For a fascinating look at the world of professional puppetry, don’t miss the Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival on October 10. To find out more, Fred Latty chats to founder and director Linda Lewis, who gives an illuminating insight into the art form and explains why it’s just as popular as ever.
Tell us how the festival got started
I set up the Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival as a community interest company, which means it’s for the benefit of people in and around Tunbridge Wells. It’s the first puppetry festival in Kent. We applied to the Arts Council for funding and wanted to do a three-day event, but they felt we should test the market first, so we’re doing a one-day packed event and a second day, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Do you have a lot of experience with puppetry?
I’ve worked in the puppetry sector for some time. When I went to work for the Arts Council in 1991, I was responsible for theatre, drama, puppetry and outdoor arts, so I became very interested in it. I used to programme puppetry and children’s shows and it was amazing how many people were really interested in puppetry. Historically it has been looked at as a children’s art form, but puppetry is for everybody.
One of the festival’s main venues is Trinity Theatre – how did you get involved there?
I started the education department there in the 1990s and my husband and I were both involved in the setting up of Trinity in 1974. I really wanted to work locally and I went to see a show at Trinity by Strangeface Theatre Company. Russell Dean, their artistic director, suggested doing something in Tunbridge Wells. I met with their general manager, Bethan Tomlinson, and we decided to start a puppetry festival.
Where else can people go to see what’s on?
We hope it’s going to be programmed in such a way that people can see nearly everything in lots of venues, which will market to their audiences. In addition to Trinity, we’re working with St Barnabas’ school hall, the museum and art gallery, the adult education centre, The Forum and The Pantiles.
Will it happen every year?
The idea is to make it biennial, but if we’re successful and get the audiences this year, I’m keen to do another one next year. You have to source the work and go and see it, and I’ve been relying a lot on what I already know, but you need to keep up to date with what’s going on and you need time to do that.
Why do it in Tunbridge Wells instead of, say, London?
People in Tunbridge Wells should have a chance to see what people in London can see. There are a lot of people who go from Tunbridge Wells to London to see War Horse or Avenue Q, but I’m trying to say there are all sorts of different scales of puppetry, which you can see in your home town without having to go to London.
Is it open to everybody?
We’re registered as a family-friendly festivals and there will be a big family audience, which is why we’ve tried to keep ticket prices accessible. We’re looking to reach a live audience of 3,500. That was a first estimate, but obviously could change, as each venue has a different capacity.
How is the event funded?
It costs about £68,500. We’ve got money from the Arts Council, Kent County Council and Tunbridge Wells Borough Council. You have to estimate your income and I try to be very conservative; I know how much the shows cost, I know how much I think we can get and I won’t spend money I haven’t got.
Are there a lot of volunteers involved?
We’re looking to recruit about 50 volunteers to assist with greeting audiences, front of house and ushering, as well as leafleting and marketing. We’re particularly keen to try to engage with those from the age of 18 and we’re going to train the volunteers so people have a really wonderful experience.
Is there still a place for more conventional art forms like puppetry in today’s digital age?
Yes, but traditional puppetry’s also using new techniques. Puppeteers are beginning to take modern technology on board to bring it alive, which is what we hope to encourage. It’s very important there’s a live performance element; it can be digitalised, but if people are actually live and communicating with their audience, that’s the most important thing.
And why is that element so crucial?
Live performance is so important for young people; it’s a way of communicating in a group and for the artist to communicate to the audience. Every performance is different because there’s a different audience. In a way, puppetry is the same and sometimes there’s interaction between the puppeteers and the audience, which brings it to life. While I do embrace new technologies, there should be that live performance element as well.
Would you say puppetry is still relevant for young people?
Puppetry can be so visual that you don’t need words, so it can cross boundaries and barriers; it’s such a visual art form that you don’t have to worry about explaining it. That’s why a lot of young people are attracted to it nowadays, because they’ve been brought up in such a visual environment. Puppetry gives them that experience of a live performance, which is hugely important.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future of the festival?
It would be nice to bring it to other places in Kent. It takes a huge amount of work, but if we can take that as a package somewhere, that would be very exciting. But that’s way in the future; the main thing is to establish the festival here, to brand it and make sure we maximise the audiences in Tunbridge Wells and the surrounding area. The argument for cultural development in this town should encourage it to become a destination, for people from all around.
Introducing some of the main attractions at the Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival
Joey, the star of West End production War Horse, will open the festival on The Pantiles at 10am, when there will be the opportunity to have pictures taken with him. He will also feature in a talk, see below.
Trinity Theatre, 11am. Tickets £8. Suitable for 4 years+
Award-winning local company Strangeface uses projection and puppetry, music and mask in FenBoy. A tiny creature made of mud, FenBoy emerges from the earth and undertakes an odyssey with the extraordinary. Based on British folklore and the trickster fairy Boggart, this performance is premiered at the festival and asks big questions about small beings!
An Account of the State of that Place (or How to Drink a Glass of Water)
Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, 11am, 2pm, 4pm. FREE (booking essential). Suitable for 11 years+
In this specially commissioned piece for the festival, an international group of artists uses puppetry to recount the history, characters and cultural background of Tunbridge Wells in the late Georgian period. They have drawn inspiration from the language in British folk art, the works of local printer and bookseller Jasper Sprange, and the collage pieces created with spare fabric by George Smart, ‘the tailor of Frant’.
Punch and Judy
The Pantiles Bandstand, 11.30am, 1.30pm, 3pm. FREE (no booking required). Suitable for 4 years+
The highlight of a programme of street art and stalls in The Pantiles is second-generation Punch and Judy ‘professor’ Robert Styles. With over 30 years’ experience, Robert will be performing the great British classic – traditional seaside slapstick fun with crocodile and sausages included, of course.
Trinity Theatre, 8pm. Tickets £16, £10 for under 25s. Suitable for 12 years+
Moses is a cantankerous three-man operated puppet with a cardboard head… who lives on a table. He wants to tell you an epic story about God and Moses, life and death, and puppetry… on a table. But he gets easily distracted. A cross between Tommy Cooper and Eddie Izzard, this table-top philosopher and comedian is the ‘funniest piece of cardboard’ you will ever meet. Just back from a sell-out tour of the USA, Blind Summit, the team behind the 90ft Voldemort in the London Olympic opening ceremony, brings you a 2ft puppet in an unforgettably unique show.
Puppetry and War Horse: Imagining Joey
Trinity Theatre, 1.30pm. Tickets £5. Suitable for 12 years+
Mervyn Millar, puppetry designer and director for Significant Object and creative associate on the National Theatre’s production of War Horse, talks about his involvement. Handspring’s bold experiments to develop the horse puppets, training of the puppeteers, the role of the audience and how the show went from risky one-off to global phenomenon. He may even pull a few people up and see if they can make a horse. There will also be an opportunity for questions.
The Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival will take place at various venues on Saturday, October 10 from 10am to 9pm. To find out more, visit www.twpuppetryfestival.org or www.trinitytheatre.net to book for ticketed events.
You can also like the festival on Facebook at www.facebook.com/twpuppetryfestival or follow it on Twitter @TWPuppetryFest. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, visit www.twpuppetryfestival.org/call-out-for-volunteers