Features Q&A and Interviews Published 6 September 2013

Bristol Festival of Puppetry

Rachel McNally is the Executive Producer of Puppet Place and Co-Producer, with Chris Pirie, of the Bristol Festival of Puppetry.
Regina Papachlimitzou

The variety of artists and diversity of work showcased in this year’s Bristol Festival of Puppetry is staggering. Talks us through the selection process.

The strapline of the programme is Exploring Different Worlds, and Chris [Pirie] and I really wanted to challenge ourselves and our audiences about what puppetry is. There are some performances that might not be considered conventional puppetry by the general public, but we felt had a very strong claim to be [in the] festival. For us, this is about saying This is a dynamic, living artform. Traditional stereotypes about puppetry are definitely breaking down, and festivals such as this one are key in advancing and leaping forward public perception.

Internationally, puppetry is beginning to be in quite a healthy place. It’s starting to be taken more seriously as an artform that has a lot to say and can be very expressive. There are still issues that confront puppeteers, but some of the old stigmas are mostly broken down. This year we’ve had really amazing audiences coming, and a lot of  [them] [we] have not seen before. It feels like we’ve managed to make that leap from being a more fringe artform to something that is becoming a bit more mainstream. There is a developing community of puppeteers and animators in Bristol, and Puppet Place fosters and encourages that movement.

The festival programme features both foreign and UK-based companies. How does national and international work differ? 

There is something about Bristol that is very much a Do-It-Yourself ethic. In Bristol there is a generation of puppet  companies who are a bit older and an emergent generation who are in their twenties. So there’s forties/fifties, and  twenties, and then there’s a gap. It’s really interesting seeing [the merging of] slightly different aesthetic that comes with different generations.

In Eastern Europe and in countries like Bulgaria there is a huge tradition of puppetry training. The opportunities for training in the UK compared to Eastern Europe are not as great. But there are also some advantages to that, because sometimes the training is so rigorous it forces you to think in certain ways. So there is a freedom of expression [in the UK]; I think people feel very liberated to experiment with different forms of puppetry. In the UK a lot of puppeteers come from the position of being visual artists, so maybe that’s one of the slight differences.

Sparkle and Dark's Killing Roger

Sparkle and Dark’s Killing Roger

With some puppeteers coming to puppetry as visual artists, how does the Aardman presence in the festival benefit the participating artists?

I am from a theatre background myself, and at Puppet Place we are just around the corner from [Aardman]; a lot  of the model-makers at Aardman sometimes end up at Puppet Place making puppets, because the skillsets are similar. The size of the puppets might be slightly different as obviously a stop-motion puppet is quite small whereas a theatre puppet can be almost any size, but the skills are the same.

Some of the advanced technology that the film industry brings to puppetry through Aardman is now beginning to filter into more theatrical puppetry because we had this crossover of film and live within Puppet Place. I think this is more a feature of Bristol than the national scene. There is a large robotics community and specialism in Bristol through UWE; a variety of people are trying to make objects animate, for all sorts of reasons. With robotics it might be to automate processes, it might be to make technology more accessible; in film it’s about creating a story, telling a story and what are the best tools [for that]; in theatre and live performances it’s another whole big thing altogether. That core desire to animate the inanimate crosses all those things.

The connection between film, live puppetry, and robotics in Bristol is perhaps an unusual one, but feels very present. The lovely thing I see every day at Puppet Place is an immense sharing of bits of information, knowledge, and skills between our different workshops users. [As such] there is a huge level of expertise and technique that is advanced very quickly on all sides because people create opportunity for conversations.

Does the Aardman presence entice the audience to discover the world of puppetry?

[Having] the Aardman exhibition, and Jim Parkyn doing workshops, and Peter Lord doing his film night definitely adds another element to the festival –it adds a level of confidence in our audience. If you love Aardman but you don’t know the world of puppetry, you think: perhaps I’ll nip along and see the exhibition. And then, even if all you  do is come to a Festival Breakfast, or people even ask us a few questions on the stairs, that’s brilliant because that’s some kind of engagement with the festival. That makes a huge difference. Peter Lord and David Sproxton are both personally quite passionate about puppetry and the connections it has with animation. Professionally, it’s a natural connection. That’s reflected for our audiences, who then take that leap because they trust Aardman and they love the stuff they create, and they think Maybe I’ll love some of this other stuff as well.

Picked Image's Fireside Tales with Granddad. Photos: Farrows Creative

Picked Image’s Fireside Tales with Granddad. Photos: Farrows Creative

Why do people have such a visceral response to puppetry? 

This is not a full answer, but it’s a partial answer: when you watch an actor perform, even though the performance can be brilliant, and they completely inhabit that character, you still are aware that there is a person behind that character, who is an actor, because you see their face and it’s so familiar. So, for example, if you see Tom Cruise in one movie and then you see him in another, you know it’s Tom Cruise performing and acting. Whereas a puppet is only that character. So you have to believe the puppet, that’s the only existence that puppet has, is to be that character and so if you’re prepared to believe in that puppet, in that character of the puppet, then you believe whole-heartedly in the story.

That’s a very transformative experience for an audience, because you allow yourself to buy in completely, and to be transported. There is an innocence to that which can take you to absolutely delightful places, but on the other hand you can go to some very dark places [as well]. Because you have to go with the puppet. There is obviously the performance that’s coming from the puppet but it’s then also what [you are] putting onto the puppet [yourself], because a puppet does not have facial muscles, so you read them slightly differently.

The other side of it is to do with the relationship between the puppeteer and the puppet. Increasingly in performances, you don’t see the puppeteer blacked out. You see the facial expressions of the puppeteer. Most puppeteers try to keep themselves relatively neutral, because they want the focus to be the puppet. There’s something joyful about seeing someone give that much attention and detail to create a life. Because the puppeteer is investing their own huge level of focus in a puppet, that gives you another reason to go along with the puppet.

The festival has grown considerably since 2011. What has been the biggest challenge of delivering that?

Practically, we’ve got an outdoor performance this year from The Lunatics, Vindstille, and that has been exciting but challenging for sure, and immensely rewarding. Strategically, the challenge is to try to make sure with keep the good elements from what we’ve done before, and make it feel better, and push it a little bit further –because the further we push it, the more people will come, and the more people get to see puppetry. One of the things that everybody seems to like about this festival is that it’s based at the Tobacco Factory; it’s a real hub, there’s a buzz around it and it’s quite easy, all we have to do is walk between two buildings. But there is also a desire to expand the festival. So how do we do that and retain that sense of community and hub?

Chris has toured extensively with his company, Green Ginger, and I do a lot of work for different theatre companies so we are both well aware of what the issues are when you’re on the road, what makes a good experience and what doesn’t. One of the things is to feel that you’ve got a home away from home. The fact that all the artists that come here seem to have a really good time and enjoy it means that this is then reflected in the way the audience experience the festival. And it just means that the buzz continues.

Given the warm welcome the festival has had and the sold-out performances, are there any plans of making it run yearly?

No. [For one,] Chris and I have other work commitments. [Also,] we have an ambition to grow Puppet Place into an arts development agency –which it already is, but at the moment what we are able to do outside the festival is quite limited because we are mostly voluntary run. [Hopefully,]over the next few years, people start to become more aware of other streams of Puppet Place work, and we can build those up. So the festival is our great big jamboree of a celebration every two years and we have an amazing time, but then there are a lot of other things going on throughout the year.

We both feel that the cycle of making a show and finding meaningful works –it will take two years to do that. Particularly with international work: we get public funding, and we feel very responsible that we should try and get the very best examples of international work. So if it takes two years to build a new show, then you need to give artists the time to do that.

As we start to grow the work we do throughout the rest of the year, there will be a buzz of other activity and people will feel satisfied that there’s a lot of puppetry action that they can get involved with. Then the festival becomes more of a celebration, because it’s about what’s been going on between times.

The Bristol Festival of Puppetry takes place between 30th August – 8th September. Rachel would like to gratefully acknowledge the help of Nordland Visual Theatre, Aardman, and the staff at the Tobacco Factory Theatre, without whose invaluable support the festival would not be the same.

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Regina Papachlimitzou

Regina has reviewed extensively for Aesthetica magazine in York, and Venue magazine in Bristol. An adopted Bristolian, she considers this impossibly mesmeric city her true home.