As a member of The British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild myself, it is indeed an honour to have been asked by our editor Emma Windsor to interview our new President, Ronnie Le Drew, for the Puppet Place Newsletter. His record of achievement and successes in the world of puppets, gained over a lifetime in the business, is inspirational. As a performer, theatre maker, director and teacher, he has performed at festivals, theatres, in film and on television from where he is probably best know for being Zippy from Rainbow. His new, crowd-funded book, ‘Zippy & Me’ is a delightful and fascinating peek behind the scenes of a much loved iconic puppet show.
You have had a hand in, if you’ll pardon the pun, a great many of the abiding memories of my childhood through your work with puppets. It appears puppetry has a timeless, magical appeal for audiences of all ages. Why do you think that is?
Puppets, like dolls, have a link to everybody’s childhood. We probably spoke our most private thoughts to our dolls or teddy bears even before telling our parents. That makes them a very important part of our early lives. When we grow up we are reminded of this fact when we see a puppet show. The strong characters and stories take us back to that time, which in most cases is a positive experience. As adults watching puppets perform we are reminded subconsciously of those childhood memories.
We live in a very nostalgic age where television and film has prolonged the puppet influence in our lives. The repeats of puppet programmes, the building of puppet theatres, the many puppetry organisations such as your own at Puppet Place, as well as puppets being used in mainstream theatre, keeps the magical appeal of the puppet alive. Long may it last.
You have recently been elected to President of BPMTG and are a recipient of their prestigious Harlequin Award. What are your plans and ambitions for the Guild as president?
I was delighted to be unanimously voted the new President of BPMTG. As a 14 year old child, I first became a member and to be asked to be President of the oldest puppet organisation in the world, is indeed an honour. I would like to see BPMTG expand its membership, (I think all presidents would say this.) We now have a Facebook page, which has helped membership enlarge and our new website has lots of links of interest plus video clips of recent happenings. Well worth a look !
I am very pleased that the Guild’s meetings are not London-centric, but are spread all over the country which gives opportunities for all members to meet. Our membership has both young and older members and it’s always a pleasure to see the older more experienced sharing their knowledge with the youngest.
We are celebrating 92 years of the Guild this year and have a number of events planned to celebrate this significant event. You can find out more about them by looking at the website or becoming a member and receiving our bi-monthly newsletter and wonderful magazine, ‘The Puppet Master’.
I am also delighted our archivist Michael Dixon was able to show some of the Guild’s collection in a room given to us by the Bantock House Museum in Wolverhampton. Starting off with the wonderful Lanchester marionettes then an exhibition called ‘Puppets and the World of Mr Punch’. Performances were given and the collaboration continues. News will be published in the Guild’s newsletter.
Your association with the Little Angel Theatre has been as long, if not longer, than your association with the BPMTG. May I ask about your work with this theatre, especially the work you do with disadvantaged communities and artist development?
Actually, I was a Guild member before I discovered the Little Angel Theatre. Way back in June 1963 I had my first visit to the theatre. After seeing the show and meeting the puppeteers, I knew this was not only what I wanted to do as a hobby, but as a full time job.
In July 1963 I started my professional career as a puppeteer. 53 years later, I share the role of Honorary Associate with Lyndie Wright. My main work in the theatre, when I’m not performing in shows, is teaching on the many adult classes, particularly the foundation course, as well as specific courses on operating puppets which is my forte. The foundation course is for adults, but under the Little Angel banner, I have visited schools and colleges around the country so cover all age groups.
The theatre holds a regular Summer party open to the local community. I am often to be found there having a fantastic time demonstrating puppets. The theatre provides disability concessions and companion tickets, wheel chair space and has relaxed and captioned performances. I’m not full time at the Little Angel, as the policy of the theatre regarding puppeteers is we work on a freelance basis.
One of the new ideas we are trying this year is an evening for people to come to London’s Hidden Gem, where I am on hand to show clips of the theatre’s archive from its start to the present day. Visitors get to meet the puppets and a tour of the theatre, finishing off with a glass of wine. The 20th February and 14th March are the dates planned so far.
What advice would you offer to new and emerging puppet artists?
I had an advantage as a young puppeteer living in London because of the existence of the Guild and The Educational Puppetry Association, which later became The Puppet Centre. It enabled me to visit these organisations to find out more about puppetry.
Today we have the internet for artists to find who and where their nearest puppet organisation is. Go see them, get involved. Puppeteers UK is a also great place to find like minded puppeteers and performers. See as many shows as you can. If you are brave enough, go backstage and talk to the puppeteers, but try not to get in their way if they are packing up.
Visit libraries and museums. Most have puppets in their collections. Search social media for groups you can join. The internet is a wonderful tool for today’s up and coming puppeteers. But don’t forget see live puppet performances to really ignite your passion.
For more information about Ronnie, visit his website, Facebook and Twitter. Keep up-to-date with news about his forthcoming book ‘Zippy & Me’ at unbound.com and find out more about his own and other forthcoming puppet performances and events at the Little Angel Theatre’s website. You can also find out more and join the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild via their website.