Bristol Festival Of Puppetry 2017: A Peek Behind The Curtain

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.

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The Puppet Carnival Parade

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.

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Still from: The Smoking Puppet Cabaret

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.

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Still from: “Don’t Think of a Pink Elephant” – a short film in the BFP17 Film Programme

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.

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Interview by Stephen Barrie Watters


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.

 

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