Fresh from a position as Director of Projects at the Almeida Theatre, Samantha Lane has joined Little Angel Theatre as Artistic Director/Producer, as well as taking up the position of Chief Executive. Here she reveals how she is settling in, why theatre is all about good storytelling and the crucial thinking behind education programmes

It’s been nigh on two months since you took on your new role at the Little Angel Theatre. How have things gone so far?

It’s been great. Everybody has been incredibly welcoming, and, prior to my appointment, the senior management team stepped up and took on interim responsibility for the organisation, so the transition has been incredibly smooth. With the interim team in place, and having our programme confirmed through to the end of January 2016, I have been in a really advantageous position where I have had time to talk to people, to meet people, and just to spend my first six weeks listening. The puppetry community is such a wide and diverse one – I could have a cup of coffee with a different person every day and still not reach everybody I would want to. There has been that time to really spend listening, which is key when you are about to embark upon running an organisation.

Is it a positive time at the Little Angel Theatre?

It’s a really exciting time for me to arrive at Little Angel Theatre. Not just in terms of the quality of the work and the co-productions, but our touring work is also going from strength to strength. The new Little Angel Studios has been phenomenal for the theatre. Having a second space, a creative hub and a centre for research and development for all the education work and the courses we run has been phenomenal. It’s an excellent opportunity to increase our engagement with the community.

Have you seen some memorable shows there?

The Resident: Samantha Lane photographed in Little Angel Theatre’s wonderful workshop, by AntonSamantha Lane photographed in Little Angel Theatre’s wonderful workshop, by Anton

I have got two small children, a four and six year old, and this is a fantastic theatre to take them to – and happens to be directly opposite where I formerly worked. In terms of the children’s shows, I have seen probably most of the shows that the Little Angel has produced in the last 3 of 4 years, and a fair few of the visiting shows as well.

Have you always been interested in puppetry?

I have always been interested in good theatre and good storytelling, and for me that is sometimes puppetry and sometimes not. My choice to go and see a show at the Little Angel wouldn’t be to see the puppets, it would be to see a good story that happens to be served by puppetry. I think that’s a really interesting question to ask an Artistic Director of a puppet theatre, but for me the art is fundamentally about the story and how you serve the story – our medium does happen to be puppetry so for me it’s about making sure that puppetry tells the story in the best possible way.

If you ask most adults about their experiences of either theatre or TV when growing up, puppets tend to feature in some way. Everyone has a memory of a puppet show, whether Punch & Judy at the beach, or an animal at the panto, or George and Zippy on the TV… There’s something magical about puppets. A child’s ability to suspend their disbelief is much greater than an adult’s, and to see that puppet serve that story… it’s wonderful. I immediately know when I watch the audience at Little Angel Theatre whether the show is working or not purely by the children’s reactions. They are just so fantastic at saying what they think, and their behaviour is in direct response to what they are seeing on stage. If they are agitated or fidgety they are not really enjoying the show, but sometimes, contrary to adult theatre, shouting out and making lots of noise is often a real positive as they are engaging with the work, rather than it being a sign of bad etiquette at the theatre!

Why has education been a key part of your career to date?

It probably started for me when I saw a show called Too Much Punch for Judy when I was at school, aged 15. I loved drama and I thought at some point I wanted to be an actor, as I think most young people do when they don’t realise there are other career options out there in terms of theatre. But I quite quickly realised acting wasn’t for me, but I kept coming back to this show that had such a profound effect on me. I am quite soppy, and films can make me cry, but I hadn’t seen anything live before that had such an effect on me. It was absolutely brilliant. At university I was studying drama, but happened to do a course in community theatre and we studied theatre and education, did some of our own projects, and still that show kept coming back to me. I wanted to be part of making that possible for other young people. I knew I wanted to make work that talked to young people, and make work with young people as well.

Has access to theatre for young people improved over the years?

The Resident: There’s plenty of opportunity to learn the art of puppetry at the Little AngelThere’s plenty of opportunity to learn the art of puppetry at the Little Angel

I think it has. There are some fantastic opportunities out there and I think there are some really great schemes. I still think there are big steps to take. There is a lot of conversation at the moment about the lack of diversity in the arts, and I believe that the way to really address the issue is to create progression from our education and access work through to what’s happening on the main stage. Sometimes it can feel like the education work is tokenistic, or is a bit like ticking some boxes rather than genuinely believing in the value of this work. And surely, the way to diversify the industry’s workforce is to properly invest in the education work now and reap the rewards in 20 years’ time. There isn’t a quick fix to this. That connection isn’t really happening.

The Little Angel Theatre has always had a great education program. What do they do right?

Good question! I think the education work at the Little Angel is great. It’s long established and has a great relationship with schools. We have a puppeteer in residence at Thornhill Primary School, which is just superb. We are coming to the end of the sixth year. It’s fantastic because children are learning through puppetry, and accessing all elements of the curriculum through puppetry. Chloe Purcell has been the puppeteer in residence for the whole time. We are working on a report on the impact that this has had on year 6 pupils who have gone through their entire schooling knowing Chloe. It’s a wonderful, scheme, but unfortunately it’s an expensive one, and I would love to find a way to roll out the model and have puppeteers in residence in all Islington schools. I think the problem is that there is scope to do so much, but with capacity and money being an issue, as it is with many small organisations, where do you draw the line, when the possibilities are endless?

Can you reveal any plans for the artistic programme going forward?

The Resident: The likes of Jabberwocky has won over hearts and minds in the past, photo by Ellie KurtzThe likes of Jabberwocky has won over hearts and minds in the past, photo by Ellie Kurtz

In terms of programming, you will see very little of Samantha Lane 2016. This is partly because I need to programme quickly, and I have a really strong artistic belief that new projects need a good amount of time invested in them – time to think them through properly, and research and develop them appropriately. I have got to make a decision about my first show for spring next year very soon, so the likelihood is that will be a revival or something that had been proposed to my predecessor or the senior management team. One of the things I am really interested in looking at is how artistically we find a model of working that broadens our age range, so we are not seen as a theatre that does work just for really small kids. I don’t know yet whether that’s a model that looks at segmenting and dividing, having two shows running simultaneously that are for different ages, or whether that’s investing in a bigger family show where all ages can come at once– but I’ll definitely be considering how we break free of being pigeonholed as creating a very particular kind of work.

Words: Mark Kebble

Little Angel Theatre, 14 Dagmar Passage N1 2DN; 020 7226 1787;