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Christopher Leith
1942 - 2015

Christopher Leith, a master of puppet theatre in Britain, died from the complications of motor neurone disease, which he developed in 2013. In addition to his many other accomplishments, Christopher was the Artistic Director at the Little Angel theatre in London. Christopher's deep obsession with puppets goes right back to his childhood. His family didn't approve. His stepfather said he was 'playing with dolls.' Retrospectively, Christopher was creating a world he could control, but as he reached his teens, puppeteering changed from being a need to being a vocation. He studied theatre design at Wimbledon School of Arts in London, acting at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, and apprenticed in puppet design and manipulation under John & Lyndie Wright of London's Little Angel Theatre.

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In addition to his long association with the Little Angel, Chris' work with puppets was so extensive that we can only touch on a few highlights here. He played many different roles in his work: he designed and carved puppets; he wrote, directed, and performed in numerous puppet productions; he taught and mentored younger puppeteers; and he worked in film (with Jim Henson, Lotte Reiniger, Disney Studios, and others), although theatre remained his first love. He was Resident Puppeteer for the National Theatre, and worked with many other companies, large and small, including the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera, the London Palladium and Polka Theatre. His puppets, sculptures and drawings have been exhibited at the National Theatre, the British Museum, the V&A Museum and other venues.

Christopher also loved music: he trained in Gregorian chant with Dr. Mary Berry, and performed regularly with the Schola Gregoriana. "There is a spirit in every object that has magic in it," Christopher would say. "A puppet is like a little nest where the spirits can come down, enjoy being and dance there. Puppets have no free will, a puppet comes to life when it is picked up and it dies when it is put down an empty shell. Puppets exist in a state which is both alive and dead at the same moment…that’s why puppetry is the most beguiling of all the theatre arts; and the best puppeteers are the ones who let the audience dream in the strongest way."

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Christopher would often teach this simple exercise to his students. “Begin by sitting in stillness". he asks you, the student, to "simply sit and look at your puppet. Don't touch the puppet, not yet. Centre yourself by concentrating on your breath, and then make a connection with the puppet through your eyes alone. Now use your imagination to make an energetic connection to the puppet through your lower energy centre, just below your navel" -- what the Taoists call the Dan Tien. "And then, when you're ready, when the moment feels right, move your hand gently to rest on the puppet. The first moment of connection is special, it is when you are giving the puppet life. After touching the puppet, allow the rise and fall of your breathing to transfer into it. This is what moves the puppet into motion, the sacred connection between puppet and puppeteer.”

“Each time you make that contact with the puppet, you are giving life.” And there it is, at the heart of this simple, powerful exercise: the Creation Myth. Art doesn't get much more profound than this: the creation of life. The creation of the world. Christopher would go on to say at the end of the exercise, "Centre yourselves once again, and when it feels right, slowly withdraw your hand from the puppet.... For of course, the puppets we infuse with our breath and consciousness become inert again when the story is done. You’ve brought the puppet to life, allowed it to explore its world, but now that life has to be taken back. If the giving of life is a powerfully mythic moment, the ending of it is perhaps even more so. The circle has completed itself."

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Although Christopher began showing symptoms of motor neurone disease in 2013, he continued to work with puppets in whatever ways his failing strength allowed: he could no longer carve, or manipulate the puppets, but he still directed, taught, championed the art form wherever and whenever he could, and served as Patron of The Curious School of Puppetry. And Chris' final production, 3 Stages for Lazarus, played at The Little Angel in 2015. In the short video below, Christopher's last puppet is brought to life: "The back of Lazarus was the last piece of carving I ever did," Chris said. "To see it coming to life in this way is magical; it’s beautiful. I started working on Lazarus in 2010, well before any signs of motor neurone disease. I heard the words ‘fixed and cannot move’ in a song; that’s how puppets are -- and are not. Lazarus is about the fragility of life."

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