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Puppet Master: Toby Olié

How the British puppeteer is redefining the creative potential of the art form.


NOV 16, 2022 | ISSUE 7

Toby Olié by Michael Wharley
Toby Olié by Michael Wharley
Neil Gaiman's The Wolves in the Walls at LittleAngelTheatre by Dan Tsantilis

“These are twice, including the body, they’re about 12ft!” Dialing in via Zoom from his studio in London, Toby Olié has pulled the disembodied head of Pinocchio’s father, Geppetto, from a set of shelves teeming with curious creatures. A jewel-green, spindly-legged cricket, and an inquisitive bird with sapphire plumage are just two of the many puppets peering down, longing to be picked up and given a pulse. Toby is a serious name in this world; as a Puppetry Director and Designer, Toby’s rich catalogue of work in the theatre includes War Horse, Pinocchio, A Monster Calls, Little Shop of Horrors, and many more. In the midst of developing two new projects, Toby sat down with smART Magazine to discuss his process, the changing face of live artistry, the pivotal role of playfulness on stage, and the need for puppet-makers to be as flexible as their subjects in order for the art form to survive.

sM | During the developmental stages for your puppets, what comes first; the internal structure, the external aesthetic, or the way they should move?

TO — I'm a big believer in developing the puppet on the hoof. I don't create a blueprint and say, “this is how it's made.” I’m a trial-and-error kind of person because every puppet is different, as is every puppeteer, and it feels good to be as responsive to that as possible. Generally, my starting point is understanding how many hands I've got to animate the piece. For example, I’m currently working on a production of Animal Farm, and we've been talking about how to do the pigs. We knew the cast size was capped at 14, so we couldn’t have a three-person pig (one person on back legs, one on front legs, and one on the head) because we’ll run out of puppeteers in a crowd scene! Therefore, I knew that each pig needed to be two people, and that the puppeteers’ actual legs needed to be two of the pigs’ legs. The number of hands on stage can dictate the movement of the puppets, and decide for us which bits are directly animated, and which will be passive or behave of their own accord.

I also prefer not to disguise the mechanics of a puppet in the design; if something has gaps in its neck to allow it to move, I like to show that to an audience and invite them to understand the mechanisms within the solid structure. When creating Ursula for Walt Disney Theatrical’s Little Mermaid, her tentacles were crafted from those wooden gift shop snakes that you find, the ones that are cut around the middle. We didn't cover that up; instead, we celebrated it. I generally build the aesthetic around the movement and mechanics, and always strive to showcase the joints and segmented parts that make up who they are.

It’s also important to prioritize control points in both the brain and the body. The eyes should be really clear, the breath should be real, the movement of the feet and the gravity of the puppet should be on point. So generally, I'm thinking “Where's the brain control point, and where is the body weight?” Also, as a puppet designer, you’re always trying to anticipate what materials you should use, but I believe that if a bit of bungee going through a handle gives you all the articulation that you need in the joint, then great! It should just be that!

sM | You’ve said previously that your company with Finn Caldwell, Gyre & Gimble, was founded with a desire to create puppets capable of carrying the same emotional weight on stage as actors. How has the world of stage puppetry evolved since Gyre & Gimble was born?

TO — We generally say there are two kinds of puppet: beautiful life-like puppets that can do fantastical things that nothing else can do, and puppets who are central characters opposite the actors. Obviously you can have a combination of the two, but Finn and I have both striven to make work where you need to invest in the puppet’s character as much as you would an actor playing Hamlet or Rosalind.

We both worked on War Horse at The National Theatre, and off the back of that show there was this question of, “where can puppetry go now? It feels like it's really peaked!” But it was a great future test because it was the first time an audience had been asked, in a mainstream popular show populated by actors, to invest in a puppet as a protagonist, one who is on that stage the whole time and who doesn’t speak. I think we both really wanted more stories that have puppets at the centre, and we were fortunate that lots of theatres were hungry for that. We're also aware of the need to consistently ask how the form can keep surprising people. The fact is that you have people on stage who are there, but not there; so how can you use that to your advantage? A lot of the work we have done recently has been more abstract, with fewer clear-cut conventions. We’re becoming more experimental with the role of the puppeteer and how involved they are, or how they can step out and comment on the action. That’s something that, both as a company and as separate artists, we’re playing with. We can afford to be a bit trippier and more playful.

Audiences are really used to puppets. It’s a currency now that people believe in and sometimes even expect to see. We're now trying to imagine the next level that puppetry can reach. Weirdly, I feel like it's evolving to reflect a more primitive form. In my opinion, puppetry gets stronger when it exposes its bare bones. It’s like good acting—the less you do, the more you invite the audience in. For me, some of the most absorbing moments I’ve witnessed have been bits of a carrier bag or newspaper, used so well in their abstract form that you can make a complete story out of them. If puppetry can stay that front-footed and confident in its own form, it'll outlast us all.

sM | One of the most astonishing moments you can witness as an audience is when the actor behind the puppet disappears from the collective consciousness, and the puppet stands, breathes, and lives for itself. How difficult is it to find actors capable of bringing puppets to life in this way, and what do you look for?

TO — It truly varies from project to project. You have shows like War Horse where you want people to completely disappear and give the entirety of their energy and focus to the puppet. And then there's a long sliding scale, leading all the way up to The Lion King and Avenue Q where you have a “double event,” someone performing alongside their puppet, both playing the character and sharing it.

I think whatever quality or skill set you're looking for in a performer, at the centre it's purely about their ability to immerse themselves in the imaginative act of play, and their investment in the thing that they're operating. Some people disappear more quickly than others. A lot of performers learn early on that they need to do less with their face, because if the actor is portraying each emotion and the puppet’s face doesn't move, then your attention as an audience will be drawn to the nearest living thing—to a living thing. It's often an exercise in stripping away the “self” and putting the intention and focus on the puppet. Being free and playful enough, and willing to play the games that we all play when we're kids, is so important. That childlike sentiment is pivotal, “I'm not here. This thing in my hand? That’s the living thing.”

sM | What’s next for you?

TO — I'm currently working on a new stage version of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, adapted and directed by Robert Icke. That’s going to open in the UK and tour from January. It has 35 life-size animals, and every character that is not a human is a life-size puppet, so it's easily the most puppet-centric show I have done! I’m also working on the first ever stage adaptation of the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, which opens in Japan at the end of February. Every other character is a puppet or a mask or something; there’s a truly huge database of techniques being used. They’re two of the most ambitious projects I’ve had yet, and they are right on top of each other!