Running Wild: Interview with Toby Olié

The latest in Michael Morpurgo’s theatrical adaptations is storming into Blackpool this April.  Running Wild boasts a menagerie of jungle creatures, vivid and life-like.  You’ll barely believe that some of the stars of the show are actually puppets!  The novel, based on a true story, is a critics favourite and is another exceptional addition to Morpurgo’s extensive back catalogue.

Directed by Timothy Sheader and Dale Rooks and with puppetry design and direction by Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, both previous Associate Puppetry Directors on War Horse, this epic and spectacular production tells an emotional and moving story of love, loss, loyalty and of living for the moment.  AltB’s Lisa Bower was fortunate enough to grab an interview with Toby Olié in the midst of his hectic schedule.

Lisa:  You have an extremely impressive catalogue of work in puppetry including credits with the RSC, Disney and in West End Productions as well as being co-director of Gyre & Gimble. Is working with puppets something that you’d always planned to make your career or was it something that you fell into?

Toby:  I’ve been making puppets since I was six so it’s always been a passion of mine, and thanks to my very supportive family and some encouraging teachers at school I’d never doubted the fact that I could make a living from it -knowing that it would require a lot of hard work and determination in the process!

L:  You’ve also worked the previous Morpurgo adaptation, hit play ‘War Horse’. How do you feel the two productions compare to one another?

T:  Both feature a puppet as its central character which is a really exciting, emotive way into the stories for the audience. War Horse deals with the themes of loyalty and bravery during the First World War, whereas Running Wild has a more contemporary setting and its message encourages us to take responsibility for the natural world.

L:  At what point do you and Finn Caldwell become involved in the production?

T:  We collaborate on projects from there inception, long before rehearsals commence. Usually whilst the script and design are still in development, these means that the puppetry can be developed alongside the other elements in the creative process and therefore be integral to the storytelling.

L:  What is the process from inception to performance?

T:  The process of creating puppetry for a show starts out as conversations with the creative team as a means of sketching up ideas for the puppets both for their aesthetic and structure. Then we make prototypes as a way of testing out these ideas in 3D, these prototypes are then the puppets we’ll use in rehearsals with the puppeteers and performers. A prototype allows you to develop and refine the puppet in a simpler form with cruder materials so that the final puppet (which is made alongside rehearsals and arrives in the final few weeks) has all of the kinks and ergonomics worked out prior to performances.

L:  What were the main challenges in bringing the story of Running Wild to life?

T:  There are large chunks of the show that are mainly visual storytelling i.e. With very little spoken text, this is something puppets do best. Oona’s rampage away from the tsunami and Lily’s quest for food in the rainforest require the visuals to communicate both passage of time and journeys through different environments. So it was all hands on deck from every department both on and off stage to co-ordinate our efforts and communicate the story as clearly and concisely as possible.

L:  Have you had to develop any new techniques in order to be able to meet the requirements of the production?

T:  The fact that Oona has a rider throughout the show was a big challenge during her construction, with lots of time spent prototyping the frame inside to distribute the rider’s weight evenly between the two puppeteers inside Oona’s body. The tiger also utilises some new techniques for us, her legs are sprung with bungee cord to give a real sense of feline suppleness and agility to her movements.

L:  Oona is quite a sizeable character to develop. Being an elephant, was she much larger than adult Joey from ‘War Horse’?

T:  I’d say she’s about a metre taller than Joey and a lot wider, this often makes going through rehearsal room doors a challenge. It also requires a lot of bravery from the actresses playing Lily as the get used to climbing up, riding and jumping off such a big co-star!

L:  How does the difference in animals affect how the puppets are controlled?

T:  Every puppet is different, in the same way every animal is different. The key thing we look for is the animals emotional indicators, which bits of the animal ie. tail, ears, breath, communicates its physiological and emotional state. This then informs which parts of the puppet are most articulate/animated in the design and making process.

L:  The puppeteers who operate the creatures are on stage unhidden. As a result of this, there tends to be a large element of performance in their role. Do you look for puppeteers who are also good actors, or do you look for actors and train them to be puppeteers?

T:  It always varies, over the years we’ve work with a combination of actors, puppeteers, dancers and physical theatre practitioners. The key ingredient we look for is a performer’s ability to completely inhabit and ‘act’ through the puppet whilst maintains a sense of their own body’s physicality and how it is used to help focus and enhance the puppet’s performance.

L:  For younger readers interested in working in puppetry, where would you suggest they begin?

T:  Because puppetry is still quite a niche subject, I’d say developing your own passion and tastes for it is key. Watching as much as possible, be that love on stage or in film or on the internet, and giving it a go yourself at home -making a puppet from everyday junk or animating your jumper or scarf will allow you to see what aspect of puppetry really excites you. We have a few video tutorials on basic puppetry technique on the Training pages of our website GyreAndGimble.com to get started!

It was so lovely to speak to Toby and we can’t wait to see his magical creations come to life on stage at The Blackpool Grand Theatre from the 4th to the 8th of April.  For more information about showtimes, visit the theatre’s website.

Running Wild (credit Dan Tsantilis)
Running Wild (photo credit: Dan Tsantilis)
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