This page is to give you some background information about Ray and Joan DaSilva, so that you will understand who you are dealing with. For brevity's sake, it has been necessary to leave out the names of many people who contributed to the success of their works over the years; nevertheless, Ray and Joan are exceedingly grateful to them all.
You can read the story of the DaSilva Puppet Company and the touring adventures of the puppeteers by ordering a copy of Chris Abbott’s ‘An East Anglian Odyssey’.
Ray, born in 1933, developed a keen interest in conjuring and puppet theatre while still at school at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. He was encouraged and inspired by Vyvyan Bennett his art master who presented a particularly good marionette cabaret. Another source of great inspiration (especially in showmanship and audience management) came from watching performances by Jean and Dennis Collins whose programmes on Hunstanton sea front included Punch & Judy and humanettes. Ray subsequently constructed a few marionettes and combined these with his conjuring performances.
In 1951 he received publicity on his early admission to the Magic Circle and became very busy presenting shows for local organizations. In 1953 he met Joan – a dancer in a local touring group and they were married in 1954. They spent their honeymoon at a magicians' convention and were reported in the national press as having performed a wedding-night sawing in half illusion. Joan developed her own magic act to music and together they toured East Anglia entertaining at civic functions, and social events. For outdoor summer performances they added a Punch & Judy Show.
Joan and Ray emigrated to Ontario in 1956 where Ray was employed in the research department of General Foods and Joan in the laboratory of another firm. Contacts were made with Canadian and American magicians resulting in an invitation to perform at the 1957 convention of the International Brotherhood of Magicians in Houston Texas where they won the prize for best stage setting. The DaSilvas were then in demand for entertainment at events for ex-British Canadians who fondly recalled Punch & Judy from their childhood. This activity came to the attention of George Merten, who lived in Toronto. George, writer of several puppet books, was festival coordinator for the 1959 Puppeteers of America festival and engaged Ray and Joan to perform at this event. The week-long national festival provided the greatest inspiration of all and led to their decision to dedicate their lives to Puppet Theatre. As 'The Little World Theatre' they produced a number of shows in Canada and subsequently returned to England to set up the DaSilva Puppet Company on a full-time professional basis.
The Professional Company
Arriving back in England in 1962, with enough money to buy a van to transport their puppets and equipment, they launched themselves onto the Club circuit, performing their marionette cabaret every weekend in the Midlands, and for five years undertook summer seasons at Scarborough. Their son Nik was born in 1963 and at six week's old, accompanied Ray and Joan on a performing tour in Germany. This set the pattern for years to follow until Nik flew the nest, and a few years later, with Lynne Porter, set up the Parachute Theatre Company. Now Nik with his partner Sarah present puppet shows as 'Noisy Oyster'.
In 1967 the DaSilvas created a self-contained portable theatre (seating 200) at Morecambe, and in the same year launched the first of their 'puppet spectaculars' – Snowhite and the Seven Musical Dwarfs on a huge staging (7m x 6m x 6m). That production marked the beginning of the company's expansion. More puppeteers were engaged to perform in that show and employed to build and present subsequent productions. They purchased an ex-school at Godmanchester, Cambridgeshire and eventually, with a staff of up to 19 members, and became the largest and most successful unsubsidised puppet company in Britain. They undertook much pioneering work both in technical development and in the creation of new audiences, thereby making a significant contribution to the British puppet scene. The company soon became a training ground for puppeteers who later formed their own companies or went to work for others. There were usually three teams (sometimes more) performing in different locations simultaneously. One team toured major theatres (including London's West End) the others to small theatres, arts-centres and schools. Each team toured for about 35 weeks a year and together played to a total annual audience of around 250,000. The DaSilva Company's productions for commercial theatres featured popular subjects such as Pinocchio, Hansel & Gretel, Treasure Island, and Alice in Wonderland – all of which combined several simultaneous puppet operating techniques on large fit-ups. The company also toured the arts societies and European venues with their smaller shows including Peter and the Wolf and Paper Tiger. The latter produced in 1977 used Japanese language and included innovations in table-top techniques which later became widely used by other British puppeteers.
Norwich and after
In 1978 the company moved from its base in Cambridgeshire to Norwich and initiated the conversion of a mediaeval church to a permanent puppet theatre which opened as Norwich Puppet Theatre in 1980. After directing this operation together with the touring groups for another six years, Ray and Joan retired from the company in 1986 leaving the theatre to stand on its own feet. (To the credit of Barry Smith, and then Luis Boy, the theatre is still in operation, and under its own name, has gained an international reputation.) Ray then began to concentrate on his other preoccupation – books on puppet theatre, which led to the beginning of the first second-hand book service for puppeteers. This subsequently expanded to include new books, and later the publishing of new titles. At the same time, they were occasionally touring their smaller shows in the UK and abroad.
The DaSilvas remain dedicated 'Puppeteers working for Puppeteers'. Ray takes an active role in the British puppetry organisations: cofounder and later vice-chair of the Puppet Centre Trust, General Secretary and then Chair of British UNIMA, Librarian and Council member of The British Puppet and Model Theatre Guild. He organised Puppeteers' Weekends in Norfolk – mini festivals which included foreign performers and initiated the Puppeteers’ Support Organisations Group which became a forum for representatives from all the national and regional Puppetry Organisations and in 1999 developed into PuppeteersUK. Ray acted as Secretary of PUK and editor of the website and weekly email newsletter for several years until taking ‘early retirement’ on his 75th birthday in February 2008. Now he is co-curator of the National Puppetry Archive. Joan has more recently directed her sewing skills to the quilting group at the local church where Ray is Hon Treasurer.
Ray and Joan are very aware of the debt that they owe to their inspirational sources and to all the many people who worked in the company over the years. Some came to it as experienced puppeteers, others straight from drama schools, theatre companies or from other kinds of employment; and in some cases direct from school or college. A good number of them stayed in puppetry after leaving the company, either to become solo performers, combine to form their own troupes, work for other puppet companies, or find employment in television and film. You can read about the puppeteers, the shows they produced, the variety of venues they visited, the trial and tribulations as well as the fun and adventures in Chris Abbott’s ‘An East Anglian Odyssey.
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