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Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival

PUBLISHED: 07:22 26 September 2015 | UPDATED: 07:22 26 September 2015

Organisers Bethan Tomlinson and Linda Lewis

Organisers Bethan Tomlinson and Linda Lewis

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Meet Joey the War Horse, see a Punch & Judy Show and celebrate the lives of 18th-century local artists Jasper Sprange and George Smart at this one-day spectacular event

Think of puppets and for many people the image conjured up is of Punch and Judy on English beaches and comedy creations like The Muppets. Or perhaps a modern-day practitioner such as Nina Conti, the ventriloquist whose primary on-stage puppet sidekicks are a white-haired Scottish grandmother named Granny and a deadpan and somewhat sinister and deeply cynical monkey named Monk.

Puppetry is, however, an ancient art, believed to have originated 3000 years BC and used in almost all human societies both as entertainment and ceremonially in rituals and celebrations such as carnivals.

For many years puppets have been used with actors in such prestigious worlds as Glyndebourne, the English National Opera and famously, in the West End with the extraordinary impact of a show such as War Horse.

Which is why I’m sitting in Trinity Theatre, in the heart of Tunbridge Wells, chatting to the two charismatic women who are bringing the very first Puppetry Festival to this elegant spa town.

The festival has been in the planning for more than a year and is the collaboration of Tunbridge Wells resident Linda Lewis and Tonbridge-based Bethan Tomlinson from Strangeface Theatre Company.

With an arts career spanning 40 years, Linda dedicates her time to promoting, developing and connecting puppetry in the UK and was behind the popular Visions Brighton Puppetry Festival that drew thousands during its run from 2000 to 2004. It has always been Linda’s dream to bring new art forms to her home town and to give Tunbridge Wells its very own puppetry festival.

Bethan, meanwhile, established Tunbridge Wells-based Strangeface Theatre Company in 2001 with mask and puppet maker Russell Dean.

Their work has been seen in tiny village halls, residencies in mid-scale theatres, on a 13m haulage truck and even table tops across Kent in a project called Pubbetry, which served small-scale side orders on tables in cafés, pubs, garden centres and swimming pools.

The two make a formidable team and Linda tells me: “The aim of our festival is to show that there is so much more to this important and contemporary art form, and that there really is something for everyone, from young children to the young at heart and everyone else in between.

“Puppet theatre is often the preserve of bigger festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe, so we’re really looking forward to bringing it more into the mainstream and giving local people the chance to experience what these fantastic artists have to offer.”

Linda adds: “What we’re doing is bringing live performance to children who may never have seen a live performance before, and in a very accessible way. They can get a good experience and many of the events are free too, which means no one has to be excluded.

A huge coup for the organisers is that War Horse Joey himself – star of Michael Morpurgo’s beloved novel turned stage play - will open the festival, which takes place in venues across the town centre between 10am and 9 on Saturday 10 October.

The inaugural Festival, part of the nationwide Family Arts Festival, will bring together a programme of quality puppetry and animation events, including a brand new puppetry performance supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and commissioned especially for the Festival to celebrate the life and work of local Tunbridge Wells and Frant-based artists Jasper Sprange and George Smart.

With new research confirming that outdoor arts events draw wide support among local audiences and bring communities from diverse backgrounds together, the creators of the first Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival hope the day will bring the town alive and provide a platform to demonstrate the wealth of innovation emerging in new theatre.

They hope it will show how modern-day artists are taking puppetry into the 21st century and put Tunbridge Wells on the map as the place to come for high quality, nationally and internationally acclaimed live visual theatre work.

While its creators have kept this first festival intentionally small, there has been a lot of interest and support during the planning and it is hoped there will be scope for bigger and longer festivals in the future. See you there!

Look out for

Family shows by celebrated puppetry companies at Trinity Theatre, Toc H Hall and

St Barnabas School, plus workshops and cabaret performances at The Forum

A full day of free outdoor performances including Punch & Judy and other street art performances for everyone on The Pantiles

A new art commission with local and regional significance to celebrate the life and work of local Tunbridge Wells and Frant-based artists Sprange and Smart. Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and in collaboration with Tunbridge Wells Museum and Gallery, the performance will be premiered at the gallery on Saturday 10 October

Local street food and crafts with themed puppetry stalls on The Pantiles

Sprange and Smart

Jasper Sprange (1746-1823) was a Tunbridge Wells printer, bookseller, postmaster and librarian who preserved samples of his work in a series of albums, two of them surviving in Tunbridge Wells Museum. This remarkable collection gives a fascinating insight into the life of the residents and visitors at Tunbridge Wells in the late Georgian period.

Sprange published the first true tourist guide to Tunbridge Wells in 1780, containing detailed descriptions of the facilities available for visitors and the historic buildings and landscapes to be enjoyed in the surrounding countryside, as well as history and anecdotes relating to local characters.

George Smart (1775-1845) was a tailor based in Frant who made a profitable sideline out of producing amusing collage pictures of local characters from spare bits of fabric from his tailoring, pasted them on to a watercolour-painted background.

Smart’s pictures and figures were hugely popular as souvenirs, and even the town’s royal visitors bought them. He became something of a tourist attraction in his own right, and the Museum’s collection of Smart’s work recently featured in Tate Britain’s British Folk Art exhibition, which has prompted a reassessment of his significance as one the few named practitioners of folk art.

Find out more

Email: info@twpuppetryfestival.org

To book tickets go to www.twpuppetryfestival.org.

Follow TWPuppetryFest and see more at: www.facebook.com/twpuppetryfestival).

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