Norwich Puppet Theatre celebrates 30 years of adventures as £60,000 grant launches new era

By Ivan Stoyanov | 02 July 2010
A photo of a grey brick building on grass

A brighter future is in store for Norwich Puppet Theatre

When leading puppetry company Indefinite Articles and reputed puppeteer Peter O’Rourke bring The Chalk Giants to the venue for a two-week pre-Edinburgh run in July, it will be the first of two brand new productions at Norwich Puppet Theatre. But what’s the big fuss about it?

One of only two theatres in England dedicated to puppetry, the Theatre has allowed hundreds of puppetry professionals to develop their art and skills in devising, directing and performing puppet theatre in Norwich since opening in 1980.

Many of them have gone on to become some of the leading names in the puppetry community, with hundreds of performances reaching audiences across the world.

A photo of three puppets of goats

Billy Goats Gruff visit in August 2010

Until the recession the Puppet Theatre was on a somewhat upward, though shaky trend. 2008 core funding cuts, however, literally brought things to the boil.

"We realised we had to prioritise and what shot high up our list was to preserve the building," says Ian Woods, the General Manager at the Theatre who has been in the thick of the puppet world for more than 20 years.

From clairvoyance and ghost events to Christmas carols and family celebrations at the venue, Woods has witnessed a historic gem grow and evolve. Together with the trustees, he had to decide whether to keep going or shut the doors.

A photo of a green snake puppet and a wooden puppet of a man resting on an orange

The Theatre decided to take action in 2008

"The Theatre is equipped with everything needed for performance and provides a friendly atmosphere where visitors could unravel the craft of puppetry at an evening class," he reflects. "So we opted to go for funding."

It didn't turn out pretty. In fact, it got a bit ridiculous, but the team always persisted. A series of repeat applications highlighted the capability of the building and the opportunity for nurturing fresh talent. Eventually, the message came across.

"I think we managed to open sponsors' eyes and make them believe we can get this creative energy going," points out Nic Hopkins, the enthusiastic Chair of the Board at the Theatre.

A photo of two exotic puppet figures on a lit stage

The Lost Forest is at the Theatre tomorrow (July 3 2010). Visit the show online for details

"Everyone's going through a difficult time, so building a flexible team and a strong relationship with local artists has become our overall objective."

Their reward was a £60,000 Arts Council grant in support of their vision for the future, but the charity still faces challenges.

"We believe it marks the beginning of a new chapter at the Norwich Puppet Theatre," says Hopkins, who is now overseeing a programme designed by an ambitious team with a wide range of educational activities.

A photo of a small puppet being held on a miniature stilt by two hands

Puppet Workshops are a regular crowd pleaser

The grant is also a chance to re-establish Norwich as a centre for puppetry excellence, with The Chalk Giants marking a major step along this road.

A world of magic and mystery embellished with chalk drawings, light and shadow puppetry, it showcases Guyanese-born John Agard's gift for writing and the impeccable music taste of Jonathan Lambert.

What makes the story even more engaging is the effort which local people and schools have invested in developing it.

Features of Norwich’s real and legendary landscape find spots in the project through improvised storytelling about local Suffolk myths.

This year also sees the 30th anniversary of the Theatre, kicking off with a special exhibition at Norwich’s Forum and a week of parties, glove puppet auctions and events at the end of November 2010.

For Woods and his team, the latest instalment is just the start of another 30 years of adventure.

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