Denmark: Copenhagen Puppet Festival

Proving that puppetry can be much more than light entertainment for children, the Copenhagen Puppet Festival showcases the talents of Danish and international names every two years through a strictly adults-only programme. Co-founder Barnaby Stig Swann Pedersen tells Claire Ramtuhul about the festival’s impact in Copenhagen and beyond.

How and why did you establish the festival?

Having lived in London as a kid, my parents would often take me to Battersea Arts Centre and the Little Angel Theatre in Islington. We moved back and forth between Denmark and England. I grew up on the English side watching all this amazing puppetry, yet every time I was in Denmark I noticed a lot of prejudice around the form. I always had the idea of introducing puppetry to a wider audience in Denmark.

In 2004, I got a job as a culture innovator with Copenhagen City Council, and worked at two local arts centres. Because I was privileged to be able to work on various local projects, I gradually pushed puppetry into the events that were coming up. We used those as trial runs, and we felt confident we were picking up momentum.

Read: Theatre for young people that’s ahead of the game

The turning point came in 2005, when the Dutch company Stuffed Puppet staged a large-scale production, featuring a local children’s choir and musicians, with investment from the council. I’ve followed Neville Tranter, the company’s founder, since I was seven years old and knew he was the one to work with if we wanted to persuade the sceptics. The team pulled out all the stops to demonstrate the scale of what is possible with puppetry. I called all sorts of sponsors and journalists, and we got some good press coverage. Then we launched the first Copenhagen Puppet Festival in 2006.

How did you convince people that puppetry could be enjoyed by adults as well as children?

For many years, it was about making a lot of noise on many different platforms, and always having a very strong focus on the media. If you want to push the borders professionally, it’s not just a question of the audiences you get to come – it’s also important to get reviews from some of the high-profile newspapers and broadcasters. We also brought in some of the really well established, internationally recognised children’s puppetry companies. We plugged into that existing community and encouraged them to supply work for adult audiences with whatever they had. Gradually, we saw the public attitude towards puppetry begin to change.

On the education side, we started working closely together with the Danish Development Center for Performing Arts [Odsherred Teaterskole] where, supported by the Ministry of Culture, we set up a department for puppetry and animation. In 2011 the centre launched a two-year diploma that develops the skills of puppeteers. The festival then offers students and graduates a platform to try out their work.

Ole and Niller puppets by Public Punk Service
Ole and Niller puppets by Public Punk Service

What kind of audiences do you attract?

It’s quite a broad audience but there are two groups that stand out: youngsters from about 17 to university-level age and middle-aged women who are usually ‘high culture’ opera-going consumers on the look- out for new trends. The youngsters go for the more experimental things we programme, like the cabaret, where groups can come and try out ideas. We’ve also had great experiences with the talks that we’ve held along-side the festival’s performance programme.

When the London School of Puppetry’s Caroline Astell-Burt gave a talk, we had to bring in extra chairs as we completely misjudged its potential popularity. I generally find that the younger audience members have a more open approach – shows don’t have to be fully finished or perfect, and there’s a huge curiosity for the small details discussed in the talks.

What do you look for when you are programming the festival?

We programme an experimental strand for students who want to present whatever they’re working on. In addition we have a professional programme, which is very much about offering a broad palette of different styles of puppetry. In the early years, we programmed groups with a strong reputation in their own country, but who hadn’t quite made their mark internationally. One such example was Blind Summit Theatre, which made its first appearance outside the UK at the festival.

I took this approach because when I went to other festivals, I found the same groups on tour. Whilst we wanted to remain small scale, we also wanted to be the first festival to invite certain companies. A lot of those groups have now been booked purely on the grounds of having performed at our festival. Programmers from around the world now look to us when they want something new – we’re seen as a slightly different platform, which I think is one of our biggest achievements.

What do you think it is about puppetry that really sparks people’s imagination?

It’s still quite new to many people, and there’s a lot of interest every time you present a new style of puppetry. It’s a different way of watching theatre. When you watch a really talented puppeteer, it’s easy to suspend your disbelief. The puppet can do anything, so if it suddenly starts flying to symbolise a dream, you accept it. Things that are a very challenging in a normal theatre can be done with little technical input when you use puppets. The presence of an object between the performer and the audience, brings another dimension to the staging: this means that puppet shows can go a bit further in their interpretation of subject matter.

Hooray for Hollywood
Hooray for Hollywood

A good example is Hooray for Hollywood by Puppet (R)Evolution – the show is inspired by the life of the director Raven Kaliana, who as a youngster was exploited by child pornographers in Hollywood. It features these really simple puppets playing the children – who remain expressionless and silent throughout. Actors play the adults, but you only see them from the torso down. Whenever I’ve seen that piece, I’ve been shattered for weeks. But I don’t think you’d get away with doing it in the same way in a traditional theatre, the puppet is capable of more.