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Case Study: The Pittsburgh Black Sheep Avant Garde Puppet Festival

In 1999 a group of Brew House artists and students from Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh had the idea to hold a puppet festival in Pittsburgh. No festival of this kind was in existence, but there were a quite few artists who enjoyed making puppets (especially out of scrap metal) This group had many advantages, they were talented people with plenty of time on their hands, they were passionate about their goal, they had a space to hold the performance in (The Brew House, Space 101)

Since it was such a small group of people who had committed themselves to the project, they all pretty much “knew” what they were trying to do. The festival had a mission statement, but it wasn’t written down anywhere. It was somehow a part of the unspoken vision of the founders.

The trouble was that outside of the initial group of dreamers most of the people involved in the festival had no clue what the mission was. “To popularised avant grade puppetry in Pittsburgh?” “to give Pittsburgh artists a chance to showcase their work in puppetry” “to reach out to the children of Pittsburgh with puppets” All seemed possible, but it wasn’t clear which came first. This lead to [quarrelling’ and time wasting. Why did the ‘youth outreach’ portion of the program receive no help in advertising? why were non-Pittsburgh armatures paid travel expenses, per diem and production costs, but production cost were not covered for any Pittsburgh artists? What was the criteria being used to select the material?

All of the decisions made by the festivals founders (effectively a board of directors) could have been easily supported by a mission statement. Rather than upsetting a great number of people, they could have simply say “here are our goals, we doing this because it helps to to meet our goals, this dose not . . .etc.”

Besides, not having a clear mission statement the publicity for the shows was poorly planned and frequently failed to let the public know how good the work might be. For example one puppet piece continued a 12 foot tall fire ball shooting puppet. it was billed under something like:

Pretentiously Long Title That is Still Confusing
an exploration of the self

From the description you would never know that there had been a 12 foot tall fire ball shooting puppets are the kind of thing people show up for. Good publicity must let the public know what an event is and why they might want to see it. A better billing might have read:

SEE 12 FOOT TALL FIRE BALL SHOOTING PUPPETS
in
Pretentiously Long Title That is Still Confusing
an exploration of the self

Similarly, there were youth events but many of the the schools were not notified. One show featured a live jazz orchestra. Considering how popular jazz has become it seems that putting that in the billing might have been foremost on the producers minds. But, and to some extent understandably, the producers as artists were more concerned with the quality of the work than finding the audience to see it. Unfortunately, for a great show,you have to do both.

In the end, the project suffered from a lack of a committed manager of any kind who was only a manager. Perhaps a recent graduate from one of the local universities will consider taking over the festival and whipping this yearly event into shape.

The people involved were wise enough to realise that the operation needed to be managed but they felt that they could do it themselves while attending to other artistic concerns. Since everyone involved was an artists by profession, the management duties were constantly neglected. “A calendar? . . . as soon as I finish soddering this!” “A mission statement? we don’t have time! we have to be at rehearsal”

Devotion to art is what’s expected of artists, but until they are properly managed they will not receive the recognition and audiences they deserve. (and need)

Since 1999 the puppet festival has happened two more times, and while I have not been back to Pittsburgh, I hear that it has received more of the recognition it deserves, though it is still woefully underpublicized.

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