St James Pockthorpe - A Study of Art in the Community


The Norwich Puppet Theatre was founded in 1978 by Ray & Joan DaSilva as a permanent base for their touring company and was first opened as a public venue in 1980, following the conversion of the medieval church of St James. The conversion & subsequent use of the church epitomises the fact that although the church was established hundreds of years ago it continues to be pivotal to the local community.

The original Church Renovation

The project was planned in 2 stages :

1. The creation of a puppet theatre in one of the city's "redundant Medieval Churches"

2. Building of workshops & studios

The Puppet theatre got under way in the early months of 1978 when Ray & John da Silva founders of the Da Silva puppet theatre at Godmanchester had an ambition to create a puppet theatre. At the same time a number of people in Norwich were thinking along the same lines including Dick Condon (General Manager of Theatre Royal) & Tony Ede - a local man who had been inspired by the famous Salzburg puppets. After talks with Norwich Historical Churches Trust it was decided St James church would be ideal. As with all of the church regenerations in Norwich the development of St James relied on a number of important features namely :

However the additional feature which epitomizes the development of the Puppet Theatre was its links with the local community. This was very much highlighted through its work with the Manpower Services Commission.

Thus looking at those early years:

By July 1978 a committee had been set up which was ready to test the feasibility of the project. They made a temporary stage area and auditorium in the church the Da Silvas put on a week of puppet shows supplemented by an exhibition by local schoolchildren. Locals flocked to the church Within three weeks the committee had been promised 15,000 from Norfolk County Council, industry, commerce, private individuals & charitable trusts supporters included the Anguish Foundation, Anglia TV. Jarrold & Sons ltd . Monetary support was backed by offers of practical help.

By the autumn the feasibility committee had become a steering committee with a full scale fund raising & conversion scheme on its hands.

Tony Ede worked tirelessly for the project one of his most successful schemes was negotiating with the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) to provide a work force in the theatre. The MSC set up one of its project based work experience schemes (Youth Opportunity Scheme for 16 - 18 year olds) in St James & originally allocated 14 young people plus 3 supervisors to do the conversion work. Initially intended for 9 months the scheme was so successful that the MSC extended 3 times & it was finally completed in July 1980 after 19 months. All in all 30 youngsters worked on the project, after which most of them armed with experience were able to go on and get apprenticeships elsewhere. Working under the eye of 3 supervisors, who were experienced in the building industry but were themselves unemployed, totally inexperienced youngsters , none of whom had been able to find any other work, tackled an amazing range of tasks including: carpentry, bricklaying, plastering, upholstery, decorating & cement work. Some specialist workers were called in but the major part of the work was a youth effort.The MSC not only provided the cost of labour but also made a contribution towards materials. The scheme was so successful it was held up as a showpiece of what could be achieved. Barbara Carnall of the MSC said

"it really has been our most successful project based work experience scheme.....The Puppet theatre people ..have always made getting permanent jobs for the lads as much as a priority as getting the theatre built - even when it has meant losing a good & useful worker

Since the first funds had been promised in the summer of 1978 a steady flow of cash & gifts in kind were made available to the steering committee for the project. The cost of which exceeded 120k. The response from local people was generous & unstinting. There was also additional help from national bodies e.g the Arts Council gave 5000 from its "housing the Arts Fund" & several national celebrities became patrons of the project including : Richard Briers, Alan Ayckbourn, Roald Dahl, Jim Henson (of the muppets) & Marcel Morceau.

The Lord Mayor of Norwich Mr Eric Hartley officially opened the Puppet theatre in December 1980. At the same time the EDP jubilantly reported:

"Their physical achievement is there for all to see - the successful completion of the most major conversion yet undertaken of a medieval Norwich Church into a 200 seat theatre of 20th Century standards"

The Theatre today

There are a range of reasons why the church venue has contributed to the success of the puppet theatre these include: its visual impact, the architecture, the atmosphere, acoustics and its excellent location.

Ray de Silva summed up the position back in 1980 when he said : "It really is marvelous to be able to use a building like that as a theatre . It has so much more atmosphere than any building a modern architecture could come up with"

There will obviously be pros and cons to locating in a "regenerated building." For the Puppet Theatre these include: no need for air conditioning in summer offset against higher heating bills in winter, l huge windows providing wonderful natural lighting in the foyer having to be covered in the auditorium. Ian Woods, however, believes that overall costs are comparable with locating in a purpose built building.

The original features of the church were adapted for the theatre. Thus the auditorium was created out of the nave whilst the chancel become the stage area. An old Rood staircase discovered during the conversion work was reopened to give access to a gallery. The South Aisle of the church became the foyer with a bar & shop counter, toilets were installed under the auditorium. In early days the old vestry area became the green room & office, the parvise (the small room over the porch) became a workroom, & the porch entrance housed the box offices. Windows along the north wall were bricked up for acoustic & black out purposes but the outlines of the windows have been retained & lights installed between the glass & the brick to illuminate the building at night. Since the original renovation a new extension has been added to the church to incorporate the new workshop, studios & offices envisaged when the church was first renovated.

Marcel Marceau (French Master of Mime) visited the project in September 1980 when he summed up the joint benefits of developing St James " puppetry was not meant for performing in a little tent......It needed the right setting an old church was a wonderful building for this. A building which was no longer needed and might have crumbled has been given redemption by this wonderful theatre project" Mr Marceau was particularly impressed by the amount of space at the theatre he said " it is a work of taste .I believe that quality & taste are vital to the success of any form of the arts.

Today the theatre receives 10,000 visitors a year of which approximately 30% are tourists the remainder being locals. It contributes to a range of local events including The Norfolk & Norwich Festival & the Norwich International Animation Festival.

The theatre has developed not only as a performance venue but continues to provide an ongoing educational resource. The latter takes a variety of forms which not only includes workshops, which have approximately 800 attendees throughout the year and work placements, but also a unique variety of activities. For Example :

Norwich is lucky to have this facility which is the only puppet theatre in England outside of London. The reputation of the theatre in the international community is reflected in the standard of touring companies who perform at the theatre, which in 2006 included : Duda Paiva (The Netherlands) and the British Premiere of the Figurina Theatre of Animation from Hungary. As such audiences have the opportunity to experience cultural diversity and to see how the art form of theatre animation has developed in different countries. Back in 1979 Tony Ede said that " if the theatre were to be completely destroyed by a thunderbolt we could still say with certainty that the social advantages gained during construction were enough to make the whole thing worthwhile"it is fair to say that this contribution to the local community has continued to the present day.

Norwich Puppet Theatre
St James

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Churches managed by NHCT are highlighted in in bold below. Click to visit a church.
All Saints Westlegate St. George Tombland St. Julian St. Michael at Plea
St. Andrew St. Giles St. Lawrence St. Peter Hungate
St. Augustine St. Gregory St. Margaret St. Peter Mancroft
St. Benedict St. Helen St. Martin at Oak St. Peter Parmentergate
St. Clement St. James Pockthorpe St. Martin at Palace Plain St. Saviour
St. Edmund Fishergate St. John de Sepulchre St. Mary Coslany St. Simon & St. Jude
St. Etheldreda St. John Maddermarket St. Mary the Less St. Stephen
St. George Colegate St. John Timberhill St. Michael(Miles) Coslany St. Swithin