Campaign to save Norwich’s puppet theatre as cash grants dry up

Norwich Puppet Theatre operations manager, Ian Woods, with the puppet Boy from the play Oddly. Pictu

Norwich Puppet Theatre operations manager, Ian Woods, with the puppet Boy from the play Oddly. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

Dwindling funding has threatened the future of Norwich's Puppet Theatre, prompting a campaign to support the venue. Sam Russell reports.

Norwich Puppet Theatre and Staff Member Shows 1984 – 1992. Pictured: Puppet Cabaret

Norwich Puppet Theatre and Staff Member Shows 1984 – 1992. Pictured: Puppet Cabaret - Credit: Jonathan Holtom

A magical venue that has given hundreds of children their first taste of theatre is under threat.

Norwich's puppet theatre, at Whitefriars, is under pressure following a steady erosion of grant funding in recent few years.

As belts have been tightened across government departments, less and less cash has been made available for the arts and the theatre is facing an annual shortfall of around £40,000.

The Norwich Puppet Theatre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Norwich Puppet Theatre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2016

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A campaign launched in 2008, when the Arts Council decided to axe its £60,000 annual grant to the venue, managed to save the theatre from closure once before.

And the generous public are once again being called upon to support the 36-year-old theatre in its hour of need.

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Ian Woods, operations manager of the puppet theatre, explained that since the recession the theatre had been mostly supported by its own income.

Local authorities remained supportive but their budgets had also been cut, resulting in lower grants to arts organisations.

Norwich Puppet Theatre and Staff Member Shows 1984 – 1992. Pictured: Tinder Box

Norwich Puppet Theatre and Staff Member Shows 1984 – 1992. Pictured: Tinder Box - Credit: Jonathan Holtom

He said that in spite of the popularity of the puppet theatre, its annual running costs of £138,000 and costs of putting on shows outweighed the current operating income.

Asked whether the theatre could close, he said: 'The darkest view is that's the case, yes.

'There's so much going on in the theatre at the moment and our board has been very active in securing new funding to get through this difficult period this year.

'We hope that will provide a base to go forward.

'We're in a very difficult situation but we're actively applying for grants and talking to people.'

Creative director Joy Haynes stepped down from her role in March but was still involved with the theatre, Mr Woods said.

He added that this move meant the theatre had one salary fewer to pay, and the role of director was under review before a possible new appointment next year.

It was difficult to continue to operate while keeping prices affordable for the community, he added.

The theatre is inviting support through a number of schemes.

It is launching its Puppet Friends scheme for the public and a corporate supporter scheme too.

Puppet Friends will enjoy a range of special offers, and backstage experiences such as learning to operate the puppets.

Corporate supporters can tap into a range of benefits including brand association.

The theatre invites legacies, is seeking new partners, welcomes new opportunities and is diversifying its offer through venue hire and other uses of the building.

Call Mr Woods on 01603 615564 to arrange a visit and discuss opportunities in person, or see

Support for the puppet theatre

Peter Wilson, chief executive of Norwich Theatre Royal, said: 'The puppet theatre is a major creative force in Norwich, a unique and prestigious crucible and meeting place for people of all ages.

'Its loss would be just one more brick out of the wall made up of the reasons why people love to work, live and play in Norfolk.'

Adam Taylor, executive director of The Garage said: 'The puppet theatre is an enchanting venue which creates fantastic pieces of theatre reaching young people across the country.

'They are ambassadors for the city across the nation, producing great quality work that simply must continue.'

Caroline Richardson, director of Norwich Playhouse, said: 'The puppet theatre is irreplaceable.

'Norwich is very lucky to have a vibrant arts scene and so many unique cultural venues, and we hope the public will be very supportive of the puppet theatre.'

Helen Vinsen, marketing manager of the Maddermarket Theatre, said: 'The Puppet Theatre is an iconic location in Norwich which offers unique puppetry skills, education and story telling for children, as well as an alternative arts venue for creative projects.

'These independent art centres give the city of Norwich diversity and creativity for tourism, businesses and families to enjoy and all Norwich arts venues should get together and support their work continuing.'

Marion Maxwell, Lord Mayor of Norwich, said: 'I live locally to the puppet theatre and see children going in there and coming out very excited.

'It's a wonderful thing for them to start their experience in the theatre and I would hate to see it close.'

Caz Slota, marketing manager, of Norwich Playhouse, said: 'My first experience of theatre was seeing a production of The Snow Queen at the Puppet Theatre when I was three years old.

'It was one of the things that kicked off my love of theatre and storytelling, which in turn led to the career I now have.

'It is a landmark venue of national importance, and deserves support to carry on inspiring and entertaining audiences in the future.'

Norwich's puppet theatre is one of only three specialist puppet theatres in the country

opened in 1980 the theatre is within the Church of James the Less, which is broadly a 15th century building

7,261 tickets were sold for shows and workshops in the last year

Children and their families made 329 puppets over the two says of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival's Chapelfield picnic event last month

Around 25,000 vehicles pass the puppet theatre roundabout - Whitefriars and Barrack St - each year

The theatre marked its 35th anniversary last year

Norwich Puppet Theatre was founded in 1979 by Ray and Joan DaSilva as a permanent base for their touring company.

It was opened as a public venue in 1980, following the conversion of the medieval church of St James the Less in the heart of Norwich.

Mr DaSilva and his wife had first taken their puppet performances to Ontario, Canada, before moving back to England in 1962 and carrying on with the shows in Morecambe and Scarborough. In 1978, they moved their base in Cambridgeshire to Norwich and the conversion of the medieval church began.

The couple retired from the company in 1986, leaving the theatre under the guidance of artistic directors – first Barry Smith and now Luis Z Boy.

The theatre has had to evade closure threats in the past, including in 1987 when the city's businesses were urged to help the theatre tide over until more funding could be found.

In 2008 Arts Council England pulled the plug on a £60,000 per year grant to the theatre. A successful application to the Town Close Estate Charity, together with other generous offers, helped it to survive.

The theatre celebrated its 35th anniversary last year. One of the ways that the theatre marked the occasion was by inviting celebrities to create their own puppets. Toyah Willcox, Graham Linehan and Michael Rosen were among those who took part.

Now it needs your help again.

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