"There’s a yearning for live performance that’s absent from gaming and animation, and ultimately there’s an opportunity for puppetry there.”
Cliff Dolliver is the director of Cork Puppetry Festival, which is about to celebrate its fourth year as the Republic of Ireland’s only festival dedicated to the art form.
In this saturated media and entertainment landscape filled with TV and digital distractions, he says, the live craft of puppetry has even more to offer than ever.
“It can take your breath away,” says Dolliver.
“You can have some incredibly magic moments with puppetry; it’s a really beautiful artform and so versatile: it’s really easy to entertain children with because kids just invest so automatically and so unquestioningly in it.
"And it’s so universal; name any culture and you’ll find some kind of investing life into inanimate objects, some form of puppetry connected to storytelling that goes with it.”
Dolliver, who arrived in Ireland in 1999, hails originally from Tasmania. and founded Cork-based Dowtcha Puppets with the late Mick Lynch.
Dowtcha Youth Ensemble, an initiative designed to train budding puppeteers in all aspects of the craft, will perform their new production, The Boy with No Story, as part of the programme. They are joined by 30 performers from 12 national and international puppetry companies.
As well as providing family-friendly entertainment, Dolliver says the festival’s remit is also to raise the profile of puppetry and to have an Irish forum for the industry.
“We just want it to grow into a self-sufficient institution, and to get stronger and keep improving the programme. We want to set up Cork as a centre for puppetry in Ireland and in the west of Europe.”
To this end, the Irish branch of Union International de la Marionnette (Unima) will hold a meeting at the week-long festival, and an academic symposium on puppetry and disability will be held at UCC to coincide with the festival.
Cork Puppetry Festival will also try to put Cork on the map with a world record attempt for the largest number of people holding sock puppets. The current record, 365, was set last year in Townsville, Australia, but Dolliver is confident that Cork Puppetry Festival patrons can beat that.
Families are being asked to raid the odd sock box and donate their unwanted woollies to the festival club. The festival also includes workshops so that adults and children alike can take part in the attempt on the last day of the festival, at a family fun day in Fitzgerald Park.
“We wanted a big event at the end with a sense of celebration, and to make the festival feel participative,” says Dolliver. “What better way than a world record attempt that everyone can get involved in?”
Family fun aside, there are some adults-only events on the programme, like Clown’s Houses from Berlin-based company Merlin Puppet Theatre. With the Irish puppetry tradition historically centred around kids’ TV offerings, Dolliver says the art form is still developing in Ireland, and hasn’t met its full potential as a component of other forms of theatre, and in work for adults.
“It’s still predominantly for children; there’s not a lot of work for adults being produced in the country,” he says. “But it’s beginning to be used more often as a component of other theatrical styles: Operas, dance, pantomimes, and theatre.”
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