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How puppet masters brought Dr Seuss’ the Lorax to life

Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Creating the star of The Lorax requires more than some fur, cord and rods. Holly Williams discovers how an ‘animal superhero’ comes to life with an unfixed gaze, a sculptural body and a barber-crafted moustache

The Lorax was never meant to be a puppet. For anyone who saw the musical adaptation of Dr Seuss’ ecological fable at London’s Old Vic two years ago, this would seem unthinkable: the puppet was the heart of the show.

It was impossible not to fall in love with the fuzzy, grumpy, moustachioed critter, determined to save the trees from the greedy advances of the Once-ler (played by a human, Simon Paisley Day).

Director Max Webster initially thought the Lorax would be played by an actor. In research and development workshops “they were trying to solve the persona of him: could he be a fussy janitor?” recalls Finn Caldwell, puppet designer and director. “But he needed to be a bit magical.”

Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo-Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo-Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan

So the creatives turned to the puppetry team, which was asked to mock up a puppet that could embody the title character. It did, and everyone in the rehearsal rooms immediately fell in love with it. The Lorax was born.

Of course, the character already existed in the lines of Dr Seuss’ drawings and the imaginations of those raised on the books. The challenge was to bring that cartoon from the page and turn it into a expressive creature; one that was capable of carrying a new musical in a 1,000-seat theatre.

“Obviously you want to think you’re seeing what’s in the book – or your memory of that,” says Nick Barnes, fellow puppetry designer on the show. “Dr Seuss, like every cartoonist, draws a little squiggle and somehow manages to communicate anatomy, texture and personality. The transformation of that to a 3D object is quite challenging: you’ve got to have something that has the right kind of texture, that’s the right size, that’s articulated in the right way.”

Ahead of the show’s return to the Old Vic this month, I meet the Lorax during rehearsals. Despite only being a couple of feet high, I’m surprised at how heavy it is. As a Bunraku-style puppet, the Lorax is operated by three puppeteers/actors, who move the head, body, hands and feet, as well as voicing him.

“He’s heavier than I would normally try to make a puppet,” says Barnes. “He’s super agile in the show and gets a real pounding” – the Lorax leaps out of trees and dodges round belching factory machines – “so you’ve got to create something that can stand up to those trials. You’re constantly juggling this strength to weight ratio.”

The puppet’s armature is a mix of wood, aluminium and nylon rod, held together with bungee cord, while wadding gives that distinctive pot-belly. The head was moulded in clay, and cast in a low-density polyurethane rubber: up close, you can see the apples of his cheeks, the curve of the brows.

Caldwell demonstrates to me how the bungee cords help create life – the Lorax never hangs limp. “There’s tension in him all the time. He has a life of his own: he’s a bit like a [crooked] old man but there’s also a wild animal springiness.” It helps the puppeteers manipulate him – a buoyant beast, he’s able to leap about the stage like “an animal superhero”, as Caldwell puts it.

One detail they faithfully recreated from Dr Seuss was the eyes: the Lorax has little U-shaped pupils. This is unusual for the puppets Barnes works on, which includes creations for Angels in America, Mr Popper’s Penguins and Running Wild.

“As humans, our eyes are darting everywhere all the time, so a puppet can become a bit dead if you fix their gaze,” he says. “But with this it just sort of worked – it gave him that concerned and focused look. He would have been missing something if he didn’t have those classic cartoon eyes.”

Simon Paisley Day, Laura Cubitt and Simon Lipkin. Photo: Manuel Harlan

It makes the puppeteer’s job trickier, however. As artistic director of puppetry company Gyre and Gimble – which started out working on War Horse before providing puppets for The Elephantom and The Grinning Man – Caldwell has a list of qualities needed to make these inanimate objects feel lifelike.

One of the most important is the gaze: an audience can tell if a puppet is ‘looking’ in the right direction. “Eyeline is particularly hard with pupils: they have to be perfect or an audience can feel that it’s off, and stop believing [the character’s] intention, its thoughts,” he explains.

They did try giving the Lorax plain black eyes but “he looked like a little demon,” Caldwell laughs. Instead, they built the puppet with a handle on the back of the head at eye level, which means the actor can aim the gaze “like a gun”.

Another tricky question was the Lorax’s coat. “Obviously the implication is that he’s a furry beast in the drawings,” says Barnes. “But fur doesn’t read particularly well on stage. It tends to absorb the light, so you don’t get reflections – and puppets work sculpturally. They’re live because light is travelling across them as they’re moved. To cover something in fur, you would have lost a lot of the shape and the movement.”

They opted for a coarse hessian instead, dyed orange and with deliberately rough, tufty seams “so he’s got a softness to him still, but it’s not a plush toy”.

Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo-Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Simon Paisley Day, Laura Caldow, Ben Thompson and David Ricardo-Pearce. Photo: Manuel Harlan

And then there is that resplendent moustache. Two different handles allow the puppeteer to twitch each side of it individually, making this facial hair extra expressive. Even so, Caldwell tells me, it would be too hectic if it moved whenever he spoke: moustache-waving is strictly for sniffing or outrage. That moustache still twitches regularly through the show because of its owner’s shock at the Once-ler cutting down trees.

“The moustache is critical,” agrees Barnes. “But it was also a challenge. We chopped up a wig and painted into it. We had the good fortune to have a wonderful wig person, and he sat [the Lorax] down in his barber’s chair and got out his cut-throat razor and proceeded to lay into this moustache: layering it and thinning it out. Eventually he did emerge looking rather wonderful.”

But such a fine moustache has proved a rod for the puppet-maker’s own back: they are on their third Lorax, and that wig was a one-off, sourced by a fellow designer, Dulcie Best, in Paris. “We’ve now got this expectation of how the moustache should look and trying to recreate it is nigh on impossible,” sighs Barnes.

The original Lorax is looking a little tired and battered now, but it still has a busy schedule as a double to be used in rehearsals; the production is touring North America after its London run.

It’s not just audiences attached to the critter, as both designers confess to being unusually sentimental about this particular puppet. “I love him to bits,” admits Barnes, and Caldwell also confesses to having a soft spot for the Lorax, despite normally being unsentimental about his creations. “I actually try not to get too squishy about them – but him I do. I miss him when I’m not working on the show.”

The Lorax is at London’s Old Vic, October 15 to November 5

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