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Feature | Bringing puppets to life in Storm Boy

Interviews /

Dead Puppet Society creates deeply imaginative theatre where the old school meets the technological, and the mythic meets the modern. We spoke to David Morton, Puppet Designer and Associate Director at Dead Puppet Society about his approach to designing the puppets for our Season 2019 production of Storm Boy.

When did you first come across the script for Storm Boy and what compelled you to agree to the production?

I first came across the script for Storm Boy when [Director] Sam [Strong] shared it with me earlier this year. I had known the story from childhood and was excited to work on the production, not just because of the special place these characters hold in so many people’s hearts, but because of the chance to create a vast and beautiful world that is iconic of this specific Australian landscape.

What were your first impressions reading the play? Can you identify initial challenges and opportunities?

My first impression upon reading the play was how beautifully sparse the dialogue is, and how it drives the sense of time in the piece to hark to larger seasonal movements, both of the environment, and the lives within it. It’s an amazing opportunity to attempt to create an ecosystem on stage, particularly in this sort of story, where the hopes and struggles of the characters are so intrinsically linked with the world around them.

How have you started to approach designing the puppets?

I always begin by studying anatomical drawings to find the key articulation points and to get a clear idea of the biomechanics of the real animal. From there I begin to design the mechanism that the performers can use to bring the otherwise material object to life. Non-human actors are nothing without integration into the larger theatrical world in which they play, unfortunately it’s not quite as easy as making an all-terrain creature that will survive everything that is asked of it. Nearly every choice that’s made around the design of the puppets will be guided by the needs of the rest of the design team.

Can you give us a general run-down of the materials you will use?

I always use natural materials when building creatures, often taking inspiration from the landscape in which they live. The core mechanisms will be a combination of aluminium and plywood.

What made you become a puppet designer?

Most of my work is as a writer/director, not a puppet designer. However, many of the scripts that I have worked on or written in the past have had characters who couldn’t be played solely by human performers. So we started to create puppets to work alongside the actors in these roles.

How does it feel seeing your puppets on stage under lights?

My approach to puppetry has always been highly integrated within the larger production, so it’s usually a kick at seeing the entire story come to life rather than the puppets specifically. However, unlike a human performer who the audience believe have life from the get go, puppetry is a much more fragile art that requires the collaboration of all of the theatrical elements, as well as the imaginations of the performers and the audience. When you get the mix of those components right, I think the effect can be mind-blowing.

How do you get the emotion of an animal character like Mr. Percival into a puppet?

The personality of the creatures all comes down to the performers and the work that we’ll do together in the rehearsals. Without the human touch to bring them to life the puppets really are just objects. They’re designed to be played, just like a musical instrument, and it’s the channelling of the performers impulses and thoughts into the otherwise inanimate object that allows it to appear to come to life.

Storm Boy plays at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner from 17 June to 20 July, 2019.

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