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Make a Difference in 2017: Norwich Puppet a Theatre volunteers playing a vital role for arts hub

PUBLISHED: 12:34 04 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:34 04 October 2017

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Operations manager Ian Woods with volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Operations manager Ian Woods with volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

As part of our support of the Voluntary Norfolk Make a Difference in 2017 campaign, the EDP is shining a light on voluntary groups and individuals. Reporter SOPHIE WYLLIE found out why volunteers are crucial to Norwich Puppet Theatre.

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Peter Butler and Elinor Goodhead.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Peter Butler and Elinor Goodhead. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

From making puppets and helping out in children’s workshops to carrying out front of house tasks and decorating sets.

These are the various roles for volunteers at the Norwich Puppet Theatre charity base, which opened on December 1, 1980.

Based in the converted medieval church of St James on Whitefriars, the theatre runs more than 100 puppetry workshops each year.

It also puts on its own productions and showcases touring puppet shows.

Norwich Puppet Theatre.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

But as is the same with the majority of arts charities and organisations, the venue, which is one of only three puppet theatres in England, relies on volunteers.

Ian Woods, operations manager, said: “Volunteers are an important part of the team within theatres.

“They have an ambassadorial role within the puppet theatre because they love the puppets. Their enthusiasm is great.

“It wouldn’t be possible to run Norwich Puppet Theatre without volunteers.”

Norwich Puppet Theatre.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Front of house roles include working in the bar area and helping audience members to their seats.

Backstage jobs include painting and building sets and sorting out materials to make puppets.

But one of the key areas of work the Norwich Puppet Theatre Trust carries out is puppetry workshops for youngsters.

Most are aimed at children aged five-12-year-olds and workshop leaders, alongside volunteers, also go out to schools.

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Operations manager Ian Woods with volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Operations manager Ian Woods with volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

One of its workshops, called Voice of the Child, which ends in December, teaches children in care or children in difficult circumstances across Norfolk puppetry skills.

The trust has about 40 volunteers, from an 18-year-old and students to retired people in their 80s.

Mr Woods, 60, from Eaton in Norwich, said: “People volunteer for difference reasons. Part of it is because it gets people out of their homes and doing something. It is about doing something useful. Volunteers learn new skills but they can also pass on information from the puppet theatre to the next generation.

“The puppet theatre is a bit of a big family. We appreciate what out volunteers do for us. Friendships have developed through the volunteers.”

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Dressing a puppet in the workshop.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Dressing a puppet in the workshop. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

He added people also helped at the theatre because they wanted to work in the arts scene and develop their knowledge.

The volunteers, who have to be over 16, come from a variety of backgrounds and often teach theatre staff new skills.

Mr Woods was a volunteer at the theatre for nine years before becoming a paid member of staff 19 years ago.

“To be a volunteer, you need enthusiasm, interest in the arts and be reliable,” he said.

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead in the workshop.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead in the workshop. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

The theatre manager added that volunteers who put in a little bit of effort into an organisation or charity “could get an awful lot out of it”.

He believed the theatre played an important role in Norwich’s cultural offering and was well supported.

Volunteer and university graduate Elinor Goodhead, 25, from Norwich city centre, said: “When I was young my parents would bring me to workshops at the theatre. It has got a nice atmosphere.

“The theatre is quite a unique place for Norwich. I like that I help keep the place going.

Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead in the workshop.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY Norwich Puppet Theatre. Volunteers Kate Denbigh, left, and Elinor Goodhead in the workshop. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

“Volunteering is really good way of meeting different people and building your confidence in something else, other than paid employment.”

Volunteer Kate Denbigh, 40, from Connaught Road in Norwich, said: “I first volunteered here in 1999 while studying a drama degree at the University of East Anglia and kept coming back. Doing the workshops with the children is really nice. It is rewarding and varied.”

The volunteering has led to her becoming a freelance puppet maker.

Peter Butler, 84, from Green Man Lane in Kirstead, who has mainly volunteered in maintenance roles for the past 12 years, said: “It keeps me out of mischief.”

It costs the charity £100,000 a year to operate all of its activities, maintain the theatre and pay its two full-time a five part-time staff.

This is raised through show ticket sales, letting out the theatre space for weddings, and grants from organisations including Norwich City Council, Norfolk County Council.

Former church and night shelter transformed into major puppet theatre

The historic city centre church of St James was taken over by the Norwich Puppet Theatre Trust in 1978.

St James’ Church, on Whitefriars, had been declared redundant in 1969.

Before being taken on by the trust, the medieval building was a Norwich night shelter.

Using a mix of volunteers, young people out of work and professional tradesman, the building was transformed into the theatre it is today.

Its opening night was December 1, 1980.

Norwich Puppet Theatre became a reality thanks to the dream of Ray and Joan DaSilva, from the touring DaSilva Puppet Theatre company.

The trust was formed after they teamed up with businessman Tony Ede and architect Peter Codling.

Puppeteers from Norwich Puppet Theatre have gone on to work on major film and theatre projects including for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the most recent Star Wars film.

To get involved call 01603 615564 or visit www.puppettheatre.co.uk

Are you involved in a voluntary group? Email sophie.wyllie@archant.co.uk

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