FOR years, long-standing puppetry company Dowtcha Puppets was a fixture in Cork: set up in 2002 by Cork punk legend Mick Lynch and his Australian co-founder Cliff Dolliver, Dowtcha’s puppet shows and workshops were a regular children’s diversion at festivals and events throughout Cork county and beyond.
But following Mick Lynch’s sad loss to cancer in 2015 and Cliff Dolliver’s return to his native Tasmania in 2019, there was a gaping, puppet-shaped hole in Cork’s arts landscape.
Enter Elisa Gallo Rosso, who has rallied former Dowtcha puppeteers, newcomers and an assortment of collaborating artists to found Cork Puppetry Company, which will step into Dowtcha’s shoes to bring puppetry and puppet-making to the people of Cork.
The Italian maker, puppeteer, performer and clown is artistic director with the new company; originally from Turin, she moved to Cork five years ago, after many years of working and performing in London and Portugal.
Cork Puppetry Company was founded in January, 2020, Elisa explains. When the Covid-19 crisis started shortly afterwards, the fledgling arts organisation found themselves temporarily grounded.
“Right at the beginning of starting a new company, let’s say that Covid didn’t help,” Elisa says with a laugh.
“We were quiet for a long time, but we began working again for the St Patrick’s Festival in Cork and Dublin, where we presented some workshops online.
“We used the quiet time as incubation time, writing applications, getting funding and working on our website: we’ve been investing in ourselves and exploring what we want to do.
"And now, it’s exciting, because there are loads of things going on. We’ve been quiet for a year and now, boom! We’re busy.”
Elisa’s involvement with Cork’s puppetry scene started when she rented a studio at the Marina Park’s Outlaw Studios, where Dowtcha Puppets were also based. Puppetry is a unique artform in that it’s as much about making as performing, and she’s keen to keep that loose collaboration with artists going.
“We want to work more like a flexible platform for artist collaborators, who have puppetry as a main medium, but also work on things like parades, performance and events,” she says.
“The community of artists is great and very supportive. Outlaw Studios was the best base I could find when I ended up here.”
Cork Puppetry Company are also going to take up the reins of Cork Puppetry Festival, Ireland’s only puppetry festival, featuring international and Irish puppeteers and performances. Dowtcha Puppets had founded the festival in 2014. This year’s iteration will be a small festival while the newcomers find their feet.
So what does all this mean for Cork children and adults who are fans of puppetry? What can we expect on our streets?
The company’s first large outing is as part of the upcoming Cork Midsummer Festival, when they will take over a city park and, with the help of local children, aged five to 12, will transform it into a cosmic celebration of planets and aliens. Star Me: A Planetary Game will take over Gerry O’Sullivan Park in Churchfield for two weeks, Elisa explains.
“We’re making the park a site for UFOs and aliens,” she says.
"We’ll be asking kids to look around at the things they can find around the park: there will be a map that they can download and they can mark where they saw aliens and suggest names for them.
“We’ll have an area where kids can leave messages to aliens, and another area for building asteroids and spaceships.
“We’re interested in making sure the kids are not only looking around at their surroundings, but also envisioning other worlds beyond our knowledge.”
Originally inspired by the famous children’s book The Little Prince, Elisa and her fellow artists and puppeteers decided to expand the theme to include children who may not be familiar with the book, so that all children can get involved in making their own interplanetary installations.
But for fans of The Little Prince, sculptures of the prince, the rose and the fox will be amongst those on the mapped trail in the park.
“There will also be nine planets to find, which will be a combination of sculptures and stencils on the ground,” Elisa says.
“It will be fun, and colourful, definitely.”
The treasure trail format of the installation is designed to comply with social distancing guidelines while still providing all the imaginative inspiration children usually get from puppet shows.
For those who work in live performance, meeting the challenges posed by the guidelines so that live art events can be successfully re-started means a lot of extra thought and work.
“Oh, even just the risk assessments are incredible,” Elisa says.
“It’s just so much more work to do. But it’s worth it.
“We held our first in-person workshop two weeks ago, after having postponing it several times over the year, and it was amazing. Finally, to go back to something real, even at two metres distance, is fantastic, Oh my God! I can’t wait for more.”
Star Me: A Planetary Game, by Cork Puppetry Company, in collaboration with local schoolchildren, will be in Gerry O’Sullivan Park, Churchfield, as part of Cork Midsummer Festival from June 12 to 27. See https://www.corkmidsummer.com/whats-on/star-me-a-planetary-game