Puppets Online: Interview with Ian Woods, Norwich Puppet Theatre

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Scorpion.

Since 1979, Norwich Puppet Theatre has been a precious and rare habitat for puppets and their puppeteers. A place where all sorts can come together and experience the tangible excitement of a puppet show. The pandemic has of course meant that coming together isn’t such a safe thing to do and like many other venues across the world, Norwich Puppet Theatre has had to adapt quickly. Online Puppet Theatre is their shiny new YouTube channel that launched six months ago. With theatre being such a physical and sensory experience, it’s amazing that they’ve managed to convert their entity into online content and keep the magic alive! A series of making tutorials for building puppets/ DIY mini puppet theatres has been uploaded. Sock puppets, rod puppets, paper puppets, shadow puppets… Before you know it, you’ll wake up surrounded! It’s a nice thought that while many theatres have temporarily shut their doors, Norwich Puppet Theatre has caused hundreds of tiny home theatres to spring up. 

The theatre has a 165 capacity main auditorium so there are limits to how many can see a show in the flesh, however the number of views a YouTube video can get is limitless! You can pause it rewind and watch the same bit over and over! Going online means that the theatre is reaching new audiences, including families who can’t afford theatre trips and people across the world. People are now able to access the wonderful world of puppetry whilst being safe and comfy at home.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes is the latest collection of performances. Each one is performed by a different puppeteer in a unique style, devised and performed at home during lockdown. With such a unique form of entertainment it’s probably a relief to parents to see something fresh for their kids after hours of playing on Roblox or Minecraft. The idiosyncratic Roald Dahl, with his silliness and absurdity, is a perfect match with the crafty genius that puppeteers have to offer. Clever poems, wild visuals and kooky characters, an ideal way to escape and shake off those corona blues.

Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes – Cinderella.

A personal favourite of mine is Cinderella, performed by Clementine the Living Fashion Doll. Clementine is a humanette puppet, a combination of small fashion doll puppets with large human, drag queen heads all composited together perfectly. The tiny ball costumes, sparkly sets and sound effects are all fabulous. Who knew a barbie doll drag queen with an oversized head was missing from my life!

There’s something special about every film in the series, they’re all so varied and distinctive using so many contrasting art styles. The DIY nature of them will be sure to inspire people to try out making their own productions. It just shows what can be achieved even without piles of money and equipment. The premieres are popping up weekly on their channel until October Half Term 2020, and all the shows will be available for free to watch and rewatch again and again until 4th December 2020. Get them while their hot! You do not want to miss out. Ian Woods, the manager of the theatre, kindly filled me in on what they’ve been up to and how they’ve been affected since the pandemic began.  – Amy Baker

What was Norwich Puppet Theatre like before COVID?

A building based company creating and touring puppet shows to venues across the UK and to schools in the eastern region. A vibrant creative learning outreach with craft based puppet making workshops delivered to the public at the theatre and into educational settings across (primarily) Norfolk and Suffolk.  A venue to present our own work and also that of visiting puppet companies, and when not used for our prime charitable mission (i.e. puppetry) we accepted hires for local am-dram theatre and dance groups. We also had 8 wedding/civil partnership ceremonies booked for 2020.  As well as being the ‘place to ask’ about puppets, we have a regular trickle of visitors interested in the building in its former role of the church of St James’ for family history searches etc.

How have you adapted to the situation?

On the evening of 16 March when the PM said that people shouldn’t go to bars and theatres, we ‘closed’ all our work – a week before the official lockdown started. Our tour of Beastly Belle ended. Planned schools workshops stopped.  We had a week to arrange for staff to move PCs etc. to their homes and to start working from there.  For the remainder of the month all seven of us carried on ‘normal’ working hours.  From April 1st, four of the seven were furloughed. We then received the £10K hospitality grant. We applied for ACE Response Funding primarily to secure the building costs through to September 2020 but also to enable development of online delivery. Our Foyles capital grant was converted to core costs with very rapid approval by Foyles Foundation. We secured £5K from the Martin Laing foundation to cover core costs and support online product making. A volunteer started making face masks for £5 donation to the Puppet Theatre and has raised over £2500 with gift aid. That financial stability and desire to link with our audiences meant from Day 1 of lockdown we wanted to have a digital online presence and so we created our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube channel. This was a vehicle for online puppet making sessions.  

These pre-recorded sessions were designed to use simple everyday materials – paper, glue, tape, card etc. that could be found at home – to make simple but effective puppets. Our pre-COVID workshops when delivered at the theatre or out and about, always had a huge range of decorating/making materials that we couldn’t expect anyone to have at home! The making workshops were added to with some “behind the scenes” videos of Pied Piper (recorded before the total lockdown) and information on how to manipulate puppets. They were ‘old’ and not specifically ‘made for’ online delivery. 

Zara Goodfellow (creative learning coordinator) wrote to the Roald Dahl Story Company with the idea of making puppet adaptations of his poems. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a reply, and even more so that it was positive. When they had released the rights from Netflix to us, an agreement was reached for royalty-free access to the poems provided the films were free to access and that the exact words were used of the poems. The RDSC had final clearance before the films were released. This free licence period comes to an end on 4th December when all films will be taken down.

The result – 15 unique videos each made by a freelance artist that we would, could or have worked with. This enabled us to trickle-down some of our ACE Response Funding to freelance artists whose income had been eradicated by the COVID lockdown. As part-time furlough came into play we have been able to visit the building more regularly, keep it secure and have been able to host two companies for rehearsals.  Also most recently a partner artist of the theatre was able to present her one woman play to a private audience (max capacity is now 35 but her shows played to 24 and 19 people respectively) with live zoom feed as well. 

With CRF funding we are now able to plan for a season of Christmas performances with social distancing in place. CRF money is subsidising a loss making opening, allowing us to design more intricate online workshops for schools delivery and plan/consult on how we can create and deliver work in 2021 and beyond.

Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts – The Crocodile.

What’s been your favourite video from the, ‘Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts and Revolting Rhymes’ series?

Each video is unique, and has its own special moments, so it would be invidious to select one over the others.  How can you select from the plasticine stop-frame animation of The Lion or The Anteater, the live puppetry of Jack & the Beanstalk or The Toad and the Snail, shadow work of The Cow or multi-role play of Cinderella? Whatever your medicine, each poem is a treat for a cup of coffee moment or even to entertain a child (or two!) 

Have you found that you’re reaching new audiences now, having an online presence?

As we have set all our videos to being child-friendly. We do not get direct comments on the YouTube channel so it is hard to say where we are being watched.  But social media comments do indicate an international footprint. For example, we had a flurry of Malaysian comments on our Sock Puppet making video!  We have been releasing the Roald Dahl videos on a weekly basis but now all 15 are available we can push the boat out to spread the word about them.  Each poem has subtitles available, increasing accessibility and also their use in educational settings.

How can people support Norwich Puppet Theatre?

Socially/spiritually by going to our Online Puppet Theatre YouTube page and enjoying and sharing the videos and link: https://bit.ly/NPT_online_puppet_theatre 

Financially by donating via Total Giving:  https://www.totalgiving.co.uk/donate/norwich-puppet-theatre-trust-limited – this can be a one off or regular payment.

Norwich Puppet Theatre will be 40 on 1st December 2020.  We won’t be able to have the hoped for big gala celebration but the date will be marked to be sure! If anyone has memories of the theatre we’d be happy to hear about them and if they want to make a 40 second ‘memory’ and send that through, we will be working to make a compilation!

Interview by Amy Baker

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