AS anyone who takes a stroll along the South Bank from time to time will no doubt have seen, the National Theatre is undergoing a bit of a makeover.
The first phase of the £80million refurbishment programme, NT Future, which includes a new riverside entrance to the main building, foyer and bookshop area, has seen the complete redevelopment of the former Cottesloe theatre, now known as the Dorfman.
It has been followed by the new production building, the Max Rayne Centre and the Sherling High-Level Walkway, linking the Dorfman foyer with the National’s production workshops, offering people a previously unseen view into what goes on behind the scenes.
It has also seen the creation of the Clore Learning Centre next to the Dorfman to give the National a permanent home for its education programme.
The Clore opened in the autumn and offers a variety of programmes, courses and events for schools, families, young people and adults to inspire people of all ages to get involved and find out more about theatre making.
A few weeks ago I took my 10-year-old daughter Lucy to check it out at a pirate puppet making workshop.
It was part of the Clore’s Family Days which take place once a month and includes a mix of drop-in activities and ticketed workshops designed for children aged between six and 12 and adults to enjoy together.
Other sessions include having a go at designing a costume, composing music and finding out how music is used in the productions, prop making and learning how actors perform realistic fight scenes on stage.
This particular workshop’s theme had been inspired by the National’s stunning production of Treasure Island which wowed audiences last winter.
The aim was to work with a puppeteer to create a pirate’s parrot, and learn how to operate it before acting out a scene from the show.
The session was hosted in the Clore's Cottesloe Room by Laura Cubbitt, an actress and puppeteer whose CV includes The National’s productions of War Horse and The Elephantom - and what she doesn’t know about puppets and how to operate them frankly isn’t worth knowing!
There were about 20 of us in the group and to begin Laura had devised a series of games to help us get to know each other – including talking about the characteristics of our favourite animals and then imitating them.
When we were all relaxed, warmed up and ready for action it was time to get down to business.
Laura showed us with the help of three different sized pieces of brown paper, a paper cup, coloured tissue paper, pipe cleaners, a pair of scissors and more sellotape than you can shake a stick at how to create our own parrot puppet.
Then it was our turn. In small groups we gathered our materials and set about trying to copy her.
It was trickier than it looked and Lucy and I needed several goes to make the wings of our bird before we managed to get it right but it was great fun.
Once we had assembled the basic body, head, wings and claws we were able to add embellishments such as strips of coloured tissue for extra plumage. We also drew eyes and some people even added feathers on the heads of their creations.
When everyone had finished we introduced our puppets to the rest of the group. Lucy and I named ours Sykes, because in Lucy’s words, he was a bit of a cheeky chappie, definitely rough around the edges and was a bit of a character.
Laura showed us how to hold the puppets in such a way as to make them fly, move their heads, perch on something and move about before having a go at acting out a scene with our bird.
It was brilliant, entertaining and loads of fun, a great way to spend a morning doing something together as a family, and at £5 for adults and £3 for children won't break the bank.
Lucy and I would highly recommend it.
After the session Lucy and I met up with Jo Carey, the Clore’s programme manager for primary and early years, who took us up to the Sherling High-Level Walkway to take a look at the professionals at work.
As well as information boards along the wall of the walkway, it allows visitors to see a glimpse of what goes on backstage that has up until now been hidden away from view.
We were able to see some of the rehearsal spaces, the workshop areas, and where the costumes and props are made.
We saw sets in the process of construction as well as the preparation of some fake food including Peacock Pie - it was incredibly lifelike and the attention to detail was astonishing.
It was amazing to look down from the walkway to see wigs being made and the fabrics being used to create the costumes and set furnishing and see those whose job it is to make these amazing creations, hard at work.
What’s even better is that it’s free and as long as there is no show on visitors can even go inside the Dorfman Theatre.
“It’s very much part of the NT Future programme that we wanted to be able to open up and show how theatre is made here,” says Jo.
“As well as the two rooms downstairs where we host our workshops, we have opened up the backstage area so people can see how the shows are put together, find out about the different roles people have and see what happens backstage.
“We make all our props, wigs, sets and costumes in house and this allows people to see that.”
As the Clore Learning Centre gets established Jo says more workshops will be added including for the very young.
“This has been so exciting,” she says. “It is already enabling us to connect with so many more people especially schools, young people and their families.
"Our plan is to continue to develop our programme of activities as we go forward and inspire even more people."
Visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/discover-more for full listings of what's on and when. Tickets can be booked online or via the Box Office on 020 7452 3000.