Still pulling the strings of Cork Puppetry Festival

Still pulling the strings of Cork Puppetry Festival
Leila Cosgrave Sedgewick with Robin Schwarz in a workshop with Cliff Dolliver at Crawford Art Gallery for the launch of Cork Puppetry Festival. Picture: Clare Keogh.

The Cork Puppetry Festival returns this weekend. Siobhan Howe meets the man behind it – Dowtcha founder, Cliff Dolliver.

If you ask a person who grew up in Ireland what comes to mind when they think of puppetry then they’ll probably say Bosco, but there’s a whole lot more to the puppetry scene in Ireland.

Dowtcha Puppets was established in 2002 in Cork and quickly became synonymous with puppetry in Ireland.

You’ll have seen their large-scale work marching the streets of Dublin, Cork, and Fermanagh in the St Patrick’s Day parades, and their shows draw in the crowds across Cork from puppet theatre to interactive workshops and micro cinema.

PIt is built on strong foundations, puppetry is one of the oldest artforms — it has a history dating back over 3,000 years that still endures. Puppetry and parades are part of almost every nation’s culture.

Puppetry does much more than entertain, it tells a story, it provides commentary on society, it allows our imagination to run wild, and most good puppeteers will breathe life into puppets and tug on our heart strings.

The home of Dowtcha Puppets in the Port of Cork is an area steeped in history — just metres away are the remains of Europe’s first production line built to manufacture the Fordson Tractor, but today they’re building something very different in a former Ford building — puppets.

Cliff Dolliver, co-founder of Dowtcha Puppets, has been in Ireland for 20 years and has a wonderful mix of an accent. He’s from Hobart in Tasmania, where he first found his passion for puppetry.

Dowtcha is just days away from the opening of its sixth annual Cork Puppetry Festival, which runs until August 5 in venues across the city and county.

Taking inspiration from the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, there is a lunar theme throughout the festival programme, culminating in a lunar-themed Puppets Picnic in Fitzgerald Park on Monday.

Throughout the festival, a series of family-friendly workshops will take place in the Crawford Art Gallery and in St Peter’s where children can create astronaut costumes and learn how to make their own lunar puppets.

Today and tomorrow afternoon, a visiting company from Germany will present a piece for all ages.

No One’s Land sees a scarecrow come to life and imagine a more interesting world beyond the field he’s stuck in, with beautiful puppets and special effects this will be particularly magical.

Cliff explains that the festival really has something for everyone:

“Adult puppetry is not really established in Ireland as it is in other countries so I’m proud to be building that up here.”

The Cork Puppetry Festival is definitely not just for children and will host adult puppet shows, workshops, and talks including the Puppet Cabaret in Spailpín Fánach.

As Cliff shows me around the Dowtcha warehouse — it started with just one room but has expanded to the whole building — you get a sense of the love and hard work that goes into what the company does.

There’s nothing glamourous about this studio but there is beauty in it all the same. I climb a ladder to see where the costumes are carefully stored.

The set for Murroch an Currach, which is being performed in libraries across the county, is in another room, and of course the puppets, the glorious puppets.

As you look at these inanimate objects you can’t help but imagine them coming to life — and just like that Cliff picks one up and it says hello.

Dowtcha does a number of children’s workshops — there is a focus on passing on the love of puppetry — and Cliff explains:

It’s an antidote to modern life; anytime you’re creating something you are unlocking so much potential for imagination and creating something together.

It’s giving children’s imagination the opportunity to run free… but of course they often pull on their own experiences and draw out things they may not express otherwise.

An older group of teens created a show about a shopping trip for a Mother’s Day present where they were followed around the shop by a security guard who assumed they were shop lifting.

“When you’re engaging with storytelling, it really unlocks a lot for people… it has therapeutic applications.”

Cliff says it’s important that their stories are about “self-empowerment rather than following rules” — Dowtcha avoids being prescriptive and instead allows children take their own interpretation from a piece.

So how do you end up working in this artform? Do you grow up wanting to be a puppeteer? Cliff gives an emphatic no to that question. His home city of Hobart has a long-established history with puppetry. He went to art school there and “mocked those who worked with puppetry as children’s entertainers”.

He worked in set design and found himself moving into props-making and then, before he knew it, was making puppets. “I’m still trying to escape,” he says jokingly.

When he moved to Ireland he headed more into the performance side, creating shows for libraries and schools.

Cliff finds it hard to separate his work from his life — not in a bad way but because he really enjoys what he does. “Last night I was putting fins on a giant willow rocket and repainting a model of Bishop Lucey Park — it’s fun… I like the work; there’s aesthetic considerations, engineering considerations, and entertainment considerations.”

He’s a reluctant performer but admits that he also enjoys that. Puppetry is the ideal artform for a reluctant performer, as a good puppeteer will make sure the focus is on the character he’s bringing to life rather than the person pulling the strings.

Puppetry is a craft; it survives and indeed thrives but that happens by design and takes work by innovators like Cliff who are considering how to keep puppetry alive.

Dowtcha is part of the oldest international theatre organisation in the world, UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionnette), and takes its role seriously in ensuring puppetry and parades remain part of our culture.

Dowtcha does a lot of large-scale work, including parades, so a big consideration for Cliff right now is “creating light-weight, weather-proof materials that aren’t foam or plastic, instead looking at natural indigenous organic materials”.

Having one eye on the future while holding onto this wonderful traditional artform is exactly what keeps it alive.

Dowtcha has a lot to be proud of, they’ve created incredible memorable and important work but what’s Cliff’s standout highlight as he celebrates 20 years in Cork? “Finishing our first kids show at St Columba’s National School, and my twin girls bursting backstage to give me a big hug.”

Knowing that his work was something that made his daughters Jessie and Eli proud was as significant as any award. They are now adults, but I bet they are still very proud of their dad’s work.

This puppeteer definitely knows how to tug on the heart strings.

Keep an eye out for Dowtcha’s future productions — a lot of artforms and shows say they contain magic, but Dowtcha products have it in spades, bringing the inanimate to life. You’ll see Dowtcha’s work at the Hazelwood Stage at Electric Picnic, Glow at Christmas, and St Patrick’s Day parades in Cork and Dublin.

It also has a full schedule of puppet shows on its website and Facebook page and some really interesting work in development with its youth ensemble and a community integration project.

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