Christmas is the key season for children’s shows, with a trip to the theatre now part of many families’ festive traditions. Competition from celebrity pantos and big West End productions means smaller venues like the Little Angel Theatre in Islington need a festive themed show too, but can focus on innovation in the storytelling instead.
For the past two years, Little Angel has put on Santa’s Little Workshop, a promenade performance where the audience are put on production line duty to help make puppet toys for Santa.
This year’s show is different, but no less challenging. I visited the set mid-rehearsal to talk with the cast and director Samantha Lane to learn more the process of putting it together.
Samantha explains that genesis of the show comes from a story she was reading to her own children, Where the Bugaboo Lives by Sean Taylor. It’s a picture book in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure story, where the reader selects their own route, following the instructions to turn to different pages depending on their choices.
“I got in touch with Sean because I was interested in turning that book into a show. We did a week of research and development on it but got into a bit of a muddle. It ended up really complicated and needing a lot of performers. In the end I felt that it was going to be a difficult show to make.”
One thing they did figure out during that development phase though was how to handle the multiple choices in the narrative. Rather than allow the audience to make individual choices and literally follow their own path through a promenade performance, they instead developed a way to bring the audience to a consensus. Exactly how this works they’re keeping a surprise, but it will be down to the performers to skilfully facilitate, making sure that everyone is in agreement.
With the choice mechanism solved, but Bugaboo shelved, Samantha returned to author Sean and suggested starting from scratch instead and collaborating on a new story using the same format.
“This studio space lends itself to being able to try new things and I was still interested in exploring what happens if it’s an ‘end on’ show, but where the audience are given a choice to direct the narrative.”
Sean came to the studio and worked with the cast to develop the characters. Actors Daniel King and Laura Doble explain “it was basically a lot of improv, different puppets, different characters, different environments…” That gave Sean enough material to go away and write the story and its multiple paths.
The result is a tale of two elves, Pumpkin Fizzletwist, “superintendent of Christmas letter collection”, and “assistant” (they both emphasise) Tatty Wigtoes, whose previous elf job was writing the mediocre jokes for Christmas crackers.
The two elves are on their way back to the North Pole when they fall from the sleigh in the middle of nowhere, along with all of Santa’s letters. From then on it’s an adventure quest story.
Daniel and Laura clearly have the comedy banter borne of weeks of close rehearsal, and it will be their role, performing as actors rather than puppeteers, to directly engage the audience in choosing a path. Based on those choices, they’ll meet different puppet characters who may help or hinder their quest.
“The original idea for the puppets”, Samantha explains, “was to re-use all these puppets from previous productions that we store in our basement, never seeing the light of day.” So they brought out dozens of old puppets for use in their improvisation sessions, exploring what would happen if the characters met.
“In the end, we decided to make new puppets, as we need to be able to manipulate them in specific ways”. These characters, puppeteered by Marie Fortune, still draw their inspiration from the older ones though, such as a giraffe which originated from an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me. “That’s why we’ve ended up with a giraffe in the Arctic circle, an idea nobody would go away and write in a room, but it just works brilliantly. There’s lot of surprises like that.”
The biggest challenge of a show like this is that, with so many different possible versions, dependent upon audience responses, it’s difficult to realistically rehearse. “That means we have to really be flexible”, Laura emphasises, “we can’t get comfortable and switch off for a second – we’ve got to be listening and really in tune with each other.”
The set itself is another challenge. With the performance taking place in a single studio space, Samantha explains that designer Alison Alexander has had to produce a flexible set where multiple locations can be created quickly. “She’s created almost a giant puppet in the set itself, an Arctic playground which is manipulated in the same way as a puppet.”
The set, the puppets, and the two elves together make a show that’s an interactive, festive quest adventure.
Daniel promises fun – with jokes for adults too – as well as a story with a heart. “It’s a tale of friendship, of learning that even if you view the world in different ways, somehow you can work together and get on.”
I’m certainly intrigued as to how the interactive elements will work, and hope to meet the Arctic giraffe.
And as for Bugaboo? Samantha says “it’s still a story I read with my children, and I think I’ll come back to at some point.”
Finding Santa runs at the Little Angel Studio in Islington from 16 November until Christmas Eve, aimed at 3 to 8 year olds.
Frankie is a freelance Creative Technologist and theatre lover from London. Follow Frankie @frankieroberto.