Welsh theatre company, Hijinx, make stunning theatre performed by actors with and without learning disabilities. In their latest show ‘Meet Fred’ (produced in association with Blind Summit) a two-foot tall cloth puppet fights prejudice every day. We chatted with them about what makes their theatre unique and what audiences should expect from performance with learning disabled actors.
Can you tell us a little about yourselves. What makes Hijinx different from other theatre companies?
Hijinx is a professional theatre company based at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff who tour small scale theatre throughout the UK and Europe. What makes us different is that our casts always include actors who have learning disabilities. The ability of these effortlessly talented performers is at the heart of every show we produce, creating work that is utterly absorbing, surprising and provocative.
We call it inclusive theatre because it makes much of the skills and raw talent of people who often get overlooked in today’s world and gives them a platform to make and perform stunning theatre alongside actors who don’t have disabilities. Training actors with learning disabilities to perform at a professional level is also at the heart of our mission. We have established the only professional performance training in Wales for actors with learning disabilities: there are two Hijinx Academies in Cardiff, one in West Wales, one in North Wales and one in Mid Wales.
Can you tell us a little about ‘Meet Fred?’
Well, Fred is just a regular guy who wants to get on in life. He wants a good job and to settle down with a nice girl. The only problem is that Fred is a two-foot tall cloth puppet and day to day life has many dependency issues when everything you do relies on three other guys being with you at all times! His life begins to spiral out of his control when he is threatened with losing his PLA (Puppetry Living Allowance).
‘Meet Fred’ is a visually inventive and entertaining snapshot into the life of a potty-mouthed puppet with a feisty personality who fights prejudice every day. It is an original exploration of what it means to be different, an outsider trying to make his mark in a world in which he needs a lot of help. With wit and dark humour we try to expose the ridiculous situations some of the most vulnerable in our society encounter when their support is taken from them, exploding the myth that “we are all in this together”.
What should audiences expect from your work?
Expect something edgy, surprising, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes hilarious, sometimes beautiful or ugly, sexy or plain offensive, but always with a cast that includes artists with learning disability.
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a one-on-one stop motion workshop and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
Mallory O’Meara is an author, screenwriter and producer for Dark Dunes Productions. Her latest film is Dark Dunes Productions’ feature-length puppetry film ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’. We sat down with her to find out more about her passion for the puppetry, horror and monsters; the challenges of producing a live-action puppetry feature film and the role of women working in the puppetry and animation filmmaking industry.
We are incredibly excited to have the European premiere of the feature-length film ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’ as part of our programme at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry in September 2017. Where did the inspiration come from for choosing live-action puppetry to create a feature length film?
Dark Dunes Productions, the company I produce and develop for, is dedicated to showcasing the wonder of practical special effects. Every film we produce features some aspect of practical special effects, whether it is real make-ups, actors in monster suits, or puppetry. It’s our biggest passion. When we met Sam Koji Hale through his fundraising efforts for his film ‘Monster Of The Sky’ and he told us about his ideas to expand his award-winning short ‘Yamasong’ into a feature, we wanted to get involved. We were incredibly excited about Sam’s vision and the world of ‘Yamasong’ and the opportunity to collaborate. Everyone on the Dark Dunes team is a lifelong puppet fan. It was a great fit.
You have mentioned in an earlier interview that you used green screen work and it appears that some of the mouth movements are digitally composited in post-production. Does it affect the puppeteering and production processes when traditional puppetry techniques are combined with the latest digital technologies?
It absolutely does. One of the challenges of creating ‘Yamasong’ was integrating traditional puppeteering and digital and CG technology. The entire film was a fantastic learning experience. There’s never been a feature film like ‘Yamasong’ and the excitement of that trailblazing carried us through a lot of the frustration. Sam had a lot of experience with this integration process on his previous films. Combined with our incredible team of puppeteers, we were able to create something special.
As a producer of ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows’, what were your main tasks and roles during the production? Do you have any tips to other people who are hoping to go into producing for puppetry and animation?
As the producer that helped to creatively guide the project, I was not as deeply involved in the actual production phases of ‘Yamasong’. Adamo Paulo Cultraro, one of the other producers, guided the day-to-day tasks and decisions of the production, and my job was assist him in any way. Adam is a project management genius. I work more on the creative side of things, so I was busy with tasks such as editing the script, helping write new dialogue and voice overs, and collaborating with Sam and Sultan Saeed al Darmaki (our third Dark Dunes producer and CEO) on casting choices. My biggest and best tip for those looking to get into this world is to be friendly and get involved. Find your local filmmakers, find other people passionate about puppetry and animation, see what’s happening in your town or city. And don’t shy away from something you have no experience in. A big part of filmmaking is problem solving and thinking on your feet.
The key thread for Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017 film programme is women in puppetry and animation filmmaking. As a Producer, Communications Director, Screenwriter and Author for Dark Dunes Productions, what are your thoughts on the role of women working in the puppetry and animation film industries?
Some of the greatest puppet filmmakers I know are women. It’s not that women need to learn to get good at animating and creating puppet films, it’s that they need to get the job opportunities and funding. I’m very excited by the recent push to give more women opportunities to get on set and get hired in film. I’m incredibly proud that ‘Yamasong’ is involved in that movement – nearly half of our cast and crew were women. Animation and puppetry are just like any other types of filmmaking – they are desperately in need of more women telling stories and making movies.
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. Finally, from your personal experiences, could you name some of the strengths that women working both in front of and behind the camera can bring into the world of puppets and storytelling for stage and screen?
The greatest things, among many, that women bring to a production is their experience and their vision. Women experience the world in a fundamentally different way than men. By having a production that is gender balanced, you get to look at things from many types of eyes. If you are telling a fantasy or science fiction story, the best way to imagine new worlds is with a diversity of input.
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a personal tour of Puppet Place and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
Tessa Bide is a Bristol-based theatre maker with a theatre company under her name. The company specialises in making innovative, high-quality theatrical experiences for young audiences that inspire and excite but never patronise. We caught up with her to find out more about her latest show, ‘A Strange New Space’ on at Tobacco Factory Theatres, 11am Sunday 03 September, as part of this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017.
What is ‘A Strange New Space’ about and how did you come up with the idea?
The main character, Amira, is completely obsessed with space and dreams of becoming an Astronaut. One night, the bangs, whooshes and fizzes of her imagination explode right out of her dreams, becoming a deafening reality. She must leave her hometown to go on an adventure, to find a safe space and Amira quickly packs her bag for the intergalactic trip she’s been waiting for.
The original idea for ‘A Strange New Space’ came whilst in a dreamy fog at 5am one morning in bed when I should’ve been asleep. I had been thinking a lot about the refugee crisis and how I could use my skills to respond to it or help in any way and, having my routes in children’s theatre, I’d also wanted to have fun with a space-themed show for a while. I had the idea of using a space journey as a metaphor for a child refugee’s journey and it developed from there. It’s a one woman show without words that melds physical theatre with puppetry and original music.
What can audiences expect from the performance?
At the end of every show I stay on stage and invite the audience to come and chat and I always find that a useful tool for gauging the success of the performance and what that audience got from it. I’ve had a lot of the feedback from the adults was that they would watch it as an adult show. Feedback from performances to children (aged 4 – 11) demonstrated they loved it too, so it’s fairly universal.
Other comments we received were “It’s clearly a show that comes with more than just to entertain. It makes me think of children in all different situations. Innocence and vulnerability.” and “I was most interested in the changing of locations and as to why she was traveling to all these places. I thought her change of mood from place to place was great and added to the intrigue as to what she was looking for. ”
Over the tour we have several ‘relaxed performances’ which will see the show stripped back and performed in a way that is specifically accessible for children and young people with autism, learning disabilities and sensory and communication disorders AND their families. To make sure you can enjoy our story to the fullest, we have created a few materials which might help you to understand and access the show before you arrive at the theatre.
What do you hope for ‘A Strange New Space’ at the Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2017?
This year, I’m hoping that ‘A Strange New Space’ will bring together new audiences – both young and old – through their love of puppetry. The show serves as a catalyst for conversation around the ongoing refugee crisis, whilst at the same time providing an “an excellent introduction to theatre for younger children” (Manchester’s Finest), so there’s something for everyone. I’m excited to be on the same line-up as some truly astounding talents from both the UK and abroad, I think the Bristol Festival of Puppetry team have excelled themselves this year!
SUPPORT OUR CROWDFUNDER! Puppet Place are looking for your support. The crowdfunder has some fabulous rewards – including festival passes for individuals & families, a signed illustration by Aardman’s Peter Lord, a one-on-one stop motion workshop and a puppet tailor-made in your image!
If there is a more picturesque setting for a theatre than the canals of Little Venice in London W9 then I have yet to come across it. Opal green waters softly caressed by the branches of a Weeping Willow on a mid-stream island as a mummy duck and her train of newly hatched chicks swim by. It’s a beautiful day and I’m pleased to have arrived for my interview with Stan Middleton, Grandson of the founders of the 55 seater Puppet Theatre Barge thirty minutes early so I can relax on a bench and enjoy the view.
Stan however is having none of it. He’s on the roof of the barge with his father, Rob Humphreys, trying to fasten down a tarpaulin sheet which had come loose in last nights storm. Within minutes I’m up on the roof with them, pulling on the bit I’m told to pull on with all my might and making a mental note to add “once worked on the Puppet Theatre Barge” to my CV.
Everything finally battened down and ship-shape [see how quickly I’ve picked up the sea-faring lingo.] I’m enjoying a welcome cup of tea listening intently to Stan explain how the moveable roof works and how often it had to raised and lowered as the barge toured up and down the Thames to Oxford every year between 1982 to 2008. Moving to locations in Henley on Thames, Marlow & Windsor and Reading every two weeks, the barge theatre has delivered an amazing and magical programme of puppet shows to the people of London for 35 years.
Stan Middleton is a puppeteer, theatre administrator, PR man and everything else that needs to be done person. He is the third generation of his family to be entrusted with the care and maintenance of this wonderful treasure. As I gaze around at the fascinating array of puppets adorning the walls and stage area, I make my notes on the tonnes of stuff he tells me he still has to do to get the barge spruced up and ready for it’s summer season, and I am, as a stage manager myself, officially envious.
It must be a wonderful place to spend time and work in this theatre. How did it all get started ?
The theatre was started by my Grandparents Juliet & Grenville Middleton and opened in Camden Lock in 1982, moving to it’s current winter berth here in Little Venice in 1986. My Grandmother trained as a puppeteer at the Little Angel Theatre for ten years under John Wright and my Grandfather had worked as cameraman and lighting technician on film documentaries. They originally formed their own company, Movingstage Marionette Company, in 1978 and spent the next three years touring puppet shows. Deciding they needed their own venue, they looked at a number of options including buildings, buses and trucks before settling on this former Thames Lighter barge which they were given for nothing on condition all the renovations and conversion work was done at the boatyard who gave it them.
Since then we have gone on to produce over 35, predominantly self devised / created shows, and have hosted a number of guest writers, directors and performers. In addition to our programme of shows on the barge we continue to tour on land taking up invitations to perform in schools, festivals and at private events.
The Little Angel Theatre has a well deserved reputation for supporting new artists and young people. Did your Grandparents bring that ethos with them to their new venture?
Of course. We continue to support new artists through our apprenticeship scheme. Each year two new artists are given the opportunity to learn their craft under the guidance and supervision of my Grandparents. We are very fortunate that many of these apprentices continue to be associated with the barge and the family as they go on to be artists in their own right. Past apprentices at the barge include Rachel Leonard who worked on War Horse and Susan Beattie who, amongst many other achievements and successes, was the PG Tips monkey.
Each year we continue to visit a number of schools to deliver our shadow puppetry workshop to pupils in conjunction with key stages one and two. Over the course of a day, children are introduced to historical puppets from around the world and to the principles of shadows puppetry. The children are given a practical demonstration of how to make shadow puppets before collaborating in groups to write, build and perform their own plays.
Sadly, due to the current education system not valuing the arts as much as they probably should, it is now common place for schools to no longer give over a whole day to learn about puppetry as the children need to focus on their academic work as a priority. Puppetry is an excellent tool for less confident children develop their confidence by working through the puppet. We have found in the past that a child who might never usually perform or even speak in front of the class, when working through a puppet, has the confidence to do so.
It looks like we are in for a beautiful summer, do you have a busy programme of shows planned?
This coming season we have, ‘The Three little Pigs Plus Captain Grimey‘ This is a show for younger audiences and is great fun. People often book because they like the story of The Three Little Pigs and then come away loving captain Grimey even more! ‘The Hare and the Tortoise‘ is a show for all the family which is part of a collection of Aesop stories told with long-string marionettes, great for a family outing. We also have in our summer programme, ‘The River Girl‘,a work commissioned for the Puppet Barge by award winning poet Wendy Cope. This fantastic show is ideal for anyone who has never experienced puppetry for an adult audience. The show explores themes of love, loss and gender politics.
After we conclude our summer programme, I am very much looking forward to working on our Christmas show which will be the first time I have collaborated on a show with my Mum.
Thank you for your time and for allowing me to learn a few new seafaring skills. Are there any final words of wisdom you might want to share with new artists thinking of a career in puppetry?
Just to remember, puppetry has so many different avenues down which you could go, explore as many aspects of the discipline as you can before choosing one!
Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation. In this, the third and final in a series of insights, he considers the the art of artifice and stop motion animation as a puppetry form. [Read Part One | Read Part Two]
Every time we see a puppet, we are aware of the technique, well the technique becomes part of the performance. We know the limits of the materials, the puppet, but something much richer is happening. Currently, Broadway is enjoying the colourful spectacle of Bette Midler playing Dolly Levi, but I doubt that there is ever one second where the audience forget they are watching Ms Midler, and just enjoy ‘Dolly Levi’.
Midler is the whole point. Puppets are free of this overt baggage (oh dear, I didn’t intend to call Ms Midler an overt baggage), but they are still invariably a reflection of their manipulator. I hold no truck with actors having to be cast to resemble other members of their onstage families, or being criticised for not being the right age of the character, as long as they can deliver the performance – we so often get bogged with everything being so literal, when there is nothing literal about theatre or even film. Orchestras, scenery, costume, delivery, lights, editing all throw any sense of the literal out of the window in the non-existent fourth wall. Oh how I would like to cast the identical twins, the Dromios and the Antipholus’, and this has to have been done, as wildly different physical, and racial performers. If the characters tell me they are identical, then I believe them. If a puppet of bamboo convinces me that he thinks he is a dragon, then I’ll go along with it. Puppets rise above all the dull literal, and have to celebrate their artifice, and enjoy the metaphor that they are. I’m not sure that being literal has any place in any of our work.
My own area of puppetry is stop motion, and to the public the manipulators have disappeared and the characters are happily performing by themselves. This is of course far from the truth, it’s just that the animators are hidden, not through wearing black, or out of the light, or under a set, or at the end of cable out of sight, but we are there, just in between the frames. We are still touching the puppets, often leaving our fingerprints in the clay, or unavoidably ruffling the clothes. But we are there, and the characters, despite what lexicon of movement they have been given by the animation director, still reflect the animators’ own body language.
There is as much of a connection as between a ventriloquist and his character. The hand is still involved, and for all the hi-tech developments of frame references, and playback, and onion skin (a device that shows the previous frame as an opaque layer), the hand and plain concentration are still the best tools. Stop motion has developed enormously and many puppets often now have replacement faces and often different body shapes, offering an enormous range of stretch and squash that mere mechanics might not provide. As usual with new technology, there is resistance and, personally, I’m a bit hesitant about anything that takes some of the performance away from the animator’s hand, just as I’m cautious when the performance of puppets on film is created in the edit suite, or when the previously mentioned scenic delights are provided by digital means – ah how ironic, that digital also means to do with the finger, as well as the 0’s and 1’s.
The beauty of puppets is that they have limits, and that they have physics that we conquer. We get a huge amount out of little. They are there. I like the rawness of a puppet, and the integrity of a complete puppet. Having stunt puppets for different scenes and with different capabilities, to me, takes away some of the basic essence of a puppet, which is the direct contact between the puppet and the puppeteer. This cannot be lost or diluted. The audience can feel this communication.
As long as puppets continue to celebrate artifice; continue to be worked obviously by hand, and continue to be their manipulators’ voice, and this is especially effective when the manipulator, through reasons of gender, race, politics, culture, disability and such, is unable to speak up for themselves, well, puppets have a lively future. Hopefully, I’ll still be involved in this utterly beguiling world, telling the world what I think, but through the more eloquently articulated actions of my puppets.
Barry JC Purves is an OSCAR and BAFTA nominated animator and director, who also directs and designs for theatre and teaches the art of animation. In this, the second of a series of insights, he considers the appeal of puppetry on stage and screen, and the special relationship between puppeteer and puppet. [Read part one here.]
In the theatre puppets are now being allowed to be puppets, and are revelling in their very artifice – and they are everywhere. This is not just due to the respect given to the ‘War Horse’ characters but also because digital technology is becoming so extreme that we are not sure what we are watching, and many of us are tending to enjoy more obviously handmade arts.
It’s telling that the Royal Exchange’s production of ‘Little Shop of Horrors’, from two years ago, finally gave Audrey II the ability to race round the theatre’s stage by putting the puppeteers outside the plant, and having their performance very much part of the show. Before the puppeteers were hidden inside Audrey, giving her a very stolid presence.
We know special effects are an effect but a naïve thought crosses out brain, muttering ‘ah, computers’, and whilst computers can do anything, that lazy thinking denies the craft and skill of the computer artists. Some of the wonder has gone now there are no limits. But that is part of the point, computers can do anything and thus not everything is surprising or interesting. Increasingly digital projections are used as scenic elements on stage, and whilst our collective jaws are on the floor and we are dazzled, part of us, part of me certainly, feels disappointed that these effects were not achieved through good old scenic design skills. This is the same disappointment that we feel when seeing our favourite model’s before and after Photoshop’ images, not to mention the feeling of being cheated. The camera never lies – like heck it doesn’t!
This is not being resistant to technology, but it is about enjoying and being part of the trick, and a trick must have a limit to work. You have to show the top hat is empty before you can produce the rabbit. To some extent, you have to show the mechanics and limits of a puppet. Many a child had their life changed by a magical transformation scene at their first pantomime. A digital scene transformation is impressive but it is cold. On stage we are presented with an empty box but within those limits we see luscious visions transforming before our eyes. We know the limits and yet we are astonished. Take those limits away, and we are all a bit ‘meh!’ Watching the overdose of digital scenic effects at this years’ Eurovision was like having a head full of exploding candy and equally as unsatisfying. If only there was an element of physical stagecraft. The hand, the human…
With a puppet, we are always aware of it being a puppet, and yet aware something else is happening. We are moved, shocked, outraged or whatever. It matters not that we see the cast of ‘Avenue Q’ holding their puppets or that we see Nina Conti’s hand clearly manipulating her Monkey puppet, in fact it would be a lesser act if the Monkey was presented as a complete, separate character. The puppet is the device, and the whole point actually, that allows her to be many things that perhaps she may not be off stage, and seeing a physical connection emphasises the essential point that you can’t really have one without the other, as they are both sides of the same coin. There are dozens of photos of animators, puppeteers, and sculptors staring lovingly at their creations – we could almost be looking at Hamlet and Yorick again. Perhaps they are all looking at themselves. Alter egos, conscience, therapy, cathartic devices – we are bound to our puppets, and they are unforgiving reflections of ourselves. They are our true voices.
And we are back with Shakespeare and his fools. Their role in the world of the play, through their folly, is to be able to say the truth, totally unhindered. They have a license to be true. Lear’s fool is almost an invisible friend, as he has so little direct involvement with the other characters.
Richard Haynes’ illustration from my book, of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Jack Point.
He tells Lear the absolute truth, and only when Lear accepts this, does the Fool fade from the play, his work done. Lear’s fool is Pinocchio’s Jiminy Cricket, and Harvey, or even our own teddy or pet. We confide in them and make sense of our days. I love that fools, too, usually have a folly stick, a puppet, so they can comment further, and who can blame their provocative speeches on an innocent puppet?
My favourite example of this has to be the film of Mary Poppins. The poor Banks family are very damaged, and the more earthly nannies incapable of healing, but upon the children’s request, there arrives the enigmatic Mary from nowhere. Over the course of the film, she heals the family, and then, when the wind changes, she is ready for the next family. The Banks are too wrapped up to say goodbye, and this hurts Mary, even though she is practically perfect and this is as it should be. It takes her parrot umbrella, a puppet no less, to voice her true feeling. He is quickly silenced for being too honest.
Illustration of Mary Poppins by Richard Haynes
for my book ‘Stop Motion – Passion Process Performance.’
Everywhere, we storytellers have to find this external device to constantly reveal our characters inner voices. The film is called ‘Mary Poppins’, not ‘The Banks’, and what little we know of her comes from the umbrella or the equally odd chameleon like Bert. The umbrella serves much the same purpose as Yorick’s skull. Though the skull is a seemingly inanimate object replete with resonances, Hamlets often act out a scenario with it – a performance, and that is what suddenly makes this a puppet. Without the element of performance, the puppet is just a doll or a prop.
It seems the more basic the puppet, the more we can read into it, and the more potent it becomes. Simple Kermit, with the hand barely hidden, is still the most rich and complex of muppets. A glorious live action /animation short, ‘Little Face’, has Adam Buxton come face to face with his childhood invisible friend, who is little more than a floating yellow balloon with spindly legs. Through this balloon, which no one else acknowledges, we learn how all Buxton’s aspirations have come to naught.
If you are anything like me, you wander around puppet festivals with the wild-eyed wonder of a child, taking dozens of photographs of all the shows, walkabout puppets and street performers to be filed away later in a folder marked ‘puppet festivals’; sparing barely a thought for how all this magic happens. Today we take a peek behind the curtain to find out what it takes to put on a successful festival.
Bristol Festival of Puppetry, first launched in 2009 is a bi-annual event organised by co-producers Rachel McNally, CEO of Puppet Place and Chris Pirie, Artistic Director of Green Ginger. Working in collaboration with some of Bristol’s best-known venues, it has brought some of the most talented UK and international puppet artists to our city. Growing in ambition and popularity each time, it has worked hard to change the public perception of puppetry as a marginal art form and make it an integral part of Bristol’s public and cultural life.
The first Bristol Festival of Puppetry in 2009, brought to life through a partnership between Puppet Place and Aardman Animations was a celebration of local puppet artists and talent, supported by the generosity of Pickled Image, Green Ginger, Full Beam Theatre and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Two years later, the festival was decidedly more international, with partnership support from Nordland Visual Theatre from Norway, who have since gone on to work alongside Puppet Place in all subsequent festivals. Artists from the USA, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Australia added a global flavour to the festival, delivering a range of shows and workshops at the Tobacco Factory Theatre and the nearby and now sadly missed Brewery Theatre.
In 2013, the festival explored the work lying at the outer edges of puppetry, delivering an eclectic program of events, workshops and performances which encompassed both the traditional and experimental and featured a diverse range of puppetry styles and techniques. 2015 saw an expanding festival spread its wings across the city with events and performances at several landmark venues including the Arnolfini, SS Great Britain, M Shed, Puppet Place and the Control Room at Redcliffe Bridge whilst still retaining its all important social hub at Tobacco Factory Theatres. That year BFP also partnered with Watershed, allowing the festival to successfully present its film programme in a dedicated cinema venue for the first time, thus enabling it to reach new crossover audiences. This collaboration has proven to be so successful that, together with Tobacco Factory Theatres, the Watershed is one of the two festival hubs for 2017.
And so to BFP 2017. I caught up with Chris Pirie, co-producer of the festival, to find out about the plans for BFP17.
Hi Chris, thanks for taking a few moments to talk to us about BFP17. The previous four festivals have been tremendously successful for artists and audiences alike, how are you planning to build on that success with BFP17?
No problem Stephen, happy to help. Although there is no doubt about the popularity of the festival with local audiences and artists from both near and far, when we analysed the measurable outcomes for the 2015 festival it became very clear that our engagement with the public was not reaching as diverse an audience as we might have wished. Only 11% of our audiences described themselves other than ‘white British’ with a similarly low number identifying as having a disability. We are committed to addressing the issues those figures raise by embracing a focus on diversity and inclusion in BFP17.
What specifically is being planned for the festival to increase the diversity of audiences and artists?
We have invited a number of artists to perform at this years festival who will not only appeal to, and cater for, a more diverse audience but many of whom are in some way additionally challenged by a disability themselves. We have two exceptional companies coming from Canada; Equivoc and Les Sages Fous, who both produce stunning non-verbal performances and innovative Dutch artists Bontehond who use iPads to make engaging and accessible theatre. We also welcome Hijinx, a highly regarded Welsh company of learning disabled performers as well as the celebrated companies Theatre-Rites and Stephen Mottram who transform the most unlikely of materials into striking entertainment. We are also pleased to welcome Rouge 28, England’s most ethnically diverse puppet company to the festival as well as supremely talented South West-based artists Barnaby Dixon and Tessa Bide.
We’re also looking at issues of diversity in our film programme at Watershed, notably a programme dedicated to showcasing female talent in puppetry and animation, on screen and behind the camera.
Are there other activities and events or organisations you will be partnering with for this festival to help achieve your ambitions for greater diversity at this festival?
Yes, in association with Diverse City and Doing Things Differently we have organised a three-day meta-festival of workshops and discussions that ask what is puppetry’s unique gift to the diversity agenda? We have invited specialists from across the diversity spectrum to participate in helping us understand the skills we need to learn to enable us to work with and for, diverse audiences. This will culminate in a Call to Action to identify goals and strategies, both as individuals and as a sector, to help us address diversity in all our future activities. We will be building on our existing relationships with the Family Centre for Deaf Children, Bristol Physical Access Chain, the Bristol Old Vic as well as Hijinx, David Ellington and our partners in this initiative, Diverse City and Doing Things Differently.
That all sounds fantastic, are you planning to ensure a legacy from the festival continues into the future?
Absolutely, we are creating a Diversity Focus Group made up of festival organisers, venues, artists and others to evaluate the success of our activities and ensure that we maximise the potential in any learning from these events during the festival. Overall, we hope that the legacy will be meaningful and sustainable, making diversity awareness an inveterate part of what Puppet Place does and help it become a powerful advocate and agent for change in our sector.
How is the festival kicking off this year?
The first weekend will start with a very loud and brash Creatures of Bristol Carnival parade along North St. – a popular and eagerly anticipated feature of previous festivals. We will be working closely with both the Highways Dept. and the police as well as expanding our team of volunteer stewards as we had hundreds of people unexpectedly joining the procession and even more watching last time!
What part of organising BFP17 have you enjoyed most and what part has been the most challenging?
Both Rachel and I travel extensively in our work and it is a great honour to have the opportunity to bring exceptional artists and outstanding performances from around the world back to Bristol. The financing of a major public event is always a challenge and we are very grateful to have received generous support from a number of sources, including Arts Council England, Aardman Animations, Nordland Visual Theatre, Bristol City Council and our two principle venues, Tobacco Factory Theatres and Watershed.
Thank you again for taking the time to talk to us about the festival and the challenges you have faced to bring it to Bristol again this year. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers about this year’s festival?
As the festival draws ever closer and with much of the planning in place, we are now looking forward to the full programme being published and tickets going on sale. We are excited by the surprises and treats we have in store, and confident that our audiences will have a fantastic time at this year’s festival.
The Bristol Festival of Puppetry runs from September 1 to 10 with live performances at Tobacco Factory Theatres and animation at the Watershed.
Tickets can be obtained from the venues and a full programme of events will be available after our launch event in mid-July. Keep an eye on the BFP17 website for further details coming soon. Stay up-to-date with all the latest BFP17 news and announcements via our Newsletter, Facebook and Twitter.