All posts by billy2heads

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.


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.

Startup Stock Photos

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.


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.


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..!