The Puppeteer’s Tale: Little Angel Theatre head Peta Swindall on a difficult pandemic

by Chris Jackson

It’s been a difficult year in the arts with some having fallen through the cracks of government help. Finito World talked to Peta Swindall about her experiences running London’s premier puppet theatre during the pandemic.

Finito World: Tell us a little about how you got into puppetry – when did you know this was what you wanted to do?

Peta Swindall: My background isn’t in puppetry, although I did put on puppet shows to my friends when I was a child with my hand puppet skunk ‘Stinky’! I began working in arts administration at the Barbican Centre finance department when I first left university and was finding my feet. The opportunity to work at the Little Angel Theatre was wonderful timing, getting back into work with a young daughter at home, and I am passionate about theatre for young people, particularly as theatre as a creative outlet had a very strong positive effect on me as a child. Since working at Little Angel though, I have developed a real appreciation for puppetry, it’s a beautiful, magical craft, accessible to so many people – a really powerful tool to boost wellbeing and inspire creativity.   

FW: What did you study at school and university and how have those experiences impacted on your approach to what you do?

PS: I was into Maths and Science when I was younger, took Engineering at University, then qualified as an accountant (whilst working at the Barbican Centre). But most days after lessons and lectures you would find me backstage painting a set, sewing a costume or calling a show as a DSM (deputy stage manager). I’ve found the perfect combination of those skills and interests now in the Executive Director role, able to be hands on in a theatre, whilst also using my business and strategy skills to ensure the organisations’ sustainability and resilience.

FW: You seem a very community-minded theatre and you’ve obviously stepped up during the pandemic – tell us about how you’ve approached this difficult time?

PS: Since the start of the pandemic in March we have been delivering our digital output ‘Watch, Make, Share’, providing a creative outlet for as many children as possible, as well as supporting teachers and parents juggling jobs, home-schooling and potentially facing financial hardship. Our local community has one of the highest instances of child poverty in the UK, and we have continued to work with our partner schools throughout the pandemic, as well as our wider local schools network. We have also adapted our community programme to connect with our most local community digitally, and whenever we are able to in person (socially distanced of course), aware of the constraints of digital poverty on some families – leading craft sessions and facilitating community connections.

FW: How many people do you employ?

PS: 18 people, including 2 design interns. We are committed to develop the current pool of puppeteers and puppetry makers, particularly from under-represented groups

FW: Did you take advantage of the government furlough scheme? 

PS: Yes, we have where possible, we went down to 6 staff working in the 1st lockdown. This time round we have used the flexible element of the scheme to bring more people back, but on a reduced hours basis while our activity is restricted.

FW: Is the government approach satisfactory? I’m worried that puppeteering may have fallen through the cracks somewhat, particularly when it comes to the DCMS monies?

PS: It has been a challenging time, particularly for freelance workers, and puppetry is no exception. Where possible we have tried to support our freelance family, with well over 100 employment opportunities and paid representation on the industry wide Freelance Taskforce, but the scale of the work has been much reduced, with many of those we work with losing their whole roster of work overnight. We are aware of people contemplating a move away from the industry, which would be incredibly damaging for such a specialist skill, and will impede the recovery of the wider industry. It takes time and experience to train as a puppeteer and puppet maker – and so if highly experienced makers and puppeteers leave the industry, it will struggle to get back on its feet. 

FW: Has your audience become more global during the pandemic as a result of the online work you do?

PS: Yes! Our digital content, broadcast on our YouTube channel, has been viewed in 89 countries – we have just achieved the incredible milestone of one million views online. Our digital shows have been reviewed in the New York Times and our professional development courses are being attended by people across the world.

FW: Have you been to the theatre much? How has your immediate locality changed?

PS: We have been to the building regularly, initially to check the site, but more recently we have created a covid-safe environment to design and make our digital shows. Over the summer we delivered an outdoor festival for families – Puppet Picnic, which was very well received and we are hoping to build on this in 2021. Our location is remarkably tucked away for a London venue, so in some ways there has been little change, although the theatre itself is missing its young audiences. Heading more towards the high street, we were already seeing the impact of the decline of the traditional retail sector before the pandemic hit, and this crisis has added huge pressures to the situation, with many shops now vacant.

FW: Are you worried about the mental health of people in the arts? 


PS: This pandemic has turned this industry on its head and many freelancers have slipped through the net in terms of any government support. We know that freelancers are connecting via informal networks, social media and the freelance task force was a huge help – and we are trying as much as possible to continue to connect with our freelancers – but what we really need is to be able to give them the level of work they and stability they had pre-pandemic. This concern extends to our staff and audiences, particularly the impact of this situation on young people, and the importance of creative outlets in supporting well-being and learning.

FW: What does the future of puppeteering look like? 

PS: We are working really hard to ensure that this wonderful, adaptive artform is able to thrive as we emerge from this crisis. We have been able to reach so many people during this time, and shown what a valuable and accessible artform it can be. There are so many exciting artists out there experimenting with the form – and we  intend to continue to support and showcase this great work. 

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