In praise of puppets

This feature was orginally written for the BBC News website

Puppetry is more popular with London audiences than ever, and it’s appealing to adults as well as kids. Found down a secret passageway, Islington’s Little Angel Theatre has been doing pioneering things with puppets for 50 years. It’s the centre of the capital’s puppetry scene.

When founders John and Lyndie Wright first discovered the old temperance hall that was to become the Little Angel, it was a wreck. The roof had caved in and there were trees growing in the auditorium. With love and care they transformed it into a marionette theatre with a workshop attached.

If you walk along Dagmar Passage you could get a glimpse inside that workshop. Hung about with puppet parts, with a rich smell of freshly carved wood, it’s a childhood dream of a place. The theatre makes all its own puppets on site, and takes commissions too. It also runs a range of courses and classes, determined to keep the art of puppet-making alive.

Lighting is especially crucial in a puppet show and is often about isolating intricate details, like a tiny head or limb. The theatre recently got new lights, which have transformed what the backstage team can do. Up a ladder, in a tree-house-like tech box, the technical manager can now perform all kinds of wizardry.

The stage itself is small but deep, and there are two marionette bridges from where hidden puppeteers can manipulate long strings. Five decades since it was founded, things in the theatre have changed, but the familial atmosphere remains. Lyndie and her daughter Sarah are both puppet-makers and have created characters for The Tempest, which has just transferred from the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Artistic Director, Peter Glanville has the task of re-blocking The Tempest for their snug space – the Little Angel is about a fifth of the size of the Swan. He stands in a rehearsal room, surrounded by sculptural waves that look like the carcass of a boat, and works out a plan.

“We’re bringing Shakespeare to a younger audience” he explains. “The story was ideally suited to puppetry. There’s a lot happening visually that will seduce a younger crowd and mean they’re not frightened by the Shakespearean language.”

While the Little Angel produces many child friendly shows, puppetry isn’t just for kids. “One of my primary aims has been to finally dispel that myth” says Peter. “Part of the reason we set up the Suspense Puppetry Festival in 2009 was a resurgence in work being created for adults. The public’s interest and thirst for it is growing, and the festival will return this autumn.”

“We have weekly evening classes and a programme of work for adult audiences, and they all sell out. Everywhere I look there seems to be puppetry integrated into work – Avenue Q, Warhorse, Madame Butterfly. Now is the time to celebrate the quality and range of work that’s being created for adults.”

Defined as bringing an inanimate object to life for performance, puppetry is a fluid thing. There are puppeteers pushing the boundaries all the time, telling stories with found objects and working with sand, clay, newspaper, even eggs.

“There are purists who think that if it’s not a clear character, with a recognisable form, then it’s not puppetry. But people within the puppetry sector have a very wide view. We’re continually questioning what the form is and how traditions can be maintained but also made contemporary” says Peter.

While Peter Glanville feels that surviving for 50 years is a huge achievement, and that the Little Angel is as popular as it’s ever been, he feels disheartened about their funding situation. At a time of sweeping cuts across the board, it’s not surprising that the Little Angel is suffering along with many other arts organisations. But Peter believes puppetry is having an especially hard time.

“The two main building-based puppet organisations in the UK – Little Angel and Norwich Puppet Theatre – have just been told we don’t have a penny between us. It’s very saddening. The days when people thought puppetry was just some kind of Punch and Judy booth show are long gone. The public and the theatre world get it, but why don’t the Arts Council? Why is there resistance?”

Despite this, Peter doesn’t think the Little Angel’s future at 50 is bleak. “I am full of hope for the future and I’m excited about how we can continue to grow.”

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