Seeking the exceptional | Bristol Festival of Puppetry 2013

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This preview was written for Animations Online

A wealth of international puppetry acts will flood into Bristol at the end of August, as the city’s biennial Festival of Puppetry begins. It promises to transport audiences to different worlds via a mixture of live work (inside and out), films and exhibitions. Festival producers Rachel McNally and Chris Pirie front the very small team that will make it happen.

“We’re the engine of it,” explains McNally. “This is our third festival and our approach is still very hands on, both artistically and practically.” Perhaps the most enviable part of their jobs is the amount of acts they get to see, visiting festivals around the world. How do McNally and Pirie go about selecting the few shows they programme from the hundreds they see? Do they have strict criteria or is it more organic than that?

“There’s not a checklist,” McNally says. “We have a loose programming policy but we seek out work that is exceptional, experimental, that’s pushing boundaries and will blow your mind. It’s like juggling a jigsaw. We have to make sure the programme is cohesive as a whole.”

“We have a passion for high production values,” adds Pirie. “Rachel and I complement each other as a team and we’re really proud of what we’ve achieved this year. This is our third festival in six years and we have a strong sense of what our market is.”

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The festival does struggle with the age-old ‘puppetry is just for kids’ misconception but is challenging it through strong adult programming, alongside more family friendly shows. “We attract people by selecting work that’s the best of its kind, that’s clearly for adults and is interesting for anyone,” says McNally. “We try and create a buzz around the festival, and make our programming sophisticated and intelligent.”

“We also try to embrace the widest description of puppetry,” adds Pirie. “We’re lucky enough to have Aardman as our next door neighbours and they bend over backwards to help us.” This year’s festival features a free Aardman exhibition, with models, artwork and stills from some of their most famous animations.

McNally and Pirie also don’t restrict themselves to indoor work, including free street theatre in the programme and, this year, a ticketed performance in the Tobacco Factory car park. “We’re challenging ourselves to present an outdoor spectacular for Dutch company The Lunatics – we’re pushing ourselves technically,” says Pirie. “I’m very excited – it’s the kind of show that’s not been seen in Bristol before.”

How do McNally and Pirie see the festival evolving, and what is it contributing more widely? “I definitely feel our contribution is national, not just local,” says McNally. “Chris and I would like to see the festival grow but we’re still working out what that means. We spend a lot of time making it feel welcoming, and more than just a series of events.”

“We’re committed to it being biannual and we’d like to do more work, possibly outside the festival period. We’ve been learning the role and what it takes. The festival this year has been another learning step. It feels in a comfortable place now to be able to put on something really special.”

Pirie feels like they are nearing a watershed. “We’ve had overtures from other venues, encouraging us to spread out,” he says. “Because we’re such a small team it’s not really possible but maybe in the future we can accept the invitation to spread our geographical reach.”

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As their roles include watching as much puppetry as possible, both are in a good position to trend spot. They’ve noticed lots of shadow and projection being used this year and an increasing interest in object manipulation. A major trend is that puppetry is permeating the performing arts more widely, no doubt encouraged by successes in the West End and on Broadway.

Both are also well placed to highlight what is challenging too. “There’s a lack of understanding from the wider theatre community about what it takes to perform well,” says McNally. “While puppetry is on the up, there’s a need to educate people about the skills it involves. The puppetry community needs to become more articulate and competent at presenting ourselves.”

“There’s a notion that puppetry is a cheap option,” explains Pirie. “But this means a professional puppeteer is expected to work for peanuts. It’s something we all need to face as a real issue.”

Returning to the festival programme, what are they looking forward to most? “Beyond the Lunatics, we’re pleased to welcome back Ulrika Quade – she was very popular at the last festival and her output is prolific,” says Pirie. “Also Duda Paiva – he’s very dynamic. And we have a strong workshop programme, including a masterclass with Tom Morris and Toby Orlie from ‘War Horse’.”

While McNally is “excited about Boris and Sergey, who I saw at Edinburgh last year, and about Theatre Temoin’s ‘The Fantasist’. And Paper Cinema are always a favourite.”

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