Little Angel's 60th Anniversary

22 11 2021

Samantha Lane. Photo: Ellie Kurttz

First of all congratulations on sixty five years... is there anything about Little Angel's aesthetic or culture that has enabled such longevity?

Samantha Lane: Everyone remembers their favourite childhood puppet - whether from screen or stage - and so a puppet show can create a feeling of nostalgia and warmth. And puppets are also incredibly magical. Children believe that the puppets are real; and adults are amazed that they are sucked into the reality of the puppet whilst simultaneously acknowledging that it isn’t real. For me, this is innate theatricality. 

There really is no other medium like it and it is why puppetry has a universal appeal. I think that the fact that Little Angel is a puppet theatre - with all the nostalgia, warmth, magic and theatricality associated with puppetry - is what makes it so special and keeps people coming back time and time again.

When the theatre was created in 1961, there was nothing else like it around - a joyous and unique place. And this uniqueness, as well as the spirit of innovation that its founders and subsequent leaders have prioritised, keep it fresh and relevant and alive. It is so heart-warming to see grandparents and parents, who came to the theatre when they were young, now bringing their grandchildren and children.

In recent years, has Little Angel had to adapt or change its remit?

Samantha Lane: Little Angel has inevitably adapted and changed over time.  Each new artistic leader has brought something fresh and different to the table.  The theatre started as a marionette theatre in 1961, when a troupe of enthusiastic puppeteers under the leadership of South African master, John Wright, found a derelict temperance hall in Islington and transformed it into a magical little theatre, specially designed for children and for the presentation of marionette shows.

Little Angel Theatre opened on Saturday 24th November, 1961.  Under John’s leadership, the Little Angel company created and performed over 30 full-scale shows. They toured all over the UK and abroad, absorbed new styles by participating in International puppet festivals (including Europe, USA and the Far East), collaborated with musicians (including Daniel Barenboim and Robert Zeilger) on large-scale productions for the South Bank and Barbican Centres, and provided a constant source of inspiration and training for a new generation of puppeteers and performers. Those in the know still find their way to Dagmar Passage from all over the world.

Whilst we are very excited to be one of very few buildings who can boast a marionette bridge, let alone a double bridge, we are committed to championing and presenting puppetry in all of its forms.  Indeed, a defining moment in the theatre’s history was when Christopher Leith added the forestage, opening up the possibility of presenting other forms of puppetry , beyond marionettes.  Indeed, after John Wright died in 1991, the work of the theatre continued apace under the direction of Lyndie Wright and Christopher Leith (AD 1992-2000), a renowned puppeteer who had learned his craft at Little Angel. They encouraged new collaborations with writers, directors and musicians, including John Agard, Ken Campbell, Howard Gayton and Henk Shut, to produce a succession of innovative and highly acclaimed shows.  

The theatre was briefly run by renowned puppeteer, Steve Tiplady (from 2003 to 2005) and from 2006 to 2013 by Peter Glanville, which saw collaborations with the RSC (Venus and Adonis) and Kneehigh (A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings).

Under my leadership, the theatre has also grown considerably.  We have opened a fully functioning second site (which includes invaluable spaces for rehearsals, R&D, community projects, education, professional development, puppet making and a black box studio for programming work – again enabling the presentation of new forms beyond end-on work). 

In the last 5 years, the theatre’s output and turnover has doubled, creating more co-productions than ever before and more new work than ever before, and reaching far more people (2019/20 was our most successful year yet, with more productions on our stages and more audiences reached than ever before – 97, 280 people).  

We obviously needed to change our remit quite dramatically during the pandemic.  Despite physically closing our doors on 17 March 2020, we wanted to continue to offer something positive and so we began fundraising and refocusing our energy on reaching our audiences across the UK digitally.  

We launched our digital programme, WATCH, MAKE and SHARE.   This was not an attempt to put our live shows online – we knew we couldn’t replicate their live quality as they were made to be performed in front of an audience – instead, we focussed on making work specifically for the screen for children and their families to WATCH at home, along with videos and downloadable guides to encourage them to MAKE at home, using things they could find in their homes or could source easily.  They were then encouraged to SHARE these with us on our online gallery. It was important that the content wasn’t just passive, but encouraged active participation too.  

Through this programme, we were also able to continue to support freelance artists, and ultimately the wider ecology of the theatre sector.  This work continues to date, and we have been overwhelmed by the response that we have received to our content which has been viewed and shared hundreds of thousands of times all over the UK and in over 90 countries across the globe. 

And to the puppetry...

What is it that attracted you to puppetry, and has that inspiration deepened or changed across the years?

Samanatha Lane: For me, puppetry is the purest form of theatre as it asks so much more of its audience.  We are asking them to believe that an inanimate object is alive – to completely suspend their disbelief – and, if we are successful, then magic happens.  Much like our digital programme, it is an active form, not a passive one, because the audience have to work at it too.  I have always been interested in theatre that is innately theatrical – and so it was inevitable that this would lead me to puppetry.  I am especially fond of object manipulation, and/or puppets made from found objects as they ask even more of the audience – really asking them to sit up and buy into the fact that an old slipper is a rat in a sewer or an upturned mop is a head of hair.

What allows Little Angel's puppetry to have both a versatile approach to content and themes, and such a concern with contemporary issues?

Samantha Lane: I really think that the organisation’s culture is based on that spirit of innovation that started with John Wright, and has continued over the years.  It forces us to take risks, push harder and try new things.  We have two very different spaces, which allow for the making and presentation of a variety of forms for a variety of ages, and we have a dedicated core staff team and family of freelancers who challenge, excite and support the theatre.

I think if you ask most British adults about puppetry, they would either talk fondly about their own favourite TV puppet character, or they might talk about seeing a Punch and Judy show at the seaside – but I doubt any would define these as current British puppetry.  I actually think that the richness of the sector in the UK comes from the fact that there are many different forms and lots of artists are creating excellent, but often very different, work – many on a shoestring.  

The success of shows like War Horse has certainly put puppetry back on the map – and the current fashion for puppets that are operated by puppeteers in full view (rather than black light theatre) is probably what most British adults are familiar with.  At the moment, I can think of at least four West End theatre shows that are using puppetry in them in some way, however in a mainstream context this is usually to aid the narrative rather than being central to the narrative.     


There May Be A Castle runs from 13 November – 23 January. 

The Storm Whale runs from 19 November – 30 January