by Tash Cowley
Toby Olié by Michael Wharley
“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.”
From inside his whimsical Waterloo workshop space, Toby Olié creates puppets for the stage, with pieces so intricately designed and choreographed that they take on a life of their own.
Toby Olié: Meet the Puppet Master
During the developmental stages for your puppets, what comes first; the internal structure, the external aesthetic, or the way they should move?
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 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!
Read the full article in the print edition of Issue No.7!
Issue No.7 features in-depth interview with artists and arts organizations across 10 cities.