This article has been written with the support of Puppet Animation Festival.

Puppet Animation Festival: 'There's a place for art to be a connecting force'

Puppet Animation Festival:

Up and Down by Ipdip Theatre

Ahead of the festival's return this Easter, Charlotte Allan of Ipdip Theatre speaks to us about playfulness in the face of fear, and why early years theatre is more vital than ever

As the UK's longest-running annual performing arts event for children, Puppet Animation Festival will have experienced its fair share of choppy seas in the course of its 38-year run. But nothing, perhaps, quite as disruptive or as devastating to the wider cultural industry as the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to the festival's cancellation in 2020. Happily, the festival has announced its return this Easter season, beaming its digital programme directly into our homes from Monday 5–Sunday 17 April.

Featuring a roster of puppet theatre, animated short films and creative workshops geared towards children ages 0–12 and their families, Puppet Animation Festival's online offerings will make it easier than ever for families to access thoughtful and engaging early years theatre from companies such as Ipdip Theatre, Hopeful Monster, Theatre Rites, Tessa Bide and Jo Neary. Staging work in a virtual space, and under such difficult conditions, is its own challenge, but creative people will always respond creatively, says Charlotte Allan, Ipdip Theatre's Artistic Director.

Puppet Animation Festival:

The Selfish Giant by Tessa Bide Productions with Soap Soup Theatre / credit: Paul Blakemore

'That's where [organisations] like Puppet Animation are so important,' she says. 'It's such a difficult time for all the creative industries, but so many professional artists in Scotland are working freelance, from project to project. It's not very secure financially and it's a worrying time for a lot of people, because are these artists still going to be there when things open up again?' Many people working in the arts industries, particularly those in smaller companies such as Ipdip, have struggled to claim financial support during lockdown. 'Rishi Sunak is like, "Who? Who are you? Do you matter? Don't think so",' Allan chuckles. 'That's where [bigger organisations] like Puppet Animation have been so important – not just in keeping events happening, but staying connected with artists so that we don't feel forgotten. These networks keeping us in touch and keeping things going is really important, so we don't give up.'

The return of the Puppet Animation Festival arguably could not have come at a more necessary time for theatre companies and families alike. A year on from lockdown number one, restrictions continue to isolate families and loved ones, and people everywhere are struggling to cope in this anxious climate. Though schools are now tentatively re-opening their doors, the impact that lockdown has had on the lives of children has been particularly immense. 'Theatre is about the human presence, the physical present and being in that space,' says Allan. 'It's such a relevant art form for early years in particular because play is their world, so we play and imagine, and we create and we explore.'

Puppet Animation Festival:

The Incredible Tale of Robot Boy by Theatre-Rites

Ipdip Theatre's show Up and Down – which was commissioned by Starcatchers in May 2020 – translates playfulness' multifaceted dimensions onto a 2D screen through a bit of pre-planning with the adults, who will arrange snacks, effects and objects ahead of time. The show follows the adventures of best friends Mira and Troggle, who inhabit different worlds and communicate with each other through their tin can phones. Told through Zoom, the show encourages distanced families to have a shared experience, even while they are physically apart. 'You and I are talking now, and we have all this wonderful language that allows us to have a shared understanding,' Allan explains, gesturing to the virtual space between us. 'But when you're just starting to learn to talk, maintaining a conversation is really hard. What we're trying to offer to families is something in addition to just words – there being the objects, or the imagination, or the journey they go on together. It gives a way for the family members who are not in the same room to have that shared connection still.'

But the pandemic has not only robbed us of the joys of live theatre and physical presence – it also threatens to dull our creative impulses. 'I've been thinking about this,' muses Allan, 'About how fear is the opposite of creativity and if you're living in a state of panic or anxiety, you can't give yourself permission to be silly or just have a go at something, and not know where it's going – because when you're afraid, you need to know what's going to happen, you have to put those barriers up,' she says. 'That's something that's been really hard for families with young children where you need that playfulness and creativity. It's hard to do when the world is scary and when things are scary and you're scared.'

Creating work under pandemic conditions has been a challenge for Ipdip Theatre as well – Allan and her collaborator EmmaClaire Brightlyn juggled house moves, bedroom sets and hours upon hours of video conferencing in the process of creating Up and Down. 'But the biggest challenge was not being together,' says Allan. 'To create work in a collaborative fashion, to be playful and responsive, is different when you're not in the same room. We discovered fairly early on how draining hours of Zoom conversation can be in a different way than if we were together, playing and trying things out.'

Puppet Animation Festival:

Hopeful Monsters by Hopeful Monster / credit: Michaela Bodlovic

That's where having each other, as well as events such as Puppet Animation Festival continuing to fly the flag for early years theatre, has been so important. 'When you make something, you're giving something of yourself,' says Allan. 'It's time and resources, but also an energetic giving. That is what can seep out of people when there isn't support or a world out there that appreciates it, so things like being part of the UK's longest running [children's] festival makes a strong statement. Like, we're going to keep going and the show must go on, that kind of vibe. That does help keep that creative energy from draining into the sand.'

Our connections to each other do persist – even when it doesn't feel that way – whether it's in the changes that art affects in our lives, or in the wider culture of ideas that we share and pass on. 'It's like that old saying: it takes a village to raise a child. We were never meant to be in tiny little units, so there's definitely a place for art of various kinds to be that connecting force, beyond the family and into the bigger family that is the wider community,' Allan says.

In that way, theatre can be many things and anything, whether physical or digital, what have you. But what it always is, is that force which pulls us outside ourselves. 'Because this is the thing that theatre offers, is that out-of-the-ordinary moment, right? And how do you bring that into someone's ordinary home that they've been day in and day out?' Allan smiles, clearly equal to the task. 'That's a bit of a challenge, but it's worth trying.

Puppet Animation Festival, Monday 5–Sunday 17 April,

Puppet Animation Festival

The UK's largest and longest established annual performing arts event for children pulls some strings to present a feast of puppet-based entertainment, working with local authorities, organisations and venues throughout Scotland.

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