London's only purpose-built puppet theatre with shows for all ages. Founded in 1962 by John Wright we create shows celebrating puppetry that also travel nationally and internationally as well as hosting visiting shows. Next to the theatre stands the workshop where all the puppets are lovingly made by our puppet makers for our shows.
We caught up with Jimmy Grimes, director of our brand new production Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, to ask him about puppetry, creativity and Red Riding Hood.
What can you tell us about the puppetry in Red Riding Hood and the Wolf?
We are being told a story by Robyn, an 8 year old with a creative spirit that leads her to create all the characters, locations and effects within her bedroom. What I wanted to tap into was the commitment with which children play, the way in which they explore physicality through the movement of their toys and the freedom that this might bring to us as storytellers in theatre.
So the puppets are a combination of toys, characters built out of objects on stage and a couple of more specially prepared characters. As well as a new and engaging telling of the fairy tale I hope it might also inspire our audience members to go away and make their own stories with whatever they can find at home.
“The earliest inspiration for me is… Jim Henson’s creatures in ‘Labyrinth'”
As cliched as it sounds I often feel that, for me, performing with puppets is connected to a relationship with objects, toys and movement that began as a child. As a result I’m fascinated in the way we manipulate and play with objects as children and how that develops in complexity as we grow up and understand the world around us.
This retelling of the fairy tale has given me a chance to explore puppetry from a different angle to that which I’m usually found working in, where the focus is so often about aiming for something that looks utterly lifelike in its movement.
How have you developed the story for the stage?
I spent some time working with the writer, Jon Barton, to develop his retelling of the story into something that would work visually on stage. This has meant reworking the script in rehearsal as we devised the visual material based on the vision we established early on. With so much being discovered Charlotte, our performer and puppeteer, was learning new script changes daily, as well as learning the puppetry and so many other practical elements of the show intensely through the rehearsal.
A big part of the process has been working the ideas through with designer Alison Alexander, who has taken the concept we were exploring and made it into a reality. Add the composition of music by Adam Pleeth and lighting by Luis Alvarez and you have the whole set of creative minds who have been needed to make Red Riding Hood and the Wolf.
“Robyn is the kind of girl I’d like to have hung out with as a kid, she’s creative, a bit of a rule breaker and bursting with ideas.”
What was your favourite puppet from childhood?
It’s not quite the same as a puppet in theatre, but the earliest inspiration for me is certainly Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons from ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, and Jim Henson’s creatures in ‘Labyrinth’. They tickled my eye and imagination very I was very young and it was this interest that continued through my teens with ‘Wallace and Gromit’, learning how to animate figures myself, and eventually begin to explore the relationship between animation and live puppetry.
What stories do you remember from growing up and why?
I wasn’t a huge reader when I was younger, but something I’ve been increasingly aware of is how as a boy I felt alien to, or perhaps not encouraged to connect to, stories that were considered ‘for girls’. It’s one reason I really wanted to have our character Robyn leading us through our show. It’s important for me to be creating a piece with a female lead that speaks beyond that dated differentiation that seems to be compounded by so many influences. Robyn is the kind of girl I’d like to have hung out with as a kid, she’s creative, a bit of a rule breaker and bursting with ideas. I hope our audiences enjoy getting to know her.
What was the first theatre show you saw and how did it make you feel?
I have a vague memory of a terrible schools tour of what must have been ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ before I knew what Shakespeare was, and one of my sisters playing the snake in ‘The Jungle Book’. I certainly didn’t discover my calling from those experiences! But the thing that I feel really struck me was ‘Shockheaded Peter’ (directed by Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott) when I was about 18. It was a real visual treat and had songs and music by the Tiger Lillies. I’m sure it had a big influence on me.
I properly got interested in puppetry when I was invited into Spectrum Youth Theatre. It was my first time doing puppetry. I joined STY three years ago and was quite nervous at first but I soon got used to every one there and got used to it quite quickly. Maui’s Island was my first show I liked the puppets. A lot of the puppets were complex in design and they became quite lively during the show. It was definitely an enjoyable experience. Since then I have developed my sense of humour and throughout the time I have been at SYT I have developed my acting and drama skills (although that’s kind of a give away really!) I also met and made many great friends since I have been there, which is quite relevant to the next question – which is what do I enjoy most at SYT? I most enjoy coming to see my friends and it’s always fun and a pleasure meeting everyone there, including the adults!
“[Spectrum Youth Theatre] greatly helps with an autistic person’s communication”
I believe puppetry is an important art form for people on the spectrum because it enables you to work together as a team, not only to control the puppet but to decide the story and design of the shows. It also develops skills such as improvisation. It greatly helps with an autistic person’s communication, for example I think some of the members are now more confident comfortable and speak more more freely.
Beyond the Flash is our third and latest production. It follows the story of a boy named Joel. The story concept is flying set against a background of imagination. It is not too long but is very entertaining and also features one of my greatest creations which is ‘Banter Airlines’ which is definitely a reason why you should come and see it (your health and safety is not guaranteed!). As for the festival it is a great place to come and see this unique show because we are the only Autistic puppeteer group in the world and it shows us off to our best.
“puppetry is an important art form for people on the spectrum”
You are probably wondering why I am the King of Banter – well it’s a name that’s followed me around for a while now – I’m not sure how its origins came to be, but I have been obsessed with the word ‘Banter’ and it suits my excitable personality.
To end on a final quote don’t forget this …’Banter Airlines will always be a cross between Southern Rail and RyanAir’ It has the reliability of Southern Rail and the cost cutting prices of RyanAir.
Little Angel Theatres’ Spectrum Youth Theatre perform BEYOND THE FLASH at Autism Arts Festival on 30th April, at 2.30pm, at The Aphra Theatre, University of Kent, Canterbury.
We caught up with Jon Barton, writer of our brand new production Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, to ask him about what inspires him as a writer.
Little Angel Theatre: What was your favourite puppet from childhood?
Jon Barton: My favourite was Sweep from The Sooty Show. Sweep was a perpetually hapless dog who squeaks when he talked, but he always had an opinion, and always had something to say!
LAT: What was your favourite bedtime story and why?
JB: Roald Dahl’s Treasury were big hits in my house. The favourites were Revolting Rhymes and Fantastic Mr Fox. I loved that his writing could take you anywhere, there was an enthusiasm for imagination in those stories. Anything was possible. Danny The Champion of the World remains one of my favourite ever books, and I also love his adult writing. Tales of the Unexpected does exactly what it says on the tin. I also loved Dodos are Forever by Dick King Smith, Fox’s Feud by Colin Dann and The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark by Jill Tomlinson.
children make fresh discoveries every day… and the energy of that is infectious!
LAT: What was the first theatre show you saw and how did it make you feel?
JB: I didn’t go to the theatre until I was older. One of the first things I saw was DV8’s The Cost of Living, which was a physical theatre piece about two street performers. I loved it’s energy, it’s stage imagery, how it told a story through movement and articulation of bodies in time and space. This is something I return to often, thinking about what makes a story theatrical.
LAT: What inspires you?
JB: My influences always tend to combine characters and genre. Jim Henson has always loomed large; his ability to give life to inanimate objects, like brooms and washing machines. I gorged on Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation (Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlett). Those marionettes felt primitive but the characters were compelling. It is a constant reminder that story comes from character, and that the gesture of a puppet is to facilitate a character’s life. Ray Harryhausen was a master of this. Nick Park, Stan Winston, and Rick Baker all inspire my in different ways, whether it be working with plasticine, stop motion, or creature effects; but in the end I have to care about the characters. Tennessee Williams was a master of empathy.
LAT: What do you love about writing for children’s theatre?
Young audiences are the best and worst critics. If they don’t like something you know about it! It forces you to think about engaging the imagination. But if the audience enjoys a piece of theatre, they meet you halfway with their own imaginative sense of the world and they do it readily, sometimes without consciousness. I can’t approach writing for children, to then shift gears for adults. The distinction is children make fresh discoveries every day. They’re not approaching work from a fixed position and the energy of that is infectious! It’s what we’re trying to tap into with this production.
Because Red Riding Hood is synonymous with childhood, the question became, how do you stay faithful to the parable, but give it a mischievous spin?
LAT: What did you want to be when you were growing up?
JB: Everything! A vet, an animator, a cartoonist. For some reason I wanted to be a tree surgeon for a while. Then a detective. And Superman, for obvious reasons.
LAT: Where did you take your inspiration from for this version of Red Riding Hood & The Wolf?
JB: Roald Dahl has a knack for exploring What If questions. What If there was a giant peach, or witches were real and had no toes, or a giant blew dreams through your window? Because Red Riding Hood is synonymous with childhood, the question became, how do you stay faithful to the parable, but give it a mischievous spin? How do you make something expected unexpected? I’m inspired by stories with rascally heroes. The Roly-Poly Bird in The Twits springs to mind, and the Wolf has always been a rascal to me. Perspective plays a major part in writing for children if there’s a universal problem to tangle with; and it is fundamental to the puppetry element at the heart of this show. So I was also inspired by theatre shows that play with perspective in puppetry. Light Theatre’s The Magic Beanstalk did this brilliantly in which the puppeteers became both giant and accomplice. I’m drawn to the unexpected in any theatre I see, but ultimately I was inspired to create a version I think I’d love to have seen when I was younger.
We asked Oliver Smart, professional Puppeteer, Director of Folded Feather Theatre Company and Little Angel Theatre tutor extraordinaire, to tell us a bit about his forthcoming one day Introduction to Puppetry Performancecourse (Sunday 19th March, 10am – 5pm, Little Angel Studios).
This workshop continues to be one of our most popular adult courses, so – what can participants expect? Over to you Oli…
My aim on this course is to introduce as much about puppetry as is possible in a six hour, action packed day.
The day begins with an introductory session where many different puppetry styles and techniques are demonstrated and discussed, then we go hands on and try these ideas out.
“This one day crash course is a chance to simply throw ourselves, hands first, into this extraordinary medium.”
Often there is a degree of trepidation surrounding how to start the puppetry journey, this one day crash course is a chance to simply throw ourselves, hands first, into this extraordinary medium.
Rather than concentrating intensively on one puppetry style we will uncover the fundamental techniques which allow any puppet to be presented with dynamic rhythm and breath.
Participants range from seasoned theatrical practitioners to those who just feel the creative urge to try something new.
There is ample opportunity for conversations focused on puppetry projects which participants may be already involved in, or dreaming towards.
It will be a lot of fun!
There are still a few places available on Oli’s course – to find out more or to make a booking, visit our website or call the Box Office on 0207 226 1787.
words by Jon Barton, writer of ‘Red Riding Hood and the Wolf’ a new production for ages 5+ at Little Angel Theatre this spring.
It is a cautionary tale for all time. A little girl in a red cloak, hoodwinked by a Big Bad Wolf. There are countless variations of Red Riding Hood. It has been told and retold all over the world. But my earliest memory of the story was not the traditional one. Picture if you will, a chubby little boy tucked into bed with dreams of staying up quashed, not by exhaustive attempts at doing so, but by the pleasure of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. It is one of my fondest memories of my father, relishing every word adopting the voice of the characters. It was pure Theatre in the making.
What if I could breathe fresh life into the story, enhancing its power, the way my father enhanced it for me?
The genius of Revolting Rhymes is simple. What if there were other versions of known stories, where the seven dwarves bet on the horses and Miss Hood kept a pistol in her knickers? It is no coincidence that Dahl gave villains the driest wit, and my father performed the Wolf’s dulcet drawling dialogue with aplomb. Perhaps it is why the Wolf has always stayed with me; not as a villain, but as unlikely hero to my father and me.
When Samantha Lane, Little Angel Theatre’s Artistic Director, asked me to write a new version of Red Riding Hood, I leapt at the chance. But why alter the story? Why mess with a winning formula? Perhaps channelling the Wolf, I toyed with another viewpoint. What if I could breathe fresh life into the story, enhancing its power, the way my father enhanced it for me? It was also of course, an opportunity to vindicate the Wolf. After all, why was he alone in the wood, when wolves hunt in packs in the wild? Can he help the way he’s been drawn in parables?
The Wolf as Hero. This is the beating heart of our new production at Little Angel Theatre.
I have always loved stories. The good ones have ways of lodging themselves. Of wending into your mind and finding a quiet corner. Storytelling is transactional. That is what gives it potency. Stories live for the telling, and mean all things to all people in the moment of that telling. This is the reason we go to the Theatre: to bear witness to a live moment. The nature of its power rests, finally, in the audience beholding it.
Now imagine, if you will, a little girl who cannot relate to the kind sweet and perfect child that everyone loves in the fable. Instead she relates to the Wolf, maligned and misunderstood. The Wolf as Hero. This is the beating heart of our new production at Little Angel Theatre. The story of a misfit who, wanting to fit in, finds a kindred spirit in the Wolf. Devised from the contents of a little girl’s bedroom, our show is a made-up world of make believe. Of storytelling and shadow puppetry. Of rhyming verse and mischief. A celebration of Fairy Tales, and our thirst for the formative experience they provide. Focusing on a relationship between a little girl and a gentle Wolf, our production explores the way we tell stories to understand the joys and horrors of the world. To discover the nature of empathy. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of the stories we tell to each other.
And so, in homage and with greatest respect to what came before, we invite you to Love the Wolf in our version of events. Perhaps he can hoodwink us all over again.
Red Riding Hood and the Wolf opens on 27th April 2017. Find out more and book your tickets HERE.
In Christmas 2010 my then one year old daughter Olive got a book for Christmas, Dogs Don’t Do Ballet.
For a while it sat in a pile with other bedtime story books.
After reading it the first it began working its way to the front of the pile more and more often. My wife Andrea and I were as likely to pick it as the girl.
The irrepressible character of the little dog who wants to dance, the sharp illustrations, the mix of elegance and slapstick and the message that we can be whatever we want, all combined to make something that felt ripe for translating to the stage.
Two years later we’d put together a fantastic team and managed to create a show which performed for two years at the theatre and on nationwide tours. We threw a booster seat in the front of the transit, and the whole family went up and down the country together. By the time the girl started school she’d travelled more than I had as a student.
This spring we’re delighted to be bringing it out of storage and putting it back onstage.
The show is a rich blend of classical ballet and pantomime chaos, pathos and clowning. We worked with a Russian Olympic gymnast, a dancer from the Diaghilev ballet, one of the world’s leading puppeteers and even our very own Front of House Manager playing piano by ear.
Here’s to another season of Biff the pug, dancing lollipops and kazoos.
Written by David Duffy, Head of Production
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