Lyndie Wright, Puppeteer
As a child, I was spellbound by the magic of puppets and it is an enchantment that has never lost its allure, so I was entranced to visit The Little Angel Theatre in Islington recently for the first time. All these years, I knew it was there – sequestered in a hidden square beyond the Green and best approached through a narrow alley overgrown with creepers like a secret cave.
Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I were welcomed by Lyndie Wright who co-founded the theatre in 1961 with her husband John in the shell of an abandoned Temperance Chapel. “We bought the theatre for seven hundred and fifty pounds,” she admitted cheerfully, letting us in through the side door,“but we didn’t realise we had bought the workshop and cottage as well.”
More than half a century later, Lyndie still lives in the tiny cottage and we discovered her carving a marionette in the beautiful old workshop. “People travel for hours to get to work, but I just have to walk across the yard,” she exclaimed over her shoulder, absorbed in concentration upon the mysterious process of conjuring a puppet into life. “Carving a marionette is like making a sculpture,” she explained as she worked upon the leg of an indeterminate figure, “each piece has to be a sculpture in its own right and then it all adds up to a bigger sculpture.” In spite of its lack of features, the figure already possessed a presence of its own and as Lyndie turned and fondled it, scrutinising every part like puzzled doctor with a silent patient, there was a curious interaction taking place, as if she were waiting for it to speak.
“I made puppets as a child,” she revealed by way of explanation, when she noticed me observing her fascination. Growing up and going to art school in South Africa, Lyndie applied for a job with John Wright who was already an established puppet master, only to be disappointed that nothing was available. “But then I got a telegram,” she added, “and it was off on an eight month tour including Zimbabwe.”
After the tour, Lyndie came to Britain continue her studies at Central School of Art and John was seeking a location to create a puppet theatre in London. “The chapel had no roof on it and we had to approach the Temperance Society to buy it,” Lyndie recalled, “We did everything ourselves at the beginning, even laying the floorboards and scraping the walls.” Constructed upon a corner of a disused graveyard, they discovered human remains while excavating the chapel to create raked seating as part of the transformation into a theatre with a fly tower and bridge for operating the marionettes. Today, the dignified old frontage stands proudly and the auditorium retains a sense of a sacred space, with attentive children in rows replacing the holy teetotallers of a former age.
“I had intended to return to South Africa, but I had fallen in love with John so there was no going back,” Lyndie confided fondly, “in those days, we sold the tickets, worked the puppets, performed the shows, and then rushed round and made the coffee in the interval – there were just five of us.” At first it was called The Little Angel Marionette Theatre, emphasising the string puppets which were the focus of the repertoire but, as the medium has evolved and performers are now commonly visible to the audience, it became simply The Little Angel Theatre. Yet Lyndie retains a special affection for the marionettes, as the oldest, most-mysterious form of puppetry in which the operators are hidden and a certain magic prevails, lending itself naturally to the telling of stories from mythology and fairytales.
John Wright died in 1991 but the group of five that started with him in Islington in 1961 were collectively responsible for the growth and development in the art of puppetry that has flourished in this country in recent decades, centred upon The Little Angel Theatre. Generations of puppeteers started here and return constantly bringing new ideas, and generations of children who first discovered the wonder of the puppet theatre at The Little Angel come back to share it with their own children.
“The less you show the audience, the more they have to imagine and the more they get out of it,” Lyndie said to me, as we stood together upon the bridge where the puppeteers control the marionettes, high in the fly tower. The theatre was dark and the stage was empty and the flies were hung with scenery ready to descend and the puppets were waiting to spring into life. It was an exciting world of infinite imaginative possibility and I could understand how you might happily spend your life in thrall to it, as Lyndie has done.
Old cue scripts, still up in the flies from productions long ago
Larry, the theatrical cat
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Visit The Little Angel Theatre website for details of current productions