A history of the Puppet Centre | part two
Once launched, in November 1974, the Puppet Centre energetically set to work to fulfil its aims, chief among them being the determination to wave flags and beat drums for the artist-practitioners and for the art form itself. We courted publicity and exposure wherever it was possible to find it: in the wide national distribution of our rather classy publicity leaflets with our distinctive logo, designed by the late Michael Carney; in theatre magazine articles; in requesting representation on committees and boards of theatre organisations such as the ITI (International Theatre Institute) and the ITC (Independent Theatre Council); in holding events to which the arts world was invited; in pestering arts bodies like the Arts Council and the British Council; in offering expertise to a wide range of organisations, including regional arts and education authorities, the artistic directors and programmers of arts centres, drama schools, television and film companies. Queries poured in by phone, letter and visitor. A principal motto of the Centre was: If we don’t know the answer to your question, we know someone who does.
Networking was at the heart of the mission. Somewhat controversially (for the traditionalists), we supported and encouraged the companies offering innovative, high-quality work (in terms of design, craft, performance and professionalism). We knew it was in the interest of these companies and artists to help puppetry shake off its inward-looking, amateurish public profile, and to attract respect and interest from the rest of the arts world. The best of the professionals welcomed our efforts heartily, and soon most – if not all – of them were members of the Centre’s governing Council. They soon saw dividends in the interest shown by the growing numbers of well-respected venues in their work. These were more and more likely to be arts centres and small theatres than school halls.
However schools and colleges were by no means forgotten, as David Currell and Maurice Stewart put the plans they had been formulating in collaboration with the Educational Puppetry Association (EPA) into practice. Thanks to the invaluable approval and the practical underpinning of their work by the Inner London Education Authority, the courses flourished. There were many: for teachers, schools and colleges, therapists, refugees and, of course, for professionals wanting further training. There was hardly any tertiary or development training for puppeteers then, and the growth of this training was an essential part of the Centre’s achievements.
Recognition and representation
From the Centre’s opening visitors flowed through the doors, the volume of enquiries was sometimes overwhelming, coming from an astonishing range of people. The only ones we grew impatient with were those demanding free or low-fee shows, including shows for under-fives’ birthday parties, but even for these we got to know who were the best practitioners, from the feedback. We encouraged them to ask for appropriate, much higher fees, even if the amount frequently drew exclamations of dismay from the punters.
Puppet Centre also supported the professionals in a long-running battle with British Actors’ Equity for recognition and proper contracts. John Thirtle, co-director of the Playboard Puppets, led several delegations to the Equity offices, insisting that puppeteers were not studio technicians but skilled stage and screen performers worthy of contracts comparable with actors and/or variety artists.
The administration of the Centre by one staff member and a team of volunteers became impractical, given the mounting demands and activities, and when Gillie Robic, a neighbour of Battersea Arts Centre (BAC), offered secretarial help she was warmly welcomed. She turned out to be a demon on a typewriter, to have high intelligence, education and culture, and soon caught the puppetry bug. She became a professional puppeteer with the Barry Smith company ‘Theatre of Puppets’ and has enjoyed a distinguished career on stage and screen. Gillie was the first of many converts, partnerships and changes of direction effected by Puppet Centre.
Funding for the work has always been a worry, but in the first years the Centre was well subsidised by the regional Arts Association, the Greater London Council, the Inner London Education Authority, the British Council, the Television Fund, the Crafts Council, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation with many other smaller grants. 1974 gave birth to the idea of a well-publicised Puppeteers’ Day to coincide with the AGM, an event that continued annually into the 21st century, sometimes attracting as many as 200 puppeteers.
Many visitors came from abroad and other countries have set up a Centre along the lines of ours. In 1975 Margareta Niculescu, head of the new puppetry Institute in Charleville, visited and sent a letter of admiration for our Centre’s ‘dynamism’. Soon after a national centre was established in France. The French Ministry of Culture approved, and the Institute in Charleville has been well financed ever since. In Britain Puppet Centre has struggled with money problems for all of its 40 years, even though it attracted unprecedented funding (unprecedented for puppetry, that is) in the first period of its life.
The Erwin Hauser collection of books on the art form was an early acquisition (on extended loan) from Hauser’s widow, Lucie. The collection was extensive and priceless and thanks to Mrs Hauser the Centre’s library became the largest in the country open to the public. It was consulted by a constant trickle of puppeteers, students, teachers and academics until a few years ago when the books were removed to Central School of Speech and Drama. David Claridge (of Roland Rat fame) helped to create a ‘quiet corner’ of the Centre for study and small meetings.
Governance and admin
Governance of the Puppet Centre continued through a large number of Trust Councillors who represented the whole sector, (soon including British UNIMA and the Guild), a hard-working Executive, and a tiny staff, which grew one at a time to include an Education Officer, an Admin Assistant and a Technical Officer (Lynette O’Reilly, followed by Julian Rumball in 1981). The EPA merged with the Centre, which set up an Education and Therapy Unit, largely run by ex-members of the EPA. Puppet Centre meetings involved mountains of Roneo-ed foolscap paper, not to mention time. We were heavily dependent on our willing volunteers, to whom the Centre should be forever grateful.
In 1977 Jane Pritchard was appointed the Centre’s pivotal Administrative Assistant, as I reduced my work in order to plan a monster international festival for 1979. At our AGM in September Jan Bussell gave the first performance of his new autobiographical one-man show. Every AGM presented a good performance, often from abroad.
A highly effective tool for Puppet Centre’s mission turned out to be the magazine Animations whose first issue was published in December 1977. Starting as a monochrome, 8-page journal, it grew over the years into a more substantial 20-page magazine, and acted as widely distributed publicity for the art form and its world. I was its first editor, followed after many years by Glyn Edwards, Phyllida Shaw and Dorothy Max Prior.
Also in 1977 came the Arts Council’s landmark decision to accept applications for subsidy from puppet companies. Victorious celebrations were held. The Arts Council was of course responding to the increase in numbers of artistically interesting shows and in the expansion of their audiences nationwide.
Events and publications
Festivals, conferences, exhibitions, courses, productions, showcases, publications, an annual Directory of Professional Puppeteers – they were all penetrating the national arts consciousness, however slowly, and the feedback to the Centre was ever more positive. Not all of these were produced by the Puppet Centre, but we supported nearly all the initiatives and the artists, whose status improved from year to year. Their unique talents were at last earning recognition.
The monster festival in 1979, ‘Puppet Theatre 79’, run by Jan Bussell and me with Helen Gundlach assisting and a committee that included the Guild and British UNIMA, was held in 16 venues across London (Sadler’s Wells was the biggest: they staged the St. Petersburg State Puppet Company). It was designed to increase the public’s appetite for good puppet theatre. Even the National Theatre staged an exhibition in its foyers and presented a show by Christopher Leith which would have been in the Cottesloe theatre had the builders and staff not been on strike.
On 22 March 1980 a showcase at the Young Vic was presented by Puppet Centre to a panel consisting of a representative of the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Greater London Arts Association, the Unicorn Theatre, the Little Angel and the Hogarth puppet companies. December 1980 saw the opening of the Norwich Puppet Theatre under the leadership of Joan and Ray DaSilva. The same month welcomed Jude Kelly into the post of artistic Director of BAC.
Buildings and bursaries
1981 was another eventful year: the Centre collected £2,300 towards a feasibility study for an ambitious takeover of a building in the heart of Covent Garden, owned by the GLC, who looked on our plans sympathetically. 18 Wellington Street, a fine five-story Victorian building opposite the Theatre Museum, would have been the centre of dreams for puppetry, in the heart of theatreland, if only we could have obtained it at a peppercorn rent. What plans we laid! But after a year or two we had to let the dream evaporate, as the GLC and various agencies realised the site’s enormous value, and it was sold to commercial enterprises which included a restaurant. Tears were shed.
On a much brighter note, 1981 saw another giant step forward for the Puppet Centre in the inauguration of a generous Bursary scheme funded by the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Arts Council’s training wing (with the good offices of Loretta Howells) which allowed an experienced professional puppeteer to take most of a year off to further their skills. The scheme, for a while called the John Wright Bursary, has lasted to this day, though its application has changed a little. Caroline Astell-Burt and Martin Bridle were the first to benefit from the awards, and later winners have included a good proportion of our best practitioners, such as Stephen Mottram and Terry Lee Wright who won in the second year.
In July we started a system of ‘Friends’ who covenanted an annual donation, on which, like today’s Gift Aid, we could reclaim the tax. The response was good, and the Friends gave a much-needed boost to the Centre’s always low finances. Sue Martin became the new efficient multi-tasking Administrator doing the work of three people, as was usual for any of our magnificent staff. She left after two and a half years and was replaced by Sue Kay, an effervescent presence, in turn replaced by Zoe Brooks in late 1983.
We applied to the Television Telethon for a van, to transport materials to the various outreach workshops and smaller exhibitions the Centre was running. Our bid was successful in 1982, to the delight of Julian Rumball and, a little later, education officer Honor Palmer. Throughout, the Puppet Centre ran all sorts of courses, one-off and weekly, still under the supervision of Maurice Stewart and David Currell, the Centre’s Chair for 18 years.
Two happenings of note came about in 1983 – the ILEA gave us funds to re-employ an Education Officer (Honor), and the Crafts Council supported our request for the making of a set of puppets as examples of the best in the field, to be toured or shown in the Centre.
‘Puppet Theatre 84’ was a second attempt to replicate the success of the 1979 event, involving many venues and attracting large numbers of visitors from abroad. Puppet Centre was of course a strong presence, but the festival, although hugely praised for its artistic content, was not a financial success. The organisation was bailed out by the GLC and by Jim Henson, a truly generous man.
The year brought 3,700 personal callers and 17,000 enquiries to the Centre. The Chair’s Report, given at the AGM held in the Wellington Street building with some 200 attending said of the first ten years: “We have been able to promote a sense of unity and pride in the profession among puppeteers… There are many more employment opportunities than there were ten years ago.”
Puppet Centre’s success could be in good part attributed to the neutrality and accessibility of our work in its BAC base on Lavender Hill. It may not be inappropriate at this point in our story to express our thanks to the Wandsworth Borough Council, our landlords at that time, who gave us our splendid offices for a peppercorn rent. Thank you, Mary Wolf and Wandsworth!
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.