The Puppetry Festival is once again coming to Tunbridge Wells. Eileen Leahy caught up with its founder Linda Lewis to find out all about the history of this artistic event and what it is all about?
So Linda, please can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Puppetry Festival?
The Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival was set up in 2014. The idea was to bring exciting, innovative and contemporary puppetry to Tunbridge Wells and its surrounding areas. Along with a group of volunteers who were to become the Board of Trustees, the festival was registered as a Community Interest Company, a non-profit distributing company that allowed us to apply for grants from public bodies, trusts and foundations and sponsorship.
How many years has it been running and what gave you the idea to launch it in the first place?
I have a background in professional theatre as a theatre manager, funder, programmer and director of a puppetry development agency, and director of a puppetry festival in Brighton. When I decided I’d had enough of commuting to Battersea Arts Centre where I was based as Director of the Puppet Centre, I was persuaded by some other local theatre practitioners to start something for Tunbridge Wells.
With no other dedicated puppetry festival in the South East of England, I thought that there was a good opportunity to start one here which has been my hometown for over 40 years.
How did you manage to get things off the ground?
Our first one-day festival took place In October 2015 as a pilot to see if there was an appetite for such an event in the town. We were overwhelmed with the response – especially to the large-scale horse puppet called ‘Joey’ from the National Theatre’s award winning production of War Horse. He opened the festival on The Pantiles and made further appearances at Five Ways in town and in the gardens of Trinity Theatre. I received support and encouragement from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and in particular from the Museum and Gallery for whom we commissioned a new piece of puppetry theatre based on George Smart and Jasper Sprange in 2015.
What do you think the main appeal of puppetry is?
Puppetry encompasses many of the arts: Design craft, making, storytelling, singing, movement, dance and writing. It is a very accessible art form which appeals to all ages. There is a power of belief in the relationship between the animated object or figure and the audience. You can achieve things with puppets that you could never do with human actors. Puppetry immediately creates a world of make believe, whether you are a baby observing an animated cuddly dog or a young child immersed in the shadow story telling as can be seen in The Steadfast Tin Soldier at this year’s festival.
Can you tell us a little bit more about what you have planned?
Bunraku puppetry is where a puppet is brought to life by three or more puppeteers, some taking the head, others the arms and the feet separately. This form of puppetry is demonstrated in another great show we have planned – In Our Hands from Smoking Apples which is about the changing face of the fishing industry and how one fisherman is adjusting to the new ways of the world. It’s a wonderful show. Many puppetry companies now use projections and film instead of backdrops and scenery as Mark Mander does who will be presenting Clementine’s Fabulous Roadshow at this year’s festival.
How do you ensure that puppetry still remains relevant in this digital day and age?
Puppetry exists where you would not expect it to. For example it forms the basis for animation such as the Aardman films. Many television advertisements use puppeteers to move the characters around and speak the voices, you just can’t see the strings! Films now also use the skills of puppeteers to create the movements for objects that are then computer generated to create wonderfully sophisticated special effects, so puppetry is able to cross over comfortably from the traditional to the contemporary.
One excellent example is a puppeteer friend of mine, Robin Guiver, who trained in movement at
Le Coq school in Paris. He, along with a team of other puppeteers, has been responsible for behind the scenes motion control of people and objects on big film sets, including famous actors such as Sandra Bullock in the award-winning Gravity.
Do you have any puppetry heroes and who and why might they be?
I love Muffin the Mule which is an old puppet from the BBC Children’s programme when television was in black and white! I looked forward to all the children’s shows on BBC TV when I was a child and loved The Wooden Tops and Bill & Ben the Flower Pot Men. Of course these names probably don’t mean anything to modern audiences but they were the forefathers of Cebeebies!
Nowadays, I am blown away by the scale of the shadow puppets in large-scale shows such as Simba in the Lion King and Joey in War Horse. My small hero is definitely Moses – a Bunraku puppet made out of cardboard who starred in Blind Summit’s The Table which we presented at the 2015 festival.
What are you looking forward to most about the festival?
There really is something for everyone and all ages. We are extremely fortunate to have secured a partnership with Disney’s The Lion King production from the West End. Their education outreach team is giving workshops in primary schools in the week leading up to the festival, plus they’re providing us with an exhibition of masks, costumes and puppets from Julie Taymor’s exquisite designs for the show as well as presenting a masterclass at Trinity Theatre on Friday October 13 for older students and those studying theatre design and construction. Professional puppeteers will also find this an informative and interesting event.
Breakout: Strings Attached – What’s on where and for whom
For babies and early years: TwinkleTwinkle which is the most magical show for 18 months to three years, presented in a newly created space downstairs in the Assembly Hall Theatre. We are also presenting an amazing sensory experience for babies and their parents called Duvet Day for 0 – 18 months. When I first saw this show last year, I just knew we had to bring it to the festival. It is produced by an Icelandic Company. There are some shadow shows too, such as The Carnival of the Animals accompanied by live music on the piano and The Ugly Duckling accompanied with a live musician playing the Oboe.
For teenagers and adults: the serious but hugely gripping show ‘In Our Hands’ about the changing face of fishing industry. It is so creative. I love the first scene. I won’t tell you what it is. You will have to come and see it! The naughty Puppet Cabaret by Headstrung is at the Forum which is normally a music venue for young adult audiences and provides an excellent venue for this type of cabaret. This colourful show promises lots of fun!
For the finale of the festival on Saturday night we are presenting the amazingly entertaining, funny, skilful show called Clementine’s Fabulous Road show with a cast of six that the festival has helped to develop with the director and star Mark Mander. You may have seen Clementine in her bright pink costume on the front of our programme leaflet around town.
All in all, the festival is accessible for all. Ticket prices are kept low so that you can take a chance and try out something new. There is also a free programme of events suitable for children and families from 10am to 5 pm on The Pantiles on Saturday 14 October.
For full details, take a look at the festival programme here that also includes maps so that you can work out your shows, timings and route around the town centre. It’s good training just in case you might be considering visiting the Edinburgh festival in future years!