Manual Cinema is an Emmy Award winning performance collective, design studio, and film/video production company founded in 2010 and based in Chicago. In this interview, Cat Rock from Puppet Place chats with Manual Cinema’s Co-Artistic Director, Sarah Fornace about what makes shadow puppetry such a good medium for horror, and that amazing title sequence for Nia DaCosta’s latest horror feature film, ‘Candyman’ (2021).
Listen to more interviews with The Quay Brothers, Barry JC Purves, The Paper Cinema, Corina Duyn and more on our Vimeo channel here.
The Lost Librarian is a ground-breaking escape room for inquisitive explorers of all ages. Using interactive books, employing creative technology, groups of up to six people experience a 60-minute journey, uncovering a fantastical retelling of the Devon Witches and the legacy that they have left behind.
The project is the brainchild of Puppet Place resident artists Lizzie Johnson, Kyle Hirani, Matt Gibbs, and Chat Akula, and the installation was commissioned by Libraries Unlimited. We sat down with writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs, to find out more about this innovative installation.
The Lost Librarian is an innovative ‘escape room’ project that brings together art, design, technology, and storytelling. Can you tell us about the idea and story, and how the project got off the ground?
MG: The Lost Librarian began at the end of 2018, when Lizzie (Designer, Fabricator and Project Manager) and Kyle (Roboticist and Creative Technologist) were commissioned by Libraries Unlimited to devise and produce an interactive creative technology experience for Exeter’s libraries as part of their Evolve programme with funding from Arts Council England. The aim was to get more teenagers engaging with the library. Lizzie and Kyle approached me soon after to help them shape the narrative and puzzles for the books that they wanted to create; wooden artefacts that would live on the shelves of any library, each containing a different puzzle and an element of story.
In January 2019, the three of us began exploring approaches, not only to the narrative, but the sorts of creative technology – capacitive touch, light, motion, and sound sensors, magnetic viewfinders, thermochromic paint, etc – that we wanted to incorporate into the puzzles. We explored several themes related to the history of Exeter, but eventually settled on a fictional retelling of the Bideford Witch Trials; three Devon women who were accused of witchcraft and condemned in 1682 at the Exeter Assizes. It is a subject that is very much aligned with our own interests, enabling us to explore feminism, persecution of women, and even fake news, in an engaging way through these books.
The Lost Librarian’s first run in Exeter’s Central, St. Thomas, and Topsham libraries was a great success; with over 20 books being spread across those locations, forming a puzzle trail that the public could freely interact with, as well as being setup especially for Library Late events, where the library was opened up to older audiences to explore and play.
Based on the success of the initial run and these events, Libraries Unlimited commissioned us again, this time to reimagine and rework the installation as a touring exhibit for all of Devon libraries for 2020. This gave us the opportunity to completely re-examine what worked and what didn’t, and collaborate with Youth and SEND groups to gather their input and feedback. All was going well… and then Covid 19 changed the Arts world.
But, after three lockdowns and reworking the installation and creative technology for a post Covid world, the Lost Librarian is on tour again!
The Lost Librarian project combines many skillsets including fabrication, technology, and interactive storytelling. Can you tell us more about your collaboration? What were the main challenges? What are you most proud of?
MG: There’s a whole host of talented folk involved in the current touring version of the Lost Librarian. Joining the core creative team is Chat Akula (Robotocist) who has written the complex coding for the new books with Kyle. In addition, we’ve been lucky enough to work with: Nick Wilsher (Creative Technologist), Luke Gregg (Fabricator & Carpenter), Helena Houghton (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Katie Hood (Fabricator & Prop Maker), Est Johnson (Prop Maker), Cat Rock (Voice Director), Michael Basri (Composer), and Sheila Atim (as the voice of Molly Allison).
It’s been exciting to work with so many people, but it hasn’t been without its challenges. Covid 19 has been our biggest obstacle; the stop-start nature of our work and access to the studio at Puppet Place has been hard. We also had to redesign the experience with Covid in mind, bringing it off the library shelves and onto three podiums to make access and cleaning easier. We’ve even had to remove creative technology we’d planned to employ – for example, breath based puzzles were immediately no longer suitable!
But we can all take pride in handling these obstacles, finding solutions and ways forward together, and with the help of Libraries Unlimited who have been hugely supportive throughout.
Where has the Lost Librarian been run? What have participants gained from the experience? What have they enjoyed the most?
MG: The first leg of the Lost Librarian tour began in July and covered Exeter, Barnstaple, and Newton Abbot libraries. And feedback has been wonderful and overwhelmingly positive so far from the families and groups that have experienced it.
From our testing and the feedback from Libraries Unlimited, participants often get swept up and engaged in the experience. The wonder people experience interacting with these wooden artefacts, especially the capacitive touch elements – enabling them to trace their finger over wooden surfaces as they would use their mobile devices – is a joy to behold!
What is usually an hour of play, feels like only half an hour has passed for most folk, and everyone enjoys the increasing levels of difficulty and variety in the puzzles. This sparks group collaboration; and that, coupled with the narrative, seems to set it apart from escape room experiences. There was a lovely piece in The Bookseller about the tour that sums it up well.
One delightful aspect we discovered is that because Molly, our Lost Librarian, voiced beautifully by Sheila Atim, reads the ‘story’ of the first book out to participants, they then take it upon themselves, usually in turns, to read the later books to each other. That too, is a joy to hear!
Are there plans to tour the Lost Librarian again in the near future? And/or do you have any similar projects in the pipeline that you can share?
MG: The Lost Librarian has just finished a run at The Hayridge in Cullompton, and is about to head to Tavistock (from 23rd October) and then Okehampton (from 13th November). We’re then having it back at Puppet Place over Christmas, where it will be having a bit of TLC, before heading out again to more Devon libraries in Spring.
As for other creative technology and narrative led projects, the short answer is ‘Yes!’ As a group; Lizzie, Kyle, Chat, and I enjoy collaborating and working together and there are many other ideas that we wish to explore at the intersection of play, narrative, design, and creative technology. There is one we have been talking about developing for a couple of years now – and we have just received an Arts Council Grant to help fund the R&D for that!
Interview by Emma Windsor
More about the team
Vāsthu (Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula) Founded in 2017 by Kyle Kyle Hirani & Chat Akula, Vāsthu provides R&D services for projects at the intersection of Arts and Robotics. Clients include, Amalgam, Pif-Paf, and the Center for Fine Print and Research. Visit the website: www.vasthu.co.uk
Elizabeth Johnson Elizabeth Johnson is a designer, fabricator, and project manager, whose work includes interactive installations for The National Trust, and work for Daphne Wright, Bristol Old Vic, Raucous, Rusty Squid, and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Facebook: ElizabethJohnsonMakes
Matt Gibbs A WGGB award nominated writer and narrative designer, Matt Gibbs’ work includes games, such as Battlefield 1 and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Visit the website: www.mattgibbs.net
Last year, Cat Rock, Izzy Bristow, and Helena Houghton came up with a brilliant plan to inspire creative people around the world with a puppet film challenge that must be completed in just 48 hours. The online event was such a success that Cat decided to bring it back this year and challenge anyone from anywhere to make a short puppet film over this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th. We caught up with her to find out more.
Who are you and what inspired you to organise the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge?
I’m Cat Rock, Resident Artist and Trustee of Puppet Place, and Co-Director of The House of Funny Noises. I am a puppeteer and puppet maker working in theatre and film, who loves the surreal and bizarre world of puppetry. I have had the pleasure of working with weird and wonderful characters, both puppet and human, and I am excited to see what the future holds for the puppet industry.
I started the Challenge last year in 2020 with help from the other soon to be members of the House of Funny Noises, Izzy Bristow and Helena Houghton. It was April and we were in the midst of the pandemic, staring longingly out of the window and looking at blank work calendars all round. It was a hard time for everyone. I know I was very lucky to be trapped in isolation with a house filled with creative puppet people. It sucked, but this gave us an opportunity – the first time ever – that we all had free time at the same time! So, Izzy brought to our attention that the LA Guild of Puppetry were doing a film project, making a puppet film in 48 hours. Well, time is the one thing we had last year, so we decided to enter.
I can’t tell how much fun and what a creative relief it was to just throw yourself into such a challenge. There’s no time to question, there’s no time to doubt, you just have to get stuck in and puppet, puppet, puppet! This was the first puppet film I had made as a group and not just as a hired puppeteer, and it was an amazing time. We made a film called ‘BELLY’ and I’m very proud of this weird and scrappy piece of puppet film. ‘BELLY’ did well, receiving an honourable mention and winning best of the Rocky Mountain Puppetry Guild, which Izzy is a part of.
After this we decided to form the House of Funny Noises and explore deeper into the world of puppet film. We are up to ten films now and recently completed a commission for the Beverley Puppet Festival. We gained so much out of taking part in the LA Puppetry Guilds project that I wanted to start one here in Bristol. Puppetry from the UK and Europe has such a different feel to it than a lot of American produced projects. I wanted to create a platform that would help get our stories and puppets out there, whilst also giving people a creative challenge during a very difficult time.
Thus the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge was born!
Last year’s Challenge was a huge success with over 70 entries submitted from around the world! Why do you think people were so eager to take the challenge?
2020, what an interesting year (readers you can replace interesting with whichever cursing adjective you like!). I believe that so many people gravitated towards the Challenge because everyone was looking for a way to engage, communicate, and express with other people in a time where direct contact was not allowed. Even though you were more likely working by yourself or with those you lived with, by participating you were a part of something bigger, and that is what we needed, a connection to a larger thing that wasn’t plague related.
The Challenge provided people with an opportunity to do something practical, it was not a Zoom call, or staring into the abyss of the Netflix homepage, you had to get up and create and produce a fully formed thing. You got the enjoyment and adrenalin of working under pressure as well as coming up with your own story and creation. We received so many comments from people saying how much this short event helped them in the pandemic – having a goal, having a target, a reason to do something. It sparked people’s imagination and in the end 70 wonderful puppet films now exist because of it. People will always surprise you with their passion and talent.
What were your favourite entries from last year’s Challenge?
What were my favourite entries!? Oh, that’s a hard question, I loved so many. A few that stand out to me when I think back are “Little Red Parting Gift” by Anima Mundi Figurteater. I loved the story, action, characters, it’s one I could watch again and again. I also love “Switch” by Stooge Films; who doesn’t love puppet noir, so brilliantly shot and creative. I also have a place in my heart for “Why Am I A Stick?” by NonSuch productions. It’s a film about a man who turns into a stick! So bizarre yet done so well with wonderful puppets and props, I’d watch the feature of that one.
One more I’d like to mention is “The Monstrosity of Time Travel” by SandyLang Co. I loved this one. Short, sweet, totally my jam. Unfortunately last year this film was actually not eligible for judging as it was a full stop motion piece… However, after seeing some of the amazing stop motion entries we have changed the boundaries for this year’s event, and fully stop motion films will be eligible in 2021!
What do you hope for this year’s Challenge?
This year we hope to be able to reach more participants and viewers, we want to expand the diversity of engagement, and become a more inclusive event. It will be a slow and steady progression, but we are on the right track. This year we hope to see even more amazing films and connect more puppet people with other creatives.
We also have a new thing happening this year. We are partnering with We The Curious in Bristol to bring the Finale of the Challenge to the Big Screen in Millennium Square. So all the films that make it into the Top Ten, the Honourable Mentions, and Award Winners will be shown on Sunday, 12th September at 7pm on one of Bristol’s biggest outdoors screens! Bringing puppets to the public!
In regards to what kind of puppetry can be used in the Challenge, all direct manipulation puppetry is accepted. So that means any kind of puppetry where someone directly moves the puppet to bring it to life. For example hand and rod puppet, object manipulation, strings and marionettes, stop motion, basically if you move it with your body, or you move it with a physical force it is accepted (for example wind dance puppets). The only type that is really excluded for the Challenge is computer generated animation and manipulation. These can feature in films, but there must be practical and direct puppetry elements.
We are excited to see what people do!
We hope that people will get a few things out of participating in the Challenge:
1) A fun challenge to be creative with puppets where people produce fully completed films.
2) The opportunity to see and engage with other puppet films and puppet creators from around the world.
3) A chance to get your creations in front of a wide audience and under the eyes of our panel of industry professionals.
Lockdowns may be lifting and things are very slowly returning to some resemblance of what was before, but there is always a place for creativity and puppets.
What does the future hold for the Challenge?
I want the Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge to become a well known and eagerly anticipated cultural event. I want the people of the South West to get involved and I want to see participation from all over the World. The goal is for the Challenge to become a self-sustaining exciting event that grows and produces amazing puppet films every year, eventually becoming an integral part of the Bristol Puppet Festival when it is able to return. This in turn could enable us to produce similar events creating more platforms on which puppet media can stand.
Another main aspiration of the Challenge is to grow its legacy. We want to do this by creating feature length anthologies of select films from the Challenge that could go on tour to puppet festivals, venues, and even reach out into communities who don’t have great access to the puppetry world, encouraging local community engagement. We might be starting our legacy this year, so keep your eyes peeled and please feel free to get in contact if you have a venue or organisation that would like to talk about the possibilities.
The Bristol 48 hour Puppet Film Challenge will run this August bank holiday weekend, 27th – 29th, and is open to people of all ages and backgrounds, from absolute beginners to seasoned professionals. You must register in advance to join in with the fun and registration closes at 12:00pm (BST) on Friday 27th August. The Challenge is free to enter, but donations are warmly welcomed.
Created by a leading design team specialising in puppetry, kites and immersive theatre, The Hatchling will be a ground-breaking outdoor theatrical performance that will unfold over a weekend of events in Plymouth. The spectacular giant dragon puppet will hatch in Plymouth City Centre, and with a wingspan of over 20 metres, will attempt to fly over the sea on Plymouth coast at the end of her journey. We caught up with Artistic Director of Trigger, Angie Bual to find out more about this amazing project.
Can you tell us about the origins of the idea and who is involved? How did this amazing project get started?
The Hatchling was created to be an unforgettable, one-off live event, free for all to attend – which now feels particularly pertinent after a year of isolation. We wanted to bring a sense of awe and wonder to Plymouth, and to involve the local community in all elements from the puppet’s design to the final performance.
The project is a celebration of cultural diversity, openness and unity, asking us to celebrate our commonalities over our differences, and it is a real opportunity to confront issues around migration and freedom of movement through the global symbol of the dragon. Whilst found in stories in every ancient culture around the world, the dragon is revered and respected in eastern mythology but often considered menacing in western folklore. The power public art has to unify us has never been more important.
We’re working with 25 partners, and people at the top of their game from the fields of design, puppetry, aviation, and paleontology. This includes Mervyn Millar, part of the original creative team of the acclaimed stage production War Horse, and Carl Robertshaw, a designer who has created sets for the London 2012 Olympic Ceremonies, collaborated with artists including Ellie Goulding and Kylie, and is a 5-time sport kite world champion. The project has only been possible through this multi-disciplinary collaboration.
We were lucky to have public funding from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and support from Plymouth City Council and Mayflower 400.
Can you tell us about the design and build process for The Hatchling? How will the puppet fly?
The Hatchling is the largest ever puppet to be solely human operated, so the building process has been no mean feat. Standing at over 6.5m tall, her wings unfolded will span across a huge 20m. We worked with a paleontologist on the design to produce an anatomical dragon based on the prehistoric Pterosaur – the earliest vertebrate known to have evolved powered flight.
The puppet is constructed from super lightweight carbon fibre weighing less than a piece of hand luggage, allowing it to be operated by a team of 36 puppeteers working in rotation in groups of 15. As for how exactly the puppet flies, that will be a surprise at the event – come and see!
When and where will the event be held? What can audiences expect?
The event is taking place in Plymouth city centre from the 14th to 15th August 2021.
Audiences will be able to see our beautiful dragon hatch, explore her surroundings and interact with the city – from intimate experiences to city-wide performances – before taking a world-first flight across the sea in a miraculous metamorphosis on the evening of Sunday 15 August. The sunset spectacle will feature lighting design by Mat Daw and a choral score by Ruth Chan.
This is a really exciting time for Trigger as we have also been selected as one of 10 creative teams to deliver a multi-million-pound project for Festival UK* 2022. More details to come in the next year.
Puppet Place is the UK’s hub for puppetry and animation. Our building, Unit 18, is full of brilliant artists and creatives working in puppetry, animation, film, visual arts, theatre, robotics, outdoor arts and creative technologies. In this article, we introduce you to some of the most recent Resident Artists to join our space and share more about their creative practice and passion.
Chatrapati Ākula & Kyle Hirani: Vāsthu
Who are you and what do you do? Vāsthu is a technology house providing R&D services at the intersection of arts and robotics. We weave together our varied experience and capabilities to deliver value to clients.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? When we left Launch Space at UWE Frenchay, we wanted to move into a place that was close to the centre, had a welcoming, warm and active community of creatives, and also had a maker/fabrication space. More importantly, the residents have been great people for as long as we’ve known them.
Who are you and what do you do? Hi, my name’s Matt Gibbs, and I’m a writer, narrative designer, and editor. The narrative designer part is probably the hardest part of that to pin down, it’s a term that is still being defined and refined in a number of industries. For me, it comes from my work with interactive narratives and games, whether for video and tabletop games or – more recently – art and creative technology experiences. It encompasses both linear and non-linear narratives, but centres the audience as integral to them, and focuses on the creation of all the elements, not just story, that support and enhance that. In short, it is about trust and empowering the audience – which is both fun and challenging. Alongside all of that, I also work in a variety of other mediums, including films and comics.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? It was working on The Lost Librarian with Lizzie Johnson (designer, fabricator, and producer) and Kyle Hirani (roboticist and creative technologist) that lured me into joining Puppet Place. Together we created an interactive story utilising creative technology, games and puzzles, which was commissioned by Libraries Unlimited (as part of their Evolve programme with funding from Arts Council England) and we’re currently working on a touring version for 2021. Lizzie was already a resident and I greatly enjoyed our collaboration, plus the wider support, ethos and atmosphere of Puppet Place. It has led to more collaborations and opportunities, and a growing understanding of puppetry in its many forms.
Who are you and what do you do? My name is Eloise and I studied Fine Art and Curating at UWE, (next door to Puppet Place at Spike Island.) I’ve been freelance curating for a few years, but I’m ready to dive back into my own practice and re-discover my creative side. The things I work on vary from paintings to photography, music, collected items and more craft-based works.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? I definitely love community hubs, so Puppet Place stood out because of all the amazing people working here. I’d visited Max Dorey a few times pre-pandemic as we were planning an exhibition together. Everyone we met was so polite and it was a really friendly atmosphere. I love the idea of people sharing resources and time to create amazing things!
Who are you and what do you do? My name’s Amy Baker, sometimes known as Wormy Baker, a stop-motion filmmaker. My films vary a lot in content and style, the only thing linking them all is that I made them. I like to stay playful and try new things. I moved to Bristol from Leicester to study animation and have been into filmmaking and craft for a long time, as well as sound and music. I like to be involved in every aspect of production, which means I’m a pony with many tricks but I’m not extremely skilled in a specific area. I’m also a dancer and enjoy a bit of yoga, which helps me to understand how bodies move and draws me to animation (the best bit!). I’m signed up to the Aardman Academy animation course due to start in May, so hopefully I’ll be improving lots very soon.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? The first time I came to Puppet Place was for an event where Emma Windsor was doing a talk. I loved the talk, the space was full of crazy props and they had wine and snacks! I wanted to get more involved and also wanted to try writing about animation, so I joined the Puppet Place press team. I’ve been helping with the newsletter for a year now. Puppet Place was the right size for me, has a nice community and is well organised. There are fabrication areas, a little garden and best of all, a carpet!
Who are you and what do you do? I am Helena Houghton, I am a puppet maker, props maker, film maker and animator. I’m also a founding member of The House of Funny Noises, alongside Cat Rock and Izzy Bristow. I make all kinds of puppets, large and small. At the moment my focus is on short films.
Why did you move into Puppet Place? I have been an Associate Artist for a while now with Puppet Place and decided to join as a Resident so I can work in a more social setting (or as social as it can be in a pandemic). I also wanted a place that I can spread out in for future projects as I had previously been working from home and feel like I will get more done with a dedicated space.
Based in the heart of Bristol, Puppet Place offers workspace for artists and creatives including puppeteers, makers, technologists, designers and filmmakers. Benefits of becoming a resident at Puppet Place include your own desk space, a profile on our website, advice and information, discounted rates on hire rates in the fabrication and rehearsal studios and connection with a community of like-minded creatives. To find out more contact us at info [at] puppetplace.org, visit our website www.puppetplace.org or call 0117 929 3593.
Satyajit Ramdas Padhye is a third generation ventriloquist, puppeteer, and puppet maker from India. He is the son of Ramdas Padhye, India’s leading ventriloquist and grandson of Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye, who created Ardhavatrao, India’s most loved puppet character. Emma Windsor caught up with him to find out more about his family history, his passion for puppetry and his hopes for the the art form in India.
Can you tell us about the history of Ardhavatrao and your family?
My grandfather Prof. Yeshwant Keshav Padhye was a renowned magician. He once saw a solider from First World War doing ventriloquism and hence thought of trying his hand at ventriloquism, and thus created a character called “Ardhavatrao” that he conceived in the middle of 1916 and 1917. This character is now more than 100 years old and is actively being performed by my father Ramdas Padhye who popularised this art of ventriloquism and puppetry in India since 1967. My father learnt this art from his father Yeshwant Padhye and has performed more than 9,900 shows across different media including stage, TV shows, feature films, and ad-films.
Why did you decide to continue with your Grandfather’s legacy? What is most important to you about puppetry as an art form?
Well, I was very naturally drawn towards the art since my father Ramdas Padhye has been into this art for the last five decades, popularising this art in India, and is a celebrity. My father never forced me into it as art cannot be forced. It should come naturally to you. So, although I am a Chartered Accountant by education, I never pursued it as a profession, but ventriloquism and puppetry became by profession.
The most important thing about puppetry as an art form is that it has a universal appeal and can evoke a lot of emotions. I guess puppets speak more than an actor and I guess it is less offending when puppets speak the truth.
You were recently involved in the production of the film ‘Ludo’ with filmmaker Anurag Basu. Can you tell us more about that and your role in the production?
Mr Anurag Basu, who is famous director in India, was planning his next film Ludo where one of the lead actors Aditya Roy Kapur was playing a role of a ventriloquist and voice-over artiste. Anurag Basu called me and asked me to train Aditya for the role of a ventriloquist. He also knew that my dad Ramdas Padhye creates look-alike puppets of people and hence hired us to create a puppet which looked exactly like Aditya. We used 3D scanning and 3D printing technique for the first time in India to create a look-alike puppet of the actor. It was a challenging process as it was never done before. We could achieve this because of our excellent team.
What are your hopes for the future of puppetry in India?
I think the future of puppetry looks bright for our country India, as there is lot of interest in the art of ventriloquism as well as puppetry. The younger generations are aware about this art because of the internet and we have the youngest population. In fact we get lot of inquires about learning the art of ventriloquism and puppetry. I guess there will be many puppeteers and ventriloquists from India in the coming years.
That Creative Thing Wotsit is a Community Interest Company whose vision is to improve the quality of life, health, and well-being of people living with additional care and support needs through engagement with the creative arts, whilst creating meaningful employment opportunities for new and emerging artists. Emma Windsor spoke with Stephen Barrie Watters about his involvement, his hopes post-Brexit, and the new mobile puppet theatres that they have recently built.
Can you tell us about yourself, your background and the work you’re currently involved with?
I am Director & Company Secretary of a creative arts organisation called That Creative Thingy Wotsit CIC. We work to improve the health, well-being, and happiness of people living with dementia or other care need through engagement with the creative arts. During the past five years we have visited residential care and nursing homes across North Somerset using music, movement, and a range of creative arts to make connections with people at all stages on their dementia journey, and those who love and care for them.
We partner with creative artists, theatre makers, and holistic therapists to deliver health beneficial creative care through engagement with the arts to a community who face some the highest barriers to accessing those arts. We want to change that. People living with dementia get enormous health benefits from engagement with the arts, probably more so than any other cohort of our community, and we believe they deserve to have the very best access to arts we as a creative community can give them.
The thing I enjoy most about my work are the theatre shows we put on, as I am a stage manager by trade and have worked at most theatres in this area, including The Wardrobe Theatre & BIT in Bristol, as well as on many festivals and street theatre including Puppet Place carnivals. I spend a great deal of my time raising awareness of dementia and helping to make North Somerset the most dementia friendly community it can be.
Most people don’t know that North Somerset is the most dementia friendly place in the UK. That is something we can all be very proud of, and probably something more people should know. There are many things we can all do to help us stay number one in the UK, and one of the best is to become a dementia friend. It only takes a few minutes online and will greatly help improve life for people living with dementia.
You’ve been busy building two mobile puppet theatres! Can you tell us how you came up with the idea, what facilities these have and how you intend to use them once lockdown is over?
Thanks to a small grant from the National Lottery Community Fund, we have been able to upgrade and modify our theatres. We have owned our theatres since we started our CIC in 2014 and have used them once or twice a year to put on shows on the beach, in parks, and other public spaces. However, in our work in residential care homes, we specialise in what is known as person-centered care. That means getting up close and personal, holding hands and making eye contact, so theatre projects such as the Brave Bold Drama dementia sensitive production of Wonderland we helped deliver in 2018 worked well as an indoor event.
Putting on a show in the garden of a residential home is a much more difficult and challenging thing to do, but it is something we can do safely, being socially distant, and in all likelihood much sooner than we can return to indoor performances. Our theatre has much the same capabilities other theatre and performance spaces can offer an artist. Programmable lighting, high quality sound system and head mics, scenery changes, special effects, props, and a wardrobe and puppets department. However an artist needs the theatre to be dressed, or the genre of puppetry planned, we can make our theatre accommodate it.
We can pretty much guarantee a full house made up of an intergenerational audience, most of whom will be priority target beneficiaries for funders and sponsors both locally and nationally.
Artists receive a fair and reasonable income for their performances and can use our mobile puppet theatre to help fundraise for their projects or organisations. We will support you in any way we can, in whatever way is needed to make each project a success.
What benefits does puppetry bring to people with dementia and the elderly in care?
Dementia is a particularly cruel disease. It takes away so much from everyone who’s lives are affected by it, robbing them of their health, happiness, and joy. But we can hold the hands of people on that journey, and of those who care for them, let them know they are not alone by connecting with them through music and the creative arts. One of the most effective and immediate ways to make those connections is using puppets.
Most people know dementia often leads to memory loss, particularly short term memory loss. However, over time even long term memories can be similarly affected with people not able to recall names, faces or key events from their lives. In our experience there are some things which are seldom forgotten whatever stage of their journey a person is at. The first and least forgotten thing is the music and songs they have loved through the years, and truly amazing things can be achieved through the power of music and dance.
Puppets are another way to make that immediate and happy connection with people. The joy and happiness that comes from seeing a puppet, especially a large, brightly coloured puppet, and one that talks remains unaffected by the disease. The same wide eyed look of wonder and amazement with smiles as wide as a canal barge seen in the faces of children and parents at puppet shows is still there on the faces of those living or working in residential homes when the puppets come out. People don’t seem to forget their love of puppets. Puppets are fun, tactile, and one of the best ways to reach people who are nearing their end of their journey and who are finding it most difficult to communicate and engage.
Things seem uncertain in Arts & Culture at the moment with both lockdown and now Brexit. What plans do you have for the future and what do you feel will be needed to best support the work that you do?
We all want to live in a better community when this crisis is over. More socially connected, more creative, and more supportive of those who need our help. A society which recognises the contribution creativity and creative artists have made in getting us through these difficult times, and will continue to do so long into the future. Whatever that better community looks like to each of us as an individual, when we close our eyes and try to imagine the possibilities of tomorrow, that community has a name. It is called a Dementia-Friendly Community because everything we do to make our communities better for people living with dementia and those who love and care for them, the better a community it will be for everyone.
As theatres have been locked down for months, theatre makers have been creating new show formats to reach audiences in new ways. Tessa Bide Productions have created an interactive audio adventure to empower children to be masters of their own destinies, to be inspired by literature and to change the stories they see unfolding around them. We caught up with Tessa to find out more about this audacious adventure!
How have you been over recent months? How have you adapted to working?
The million dollar question! The last few months have been a real rollercoaster, as I’m sure they have been for just about everyone. I have felt a mixture of feeling lucky that, as an independent artist with a small team behind me, I am small enough to do a complete U turn and totally change my plan and how I create work. I don’t have to make huge decisions that affect hundreds of people, but at the same time I have felt like a small island more than ever, and at times so very isolated and powerless!
My producing team (Alice Massey, my Co-Producer and Holly Bond, my Assistant Producer) and I have adapted to remote working, keeping in touch via shared working documents on Google Drive with lots of Whatsapp messages and video calls. At the start of lockdown, when all of our 35+ gigs for the year were being cancelled, we took stock and made a bit of a plan about how we could adapt to the situation. We came up with the idea of regular online content and the creation of an audio piece, so that’s what we did!
Can you tell us about The Anarchist’s Mobile Library which you have made for lockdown touring. What’s it about?
The Anarchist’s Mobile Library was originally a show that toured in a 1970s pop-up caravan called Sydney. I won the caravan in 2018 and made the show last year with support from Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Literature and Latitude Festival. It was about encouraging young people to engage with literature, write stories and change endings, but also to look around them at the ‘stories’ that are being played out in the world. We wanted to encourage them to change the endings of those stories too. Literature and activism for 7 year olds!
Obviously an intimate, interactive show is the Covid nightmare so we repurposed an ACE grant we received at the start of the year to subsidise our tour and created an audio version of the piece. Originally I wanted to create an adaptation of the show, but I didn’t want it to be another screen-based thing for families. How can you encourage families to step away from the screen and the sofa, and physically act out the adventures together, like they did in the original show?
We decided that an audio piece would work best and set about creating it. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure (but not in those words, thanks to the copyright) interactive story experience, where audiences are transported to 6 different story settings – a witch’s kitchen, space, through the magic wardrobe, and then an incredible immersive sound design by Chris Menes and narration from myself takes them on the adventures. They have to answer questions and make difficult, slightly moralistic decisions along the way…then deal with the consequences! We’re creating a D/deaf accessible version with the amazing David Ellington at the moment that will be released on the 21st Nov, thanks to a commission from The Library Presents.
We didn’t stop there with adapting the piece, however. We received a commission from the National Rural Touring Forum and Pound Arts in Corsham to trial a Covid-safe live version of the original piece too. So in October, we took the caravan to a small town called Calne and brought a load of story postcards with us, that said ‘Once upon a time in Calne…’ on them. Along with performers Peta Maurice and Charlotte Dubery, we performed an adapted version of the show outdoors, scooping up family bubbles from the park and bringing them towards the caravan (at a distance!) We played improvised story games with the audience’s suggestions, then encouraged them to write their own stories on the postcards. We then collected the 40+ postcards up and spent a day at Puppet Place collating them all into one mad mega story. Then illustrator Camille Aubry made them into a zine. So this gave us a completely different take on the project, plus a third version of the show that we hope to tour next year too.
How can people watch The Anarchist’s Mobile Library?
The audio adventure is touring venues and theatres at the moment and is available to play now until 31st December via ‘The Library Presents‘. You just need a device that can play sound and access the internet – so a smart phone, tablet or computer.
Looking at the wider picture, what do you think artists like yourself need to support your work in these ongoing challenging times?
We need money! It’s great that a lot of the venues and large companies were bailed out with the government’s funds but I’d like to see more support for freelancers and small companies like ours. It’s also so important to have someone bigger than you ‘flying your flag’. I’ve found that so helpful recently with Pound Arts, Farnham Maltings and the NRTF backing us, and another commission from The Library Presents. So often, as a small company/independent artist, it can feel that we are doing really great stuff but no-one knows about it – like you’re just shouting into the wind. So it means such a lot when an organisation with proper infrastructure and a bit of clout can shine a light on you and just say “Hey, I see you and I think you’re doing great stuff”. Without that, and access to our audiences at the moment, it’s just very, very hard.
The on-going lockdown due to the coronavirus has had a dramatic impact on us all; on our businesses, our livelihoods and our personal lives. Many organisations in our arts and culture sectors have been particularly affected due to the performance nature of their work and without the means to bring live audiences in their venues; their core business has suffered a great deal. Whilst some organisations are arguably better placed to shift their business models online, such as organisations involved in film, the experience of theatre has live performance at its heart. We looked at three of our beloved theatres here in Bristol, to find out how the lockdown has affected them.
As a charity with only 5% of its annual costs coming from public subsidy, Tobacco Factory Theatres has always depended hugely on its loyal audiences. When it closed its doors in March, for the safety of all of its communities, the sudden loss of income placed the charity in imminent danger of permanent closure. However, due to the generosity of so many people who have donated and the Job Retention Scheme, Tobacco Factory Theatres is still here in August.
During that time, a skeleton team have been distributing grants, on behalf of The Gane Trust, to freelance artists who are experiencing hardship, and working tirelessly to ensure the survival of Tobacco Factory Theatres. A grant from Arts Council England’s Emergency Response Fund will enable the organisation to stay afloat until October. But sadly, with the Job Retention Scheme closing at the end of that month, Tobacco Factory Theatres has had to make the heartbreaking decision to make redundancies, reducing staff costs by 70% in order to keep the organisation afloat.
“Whilst audiences are the lifeblood of Tobacco Factory Theatres, our staff are its beating heart and most valuable asset. We thank them for their skills, passion and wisdom which have made the theatre a place to be proud of, and for their patience, understanding and courage during these hardest of times. We are working hard to plan for the reopening of our theatres as soon as it is safe and financially viable to do so and to continue talking to all of our communities in the meantime, finding out how Tobacco Factory Theatres can best serve them in this changed world.
The Wardrobe Theatre, 25 West Street, Old Market, Bristol
“The Wardrobe Theatre has cancelled all performances from March-August 2020 and there is a big question mark hanging over everything booked in from September 2020 onwards, including Christmas. With the current rules soon allowing indoor theatres to reopen to social distanced audiences, we’re going to be running a couple of very small test performances to see how we could run a night with these rules in place and whether it’s practical for us to run a whole season like that. We’ll have to see how those go!
We have no definitive date of when we will reopen yet but when we do, we will be launching a crowdfunder to help us reopen and to support the artists and theatre companies we want to bring here.”
Matthew Whittle, Co-Director of The Wardrobe Theatre
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, Bristol Old Vic has embarked on a consultation process with affected staff in the face of a significant reduction in the work it can undertake and the income it can generate. It is anticipated that over 20 roles from its full-time workforce of 60 could be at risk.
“We’re used to having to fight for our funding in the arts, but this time we are in the same boat as tens of thousands of businesses from Penzance to Pitlochry. On 17 March, 75% of our income disappeared and we’re clinging to the lifeline of the Job Retention Scheme to keep our heads above water, until lockdown eases…”
Tom Morris, Artistic Director & Charlotte Geeves, Executive Director
“…We are hopeful that the Government’s Cultural Investment will support our survival further as we prepare to reopen the theatre gradually over the coming 18 months. However, there is no avoiding the fact that the current circumstances mean that we will be unable to recover the income levels we’ve built up over the last decade with any speed or predictability. Therefore, in order to ensure Bristol Old Vic survives and is able to emerge, we have to reshape our business.”
Bristol Old Vic’s Executive Director Charlotte Geeves
“It is with enormous regret that Bristol Old Vic has begun a consultation process to reduce the size of its workforce due to the COVID-19 crisis. The last 5 years have brought astonishing success for Bristol Old Vic and the Board are very clear that these successes have been achieved through the skills and dedication of our wonderful workforce. Nonetheless, by taking these steps now, we are putting ourselves in a position to emerge flexible, solvent, and fighting fit to meet the challenges of the post-COVID world.”
Bristol Old Vic’s Chair, Liz Forgan
Bristol Old Vic is launching a campaign to reopen the theatre and would love your help. Every pound you give will go directly into making shows and employing the artists who work with the theatre to make them. To make a donation visit: https://bristololdvic.org.uk/support-us.
It is clear that despite their remarkable flexibility and the dedication of their staff, our theatres need the support of their patrons more than ever in these unprecedented times. Reduced activity and closure doesn’t only affect those directly working for our theatres, but the thousands of performance artists, designers, technicians, makers, musicians and countless others who work to bring us their craft. Furthermore, in the words of Victor Hugo, “The theatre is a crucible of civilization. It is a place of human communion… It is in the theatre that the public soul is formed.” In these times of great change and unrest, our theatres are a crucial part of our sense of community and ourselves.
Article by Emma Windsor
There are many ways you can support our theatres in these difficult times. Direct donations make a real difference and can help support both staff and the artists who rely on theatres for their livelihoods. Becoming a member of the theatre also provides a vital lifeline for their survival and journey ahead, during and following the coronavirus pandemic. Some theatres are also involved in initiatives that support their subsidiary businesses, such as the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme that runs throughout August, and run their own online stores with great gifts for theatre lovers.
Finally, if financial support is not something you can do at the moment, joining their mailing lists, and liking and sharing theatre social media posts, ways to donate, and online shows, is a great way to show your support and appreciation. Your theatre needs you more than ever, and with your support a better and brighter future for our theatres is possible.
In this Puppet Place podcast, artist Corina Duyn talks with Emma Windsor about her ‘Invisible Octopus’ project. Corina worked with Dr. Emma Fisher through a mentoring bursary from the Arts & Disability Ireland Connect Scheme, to explore alternative forms of puppetry to accommodate the physical challenges due to her chronic illness/disability M.E.
Further information about the project and Corina’s other work can be found on her website at: corinaduyn.com. With thanks to Arts & Disability Ireland (adiarts.ie)