This autumn saw a profusion of puppetry festivals both here in the UK and worldwide. From the notorious ‘Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes’ in France, to the ‘Skipton Puppet Festival’ and London ‘Suspense’, Puppet Place had a presence, with performances from a number of our resident artist companies. Puppet Place Executive Producer, Rachel McNally, was fortunate enough to get along to a few of the major festivals to witness wonderful puppetry in action:
Skipton Puppet Festival
I must confess this was my first time at Skipton Puppet Festival and it was a corker. Focused around the town square, it started with a wonderful array of walkabout acts and an interactive puppet wedding. Perfectly pitched to appeal to all ages there was a real sense of warmth and celebration. With no dedicated performance spaces, Liz and Dan Lempen (the festival directors) make great use of local schools and other spaces to present an ambitious and inspiring programme from around the world.
Particular highlights included Bernd Ogrodonik from Iceland with ‘Metamorphosis’ a collection of transformations told with ingenuity and skill. From a touching relationship between a marionette and its puppeteer, to a love story told through the simplest finger puppets, the show was a delight for all ages and an absolute showcase of brilliant puppetry. Tof Theatre (Belgium) brought their production ‘Dans L’Atelier : the story of what happens when the puppet takes control in the workshop’. There was a gloriously anarchic energy to this short performance which reveled in the relationship between puppet and puppeteer.
Green Ginger’s performance ‘Outpost’ was a visually arresting performance from 3 master puppeteers and the subject – cross border politics and the impact on individual lives – felt vital and relevant. However, the pared down nature of the script did not always match the visual sophistication of the puppetry. As a fan of the TV series from childhood, I was really looking forward to ‘Monkey’ from Puppetcraft. While the puppets were, undoubtedly, beautifully crafted, the performance was too evenly paced to evoke the wild energy of Monkey and his escapades.
Highlights from the outdoor programme included Ottfriedt & Odile from Belgium; a fire breathing dragon and a skeleton boy with one of the most beautifully balanced mechanisms I’ve seen in a long time! Giant Swaledales are always fun and Jonny & Sybil from Miaow Productions (France) was an enchanting show that evoked the era of silent film to tell the wedding-story of this oddball couple with plenty of interaction and help from the audience.
Warsaw ‘Puppet Is A Human Too’
I was deeply honoured to be on the jury for ‘Puppet Is A Human Too’ this year. In the past I’ve always been a bit wary of giving prizes at festivals. However, for this festival, the impetus behind the prize-giving is to place the highest value on the artform and support the artists who make the work. The programme was hugely diverse featuring both animation and live puppetry, contemporary and experimental work alongside traditional forms. Marek Chodaczynski and Marek Zurawski (the festival directors) have created a truly exceptional event and what is more, every performance is free. There were too many performances to mention in a short round up, but there were definite “stay with me” performances.
Husam Abed’s ‘The Smooth Life’ a solo performance telling the story of Palestinian family life in a refugee camp was one such performance. This was an intimate show that used puppetry and object theatre to unravel a personal history within a deeply divisive and violent political narrative. Staying clear of propaganda, ‘The Smooth Life’ is all the more powerful and thought-provoking for the normality and joyful moments of life that it portrays in the face of brutal politics. AKHE’s performance ‘Gobo, Digital Glossary’ was an utterly bonkers deconstruction of what it means to be a hero. Puppets, interactive film projection, flying sets and a lot of smoking all figured. Reduced to absurdity, the hero becomes a cipher into which the two protagonists cram meaning and nonsense in equal measure. This was a thoroughly enjoyable 60 minutes of chaos and mess.
My final highlight was ‘Toporland – A Suite Without Words For Cardboard and Double Bass’. Without giving the game away, a giant roll of cardboard unravels its story one way or another. One of those deceptively simple ideas which was executed with panache and verve and left me wanting more.
‘Grist to the Mill: Biting the Dust’ at Suspense 2015
OK, this is where I ‘fess up. I only made it to the Devoted and Disgruntled (D&D) at Suspense this year, but I have been thoroughly enjoying watching everyone’s Facebook and Twitter feeds. However, D&D was a great discussion platform to talk about puppetry, its relationship to the past and the future. I had some fascinating discussions about the best routes to develop skills as a professional puppeteer: the pros and cons of formal training versus self-education; how to make existing opportunities more available and accessible and everything in between. It was a truly inspiring evening. I’m now looking forward to catching up with the Bristol and the South West companies who were all performing in London and catching up on their experiences. Wattle & Daub, Pickled Image, Green Ginger, Clockwork Moth, and Davy & Kirsty McGuire – that’ll be all of you!
Next up for me: The PDC meeting on online networking, discussions with Puppeteers UK and others, further musings on the Puppetry Festival Network.
Rachel McNally is Executive Producer at Puppet Place and Co-Producer of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry. She has previously worked as a producer and tour booker for Full Beam, Pickled Image, Stuff & Nonsense Theatre Company and The Devil’s Violin Company. More information about Puppet Place can be found on the organisation’s website at: www.puppetplace.org