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Rick Conte: puppeteer

Rick Conte in the Man Who Planted Trees. Photo: Chris Bennion

Puppet show The Man Who Planted Trees has been touring the world since 2006 in the hands of Rick Conte and his puppet dog, as part of Puppet State Theatre Company. Ahead of the show’s eighth visit to Edinburgh, it will run at Milton Keynes International Festival on July 23 and 24

How did you become involved with puppetry?

I moved from Georgia, USA to Britain straight after college. I was a drummer in a rock band in Edinburgh, and we got on a small label in 1991. I was thinking I was going to be a rock star, but that had its day. In 1993, I was asked to do percussion for the development of a show by the Edinburgh Puppet Company, and I basically morphed into puppetry at that point. It’s just gone on and on, and the main thing I’ve been doing since 2006 is this show.

Did you ever imagine you would be doing the show for such a long time?

We had no idea. We made it to try to do one run in 2006 and it’s just gone on and on. We’ve been all over the world. I pinch myself all the time. We’ve been to Bermuda, Malaysia, the Sydney Opera House twice, and the Lincoln Center in New York twice, as well as all over the US. I think we’ve done six or seven tours of North America now, so we’ve gone back to the same places two or three times. What we did think was that we all loved the story, which I didn’t actually know before. It’s about one man who makes a difference to the world, but he’s anonymous, which I think plays really well with the explosion of 15 minutes of fame. There’s a lot of seriousness in the show as well. It’s very light in places and it’s very serious in places as well. I think that’s what gives it depth.

Why do you think puppetry is so fascinating?

There’s something weird about puppets that are somewhere between being alive and being dead, and that freaks people out. At points in history, some cultures felt puppeteers were very low on the rung, but in other cultures they were up there with priests because they could take something that was an inanimate object and make it come alive. I think it’s Stanislavski who says the best actor in the world can be on stage but if a cat walks behind him, everybody looks at the cat, because it’s real.

What do you love about it?

Theres something so magical about it. That sounds like a cliche but, regardless of age. there’s something about it, that cross between being alive and being inanimate, that really draws people to puppets. Our show begins with us walking on to the stage, and I walk on with the dog puppet in the basket, and it takes only a matter of seconds until I become boring. The puppet is the interesting thing to look at. One comment we’ve had consistently over the years is that I seem to disappear, which is the same thing that happens in War Horse, perhaps. And you can get away with anything. My dog puppet can say absolutely anything and it’s fine. I’m right there, visible all the time, but it’s got absolutely nothing to do with me.

The Man Who Planted Trees runs at the Milton Keynes International Festival on July 23-24 and at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh from August 1-17.

CV: Rick Conte

Training: None

Agent: None

First Professional Role: Dreaming, Edinburgh Puppet Company, 1993

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