If there is a more picturesque setting for a theatre than the canals of Little Venice in London W9 then I have yet to come across it. Opal green waters softly caressed by the branches of a Weeping Willow on a mid-stream island as a mummy duck and her train of newly hatched chicks swim by. It’s a beautiful day and I’m pleased to have arrived for my interview with Stan Middleton, Grandson of the founders of the 55 seater Puppet Theatre Barge thirty minutes early so I can relax on a bench and enjoy the view.
Stan however is having none of it. He’s on the roof of the barge with his father, Rob Humphreys, trying to fasten down a tarpaulin sheet which had come loose in last nights storm. Within minutes I’m up on the roof with them, pulling on the bit I’m told to pull on with all my might and making a mental note to add “once worked on the Puppet Theatre Barge” to my CV.
Everything finally battened down and ship-shape [see how quickly I’ve picked up the sea-faring lingo.] I’m enjoying a welcome cup of tea listening intently to Stan explain how the moveable roof works and how often it had to raised and lowered as the barge toured up and down the Thames to Oxford every year between 1982 to 2008. Moving to locations in Henley on Thames, Marlow & Windsor and Reading every two weeks, the barge theatre has delivered an amazing and magical programme of puppet shows to the people of London for 35 years.
Stan Middleton is a puppeteer, theatre administrator, PR man and everything else that needs to be done person. He is the third generation of his family to be entrusted with the care and maintenance of this wonderful treasure. As I gaze around at the fascinating array of puppets adorning the walls and stage area, I make my notes on the tonnes of stuff he tells me he still has to do to get the barge spruced up and ready for it’s summer season, and I am, as a stage manager myself, officially envious.
It must be a wonderful place to spend time and work in this theatre. How did it all get started ?
The theatre was started by my Grandparents Juliet & Grenville Middleton and opened in Camden Lock in 1982, moving to it’s current winter berth here in Little Venice in 1986. My Grandmother trained as a puppeteer at the Little Angel Theatre for ten years under John Wright and my Grandfather had worked as cameraman and lighting technician on film documentaries. They originally formed their own company, Movingstage Marionette Company, in 1978 and spent the next three years touring puppet shows. Deciding they needed their own venue, they looked at a number of options including buildings, buses and trucks before settling on this former Thames Lighter barge which they were given for nothing on condition all the renovations and conversion work was done at the boatyard who gave it them.
Since then we have gone on to produce over 35, predominantly self devised / created shows, and have hosted a number of guest writers, directors and performers. In addition to our programme of shows on the barge we continue to tour on land taking up invitations to perform in schools, festivals and at private events.
The Little Angel Theatre has a well deserved reputation for supporting new artists and young people. Did your Grandparents bring that ethos with them to their new venture?
Of course. We continue to support new artists through our apprenticeship scheme. Each year two new artists are given the opportunity to learn their craft under the guidance and supervision of my Grandparents. We are very fortunate that many of these apprentices continue to be associated with the barge and the family as they go on to be artists in their own right. Past apprentices at the barge include Rachel Leonard who worked on War Horse and Susan Beattie who, amongst many other achievements and successes, was the PG Tips monkey.
Each year we continue to visit a number of schools to deliver our shadow puppetry workshop to pupils in conjunction with key stages one and two. Over the course of a day, children are introduced to historical puppets from around the world and to the principles of shadows puppetry. The children are given a practical demonstration of how to make shadow puppets before collaborating in groups to write, build and perform their own plays.
Sadly, due to the current education system not valuing the arts as much as they probably should, it is now common place for schools to no longer give over a whole day to learn about puppetry as the children need to focus on their academic work as a priority. Puppetry is an excellent tool for less confident children develop their confidence by working through the puppet. We have found in the past that a child who might never usually perform or even speak in front of the class, when working through a puppet, has the confidence to do so.
It looks like we are in for a beautiful summer, do you have a busy programme of shows planned?
This coming season we have, ‘The Three little Pigs Plus Captain Grimey‘ This is a show for younger audiences and is great fun. People often book because they like the story of The Three Little Pigs and then come away loving captain Grimey even more! ‘The Hare and the Tortoise‘ is a show for all the family which is part of a collection of Aesop stories told with long-string marionettes, great for a family outing. We also have in our summer programme, ‘The River Girl‘,a work commissioned for the Puppet Barge by award winning poet Wendy Cope. This fantastic show is ideal for anyone who has never experienced puppetry for an adult audience. The show explores themes of love, loss and gender politics.
After we conclude our summer programme, I am very much looking forward to working on our Christmas show which will be the first time I have collaborated on a show with my Mum.
Thank you for your time and for allowing me to learn a few new seafaring skills. Are there any final words of wisdom you might want to share with new artists thinking of a career in puppetry?
Just to remember, puppetry has so many different avenues down which you could go, explore as many aspects of the discipline as you can before choosing one!