All posts by billy2heads

Don’t Forget To Remember: An Interview with Jacqueline Avery

jackie_avery_01Jacqueline Avery is the Artistic Director at The Makeshift Ensemble in Dorset and a member of the Alzeimers Society’s two million strong army of Dementia Champions and Dementia Friends.  She is also a Puppet Place Associate Artist.  It was therefore an honour for me to interview Jacqueline, and find out more about the new dementia themed show she is currently working on.

Jackie is a choreographer, performer, puppet maker, teacher and a full time mum to boot. I caught up with her during rehearsals for her two current projects, Sofa, a dementia themed show and associated workshops she devised  together with her co-creator Laurence Aldridge, and their new children’s puppet show, The Children In The Moon, planned for 2018. Sofa has been supported by the Arts Council and is being made in partnership with Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham and Heartbreak Productions.

 

Hi Jackie, thanks for agreeing to this interview. May I start by asking what came before Makeshift Ensemble in 2015?

My training is largely in physical theatre and contemporary dance and working with the body to create story and image.  After graduating from Plymouth University in 2005, I was fortunate enough to cut my directing teeth under the mentorship of Kneehigh Theatre writer Carl Grose for the Jonah Lie Project, a collaborative piece performed with core Kneehigh members at The Hall for Cornwall more than a decade ago. There followed stints with Quicksilver Theatre (in association with Lighthouse, Poole) and some workshopping and choreography with Marc Bruce. I helped re-imagine Shakespeare with Tim Supple and most recently I have worked with physical theatre pioneer David Glass, learning about the nature of creative practice and how to embed this into my work. Since then have I worked as a performer, director and teacher across the UK.

MakeShift was formed in 2015 after a stint of writing and directing for other touring companies. I decided to bite the bullet and establish my own ensemble with Laurence Aldridge, a wonderful actor-musician who performed in a reworked version of The Tinderbox I had written.

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Laurence Aldridge is the Ensemble’s chief collaborator and music maker


How did puppets come to be such a large part of your work ?

Puppetry has always fascinated me, there’s something about the in-between world they inhabit and our ability to invest our stories and deep rooted feelings in them. For me, working with them is a natural progression from performing with my own body.  It is a dance expressed through another channel.  I never design my puppets before I start making them, I let them do their own thing and tell me who they are, then there is a brilliant moment when you can greet each other for the first time!

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Still from 2015 tour of ‘Tinderbox’ written and directed by Jacqueline. Photo by Andy Sherlock

 

Your new show Sofa explores the world of memory and dementia. Where did the idea for this show come from and how did you set about making an idea into a real thing?

The idea sprang from tidying up after my children! They used to destroy the kitchen sofa regularly when creating dens, boats, cars etc. out of it. I started to think about when and why we lose that desire to play as we grow, and what roles a sofa plays as we go through life. It becomes a place to rest, talk, entertain, make love and to comfort, as well as a treasure chest of loose change and things you thought you’d lost forever.

That led me to thinking about memory and how we choose to remember. Our brains can do a million things with memories including completely rewrite them, and the differences between shared memories can be astonishing. Sofa explores that idea a lot. From here there was an organic progression to exploring dementia, not necessarily as an illness but simply another way the brain chooses to process memory. This isn’t to say we don’t deal with the realities of living with and caring for those with dementia, it’s important not to skim over that, but the focus is on the role of memory and ‘unmemory’ and what it means as we grow.

To explore this in performance we had a bespoke sofa made that is essentially the stage from which we tell the story of two siblings whose father had dementia, the sofa holds many secret compartments and is used to make other worlds just as we do as kids. The sofa is the constant keeper of a thousand memories, every stain, every indent, every old pair of knickers pulled out from behind a cushion…

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In rehearsal for ‘Sofa’

Have you engaged in other creative activities with people living dementia before this show?

Earlier this year I completed training with Arts 4 Dementia in order to lead theatre workshops for those with early stage dementia and their carers. What struck me about the training is the assumptions we make about those with the illness, an idea that has weaved its way into Sofa. From that training I developed the ‘I AM’ workshop – preserving identity through drama and story sharing, which was trialled at ‘The Reawakening Festival through Arts 4 Dementia’ in May this year. The response was very encouraging and we met some fantastic characters whose enthusiasm to express themselves, their self-identity and their fears was really rewarding. Having said this, it was a struggle to gain trust from the dementia community in the first instance and continues to be a challenge as the project develops. We are working hard to tackle the hurdle and as we pick up support from various bodies along the way.  We have faith that delivering the workshop will be a lot easier in the future.

 

Sofa and the associated workshops are based on real life experiences and stories. Can you elaborate on this?

As artists it’s very hard not to create from your own experiences and, as such there is a strong autobiographical thread running through Sofa. Laurence and I spoke at length about the reality of bringing our personal experiences to the stage and gave each other a lot of permissions on what was and wasn’t too close to the bone. Laurence’s father had Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s related dementia. My Grandmother had Alzheimer’s and lived with my family throughout a large proportion of it.  So, yes we have a lot of first-hand experience.  I suspect it would feel odd if we tried to tell this story without it.  Like it’s not our place. We also opened the research out to others and have had some great stories back in return, the anecdotes are always told with tears and smiles, just as a good memory should.

 

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Playing at den making in ‘Sofa’

 

What would success for this show look like?

For me success is defined by all the little mini goals reached along the journey; meeting new creatives, having a puppet that doesn’t fall apart in rehearsals, working with great mentors, achieving support from others to champion the play and the workshops. In terms of the long game, it’s definitely about confronting and breaking down the stigma of dementia by looking at the playful role of memory. The workshops can go on to have a life independent of the play and I believe there is no end to the good they can do, especially in reaffirming self-identity. If another performance sprouts from it in a few years time then I’d love to delve deeper into what the world of memory and dementia has to offer!

 

You are touring your show The Children in the Moon in the summer of 2018.  Would you like to say a few things about this show?

Yes! So, alongside more challenging pieces of theatre like Sofa, my passion for storytelling and fairy tales sees us creating a family show that tours festivals and theatres throughout the summer months. Next year’s offering is The Children in the Moon, which is loosely based on the story of Jack and Jill, but woven together with snippets of other age old nursery rhymes and folk tales. It is brought to life by a giant teapot of tales which opens up to reveal a magical table top puppetry stage. As with all our work, the narrative hints towards important issues faced in today’s world, The Children in the Moon looks at diversity.  Our last family piece Fox and Rabbit’s idiot’s guide to The Owl and The Pussycat championed the plight of bees, and we handed out wild flower seeds, in association with Friends of the Earth, as part of the performance.

 

I like to try and end on a positive, motivational quote from successful artists where I can.  What good advice would you now offer to either your younger self or to any new and emerging artists who are just starting out on their career hoping to achieve the success you have ?

Always look for new creative ways to develop and deliver your work, make connections and never stop learning. The world is rich with ideas, stories and characters waiting to manifest themselves through your work so never stop searching. I have a notebook full of stories and ideas that keeping tapping me on the shoulder asking if it’s their turn yet. But it’s also about focusing in and concentrating on one thing at a time; I would’ve told my younger self to do that a long time ago, I often have to remind my adult self.

 

Interview by Stephen B Watters

 

 


To find out more about The MakeShift Ensemble and to get details on 2018 tour dates for Sofa and The Children in the Moon visit their website:  www.themakeshiftensemble.com, and join them on Facebook and Twitter

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Puppets and ME: An interview with Corina Duyn

irish times_colour photoCorina Duyn is a creator based in Ireland whose mastery of a wide range of art forms would in itself be an inspiration to anyone, yet is made all the more impressive when her challenges with Myalgic Encephalopathy, sometimes better known as Chronic fatigue Syndrome (CFS), are taken into account.

Although we were sadly too late to include her film Life Outside The Box in our BFP17 programme of films at the Watershed, this highly acclaimed work, facilitated with her fellow members of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA) at the Dungarvan Resource Centre is the most recent in a long line of artistic successes. We caught up with Corina to find out more about this incredible artist.

Hello Corina, and thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. May I start by asking a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved with puppets?

Yes, of course. I grew up in Holland and started making dolls from the age of 10, later going on to train with the amazingly talented and renowned doll maker Marlaine Verholst. I went on to study nursing and social care and moved to Lismore in Ireland in 1990. It was there I started to become known for making my clay ‘Fantasy Folk’ dolls. These dolls found their way into collections around the world including Holland, Japan, Australia, Canada and the USA.

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My last major commission in 1997/98 before my illness was for the Waterford Crystal company where I made fifteen 30cm dolls of the people on their factory floor. My then partner and I made all the machinery to scale and Waterford Crystal contributed by supplying glass at each stage of the manufacturing process to the same scale as the dolls. This commission was displayed in their visitor centre for several years with the dolls and one piece of the beautiful miniature glass being returned to me when the company sadly closed. It was also at this time I started to teach puppet making to students from Finland and to a group here in Ireland. It was then in 1998 that my health deteriorated significantly with the onset of ME/CFS.

You mentioned your illness, what is ME and how does it affect you as an artist?

ME/CFS is an inflammation of the brain & spinal cord. It is a complex and debilitating illness involving neurological and endocrinal dysfunction with immune system dysregulation that is not improved by bed rest and can worsen with physical or mental exertion. In the beginning I would be very tired and feel ill, like I had a bad case of the flu which some months later evolved to include muscle pain, starting in my toes and slowly travelling up into the rest of my body. As the illness progressed my brain functions started to be affected, I couldn’t read, couldn’t write, my memory became poor and I became clumsy and uncoordinated even with simple tasks like opening the door with a key. My journey through this time is told in part in a documentary made in 2003 by my friend David Begley and can be seen here and here. In 2006, Katie Lincoln produced a second documentary covering my journey though my illness called Flight Path, which accompanied my first book Hatched.

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Still from ‘Life Outside the Box’

When I first started drawing after the onset of my illness I might have 5 or 10 minutes of energy to get things down on paper which later improved to half an hour. It was somewhat frustrating to get excited about a piece, wanting to see the finished article but having to stop after half an hour when you really wanted to just keep going.

There is a common reoccurring theme of eggs and birds in flight in your paintings and drawings. Does this have some significance to your illness?

Yes, it was a drawing of an egg that made me realise I had been granted a new life. I can really relate my illness to the process of an egg hatching and my being a small little bird in a nest that still requires care even though I am fully grown and then needing flying lessons to leave the nest. I would sometimes get really ill if someone came near me with a virus or illness and I needed the protection the eggshell provided. One of the things I did to help me fly the nest so to speak was to send ‘MEme’, a stuffed Penguin, together with a diary and a disposable camera to friends and they would keep a diary of what ‘we’ have done and take photographs as they travelled the world. This has allowed me to visit friends and family in Holland, take part in a sponsored walk in Eritrea and go to America and Canada as well as lots of other places. One day I hope to retrace her journey for real.

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You have been very prolific as an artist in many mediums, painting & drawing, sculpture, writing and poetry, doll making and even weaving. How important are puppets to your work at the moment?

Very much so. Following on from the 6 months of work I did on the ‘Life Outside The Box’ project with the Irish Wheelchair Association, I was invited to speak at the ‘Broken Puppet’ Symposium on Puppets, Disability and Health at UCC in Cork. Our video has now been shown on Irish national TV and at the Disability Film Festival ‘Picture This’ in Canada.   Attending the symposium was like stepping into a completely new world and yet when I entered it, and moved about with open eyes and ears, I realised I had been part of this amazing, creative, fun, healing, and astonishing place for pretty much all my life.

The engagement of people with disabilities with puppets, not only as a form of therapy, but as creators and artists in their own right is something that can be transformative. Listening to the stories and speakers at the event has only served to reinforce to me what a powerful, evocative and meaningful role puppets have played in peoples lives throughout the years and will continue to do so long into the future.

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I have now returned to teaching puppet making, in small groups and by social media/email. Only for one and a half hours a week at the moment but what great fun it is. I am improving my ability to set my own limits to what I can do and enjoying finding ways to enable my students to work on their own puppets in my studio, or in their own homes. The healing effect of teaching puppet making is not something that might bring about a miraculous recovery from my illness, although one would be very welcome however it came about, but it is bringing a new energy into my life and who can say where that will lead.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story with us Corina. Is it puppets, puppets, puppets all the way now?

Absolutely. My return to teaching puppet making and the experience of the symposium and discussions around disability and health has created an energy and enthusiasm that will take me onto the next stage of my journey.

Interview by Stephen B. Watters


To find out more about Corina’s work, visit her website or Facebook page.  Her film ‘Life Outside the Box’ can be seen on YouTube here.

Review: Oh Globbits! A Tribute to Terry Brain

Terry Brain, Animator.

Terry Brain animating on ‘Shaun the Sheep Movie’. Photo: Aardman Animations  

After spending my morning helping to steward the sea of smiling faces marching down North street for BFP17’s colourful carnival of creatures, I made my way to Bristols’ waterside arthouse cinema and cafe bar, the Watershed, to watch “Oh Globbits”, a film tribute to the much loved and much missed Bristol born animator Terry Brain.

Terry, who may be best remembered by the public for his work on the award winning series ‘The Trapdoor‘ which he co-created with his long time friend and colleague Charlie Mills, as well as for the ‘Stoppit and Tidy Up‘ animations, and for his work on Aardman’s ‘Creature Comforts‘, sadly lost his two year battle with cancer in March 2016. Terry and lifetime friend and colleague Charlie Mills had originally met at Speedwell junior school in Fishponds at the age of ten and with Charlie being good a drawing things and Terry being good at making them, an animation match made in heaven was born.

Terry’s first big break came when he was discovered by Tony Hart and he joined Hartbeat in the 80’s before teaming up with Charlie Mills to form CMTB, later to be joined by Steve Box, who having started at the company on a Youth Training Scheme later went on to co-direct Curse of the Were-Rabbit for Aardman Animations.

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Terry Brain animating on ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. Photo: Aardman Animations

In his personal eulogy, delivered to a packed and enthralled audience, Steve Box recounted how he had responded to a newspaper job advert for a cartoonist his father had seen and although he didn’t get that job, he persistently bombarded Terry and Charlie with his artwork until they relented and eventually took him on. So began a six year stint at the CMTB studios at the Kingswood Factory, which was, for all intents and purposes little more than a derelict building much the the consternation of his YTS assessor.

The team went on to produce some 40 episodes of ‘The Trapdoor‘, telling the story of Berk, the overworked servant of the thing upstairs and Boni, a skull Steve intimated may have been based on him although I couldn’t see the resemblance, (honest.) Steve went on to share many warm memories of working with Terry, highlighting not only what a talented, inspiring and innovative animator he was but also, as many of the other tributes we heard that day confirmed, what a wonderfully warm and funny person he was. My favourite take-away from his talk had to be how Willie Rushton, the narrator for ‘The Trapdoor‘, who often inserted his own hilarious ad-libs to the script, had on first meeting and speaking to Terry changed Berk’s voice from the planned Cockney accent to the lush Bristolian one we are all so familiar with now.

The audience were treated to a series of clips from Terry’s most loved work including ‘The Birthday Surprise‘, Wallace & Gromit’s ‘The Auto Chef‘, ‘Creature Comforts‘, the workout scene from ‘Chicken Run‘, which was Terry’s first project with Aardman Animations and ‘Shaun the Sheep‘.  My most favourite clip from ‘The Trapdoor‘, the one where Berk moves over a carpet of psychedelically coloured worms together with all manner of tentacled creatures and monsters.

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The audience at the Watershed.  Photo: David Brain

Between the clips personal testimonies on film were given by a host of people who had know and worked with Terry at Aardman Animations including Loyd Price, [head of animation], Charles Copping, [director of photography] and Dave Alex Riddett, [director of photography] who told us the story of an inspiring piece of animation Terry once did on some coloured glass that was best described as ‘Cosmic’!

Further testimonies from other Aardman colleagues followed and each and every one spoke warmly in memory of Terry and testified to the admiration they had for him as an animator and as a person.

Next came a speech by Terry’s friend and colleague at Aardman Animation, Jim Parkyn [senior modelmaker] who spoke first of his memories of watching ‘The Trapdoor‘, with its wonderful world of characters and voices as a child. He went on to say how much it had inspired him to pursue a career  in animation as an adult. Subsequently finding himself meeting and working with Terry, first at festivals, then at the BBC and later at Aardman, Jim mapped out how much Terry had been a major influence on him and how quick Terry has been to give praise and share tips, in addition to being such the approachable and funny person that made him an absolute pleasure to work with.

Jim told us that Terry had earned himself the nickname ‘The King of Lick’, when he took the tradition of animators licking their models to keep them moist to the extreme whilst filming an episode of Creature Comforts. Terry had personally licked each individual tongue, of each individual puppet, in a bowl full of muscles he was bringing to animated life. The Muscles were made out of small pieces of shell with clay popping out for the tongue. They were in truth Jim assured us the most seductive yet disgusting things you’ve ever seen. This visual image will remain with me for a long time..! I laughed most at that story,  I laughed at the images of it in my head on the journey home, and truth to tell, I’ll probably laugh about it again now many times in the future.

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Dave Brain talking about his father and ‘Weirdy Rhymes’. Photo: David Brain

The closing eulogy was delivered by Terry son, Dave Brain, who had shared some of the work that he and his colleague Mike Percival have completed on behalf of his father, who had been working on a new children’s ‘Weirdy Rhymes‘ just before he died.  These funny, silly and pleasingly disgusting shorts will be available for everyone to enjoy on Aardman’s YouTube channel in the near future.

If there is one thing that is certain it is that Terry was a very special and talented man much loved by those who knew and worked with him and by those who he has inspired in their own animation careers. Even though he is sadly now gone, he made me and a cinema full of people laugh through his art and his antics and he succeeded in making me laugh again when I got home just in time to watch Wallace & Gromit, ‘The Wrong Trousers‘ on the BBC.

Terry loved to make people laugh, he achieved that when we were children, he did it again today and will undoubtedly do it for many generations of children and adults to come. He has left a wonderful legacy to the world of puppetry and this programme was a well deserved and fitting tribute a wonderful man and an exceptionally talented animation artist.

By Stephen B. Watters


The BFP17 Film Programme continues this weekend with two feature-length films for adults and families.  An accessible screening of ‘My Life As A Courgette‘ at 6pm, Saturday 09 Sept and the European premiere of the all-star Hollywood puppet film ‘Yamasong: March of the Hollows‘ at 6pm, Sunday 10 Sept.  Visit our website for further information and to book tickets: https://www.bristolfestivalofpuppetry.org

London’s Puppet Theatre Barge – Puppets Ahoy !!!

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.

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Photo: Puppet Theatre Barge.

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.

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Photo: Puppet Theatre Barge.

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.

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Photo: Puppet Theatre Barge.

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.

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Photo: Puppet Theatre Barge

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.

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The Hare and The Tortoise. Photo by Puppet Theatre Barge.

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.

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Photo: Puppet Theatre Barge

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!

 

Interview by Stephen Barrie Watters

 


Visit the Puppet Theatre Barge website to see the full listing of their summer shows.  You can also find out more about the Puppet Theatre Barge on their Facebook page.

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.

 

What kind of an artist do you want to be?

In this series of articles, Stephen Watters, Co-Founder of ‘That Creative Thingy Wotsit’ and Puppet Place Associate Artist, takes a look at the business realities behind all creative enterprise and examines exactly what it takes to start and grow a successful creative organisation.

If ever there was a question which begged an obvious answer then that must be one. Of course you want to be a good artist and you want to be successful. As a new or emerging artist, there is little that I or anyone else sat at a laptop keyboard can do to help you with the first part of that wished for outcome. It’s mostly down to your latent talent, how hard you apply yourself to honing your craft and ongoing development, copious amounts of hard work and determination and a healthy dollop of good luck.

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The second part however, being successful, is something that I and other more experienced and worldly wise business men and women just might be able to do a little something to help with. Hang on a minute, did I just describe myself as a business man? Yes, I did. And therein lies one of the first obstacles we need to address. As much as I, and probably you too, love to describe myself as a creative artist or professional performer, what I am in reality, and most of all, is a businessman. I’m in the business of making a creative product, marketing and selling it to the public and doing so at a profit. If I don’t succeed in doing that I’m either going to be a starving artist or have to go back to being a wage slave.

Urban myth has it that 8 out of 10 new start-ups fail within the first 18 months. Something as often repeated in business circles as strong & stable is by a Conservative party devoid of real policies to offer the electorate this election cycle. The facts, according to recent Office of National Statistics are that around 42% of new businesses are still functioning five years after start-up. The inverse of that is obviously that some 58% of new businesses are not.

The reasons behind those failures are probably as many and varied as the number of businesses themselves, but there are some reasons which appear time and time again regardless of what type of business it is, including creative ones. These ‘common causes’ appear with a frightening predictability and whilst they can, and do, cause business failures all on their own they are invariably only a part, albeit a large part, of what cause many businesses to fail.

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I am fortunate in that I get to chat with lots of graduates of performing arts courses and other people considering a change of direction by becoming a creative artist, or a business person as we now know better to call them. I always ask them, what were you taught on your course about business planning, marketing and financial management? The number of times these subjects have been barely touched upon, for me as an experienced businessman, is quite shocking. It’s akin to sending the students out to make their way in the real world without a map of how to get to where they want to be.

And so to the reason for these articles. By spending an appropriate amount of time and effort to at least make yourself aware of the basic skills and know-how needed in these key areas, a lot of the risks to your success can at least be minimised. We are going to concentrate on just the three key elements of starting a new business I mentioned earlier, the business plan, marketing and finance/funding. Not because these are the only three that matter, but because they are the three that probably matter most if the questions asked of me by people just starting out in business or the statistics on business failures are anything to go by.

So we are going to start with the business plan. I know, I know, you’d all rather I just cut to the chase and talked about the money, ‘the kerching’, and I am. It just doesn’t look like it to the uninitiated. But as you will learn, by experience rather than just by me telling you it is so, the business plan is always about the money.

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I was chatting to my business partners about these articles and how best I might get across the importance of the business plan to someone starting a new business as a sole trader or a new partnership where neither party has run a business before. Our MD Rachel, as smart a business person as I have ever worked with, asked me how many business plans I had written or been involved in writing. I ran out of fingers and toes at twenty and probably could have added more to that list had I needed to. So you’re very experienced and well practiced in the dark art of business planning she added, so tell the readers how much time and effort you are putting into the writing of our new business plan and let them figure out that if someone with so much know-how and experience needs to put that amount of time and effort into a plan, and they find themselves doing less, then the chances are they aren’t putting in as much into it as they probably should. Told you she was smart.

Our new business will involve us, as a CIC, taking creative artists and theatrical performers into residential care homes to work with the elderly, the disabled and people suffering from dementia in an effort to enhance their lives, mitigate the loneliness and social isolation they experience and make them happier if we can.

So far, I have attended two arts council funding workshops, will be taking a two day course in strategic funding planning with the Directory for Social Change in London two weeks from now. I have spent over 60 hours in care homes talking to people with dementia, their carers and their families. I have spent at least 40 hours doing market research into charities and other groups who work in a residential care environment engaging residents in some form of ‘arts’ based activities. I have read several reports into the benefits of arts in a care environment by Age UK, the Arts Council, the Baring Foundation and others. I have spent many hours in meetings with my two partners, who have both put in as much time and effort as I have, and I have studied in detail the business plans of several successful arts-based businesses including the Tobacco Factory and Theatre Bristol based here in the South West. All this has accounted for about a third of the time and effort I have put in so far, and what stage are we at? We are just about to start writing our first draft of our new business plan this weekend.

It is tempting for me to tell you that you need to do this process well if you are planning to apply for funds from the Arts Council, Charitable Trusts and Foundations or other funding bodies and you will, but more importantly, you will need to do it well to give your new business its best chance of being successful. If your business plan ends up in a file only to be dusted off and brought out when needed for a funding application then I can tell you now, it’s not a good plan. A good plan is a living, breathing document which guides your business through those troublesome early years and ensures you become one of the 42% of businesses that stick around and not be part of those sad statistics of businessmen and women who, for whatever reason, didn’t quite make it this time.

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Lack of column inches and the necessity for this article to be of an introductory nature prevents me from going into detail about your business plan and its contents. What I can do however is to point you towards what I believe to be an excellent guide, commissioned by the Arts Council and written by Dawn Langley and Susan Royce of Alchemy Research & Consultancy. Spend time reading through it. More than once if you need to. Take time to make sure you understand the methods and models they are introducing you too. There are lots of good quality YouTube videos to explain SWOT & PESTLE, resourcing, and monitoring & evaluation for example which will build upon your understanding of the planning process and the business tools these excellent authors touch upon in their guide. Find other similar businesses who have published their business plans on-line and take the time to learn from them. I promise you, if you put the same amount of hard work and determination into this process as you will into trying to become a ‘good’ artist, you will for sure also be a successful one.

 

Article by Stephen Barrie Watters


Next time, we are going to delve into the challenging world of finance. It makes sense to do that before we cover marketing because, after all, if you don’t get the finance in place to pay for everything, including your wages, there is a very good chance there will be no product to market to the public. We will look at the best way to successfully apply for funds from the government & Arts Council (£1.1 billion), charitable trusts and foundations (£5.6 billion) and UK company giving (£420 million) and how best to access the £200 million and growing funds accessed through various crowdfunding platforms here in the UK in 2016. Until then, don’t let the difficulties and frustrations of writing a good business plan put you off going for it, one of the very few things that can be guaranteed in life is that the best boss you will ever work for is YOU..!