Suspense Festival  takes place at the Little Angel Theatre, and showcases the best puppetry on offer at the moment. A Younger Theatre sat down with Festival Director, Slavka Jovanović to find out more about why London is such a great place for the festival, what younger audiences can see at Suspense and who her favourite act will be.

A Younger Theatre: What is Suspense Festival for those who haven’t heard of the event before? 

Slavka Jovanović: Suspense Festival started in 2009, with the purpose of raising the profile of puppetry as an art form for adult audiences. We have 13 partner venues in London and across England, as well as a partnership with the Festival of Wonder in Denmark. We are delighted to host 39 companies, including five international companies as well as ten student/emerging companies as part of the new Boiler Room strand.

AYT: How has the festival changed since its conception in 2009?

SJ: This year the festival is bigger, brighter and bolder!

It’s a cabinet of curiosities packed full of stories to suit all tastes and sensibilities, and in order to help you navigate the programme we have split the brochure into four sections: Wisdom & Wonder; Skulls & Skeletons; Fairies & Goblins; Trick or Treat. There are amazing opportunities to see world-class puppetry on the London Stage.

Brand new for 2015 we have a strand called The Boiler Room, which gives a platform to emerging young companies. In addition to this we are also taking suspense festival in to theatres the regions for the first time, with performances at Tom Thumb Theatre (Margate), Slung Low (Leeds) and Lawrence Batley Theatre (Huddersfield).

There is also an over-arching them to this year’s festival which is “Old Masters: New makers”. Throughout the diverse programme we are honouring the past as well as celebrating the present, and exploring what the future of puppetry might look like.

AYT: Why is London a good place to host Suspense Festival?

SJ: London is a fabulous place to hold Suspense Festival because it has such a great history with regard to showcasing puppetry and animation (as well as great transport links!) It allows us to build on partnerships with venues that traditionally support the art form of puppetry, as well as encourage new supporters each year, for example this year we welcome Print Room at The Coronet and Camden People’s Theatre into the fold.

However, I am particularly excited that we have stepped out into the regions and we are hoping that the puppetry bug will continue to spread nationwide. There is a special meeting of programmers from around the country to see how we can build stronger networks to tour puppetry to adult audiences in the regions.

AYT: What can younger audiences, 16 to 25, get out of Suspense Festival? 

SJ: I don’t want to patronise younger audiences by suggesting a particular route through the festival. All I would like to say is be bold and brave and dive into the programme.

There’s a heady concoction of great stories out there from a range of theatre companies, using puppetry and animation in all its various and diverse formats. Expect the weird and the wonderful. There are poignant tales of ageing, dementia and illness as well as fun cabarets, bonkers buskers and friendly nights out.

If money is a consideration, then look out for our multi-buy deals when booking all your tickets through the Suspense website (up to 25% off in some cases). Also there’s the fabulous Boiler Room strand at The Pleasance and The Rosemary Branch, where tickets are only £5.

AYT: How did you commission the works and decide on the programming?

SJ: The programming starts almost as soon as the last festival finishes. The team at Little Angel Theatre are always going to see shows at festivals and venues in the UK and abroad. There is also a wonderful network of international festival programmers who share knowledge about shows and events. We go and see as many shows as we can and measure them against our criteria. Normally the shows are finished pieces of work that tell a great story through puppetry.

We also consider diverse range of puppetry, scale of production, logistics and cost. With the Boiler Room strand for emerging/student companies we circulated a call for proposals through universities, colleges and social media earlier this year, and then used a similar selection procedure to the one already mentioned.

AYT: Where do you see Handspring Puppet Company fitting into the current landscape of puppeteers?

SJ: Handspring Puppet Company are, of course, masters in the field, Founded in 1981 by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the company has been at the vanguard of the puppetry movement since then, presenting hard-hitting and beautiful stories through puppetry to audiences around the world. They have a strong commitment to training performers, designers and makers, as well as a commitment to working with the community at large. They are massively loved and respected by the puppetry community.

In addition to this, what they have done for the art form of puppetry through the collaboration with the National Theatre to create “Warhorse” has been immense. To see puppets featuring centre stage at the National Theatre, in the West End and on tour across the UK has been phenomenal. They have opened the door for puppetry to be taken seriously as an art form.

AYT: What is your one highlight from this year’s festival?

SJ: This is a very unfair question! Just think about it…if I give you one highlight…the other 38 companies are going to shoot me! However…..

I will take this opportunity to mention one company that is very close to my heart – Little Angel Youth Theatre. Over the last 7 years myself and Sarah Schofield (Education Officer at Little Angel) have been nurturing this young company, and we are so proud of how far they have come in this time. They have been working with director Oliver Hymans for the last two years and have created the most extraordinary productions.

AYT: Another hard question! What is the best puppeteer work you have ever seen on stage? 

SJ: I have been in the business for 25 years…so, as you might imagine, I have seen a LOT of puppetry. Once again you have presented me with a very difficult question.

Like theatre or dance, puppetry is a huge and diverse landscape. That’s why it is so exciting to have a festival, like suspense, which is wholly dedicated to the art form. In terms of my taste – I love it all! I particularly love the work of the great masters, and I get a thrill from seeing the detail and skill that goes into operating marionettes, for example Stephen Mottram’s “The Seed Carriers”, which is on at the Pleasance in the festival. I also love the magic of shadow theatre and object theatre, such as the work of Colette Garrigan, who is also appearing at the Pleasance., and Yael Rasooly at JW3.

By contrast I have this crackpot side. I recently saw an anarchic punk puppetry show with no “puppets” in it. It was by Dutch company Bot and was part of the Bristol Puppetry Festival. I loved it because they started with an empty room and, little by little, over the space of an hour, they animated the whole space (and the audience!) by introducing the most extraordinary objects, instruments and automota to us. Their energy and enthusiasm was palpable. The whole space was alive. Some might have been disappointed, having expected a marionette or wood carved table-top puppet, but most were moved by the energy imbued in the crazy musical instruments and objects.

Discover the world of puppetry at the Suspense Festival at the Little Angel Theatre 29th October to 8th November.