Meet the Scarborough-based theatre company whose latest epic project is inspired by Homer's Odyssey

A five-metre high “Survivor” puppet and a giant Trojan horse sculpture made of cardboard are just two of the jaw-dropping spectacles coming to the East Coast, as part of a three-year performing arts project that has already involved more than 2,000 local people of all ages.

Billed as an “epic adventure on the Yorkshire coast”, The Odyssey is funded by the Yorkshire Coast Business Improvement District and has been masterminded by Animated Objects, a Scarborough-based theatre company run by husband-and-wife team Lee Threadgold and Dawn Dyson-Threadgold.

The creative duo, who each have more than 20 years of theatre experience, are known for their dramatic, large-scale events, outdoor theatre, giant artworks and performances, which often involve hundreds of professional artists, as well as schools and community groups.

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Their latest project was inspired by the ancient Greek poet Homer’s great literary works Iliad and Odyssey, which tell the story of the Trojan Wars and follow Odysseus, the hero of the poem Odyssey, on an epic journey as he attempts to return to his beloved homeland.

Lee Threadgold working on giant puppet heads to be used in The Odyssey. (Gary Longbottom).

Animated Objects’ reimagining of Homer’s classic tales are being told along a 100-mile stretch of the coast, from Spurn Point on the Humber Estuary all the way up to Staithes in North Yorkshire, through a series of more than 50 live and digital outdoor events.

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Lee, who formed Animated Objects in 2000, says: “We’ve done all sorts of large-scale performances in Yorkshire and beyond, but we started The Odyssey a month before the first national lockdown last March. That first year was a real challenge and we had to make lots of adaptations to the programme because of the restrictions.

“We tried to make it as participatory as we possibly could in what was a challenging time, but the opening up after lockdown has been an exciting phase for us. From the New Year onwards, we’ll have several things happening along the coast that people will be able to get involved with.”

Dawn Dyson-Threadgold with some lanterns. (Gary Longbottom).

In a nod to the playwright Christopher Marlowe’s famous description of Helen of Troy as the “face that launched a thousand ships”, earlier this year Lee and Dawn worked with local artists to create a touring exhibition of one thousand origami paper ships made by local artists, each of which featured imagery inspired by the coast.

Between July and September, they were displayed at venues in Whitby, Withernsea, Hornsea, Filey, Scarborough and Bridlington, where they were seen by more than 2,000 visitors.

Thanks to another of the couple’s innovative ideas, people can now listen to the first chapter of The Odyssey on their mobile devices as a geolocation story in more than 25 places along the Yorkshire coast.

The first episode, The Gathering Storm, explains how the Trojan Wars began and introduces many of the key characters. The audio trail features the voices of storytellers and performers from across the region, as well as the original work of local composers.

Odyssey sand art from above.

In February, visitors to the coast will have the chance to immerse themselves in the story as part of an experience called The Trojan Wars, which will tour a number of locations. Activities will include stop-motion animation workshops; interactive art boards; models, props and costumes from the film episodes; a green screen selfie area; and the chance to see the story so far on big screens in each venue.

One of the most eagerly anticipated elements of the project is the creation of The Survivor, a giant puppet in the form of a female, which will tour towns along the coast next summer.

“She is displaced; a survivor of conflict and warfare; and she has washed up on a shore unfamiliar to her,” says Lee. “She is lost; frightened and alone. I’m very much looking forward to the summer and taking her on a walkabout.”

Local groups, including Girl Guides, have already been involved in making a special blanket for the puppet to wear and in every town that she visits she will be greeted with performances comprising artwork, music and spoken word.

Lee trained in puppetry and community engagement at the Hogeschool voor de Kunsten at Utrecht in the Netherlands whilst on an international exchange that formed part of his first degree.

He then went on to complete a Masters degree in which he explored the interaction between live performers and puppets in a performance setting, with a particular focus on creating giant puppets, carnival, parades and immersive performances. These days, his work regularly features in regional touring productions and at theatres in London’s West End, but he also runs workshops on theatre and artistic skills for young people.

“We’ve often done recreations of ancient epic stories,” he says. “We settled on the Trojan Wars because we wanted to choose something that was big enough. So far, more than 2,000 local people have taken the opportunity to be involved in the project; the youngest was just four or five years old and the oldest would have been in their 90s. We’ve worked with schools, local amateur dramatic groups, operatic groups and even a sea swimming group.”

He met Dawn at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where she worked as company stage manager for ten years, alongside Sir Alan Ayckbourn. Prior to that she had worked on everything from open-air opera festivals in Italy to theatre in education, youth theatre and repertory theatre.

During the last five years alone, the pair have worked directly with more than 40,000 participants, and produced performances enjoyed by tens of thousands of people in public settings. They had to put together a comprehensive proposal to secure funding for The Odyssey from the Yorkshire Coast BID and the ambitious project has been three years in the making.

Another of the highlights will be the creation, next autumn, of a giant, cardboard Trojan horse, which will double up as a world record attempt to make the largest ever cardboard sculpture.

Lee mentions that a seven-headed dragon will also make an appearance in 2023, the final year of the project, as part of Odysseus’s journey home. “It’s nice to build big, people respond to it, not just to puppets, but also to sculpture. For adults, as well as children, they are just magical,” he says.

“I did a lot of drama at school, but I was always someone who was making, doing and drawing. I was always making objects, props or creating my own miniature worlds. My work today combines all of those things.

“Dawn and I have different skill sets; she is an organisational genius. She is amazing at working with large numbers of people and scheduling, but is also an artist, making giant lanterns for some of the lantern events that we get involved in every winter.

“She runs the production team at our live events, but there is lots of crossover between our roles and it works well. We constantly push one another to raise the bar with every project that we do. We’re committed to every piece of theatre being free at the point of contact, so without organisations like the Yorkshire Coast Bid and Arts Council England we couldn’t do this.”

The first chapter of The Odyssey can be accessed by visiting the Geolocation page on the Animated Objects website (www.animatedobjects.org/geolocation.html) and will be followed by episode two, The Trojan Wars, in the spring of 2022.