Animal Farm - Q and A with puppeteer Toby Olie and the director Robert Icke.

Animal Farm - Q and A with puppeteer Toby Olie and the director Robert Icke.

Q & A with Tobie Olie - Born in Sheffield and brought up in Northumberland, Toby Olié was recruited directly from the puppetry course at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama into the creation of War Horse at the National Theatre; he played the hind of Joey the horse in the original production, before moving to the head for the West End transfer. He has created puppetry for shows including Pinocchio at the National Theatre, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at the Royal Ballet and Disney’s new staging of The Little Mermaid in Holland, Russia and Japan. He also creates his own productions as Gyre & Gimble, the company he founded with his former War Horse compatriot Finn Caldwell. He talks to Mick Hunter about creating the puppet cast for Animal Farm.

What are the challenges of this show?  Every character apart from the farmer is an animal. We have over 30 life-sized puppets, from huge cart horse to tiny pigeons, so its a question of how to get maximum range of  articulation in so many puppets with only 14 operators. Boxer the cart horse has three operators, but Clover  who we’ ve changed from a horse to a cow –  can only have two.  All of the animal characters talk too, which is a challenge, but we found a really interesting way of making it work: we tell the story using each animal ’s physicality but then you hear their dialogue as if their actions are being translated for you. We’ re also shifting perspective during the show, so you see moments of high octane action in miniature puppet scale, and the intimate, internal moments with the life-sized puppets. The construction of the animals took eight and a half months –  the longest puppet build we’ve  ever undertaken.

What does it take to be a puppet operator? I'm drawn to performers who have an innate sense of physical listening to each other so they can be in tune with each other when collectively performing a puppet character.  When someone has  puppeteer  on their CV it’ s no guarantee they will have that. Only a handful of our cast would say they are a puppeteer by trade. Many of them  trained primarily as actors, dancers, even stilt walkers –  they’ re from all corners of the industry I wanted a big mix of ages, experience and skill sets when casting the show.

What ’s the trick of making an animal puppet work? In terms of both their design and performance, you want to immerse yourself in the anatomy and physical language of the animal, particularlyits emotional indicators like the ears or tail, the difference in gait between a trot and a gallop. For this show, where we are telling a human allegory through animals, we have to decide what of that animal repertoire is helpful and  how the articulation and control points of the puppet allow the puppeteers to embody and communicate it visually. Helpfully animals give away their emotions far more quickly than we do , they are far more responsive, immensely emotive things to watch.

Do children respond more easily to puppets than adults? Puppets are at their strongest when they're doing the smallest, most minimal action   that really draw  you in.  While children are closer to a state of play, with toys and imaginative belief , and so get it quite instantly. I always enjoy how adults expect themselves to be more distanced or cynical  but if the puppet is doing it's thing and it is doing it well, they fall just as fast as the children.

Was War Horse a game changer for the perception of puppetry?​Definitely. Although plenty of companies were already working with puppets in adult theatre, this was a big step forward into a mainstream, populist show. And the reaction to it was mind blowing: it was astonishing to see a puppet bear the emotional weight of an audience for 2 1/2 hours.  War Horse is the puppeteer equivalent of an actor playing Hamlet: that horse doesn't leave the stage throughout the whole show . You can see that audiences think of puppetry as part of their  theatrical palette now. They get it. 

How did you get into puppetry? I remember religiously watching Sesame Street as a child   enjoying a world where puppets are within a human world and no one bats an eyelid. Then, when I was six or seven and in my Jurassic Park phase - which I'm arguably still in - I found an Usborne ‘ How-to Make Puppets’  book  in the school library. I'd always made things in a Blue Peter-ish way but that book definitely ignited a spark that led to me putting on shows with puppets made of toilet rolls and cereal boxes behind the ironing board for my family, who were very understanding and supportive. Later, I saw The Lion King in the West End. The mechanics were exposed, and it was avant garde by commercial theatre standards, but to see it taken to heart by so many people made me think: yes this is what I want to do

What’s your workshop like? I'd like to think if you open the studio door it's like  walking into Willy Wonka’s  fantastically imaginative chocolate room, but in reality there’s a lot more wood dust in the air and glue guns lying around. I  enjoy keeping puppets from previous shows in my space. I often say they are more like musical instruments than props because they're so  bespoke and often need fine tuning . They are made  to give a  performance and the thought of them ending up in storage or going mouldy in someone’s garage is a fate I try to avoid.

How was your lockdown? I'd just opened an adaptation of Neil Gaiman's  graphic novel he Wolves in the Walls at the Little Angel Theatre, and we were halfway through making the dalmatians for 101 Dalmatians at Regent’ s Park Open Air Theatre, when everything ground to a halt. Under lockdown I created a couple of puppet short films online  - filmed on my iPhone with desk lamp lighting. Halfway through making the second one I realised I was using the ironing board I had put shows on behind as a child, which I’d inherited from my parents when going to university It took a pandemic for me to come full circle.

Central no longer does the puppetry course you took: where could someone train to be a puppeteer now? I’m  hoping to talk with Central about how puppetry can have a life there again. A lot of theatre companies run short  training courses to teach the principles of puppetry. One course I am very passionate about is the Curious School of Puppetry, created  by Sarah Wright –  whose parents founded the Little Angel  Theatre . She runs a six to ten week course at the start of every year that gives amazingly intensive training from people who work in the industry, for 15 to 18 students. She and I  dream of finding  a building where she can have a puppet school and I can have a workshop and rehearsal space.

Interview with Robert Icke - Born in Stockton-on-Tees, award-winning writer and director Robert Icke, 35,  was inspired to enter the theatre world as a teenager after seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Richard III. He first came to national attention in 2013 with a production of George Orwell’s 1984 using surveillance cameras and video and went on to create radical reworkings of the Oresteia, Uncle Vanya, Mary Stuart and Hamlet, the latter starring Andrew Scott, at London’s Almeida Theatre. He regularly collaborates with actors including Lia Williams, Juliet Stevenson and Jessica Brown Findlay and his work has been seen in London’s West End, New York, Amsterdam and Stuttgart. He spoke to Mick Hunter during rehearsals for Orwell’s Animal Farm, created with the puppeteer Toby Olie, one of the creators of the National Theatre’s War Horse. 

Animal Farm was Orwell’s response to Russia’s descent into dictatorship after the Revolution; what’s its relevance today? The novel uses animals to think about humans, and the ways in which power structures and hierarchies form, even when everybody has made the conscious decision to get rid of those things. It’s a simple story: the animals have a revolution and clear out a corrupt old hierarchy to give themselves freedom, and then slowly piece by piece a corrupt hierarchy – of pigs - builds its way back again. In my adult life we’ve not really been blessed with great political leaders in Great Britain – or even confident opposition leaders - although I struggle to see it as tyrannical, like human rule is over the animals. But certainly, we have come to see a more divided politic, more polarization and less empathy. Things feel increasingly more dangerous. The differences feel very real and you do start to hear talk of revolution as a possibility. 

What was the appeal for you? I like to do new things, and I had never made a show with puppets before, though I’d had a few ideas in my back pocket about them, to do with things like scale. You know, I can’t have three human actors of different sizes and do different tricks with them. But I CAN have three puppet versions of Boxer the carthorse. It's an almost all-puppet cast and they all talk, and it’s been interesting working out what conversations puppets could plausibly have with each other and which feel… just not right. Not a problem that Orwell had to get around in writing prose! But if you think about the Muppets, through Babe, to Pixar films, there are lots of stops on the road in terms of how you pitch talking animals. I probably won’t go for real animals, but other than that, anything could happen. 

Why do you find it necessary to rewrite or rework classic stories? There’s always been a feeling in me that theatre is about repeating a ritual, like a birthday. Every year it is still your birthday, but it’s a different birthday because you are a year older and maybe the people at your party are different. For me it’s always felt like a form of dishonesty to pretend that there is a way to do any play or any production as the golden version that should be set in aspic. 

Is Animal Farm designed for all ages? I hope so. It’s not the jolliest of stories, but I think kids enjoy that. We’ll have to see how violent the violent bits are: we discovered in workshops there can be something very depressing and distressing about a puppet being killed. But access is hugely important to me and I’m not sure I’ve ever made anything where I wasn’t conscious of the thought that a 14- or 15-year-old might come and see it and enjoy it. Most people who work in and around theatre got hooked at around that age, including me. And I really trust young people as a sort of boring-ometer [laughs].

Apart from the films, what’s your ambition for the future? I live in London, though for the last few years, I’ve mainly been working abroad. And the dream ambition has been, for the last few years, to work out if there is any way to create have a permanent ensemble company of actors, based in London, to make new work in English - in the way they have in Amsterdam, across the German speaking world, and in many other countries too. The leading actors I have worked with a lot have over the years have now become friends and they have a huge appetite to do theatre, to build deeper, longer-term relationships. But could you pay them properly? What contracts could you offer? Could they have months off to go and film if they wanted to? People often say that model is now impossible in the UK. Perhaps it is. I don’t know the answer to that; but it would be exciting to try and find out. 

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