Based at 18 Hanover Place, Albion Dockside Estate, Puppet Place provides a home to thriving community of resident and associate artists, and more puppets than have been counted. Puppet Place is the UK’s hub for all things animated, and also produces the biennial Bristol Festival of Puppetry. We sat down with the team at Hanover Place; Rachel McNally, Luke Gregg and Hannah Jarman, to find out more about Puppet Place, how it all got started and their roles in the organisation.
I’m Rachel and I am the Chief Executive Officer of Puppet Place.
RM: Puppet Place was started in 1984 by two puppeteers, Jim Still and Di Steeds. I think it started originally as the ‘Puppet Van’, before becoming the ‘Puppet Place’ – an educational charity that worked with schools, providing workshops. It also had a resource centre, library and provided support for puppeteers in the region.
As happens with a lot of arts organisations, it lost its funding in the mid-nineties and became a dormant organisation. Around that time, I was working at Hope Centre, an arts organisation based in Hotwells, Bristol. I can remember the last person who ran Puppet Place, a lady called Kate Pollard, who ran it from the back of a cupboard at the centre! That was how I met a lot of the people that I now work with at Puppet Place, and saw my first bit of puppetry, a Green Ginger show called ‘Slaphead’ with Chris Pirie and Dik Downey (from Pickled Image). I now work with them all, so it’s all their fault really.
By the late nineties, I was running a puppetry theatre company called ‘Full Beam’; Chris Pirie was running ‘Green Ginger’; Dik Downey and Vicky Andrews were running ‘Pickled Image’ and ‘Stuff & Nonsense’ under Marc Parrett was also based in Bristol. We were all facing similar issues. Despite lots of people working in puppetry in the local area, no-one really knew about it, and none of us had a secure space to work in. So we thought, what would happen if we all got together and try to solve some of these problems?
Although there were organisations that served the wider community in Bristol, such as Theatre Bristol, we needed a physical fabrication space for puppetry (as anyone who works here will tell you!) So we approached Di Steeds and asked if we could have Puppet Place back. And she said ‘yes’, but with the condition that it was for the whole community and not just the resident companies involved.
It took us some time to grow from there. It was a bit of an exciting jumble at the beginning but then we got the opportunity to move into the building that we’re sitting in. We were starting to think about what a Puppet Place could do, and we thought we could run a festival of puppetry. So Chris and I went to speak to the then director of Tobacco Factory Theatres, Ali Robertson, about our ideas for a festival. Ali promptly said ‘OK, you can run it here next year!’ So he called our bluff a bit. That was in 2009. Next year we will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of the festival.
Since 2009, we have gradually filled this building full of artists, and have expanded our staff team to myself, Hannah and Luke. We have a community of fifteen artistic companies and a lot more puppets! We’re continuing to grow and identify what Puppet Place is and can be. We have been very lucky as we have had a lot of support from organisations like Bristol Old Vic, Bristol Council, Aardman Animations and many more, to whom we are very grateful.
Hi, I’m Luke and I am the Operations and Facilities Officer.
LG: I joined Puppet Place in 2014… It was in-between festivals, I think. Before that, I was interning at Bower Ashton Campus and working with Dave McGoran in the Tech Lab. He told me about Puppet Place advertising for a technician the day before the deadline! So I thought I’d give it a go and made an application. I got the role and I’ve been here ever since. Once I joined Puppet Place, I realised that the role was a much bigger role than just a technician, so I’m responsible for looking after the building and its maintenance, building management and looking after the workshop downstairs. I induct users to the workshop, so that artists can come in and use the space safely and efficiently.
RM: I would also add that Luke has made that workshop much better as he’s got the right tools in, improved the layout and is just great at talking with people.
Hello! I’m Hannah and I’m the Administrator here.
HJ: I started about two years ago, as I’d moved from Brighton to Bristol. I’d noticed a job advert on Theatre Bristol and so I put my application together. I had been working in arts administration, but in circus and theatre. I was the general manager of a circus theatre company in Brighton, doing lots of arts facilitation and administration, and working a lot with children and young people. I started working at Puppet Place, but only for a brief spell of three months as I then went on maternity leave. But I was soon back again, which is brilliant.
My role involves general administration of pretty much everything that Puppet Place does! So if you want to book a rehearsal studio or a fabrication bay in the workshop or if you want to become an associate artist then you’ll most likely be talking to me via email or on the phone. I also manage Beth who is our volunteer. It’s a great place to work. Rachel and I are currently working on the public programme as well, trying to develop the workshops that we provide here, so there’s plenty to get our teeth into. My specific interest is in children and families, so I’m looking at that with one of our resident artists, Lizzie Johnson, to develop further in the future.
What about the role of volunteers at Puppet Place?
HJ: We have a regular office volunteer, and lots of people who help out at other big public events and our newsletter. We also had an operations and facilities intern, George Northcott, who helped us out for a while.
RM: Yes, for events, such as the festival and Bristol Open Doors, we get volunteers in to come and help. Often our lovely community of resident and associate artists will pitch in as well. We do a deep clean at least once a year, and you wouldn’t think that could be a fun activity, but everyone in the building gets involved. It’s still a small organisation, run for and by its community, so everyone pitches in a bit.
HJ: I’d say the volunteers are fundamental to running things like Bristol Open Doors, so we’re really grateful because we really couldn’t do it without them. We’ve had some fantastic people step forward and help us, so we all feel really lucky for that.
Obviously Puppet Place is primarily a working space for artists in puppetry and animation, so isn’t a space that is open to the public. However, there are opportunities for the public to see what goes on here and learn more about these art forms. Can you tell us more about that?
RM: Bristol Open Doors is one of those events that people can come in and look around. We had two thousand people visit us last year, but this always has to be a very careful negotiation with our resident artists as they have their work to consider. Also, having people in our workshop has to be carefully managed as there are a lot of potential hazards.
LG: Yes, it takes a while to get the space ready for the general public! But it’s always a great event so we’re happy to do that.
HJ: I find it quite energising when we have a big event like that because you get to see Puppet Place through fresh eyes. Kids get so excited by it, it’s fantastic.
RM: And also our regular, smaller events, like our Creative Café, are opportunities for people to find out more about the work produced here and what we do as a community. Creative café is an evening event where we ask our resident artists to talk for about 20 minutes about what they’re doing and what excites them. This is followed by a Q&A. We’ve had some great speakers including Matthew Whittle from the Wardrobe Theatre, Mumblecrust Theatre spoke about their work in November and we’ve got a great one lined up for January with Fiona Matthews from Theatre Orchard, so we’re all really looking forward to that in the new year.
HJ: We also have some really popular courses and workshops. We have a great design and fabrication course for adults and we’re starting to expand our public programme. We tend to run workshops in the Spring and Summer months, so do keep an eye on our website for details.
What would you most like to develop at Puppet Place? What’s next?
LG: Well within my role there’s a lot of development in making the building fit for purpose. For example, the warmth in the building needs improvement as this can be detrimental to people’s working habits, especially in the workshop. So for me personally it’s about making a comfortable space to work in, improving the workshop and ensuring that people can keep on making the fantastic work that they do.
HJ: I think there’s a bit more we can do with regards to making Puppet Place more public facing, that’s something we’ve talked a lot about in board meetings – making sure we have a bigger public offer, that it’s thoughtful and that we’ve planned it well enough so that we’re engaging with lots of different people who might not have found us.
RM: And I think we’d also like to be supporting artists more. For us it is a virtuous circle, what we really want is for everyone to say puppetry is amazing, and really value it as an art form. To do that we need to engage with more people. We want to support artists so they can make the best work that they can and so they also know what other opportunities are out there. I think often puppetry artists and animators are quite isolated and it’s good to have contact with other people and see what’s out there and what’s going on. We’re keen to push that forward as much as possible.
I’m really proud of the team here and the work that we all achieve on limited time and budget. We are a small but capable team who are dedicated to the work we do and the art forms we support. Sometimes we are a little pushed, so we may be delayed in responding, but rest assured that we will be back in touch to answer all your queries and soon as we can. Thank you for your support.
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