Olive Blackham


Olive Blackham ran a puppet theatre at Roel Farm. Olive Blackham was born in Birmingham on 15th February 1899, the eldest of five children. Dramatic productions in the large drawing room of the family home were a common feature of her early family life. However, following the death of her father, the family moved to a much smaller home and due to the lack of space, Olive began to make puppets instead.

She set up her first Puppet Theatre, known as "The Ark" in a loft above some local stables in the late 1920s. With a group of fellow puppet enthusiasts including Bernard Griffin, Gerald Shaw and Francis Norris, plays were written, experimental marionettes were made and innovative new productions were staged. "The Ark is not run merely to entertain," she wrote at the time, "it is a puppet theatre workshop, or studio, where we can experiment in every form of theatre activity in miniature. It is the outcome of a revolt against the cramping conditions the modern playwrights have imposed upon theatre and against the spiritual weariness their fare induces. We are experimenting with puppets in the belief that they can lead the way to a more beautiful and satisfying theatre." In 1932, with money she had saved up from her job in a bank, she purchased the Granary at Roel Farm, in the Village of Guiting Power, just outside Cheltenham and took the brave step of converting this to a full-time professional Puppet Theatre - The Roel Puppet Theatre - staging performances during the Spring and Summer and touring during the Autumn and Winter. Roel Farm was also for many years home to a very successful Summer School of Puppetry, where students spent two weeks making their own marionette, then rehearsing and performing the finished figure on the Roel Puppet Stage. The courses also included a visit to the nearby Lanchester Marionette Theatre in Malvern. The output of the Roel Puppet Theatre was greatly reduced during the war years and in 1940 Olive began writing her first book.

She picked up again after the war with a full programme of performances, and her remarkably practical book "Puppets into Actors" was published in 1948. That same year, she presented a major part of her repertoire of plays - two shows daily for just over a week - at the Cheltenham Music Festival in Cheltenham Town Hall. However, she then began to gradually lessen the scale of her productions and changed to a simpler lecture demonstration style. By the mid 1950s, her health and mobility were starting to decline and her involvement in puppetry gradually became less and less. She wrote a second book "Shadow Puppets" in 1960, but by the mid-1960s, she had moved to Cheltenham and after donating her puppets to various museums and collections, retired from performance, turning her attentions instead to weaving.

Olive Blackham has been variously described as a pioneer and a visionary, who elevated puppetry to a high art form. Her repertoire included excerpts from Shakespeare's "The Tempest", Chekhov's "The Proposal" and some of the Chester Miracle Plays among many other ground-breaking productions. She looked to Asia and the Far East for inspiration and mixed a myriad of modern and ancient influences.

In 1937, Olive was chosen by the British Puppet & Model Theatre Guild to represent British Puppetry at the Paris Exhibition. In 1966, she became the first British Puppeteer to be made a member of honour of the Union Internationale de la Marionette. Olive died in Malvern on 14th June 2002 aged 103. Following her death, Ray DaSilva wrote "While other puppeteers were striving to produce miniature versions of human theatre, Olive Blackham was trying to show puppetry as an art form in its own right."

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