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Toby Olie: ‘We want our puppetry to appeal to everyone – like Pixar’

Toby Olie. Photo: Mike Eddowes Toby Olie. Photo: Mike Eddowes

Thanks to the success of The Lion King and War Horse, theatrical puppetry has undergone a radical image transformation over the past couple of decades. Where once it was generally regarded as a bit naff, now it seems to be the must-have component for every other show.

Nobody has done more to hasten this turnaround than Toby Olie, who began working on War Horse at the National Theatre 10 years ago while he was doing a puppetry degree course at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

“One of my visiting lecturers suggested I should go along to a workshop for War Horse, which turned out to be like an audition for working on the show,” he explains.

It was a life-changing experience for the then 21-year-old, not only because it was the hottest show in town, but also because it gave him the opportunity to work alongside arguably the greatest exponents of stage puppetry in the world – Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring.

“The new intake of puppeteers and actors working on War Horse did two weeks’ training with Handspring even before we got to touch a horse puppet. We also studied equine temperament, body language and behaviours at a military stables in St John’s Wood and a farm in Tunbridge Wells. The workshop and rehearsal was 14 weeks in all.”

Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s production of Running Wild, with Tiger puppeteers Darcy Collins, Susie Coutts. Photo: Mike Eddowes
Chichester Festival Youth Theatre’s production of Running Wild, with Tiger puppeteers Darcy Collins, Susie Coutts. Photo: Mike Eddowes

By the time he was deemed ready to start, Olie couldn’t wait to share what he had learned with the public. “I was responsible for Joey’s back end, and the mechanism that made his tail swish is like a bicycle brake, so you’d be doing the same movement dozens of times in one performance which required a lot of physiotherapy. It’s strange but when you’re operating the horses, inside this wicker tank, you get completely lost in what the horse is doing. It is an intuitive rather than an intellectual thing.”

The coordination and empathy required of the horse puppeteers inevitably led to friendships and, in the case of Olie and actor-turned-puppeteer Finn Caldwell, a lasting professional partnership. They graduated from operators to associate puppetry directors, training others to operate the horses and ensuring the maintenance of high standards.

In 2010, co-director of War Horse and NT associate Marianne Elliott invited Olie and Caldwell to design and make the puppets for the musical The Light Princess. So pleased was Elliott with the results, and impressed by their working partnership, that she asked the pair if they’d be interested in making a show from scratch.

“I’d already had thoughts about doing a show based on the children’s book, The Elephantom by Ross Collins,” Olie says. “Finn and I fancied doing a show with no dialogue where the puppets were catalysts for narrative and characterisation, rather than subsidiary characters or special effects.”

The Elephantom, a brilliantly inventive and joyful tale of badly behaved inflatable elephants, opened to rave reviews at The Shed in 2013, transferring to the West End the following summer, and then playing in repertory with War Horse at the New London Theatre. The pair workshopped it at the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Islington, and road-tested it to audiences of schoolchildren. “We had some doubts about whether the inflatables would be able to convey any emotion, but they were allayed by the reaction of the kids,” says Caldwell. They fully intend to bring it back as soon as their busy schedule permits.

Having formed their own company, Gyre and Gimble, their services are in such demand they can barely cope with the workload. In addition to the opening show at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild – they are also working on the musical Groundhog Day, which opens at the Old Vic in July, David Bintley’s new dance version of The Tempest for Birmingham Royal Ballet, touring in October, another musical, The Grinning Man, playing at Bristol Old Vic in the autumn, and their next full-scale show, The Hartlepool Monkey, scheduled for next year.

Toby Olie and Finn Caldwell, above, with their elephant puppet. Photo: Mike Eddowes
Toby Olie and Finn Caldwell, above, with their elephant puppet. Photo: Mike Eddowes

Running Wild, a play with music, was premiered as a promenade production by the estimable Chichester Youth Theatre, under the direction of Dale Rooks, last summer. It is based on the true story of a child who was riding on an elephant when a tsunami struck the coast of Indonesia in 2004. The show dramatises their survival in the Indonesian rainforest and imagines the various creatures they encounter on their journey.

In Chichester, Olie and Caldwell worked closely with the young cast, using cardboard prototypes of the different animals featured in the show. “We wanted them to have an intimate knowledge of the puppets they were going to be operating and performing,” says Olie. “Puppetry is mainly about imagination and we were hugely impressed by their talent, professionalism and commitment. It was gratifying to think we’d turned them on to puppetry by getting them all involved at the planning stage.”

While the Chichester production took place in a sculpture park, making the most of the spacious outdoor setting, this new production at Regent’s Park will be very much confined to the designated stage area in an “abstract rainforest environment” designed by Paul Wills. In terms of the number of people involved, it is the biggest show Regent’s Park has ever done: 15 players and puppeteers, plus a community chorus of 26, including local schoolchildren and some of the original Chichester Youth Theatre performers, revisiting the show. Rooks is co-directing this time with Regent’s Park’s artistic director Tim Sheader.


Q&A: Toby Olie

What was your first non-theatre job? Working on the CD and DVD counter of Woolworths in Hexham, Northumberland.

What was your first professional theatre job? A puppeteer in Hospitalworks, a site-specific show by Theatre-Rites.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Feed your own creativity as much as possible outside of work, as it keeps your creative muscles in good shape.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Julie Taymor’s stage adaptation of The Lion King. It made me realise what kind of theatre I wanted to make.

If you hadn’t been a puppeteer, what would you have been? Probably a set and costume designer.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Retain a sense of self, by showing those auditioning your personality.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? Only to allow myself a little time to walk around or improvise together after a warm up with your fellow puppeteers and the puppet you’re using.

The Hartlepool Monkey, the show they’re intending to tour in 2017, is also based on a true story, even more bizarre than Morpurgo’s, set during the Napoleonic Wars, about a shipwrecked monkey that was hanged by the people of Hartlepool, who believed it to be a French spy. Apparently, deeply suspicious of enemy ships and nervous of a possible invasion, the townsfolk rushed down to the beach when a wrecked ship was spotted offshore and, among the detritus, they found the sole survivor, a monkey dressed in a military-style uniform.

It is early days for the production, but playwright Carl Grose has delivered the script and their co-producers will be Stratford Circus and Fuel, with backing from Arts Council England. They are aiming to give it a multi-generational appeal. Caldwell says: “When asked who their audience was, Pixar said they made work for anyone with a pulse, and that’s how we’d like to be.”

They are both fiercely ambitious for the kind of puppetry that crosses age, social and cultural boundaries. They envisage at some point in the future “a Royal Court for the visual arts” dedicated to experimental work. “We have a fantastically rich, text-based theatre in the UK, and I think there is room for a changing dynamic,” says Caldwell. “We want to keep pushing people’s expectations of the skill level.”

Olie says: “We’d like to create shows that take your breath away. We’ve found the audience likes being invited to enter into the illusion of simplicity, so you let the audience do the work.”

CV: Toby Olie

Born: 1985, Sheffield
Training: Puppetry degree, Central School of Speech and Drama
Landmark productions: War Horse (2006-2012), Goodnight Mr Tom (2011), The Little Mermaid (2012), The Elephantom (2013), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (2013), Running Wild (2015)
Agent: Amanda Evans at Scott Marshall Associates

Running Wild is playing at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre from May 13 to June 12. The Elephantom will tour later this year

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