Sarah Wright has lived a life of puppetry. Daughter of John and Lyndie Wright, who founded the famous Little Angel Theatre in North London, she was raised and trained at the theatre, and has worked extensively within physical and puppetry based theatre ever since. We caught up with her to find out what is was like growing up and what has most inspired her on her long career.
You were raised in a puppet theatre environment at North London’s Little Angel Theatre. What was it like growing up?
Growing up in a puppet theatre was as magical as you can imagine! Watching each show again and again from out-front, backstage, above and below. Learning every move and every line and every bar. The Little Mermaid, Rapunzel, Mak the Sheep Stealer, Hans the Bell Ringer, Sleeping Beauty; string puppet shows operated from high bridges with beautiful carved figures, superb lighting and carefully chosen music.
My first theatre memories include making play bread from sawdust and water on the workshop floor, peeling pearl glue from my fingers, learning how to raise the enormous ‘resistance dimmers’ for lighting and answering the phone, “Hello, Little Angel Theatre!” The box office phone number was also our house phone, so my brother Joe and I learnt how to answer and make bookings in the large red book, anytime from breakfast to bedtime as soon as we could talk (there was no answering machine.) And of course, operating puppets. I remember watching my Dad operate the Little Mermaid, her gentle determination, and the furious frenetic witch in Rapunzel, my Mum operating the beautiful hopeful Fisherman in Fisherman and his Soul. They and other company members taught by example, patiently encouraging me.
Touring: I totally loved it. I had my own passport from 5 months old because, as Lyndie says, she never knew which van I might end up in. Once or twice a year the whole resident company of five to eight adults plus kids would bundle into vans and head to France, Germany, Poland, Greece (and even further by plane) to perform at British Council venues and World Puppet Festivals, bringing back much needed cash to keep the London theatre afloat.
Holiday work: essential pocket money. Particularly winter season when an extra pair of hands would be needed for the larger scale Christmas production. From age 9 getting dressed into black velvet costumes for Amahl and the Night Visitors or Angelo meant staying warm, and being part of the family obsession. It felt good to earn a place in the team, to work, to be occupied, to learn a skill.
These shows were often strong classical stories, which were both technically challenging and full of character depth. Without knowing it I learnt from the adults around me, not only a technical skill but also a rich sense of storytelling and performance.
Age 13: I may have needed cork platform shoes to reach the play-board to operate Mrs Noah in our medieval rod puppet Noah’s Ark, but I was completely confident in portraying how Mrs Noah felt when her husband asked her to abandon her friends on the drowning Earth!
You decided to step away from Little Angel Theatre (although you remain a Trustee and associate artist.) What led you in this different direction?
By late teenage things changed. I still appreciated the holiday work but became more interested in audiences of my own age. By the time I left school in the mid 1980’s companies like Barry Smith, Eric Bass and later Faulty Optic were producing fantastic eerie work but by then I’d seen Archaos. I wanted BIG theatre. Mind blowing theatre. Theatre as raging as the pubescent anger I still felt.
In 1988 I studied with DRAK in Czechoslovakia. For 8-months I followed director Joseph Krofta around, absorbing all I could of his brilliance and his flair. The Mill of Kalevala was the first show I’d seen where puppets and actors truly shared a stage. But I still didn’t create my own work. I wanted to be part of a team.
DNTT was an international fire/theatre/circus company that took all my attention for the next 8 years. We travelled Europe in trucks (yes, the love of touring) performing huge exciting shows to thousands of non-theatre going audiences in squats, festivals and town squares. We had no director and I was the stage manager, lighting designer and co-creator within this functioning collective. We built machines, blew up dragons, designed cities and deserts. The Berlin wall came down. We had an absolute blast!
DNTT ran its course and my next passion was abstract, object, figure as object: Silo Theatre and leading artist Milou Veling. I moved to Amsterdam for the summers to work and learn with Milou. She nudged me from lighting design back to puppetry and to standing on stage myself, visible, something I had strongly resisted until now. Our first project was The Tower, a 16 metre high cone of boat sail and pine tree, held together with industrial clamps stripped out of the shipbuilding yard we worked in. The audience lay down in a circle, their heads towards the centre looking up at the abstract world created within tower and cocoon cloth; hoops that turned to hourglass, ladders for counter-weighted human climbers, a bucket of smoke descended as if into a well, the dark disc in the upper distance spun to a flashing mirror showing ourselves. And then came PlanetariumSilo, a show I totally loved, touring Holland and to Prague and Croatia. Then home again to Amsterdam to stage manage Robodock Festival.
Back at Little Angel another inspirational artist Christopher Leith was now directing. A precise and generous director, Christopher kept me employed all the months between Silo tours. We explored Faust throughout the LAT building, toured Philemon and Baucis in Austria and Bluebeard with Henk Schut.
And then with Steve Tiplady at LAT (and Lyndie’s extraordinary design/making) came Venus and Adonis. This show really did change things for me. Here was a puppet show with a wider audience brought by Greg Doran and RSC. It got great national paper reviews and the puppeteers were even named in the reviews – for the first time in my life! It’s easy to forget since the brilliant response to War Horse that until Venus and Adonis, in my experience, the press and wider theatre-going public had seen puppets as a niche form (or for young children) and suddenly we were the ‘in thing’.
Importantly for me (and Rachel Leonard, we shared the role) Venus was a character with a real emotional journey, an acting part for a puppet, like the Little Mermaid so many years before, full of rage and fear and love. The horizon seemed wider.
Emma Rice and Mike Shepherd came to see V&A at Little Angel and Lyndie and I have worked with them both ever since. Kneehigh was uplifting and a perfect dream; beautifully told stories, exquisite lighting, music to hold your heart, all made me feel at home. A true sense of company, a Joseph Krofta style of theatre making, a DNTT popular reach, a Milou exploration, an exhilaration and joy in theatre making… and Mike of course. The horizon became the Cornish sea and Oscar of The Tin Drum heads my list of ‘favourite puppet roles ever.’
So, what was it like working on Tao of Glass with Lyndie?
I have always loved working with Lyndie, the recent Tao of Glass by Improbable at MIF included. She used to give me instructions and I tried my best to follow. More often now I propose ideas and she runs with them, taking them up and beyond anything I could imagine. The transition from one role to the other was tricky at times, classic master/student trouble I suppose. It has settled down now. She doesn’t want to rush to the meetings or work up budget sheets but her making is still the most expert and the fastest in the UK, I reckon. I often get to teach the operators how to work the beautiful figures she creates; they have life built into them and contain a laughter always ready surface.
I have made two shows of my own working with Lyndie as maker; Silent Tide (now the name of my company) and The Adventures of Curious Ganz,which is touring this Autumn. Yes, I finally got around to making my own shows (inspired by Milou, Bob Rutman, Liz Walker) and would love to do more as Curious School develops.
You are now artistic director at Curious School of Puppetry, a puppetry course led by professionals for professionals. How did this come about? Can you tell us more about the aims of the course?
I repeatedly observed these things: Teaching puppetry to actors during show rehearsals can be great fun but it’s not ideal, and as a Puppet Director on an actor’s stage, this is what I am employed to do most of the time. An actor with one show involving puppets under their belt is not necessarily fully qualified to put ‘puppetry’ on their CV but many do simply because they want the chance to work puppets again. How else can they learn professionally except on a job? The type of resident companies that used to train up a few extra hands no longer exist (except Puppet Barge!) and evening classes are hard to attend if you are touring. Something else was needed.
I started Curious School of Puppetry in response to the actors, puppeteers and theatre-makers who wanted to get inside puppetry and become really good at it professionally, who wanted to take time to reflect on existing skills and build new approaches to their craft. Having had the huge advantage of growing up in a puppet theatre, I wanted to offer a similar kind of inspirational training and the industry contacts to go with it.
Curious School of Puppetry offers one full-time, 10 or 7-week course per year taught by the best puppeteers, directors, writers, movers and shakers I can find. We teach in-depth operating technique and we teach theatre-making. We aim to find students who will be the next generation of ground-breaking creatives in the field.
I love my work. I love puppetry for its otherness, for containing all our passions but being outside of us. I get so excited by ‘seeing’ into it and by the material nature of it. I adore the challenges of directing, the satisfaction of teaching and the dizzy excitement of performing. And I look forward immensely to witnessing the brilliant work of future puppeteers. I want them to rock my puppet world as Lyndie Wright, John Wright, Joseph Krofta, Christopher Leith, Liz Walker and Milou Veling have done.
Here’s to them all!
Interview with Emma Windsor
Curious School of Puppetry
Dates: 27th January-14th March 2020
Venue: ‘The Poly’, Falmouth, Cornwall
Application Packs are available now from firstname.lastname@example.org
The Adventures of Curious Ganz
Tour dates October 2019:
The Boo, Rossendale: 2nd October
Skipton Puppet Festival: 6th October
Tunbridge Wells Puppet Festival: 11th and 12th October
Assembly Roxy Edinburgh: 18th and 19th October
La Tartan Teatro, Madrid: 1st – 3rd November