Fringe Focus: Little Angel, puppet theatre

Welcome to another instalment of Fringe Focus, looking at the smaller theatre concerns across London and nearby. Today it is the turn of the Little Angel, in Islington, which opened in 1961. It was founded by John and Lyndie Wright as a puppet theatre for children (to see it as it was in early days check out Marionette Theatre (1964) on British Pathe’s YouTube channel).

I chatted to Peta Swindall, the theatre’s executive director, to find out more about this charming venue, its history, and the recently announced anniversary season.

Peta Swindall with Little Angel artistic director Samantha Lane. Image by Ellie Kurttz.
Peta Swindall with Little Angel artistic director Samantha Lane. Image by Ellie Kurttz.

Congratulations on your 60th anniversary! How has the Little Angel evolved since its early days?

PS: In many ways the spirit of the theatre remains the same – wanting to inspire and engage young people and elevating the art of puppetry (both making and performing).

The venue has grown over the years, both in terms of reach and scale – we now have a new building (a disused community centre) where we can offer different staging opportunities, as well as host many of our workshops and classes and which acts as a base for our community outreach programme.

We also work closely with schools around the country, and have a dedicated partnership programme for our most local schools.

We have an active digital strand to our work now too which has been accelerated by the lockdown, and has developed a whole new audience, stretching around the world, with productions and accompanying puppet making activities inspiring and engaging young audiences in more than 90 countries, with over 750,000 views of the 140 videos that we have created for our YouTube channel

You have made available a lot of work while theatres have been closed, and this continues. What has been your favourite project from this time? 

PS: I’ve been really proud of all the digital content that we have produced, and the reach that we have achieved – the Jon Klassen series of shows was a wonderful way to start our programme, and messages / photos that families sent in from home of their cardboard theatres really motivated us to continue to develop our digital content – it’s really hard to pick a favourite though!

For me What a Wonderful World stood out as a beautiful piece, promoting intergenerational engagement, and Reach for the Stars [on the life of astronaut Mae Jemison] was so important as project that focussed on issues around aspiration and diversity for young people.

How has lockdown been for the Little Angel? 

PS: We have been really busy! Following the heart-breaking decision to close our doors in March last year, we adapted quickly making new work accessible through digital formats which have been watched all over the world, with productions and accompanying puppet making activities inspiring and engaging young audiences everywhere.

We have also delivered several ‘live’ shows (via Zoom), a summer festival (Puppet Picnic), transferred our professional development courses and classes to a digital platform and where restrictions allowed we have continued to work to support our most local community.

We are really grateful that the venue is weathering the storm, thanks in no small part to some very generous individuals and foundations who believe in our mission and values, and we continue to strive to support our audiences, artists, local community and staff through this hugely challenging period.

The Smartest Giant in Town, book by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.
The Smartest Giant in Town, book by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler.

Your new season has just been announced with a web series celebrating your history and The Wishing Tree project throughout Islington. What should people expect as the Little Angel reaches out beyond its doors? 

PS: We have an active community department, working with local people and schools, so a project like this was always going to be a big priority for us as we started to re-open, knowing how hard hit the local area has been by the pandemic.

We have some wonderful creatives working with us: inspired by a brand new Joseph Coelho poem, The Wishing Tree , ‘magical trees’ will appear throughout Islington this Summer designed by artists including Sam Wilde and Ingrid Hu and populated by puppets made by local children.

We always aspire to be reactive to the needs of our local community when we can, which is the central principle of this project, harnessing their aspirations and wishes for the future, and using their creativity to inspire a new production, especially for them.

The Little Angel has some impressive alumni in the puppetry world. How important is training and development of puppeteers to the theatre’s mission? 

PS: This is a central part of what we do – we continue to provide courses (transitioning to digital platforms over the last year), both to introduce people to the art of puppetry, and to develop / expand existing skills.

We offer bursaries to those who might otherwise not be able to access these opportunities, and we have wonderful teachers and alumni who teach and support these classes, giving participants some real insight into the challenges and opportunities available in the sector.

Beyond this we strive to give opportunities to emerging artists – many professionals in the industry have been given their first performing, making or directing roles on our stage and companies / artists are offered R&D and rehearsal space for free regularly throughout the year.

We have also committed to addressing a lack of diversity in our sector, through our bursaries as well as targeted training and opportunities. 

You’re hoping to welcome audiences back on 21 May to see a new adaptation of The Smartest Giant in Town. What should people expect when they return?

PS: Choosing to restart our live shows with The Smartest Giant in Town is really exciting, it is a show that we have wanted to present for some time – it is a story full of hope and joy and about being kind – something that we all need given the challenges of the past year – and the challenges that still lie ahead.

We are working on our buildings to make them as safe and welcoming as we can, and we can’t wait to have the foyer buzzing with excited children, hearing them singing along with the performers or experiencing pure joy at the unexpected exploits of a cheeky puppet!

Finally, if John Wright could see what the Little Angel has achieved, what do you think he would be most proud of?

PS: I wish I had known John – I hope he would be proud, really proud, of what has been achieved by the organisation.

Keeping creativity and innovation at the heart of what we do, and fuelling the imagination of those young and old with the magic of puppetry.