Skipton International Puppet Festival 2013
Skipton Puppet Festival is an intense three-day burst of puppetry with a strong international presence – this year, 11 of the 30 companies are from abroad. The picturesque Yorkshire market town is transformed by the festival. Shows pop up in school halls, crowds gather for free performances by the canal and giant puppets dance through the streets.
There is something of the traditional market day about the atmosphere the festival creates – busy and talkative, full of people keen to enjoy themselves or see something new. Children lead their parents towards the marquees; puppeteers see each other’s shows, exchange views, make plans and catch up on professional gossip.
The festival directors are Liz and Daniel Lempen, who put together the biennial festival while running their own puppet company. When I spoke to Liz this week, they had just got back from the Bornholm festival in Denmark where they’d been performing their delightful ‘Theatre for One’ street shows. How do they manage to combine touring with finding companies to bring to Skipton?
“Not all festivals are organised so that performers can see other shows, but we always try to see as much as we can. Sometimes you’re taken completely by surprise. At the Beverley Puppet Festival, here in Yorkshire, we saw The Little Fawn: tiny puppet shows put on in a caravan for 12 people at a time. It blew us away. They’re little gems.”
The Little Fawn will be parked up at the festival hub in Skipton for the whole weekend, and entrance is just £2 – join the queue at the door. Another highlight of the festival is set to be ‘Baobab and Bushbaby’ by Norwegian company Levende Dukker (‘living puppets’), which the Lempens saw in Bornholm last year. The show has been made specifically for children under three, with a large soft sculpture to explore before the puppets emerge. Describing the show as “pure lovely cleverness”, with great puppetry and a fine aesthetic sense, Liz says that young audiences are enthralled, giggling and participating.
Daniel Lempen’s Swiss origins have helped to establish particularly strong links with German-speaking festivals and companies – with luminaries such as Laku Paku and Thalias Kompagnons making appearances in the 2011 festival – but the international exchanges reach further than this. An eagerly anticipated visitor this year is Liverpool-born Colette Garrigan of Compagnie Akselere, who has rarely performed in Britain since moving to France. She will bring two versions of Sleeping Beauty, one for families and one for adults.
A long-standing collaboration between Tineola Theater (Prague) and Garlic Theatre (Norfolk) will be reflected in the presence of both Tineola’s ‘Round the World in a Kettle’, based on characters from Edward Lear and directed by Mark Pitman, and Garlic’s ‘There’s a Monster in My Piano’, designed by Michaela Bartonova.
“Skipton is not just for the public – at its heart, it’s for performers,” says Liz, explaining that participating puppeteers can see as many other shows as they like for free. “Most performers in this country don’t earn a lot and we can’t afford to see everything we’d like to. But it’s really important to see shows – to have reference points and to develop a critical vocabulary. It’s crucial.”
The home-grown feel of the festival, in a small town where you can’t help bumping into other festival-goers, helps to foster informal exchange of ideas. Liz champions Skipton’s down-to-earth style of artist development as an alternative to professional workshops. “At Skipton we put puppeteers together, shoulder to shoulder, we feed them and let them watch each other’s shows. People are curious, and they naturally share ideas, tricks and materials.”
Even the restrictions of the location – festival venues created from scratch in schools and marquees – can have a positive side. The directors seek out high quality but low-tech shows. “In the main, the shows we programme are quite simple. A lot of UK companies are one- or two-person companies; here they can see shows that are inspiring but achievable.”
It’s not just the puppeteers who feel inspired. In 2011, the first puppet parade took place. A flock of puppet sheep (and their sheepdog), bright silk birds swooping from bamboo poles and giant Punch and Judy puppets all made their way down the high street to the sound of a samba band. The idea was to give local people the chance to participate, get their hands on a puppet and have a go. Liz explains that “it was something Skipton had never seen before. People were stopping us in the streets for weeks afterwards to talk about it.”
Liz would like Skipton to inspire other puppeteers to make their own festivals. “The puppet community in the UK is hungry for this sort of thing. Performers could put on a mini-festival, a weekend, to bring people together and inspire each other. Skipton bears the stamp of our personalities, our taste. There could be all sorts of little festivals popping up, each with their own character.”