Show artwork for Behind the Puppets
Drew Wilson, Emily Burton, Conor Lowe and Ellen Bailey. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.
Education

Behind the Puppets

We speak to the puppetry team who are giving life to a menagerie of creatures in Storm Boy.

By Nick Tranter

Alongside the cast of Storm Boy are another trio of performers who bring a menagerie of creatures to life on stage: Ellen Bailey, Emily Burton and Drew Wilson are the puppeteers who give life to the Coorong’s penguins, snakes, fish and, of course, pelicans. These intricate animal puppets created by Dead Puppet Society are the brainchild of David Morton, Puppet Designer and Associate Director of Storm Boy.

‘When we design puppets, we consider the puppeteers in a number of ways,’ explains Morton. ‘Other than their functionality, and how they fit within the rest of world, the way that the puppets and their operators engage with each other is one of the most important aspects of their construction.’ There is a process for tuning the puppets that the puppeteers go through each day, 'similar to a musician tuning an instrument before a performance so that they are in peak condition.’

‘Every puppet is different, and manipulating them requires the activation of muscles that we generally don’t use in day-to-day life,’ explains puppeteer Drew Wilson. ‘Just using the puppets is often enough to get those muscles working, but extra exercises to strengthen them can be helpful in making operating the puppets easier.’ Detailed warm-ups are an important part of the puppeteers’ preparation for each day of rehearsal. Fellow puppeteer Emily Burton says a physio has helped the team isolate specific muscle groups by teaching them tailored exercises. ‘A lot of the exercises are centred on our shoulders, wrists and core, which are the areas most important for safety in the show. These warm-ups help us prevent any injuries.’ An exercise that the physio gave the entire cast was to crawl, Spiderman-like, over the sand dunes before every show as a warm-up, so that they become familiar with the set’s terrain. ‘We all look ridiculous,’ laughs Burton, ‘but it works!’

In addition to these warm-ups, puppeteer Ellen Bailey usually begins the day with a cardio gym workout before rehearsal starts. The pelican puppets are quite heavy, but these exercises ensure the puppeteers are equipped to perform eight times a week. ‘I’m gonna be ripped after this show for sure!’ says Bailey.

Morton explains that there are a number of different rehearsal stages when working with puppets, because they have to be taught to live and breathe before they can start to contribute to a scene like the other actors. ‘Our rehearsals start with basic training in how the mechanisms work,’ says Morton, ‘and from there we move into creating a basic palette of behaviours and reactions.’ Slowly the puppets move from being objects manipulated by the puppeteers into creatures with believable movements and behaviours.

Early in rehearsals, the puppeteers used their own bodies to represent the puppet characters and explore how they interact with the other characters. Once those discoveries were made, the team focused on the process needed to execute those moves with the puppets. ‘In some cases it’s super easy,’ says Morton, ‘like wheeling the puppets across the stage. In others, it’s far more difficult, like some of the flight patterns that take all three performers to manipulate a single puppet.’ Once all of these pragmatic considerations are solved, the puppet characters can perform in the scenes in the same way as the other actors, constantly listening and reacting to the action around them. ‘Watching the creatures come to life in these latter stages is just incredible.’

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Emily Burton, Ellen Bailey, Drew Wilson and Conor Lowe in rehearsal. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.

A starting point for building the physical language of each puppet was finding the basic energy, rhythm and pace of each animal. For example, penguins have light, quick, playful qualities, so the puppeteers found a basic language for these movements within their own bodies, and then transferred that into the puppet using the movable mechanisms. ‘It turns out waddling quickly and pretending to fall over is a lot of fun,’ reflects Bailey.

‘A room with puppets can be a lot of fun,’ says Morton, ‘in this case we’ve got a family of cheeky pelicans, who can generate all sorts of shenanigans. We always try to make sure that the creature’s behaviour is true to their real counterparts. But the reality that they’re being driven by highly skilled performers lending them a sense of dramatic timing can make for some incredibly funny and moving moments.’

Wilson says the main difference between a puppet that looks believably alive and one that looks like a puppet, or an object, is breath. ‘It sounds naff, but as a puppeteer, I breathe with the puppet,’ says Wilson. ‘Its thoughts, its actions, its rhythms all come from breath.’ Morton adds that micro movements, like the rise and fall of a chest, or the flickers of wings, keep the puppet alive when the staging dictates that it must otherwise be still. ‘A still puppet is a dead one, so these movements keep the illusion of life strong until the next large movement.’

Another important aspect is the puppet’s focus, which relates to where the creature is looking. ‘This is what creates the illusion of awareness and intelligence,’ says Morton. To support this illusion, the puppeteers always have their eyes focused on the puppet. ‘Peripheral vision is my friend,’ says Wilson, ‘especially when navigating the stage. What that allows me to do is constantly be checking in with where the puppet is looking, and how it’s thoughts are being translated into action, while still being part of the action on stage.’

‘Thoughts are also important,’ says Bailey. ‘Like acting, your thoughts and intentions have to be clear so that your actions in the scene are clear. My thoughts become the thoughts of the puppet and therefore drive every movement it makes in relationship to the other puppets, the actors on stage, or its environment.’

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David Morton, Emily Burton, Ellen Bailey and Drew Wilson in rehearsal. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.

One challenge Burton identified in rehearsal was not to make the pelicans too “human” in scenes when they interact with the actors. ‘It’s very easy to start reacting to the lines and the words that the actors are saying, rather than just responding to sound and environment as wild pelicans would.’ Moving in rhythms similar to the animals is another way the puppeteers bring the pelicans to life. ‘We try to refrain from too much facial expression. If we do too much with our faces it can distract away from the focus of the puppets for the audience.’

Gravity is another important aspect for the puppeteers to consider when operating the puppets so that they don't appear to float. Morton notes that Storm Boy presents a unique challenge for the puppeteers working with creatures that fly. ‘In addition to maintaining [the pelicans’] gravity, we also have to make sure that the movements of their wings give a realistic impression that they’re overcoming gravity.’

‘The puppets are beautifully complex,’ says Wilson, ‘but that just means they require more practice to master. The real challenge will be marrying that proficiency with the lyrical quality of the text so they are one with the story. That and making sure my hands don’t cramp while making the pelicans fly.’

Learn more about how Dead Puppet Society created the Storm Boy puppets in this video.

Storm Boy plays at Southbank Theatre from 17 June. Book now.

Published on 17 June 2019

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