run by the outgoing Residency company of John Pinder.
Publication of the first Animations in Print was a highlight of 2007; Animated Encounters, an A4 magazine, printed on good quality paper with good quality photos, was a reason for pride, and for that reason was very welcome. Max had done a great job.
The seventh and final part of my history will follow soon.
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.