THE STORY BEHIND ANGEL HEART
by James Richardson.
When I was a boy of ten I had several Pelham marionette puppets, with which I put on shows for my younger brother and his friends. I was always excited by the sense of occasion and spectacle such performances seem to conjure up. My dad encouraged me by making a small puppet theatre and by adding to my 'ensemble cast' with new characters and a variety of stage props: I loved the baby grand piano which was played by the clown with increasing vigor, until it literally fell to pieces with the tug of a string. I was fascinated and in awe at what my dad could create with his hands: I can remember, even then, wanting to make such things when I grew up. I can also recall how nervous I was before each performance I did. Would I forget all the lines I had rehearsed? Would my brother find the funny bits funny? Or worse still... would I drop the puppets?
Although, I enjoyed being backstage and in my imaginary worlds, I was a shy child and not a natural performer before an audience; even if they were a bunch of four year olds. But,
as an impatient young boy,
the biggest draw-back with marionettes was the strings. And ultimately, I suspect both my and my dad's enthusiasm was exhausted by the number of times I handed over a bedraggled puppet for him to disentangle, not least during a performance. When I became a teenager such 'dolls', along with my Action Men got left behind. And that, I thought, was the end of that.
IN THROUGH THE STAGE DOOR:
In 1999 I had friends working in the world of puppetry for a professional touring company. They said the man who ran it was looking for someone to work behind the scenes, making and repairing props and puppets, and would I like to apply. At the time I was doing a lot of dry-stone walling and this opportunity was the perfect counterpoint to such outdoor, physical work. I had always followed an artistic path and here was the chance to keep my creative hand in.
So began what would become a ten year
'apprenticeship', working alongside the renowned John Roberts and his PuppetCraft
hooked from the start and was soon invited to contribute my
thoughts and feedback during rehearsals. I was entranced and loved
watching the animated 'life' of the puppets ebb and flow before my
eyes. It was only a matter of weeks before my passion for it all was
noted and I was graciously offered (given my complete lack of
experience) the chance to fill the shoes of a departing performer. This
was a huge decision for me, raising the ghost of all my childhood
nerves. I weighed up the agonizing dilemma of being acutely unsure if
I could stand up in front of an audience and yet, secretly yearning
to perform. In the end, having just coincidentally put myself through
a four day workshop in the art of performing, I dared to say, “yes”. After that I went on to work, as both a maker and puppeteer, on seven of the shows created by PuppetCraft.
It was a wonderful experience and I found it amusing that a curiously
unintentional loop had been made in my life: after twenty years I was
not only 'playing' with puppets again, but I was making a living
during this period that I overcame my fear as a performer. I learnt
to appreciate that an audience's expectations were a hopeful invite to be led into the wonder of what I brought to the stage. This was a
turning point for me and after this I fully understood the delicate
bridge that is spun between a performer and their audience; a bridge
that has to be crossed from both sides in order for the 'magic' to happen.
CUTTING THE STRINGS.
By 2007 I was ready to go solo. I was keen to follow my own artistic vision and strike a path with puppets of my own making. So, tying all my skills into one bundle I set off into the fantastically curious world ahead of me. That world was to become Angel Heart, a name that seemed to capture both the other-worldliness of puppets and the human empathy they can engender. As a child, I was a late and very sporadic reader; yet I have never forgotten the made-up stories my granddad used to tell me, sat on his knee, in which I was usually the adventurous hero. This early memory I have of the power of the free-spoken tale was instrumental in deciding that Angel Heart would be known for the original stories it brought to life. Often these have been inspired by tales from my own family history.
Now, having passed through hundreds of village halls, theatres and schools and having entranced thousands of children and adults alike, I am just as smitten by a passion for puppetry as I was when I was ten. They say, “All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players”. But, for me, puppets seem the perfect players on the more infinite and intimate stage of the imagination.