Puppetry Isn’t Just For Kids

The day before the theatre’s first production of The Tempest, during a dress rehearsal of the production

we sat down with Lynette Shanbury, manager of the Little Angel Theatre. With Shakespearian characters’ echoing through the walls and the occasional appearance of one running past, we discussed the theatre’s future, it’s 50th anniversary and how it isn’t necessarily a theatre for children.

Off Islington’s Upper Street, behind a church and sandwiched between gardens and a cobbled street sits The Little Angel Theatre. Now celebrating it’s 50th Anniversary, the Little Angel Theatre is hosting it’s most ambitious programme yet. The day before the theatre’s first production of The Tempest, during a dress rehearsal we sat down with Lynette Shanbury, manager of the Little Angel Theatre.

On Saturday the 24th of November, John and Lydie Wright opened the doors of the Little Angel Theatre. Previously an abandoned temperance hall, the Little Angel Theatre as initially designed for marionette shows. Over the years, the intended productions for the theatre have not changed. It is presently the only puppetry theatre in London and one of three in the UK. Despite no longer running the theatre, original owner Lyndie Wright still creates puppets for the theatre’s productions an remains involved in the theatre in numerous other ways. “She’s one of the founder’s of the theatres so she’s hugely important to the spirit and history of the theatre and as are her children who have going into the arts themselves. Lyndie’s been involved in a huge number of productions both as puppeteer, puppet-maker, designer, director over the years an will continued to do so this year as it’s our 50th anniversary. She’s intimately involved in everything that goes on.”

“it’s very important that we can both work independently and move on and develop new activities for the theatre as well and maintaing that link to the strength of history it’s got and that we keep the quality of everything that’s been created over so many years going.”

Between the 9th of April and the 15th of May, the Little Angel Theatre collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a production of The Tempest directed by the theatre’s artistic director, Peter Glanville. This show features among Lynette Shanbury’s favourites. “I have to say that The Tempest is definitely on my list which is on now, one of other favourites is our previous co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company which was Venus and Adonis, which was just beautiful. It was very much for an adult audience, it was an erotic love poem by Shakespeare that we created this production around.”

The Tempest is one of a number of shows that form part of the Little Angel Theatre’s 50th anniversary programme, “coming up after The Tempest we’ve got The Magician’s Daughter which was written by Michael Rosen who’s one of our patrons. On the 9th of July we’ve got a big, free community party which we hold every Summer, and that’s going to be extra big this year. In September we have a production called ‘The Wild Night of the Witches’ which is the very first production ever put on here and that’s a long string marionette show and we’re bringing that back using a company of up and coming trainee marionettists, keeping that art-form alive. And then, for Christmas-time we’re working with Mike Shepherd from Kneehigh Theatre to create a new Christmas show and Lyndie and Sarah and Joe are woking on that as well.”

It is easy to assume that the Little Angel Theatre is a children’s theatre as the realm of puppetry, among British audiences, can bring to mind an activity for children. Puppet shows can oft bring to mind the ever so British Punch and Judy show in some seaside town surrounded by a mass of amused children. I personally made this error, in asking whether many adults attend the shows without children, Lynette Shanbury responded, “It’s interesting you say that because we’re not primarily a children’s theatre, we’re primarily a puppetry theatre, so everything we do is puppetry. What age-group that’s for is variable, however, it is true to say that probably 70% of our work throughout the year is aimed at family audiences and is suitable for children. For example, The Tempest which we’re about to open tomorrow is suitable for a minimum age of 7, but it’s certainly suitable for an 11 year old but it’s just as suitable for a 50 year old to come to. We do work that is about puppetry and about good drama and we just happen to say that it is sometimes aimed at children.”

“I think that there’s a misconception in this country that puppetry is primarily a children’s thing, that’s something we’re trying to challenge, and have been for a long time. If you go to other countries, for example on continental Europe, puppetry is seen just as much for adults as it is for children. That’s something we’re really trying to challenge in this country and I think with things like Warhorse and Avenue Q in the West End, that is being challenged, and we’re working towards making sure people feel that even as an adult that can still see our shows.”

November sees the continuation of the Suspense festival, a festival the Little Angel Theatre began in 2009. “Suspense is a festival we created which is about exploding the myth that puppetry is just for children, so, it’s all about work for adults. We began it in 2009 and it’s going to be very 2 years and this year we’re working with 10 different venues across 10 days and we’re looking to involve 30 different companies from both abroad and across the UK. It’s a massive festival, we’re very excited. We were very pleased with how the first festival went and we’re hoping we can match it again.”

The Little Angel Theatre is committed to promoting puppetry as an art as well as upcoming puppeteers. Recently, the theatre began the Little Angel Associate Scheme, “We as an organisation want to support the art form as much as possible and means we’ve got support new puppeteers, new puppet maker to make sure the skill are maintained in this country and that it keeps going. One of the things we find is that a lot of upcoming puppeteers find it really difficult to find the time and money to hire space, to get workshop space, to be able to afford training and to find opportunities to showcase their work, so we wanted to provide that opportunity in an ongoing way. So, the associates scheme is an annual activity, it’s by application, and we’re waiting and were very pleased that Jonny Storey is our first ever associate.”

Despite having such an impressive programme for 2011, Lynette has no fears that the theatre may not be able to outgo itself in the future, “We can always do more, you’ve got to be ambitious, especially in the current economic climate. If you’re not ambitious, and you don’t find ways t make things happen, you then just atrophy and that’s not good for an arts organisation which needs to be constantly changing. So, we do put ourselves under pressure, but we think it’s worth it.”

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