Will Steele asks a question: ‘You talk about puppetry and what do people think?’ He then answers it himself: ‘People think Punch and Judy, because that’s one of the largest puppet traditions we have in the UK, or the Muppets.’
Now a new wave of puppetry is throwing off the memories of Punch and Judy and Kermit the Frog and becoming an artform of its own. ‘Puppetry is the up-and-coming medium,’ Will says. ‘It’s been kicked into a higher gear in live art theatre,’ he adds. However in the North East opportunities for young puppeteers are few and far between. There have been some projects: Alison McGowan had a dream of making a puppet theatre on a large ship docked in the Tyne, which foundered in its original form, but has since become a vital community interest company for the region.
There are also a good number of amateur puppeteers in the region. ‘There’s people who dabble but there’s no access to a great deal of high-quality training, and not a lot of high-quality shows,’ says Will. So he and Kerrin Tatman – a friend – have set up Moving Parts: the Newcastle Puppetry Festival, which arrives in the city from 27 March–1 April.
‘It was born out of a frustration,’ says Will, who studied writing at Northumbria University, then took improvisational theatre classes. It was while in London that he met a puppeteer responsible for BBC3 puppet programme Mongrels, who indoctrinated him into puppetry.
While the puppetry scene in London and Edinburgh was vibrant, it was relatively dormant in the North East. ‘We’d go through the brochures saying this looks okay, but not see anything that really made us want to go and see that show or attend that workshop,’ says Will. ‘We wanted to do something about that.’
The festival will spread across five venues in central Newcastle, including live events, performance masterclasses, puppetmaking courses and events for children including the Little Faun Caravan, a small mobile home transformed into a tiny puppet theatre that houses an audience of eight. Many of the events will be focused around the Ouseburn’s Cobalt Studios, while larger-scale productions such as Mirth & Misery’s occult-themed Death Puppet Klezma Jam will take place at Northern Stage. Big names in the puppetry world, including the renowned Theatre Temoin, will be in attendance
‘It’s the right time to be starting the festival because of how puppetry – and how it’s perceived – is starting to change,’ explains Will. Mainstream theatrical events like War Horse and Avenue Q have increased the public’s appreciation for the art of puppetry. ‘There used to be a prevalent thought that actors can just pick up puppets, but it’s a very different skill,’ says Will. ‘When you see it and it’s done very well, it’s enthralling.’
It’s that ability to deceive – and to tug at the heartstrings of audiences – that truly transformative puppetry can play on, and it’s that level of shows that the festival will play host to. But don’t think you’ll simply be marvelling at the technical skill and dexterity of the puppeteers: you’ll be moved, too. ‘You can happily watch something and be impressed with this thing that part of you knows is just an object,’ he says, ‘but the other part of you – the animal part of you that reads movement and emotion – is moved and fervently believes it is alive.’ Bring on the puppets.
Moving parts: the Newcastle Puppetry Festival runs from 27 March – 1 April. For more information visit www.newcastlepuppetryfestival.co.uk