Little Angel Theatre
Little Angel Theatre has been a pocket-sized haven for puppetry and storytelling since it was first imagined and established in the sixties by puppet-making legends Lyndie and John Wright. Decades on, the 100-seater theatre continues to captivate the minds of its audiences - telling big stories with untethered charm.
Although Little Angel has garnered a not so little international reputation for its productions, the theatre remains firmly rooted in its treasured Islington community. Throughout the year, Little Angel organises local events and activities for the community and pursues a remarkable programme of outreach work in local schools. Moreover, they give away hundreds of tickets each season in order to engage underrepresented audiences. It’s an extraordinary little place with a big beating heart. We’re huge fans. Can you tell?!
So pour yourself a cuppa and take a seat - it’s time to meet the ladies at the helm, Artistic Director, Samantha Lane and Executive Director, Peta Swindall.
Peta Swindall and Samantha Lane
What does your puppet-self look like?
Sam: ‘It would definitely be made out of anything and everything you can grab around the house. A cup. A spoon. Some leftover wool. Some beads from a necklace that has fallen apart. A recycled hash of my home belongings.’
Peta: ‘I’d love to think of myself as some sort of beautiful, smooth moving marionette but in reality, I’m probably one of those rod puppets where the hands move a bit too much!’
Favourite Childhood Book
Peta: ‘The Chronicles of Narnia.’
Sam: ‘Jane Eyre.’
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Sam: ‘My children.’
Peta: ‘My journey to becoming an executive director.’
What do you love most about what you do?
Sam: ‘The variety in the job. One day I’m writing a funding application, the next day I’m working out how to make a zoom show. Then I’m on to thinking about what companies we want to programme and what artists we want to work with. No two days are the same and it always feels like it’s forward-facing which is ridiculously exciting.’
What has been the biggest challenge for Little Angel this year?
Peta: ‘One of the reasons why we’ve had to keep going, keep working, and keep producing is because we don’t have any regular core funding. A lot of people assume we’re an NPO or we have some big dowry. We don’t! So for us, when our doors shut and we had no box office, 80% of our income was just gone in an instant! And so, trying to build up that base of income to keep anything alive, that has definitely been the challenge.’
And the biggest achievement?
Sam: ‘It’s really hard to say because I am proud of everything the team has achieved in really challenging circumstances but I suppose it’s seeing the digital work we do so well. We had started to think digitally as an organisation pre-pandemic and I think it’s why we were able to hit the ground running because we had already started to think about how that looked and what we wanted to achieve with it. I couldn’t quite predict that it would take off and do so well. It’s incredible that it has! Our Christmas show, Mother Christmas had 12,000 views on Christmas Eve and now it’s had over 100,000 views and we’re in March! People are still watching a Christmas show and the views are constantly creeping up which is just great. I think it was also really important that we weren’t just trying to replicate the live experience through our digital work. Everything we have created and put on YouTube we’ve made specifically for that medium so it’s much shorter - making the digital work as accessible and as usable as possible.’
Why has it been so important to keep young audiences engaged?
Peta: ‘I think the mental health of young people is a massive concern for everybody and we wanted to create content that was not only something they could watch, but something they could watch and then do. So create, craft and share. All of that sort of thing is really great for their well-being. It’s great for boosting their confidence and for helping them with their learning.’
Sam: ‘And people could use what they had around them to create. It was something that was absolutely achievable in their own home. We’re obviously very conscious of the fact that digital deprivation is an issue so it was really important for us to continue to try and engage with our community on a local level as much as we could as well - creating more craft packs and running our Crafternoons when we were allowed to do that.’
Describe Little Angel’s 60th Birthday season in under 10 words
Both: ‘Fun, Adventurous, Bold, Eclectic, Forward and Outward looking, Hybrid, Celebratory.’
What was your first-ever job?
Sam: ‘Washing up at a golf course.’
Peta: ‘A receptionist. It was really boring! Nobody really came in. It was the time when Bridget Jones’ Diaries came out so I just read!’
In another life what would you be?
Sam: ‘When I decided to do my degree at university I flipped a coin between applying to do theatre or law. The coin landed on theatre but I think genuinely if it had landed the other way, I would have chosen to do law. I think I was going through that, do I get a sensible job or do I just go and play again for another 3 years? I’m really pleased I decided to go and play. But there’s a chance that my life could have taken a very different trajectory.’
Which living person do you most admire?
Peta: ‘Michelle Obama. I’m reading Becoming. She’s quite inspirational and now she involves puppets in her life which has raised her in my estimation even further!’
Sam: ‘Chimamanda Adichie for both her fiction and also for her feminism.’ I literally love every single one of her books especially A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. I think I always identified with being a feminist but I guess I couldn’t quite articulate how and why. It just felt innately part of what I am. If anyone asks, why are you a feminist? I just want to hand them that book because she absolutely encompasses to me what it means to be female. She’s an incredible storyteller.’
On that note, what makes a good story?
Peta: ‘Something unexpected. A twist.’
Sam: ‘It’s very subjective. Something that hooks you. The beauty of theatre when you’re telling a story is that you have the opportunity to ‘hook’ in so many other ways – the music that you use, the set, the pace of the piece. For me, you could have something quite dull in terms of narrative but by using real theatricality, that story can come alive. What makes a good story? Theatre.’
What makes you laugh?
Sam: ‘A good stand-up. My husband.’
Peta: ‘Being around friends and doing stupid stuff together. Oh and pets. Doing bonkers things.’
What makes you angry?
Peta: ‘People not listening. Or not wanting to listen. Over lockdown, I feel like our industry was not really being listened to.’
What’s your worst habit?
Sam: ‘Talking quickly and too much.’
Peta: ‘Checking emails too often. I’m a slave to emails. It’s bad. I should stop doing that.’
What scares you?
Peta: ‘People I love getting hurt. Whether that’s emotionally or physically.’
What is the current soundtrack to your life?
Sam: 'Because I decided to move in a pandemic and start a new life - Bright New Day from Blood Brothers.'
Peta: ‘In reality, it’s been a lot of Mr Tumble!’
What would you write on a Post-it Note to your younger self?
P: ‘Trust your instinct.’
S: ‘You made the right choice with theatre.’
What 3 things are you planning to do once lockdown ends?
Peta: ‘Seeing family. Seeing friends. Trying to go to the theatre.’
Sam: ‘Mines the same. Family, friends, theatre.’
Peta: ‘And hopefully a bit of a mash-up of all of them, together!’
Photography by Ellie Kurttz
Words by Charlotte Gascoyne for About Grace