Master of Puppets
Puppet shows have an uncanny ability to immerse audiences in a range of emotions, from the comedy/tragedy of Alvin Sputnik, Deep Sea Explorer to the menacing It's Dark Outside about the creeping tide of dementia. Now the Dead Puppets Society (DPS) aims to take you away from real world worries to THE HARBINGER, a magical fairy story meant for grown-ups. BMA spoke to Barb Lowing from the cast, after her sound check in Cairns.
While Brisbane based, the company has links with New York, through a residency with the New Victory Theatre, the city’s only full time theatre for kids and their families. DPS is not your average puppetry company, as Lowing explains. “We train people to be puppeteers and also go into schools to run workshop with students of all ages and teachers. The workshops are therapeutic as they teach kids to focus on what they are doing and how to bring inanimate objects to life,” she says. “However, DPS is also different as it does not concentrate on children, but creates fantastical stories with themes suited to adults.” While the latest show is OK for children, it is aimed at an understanding level of 12 years of age or over.
In The Harbinger, an old man works in a rundown old bookshop, where he has lived for centuries, due to a pact that has allowed him to cheat death. During his long life, Big Albert has watched the world around him change, for the worse. With his city declining (ravaged by war), he is hidden away, nursing cherished memories. Then one day a little girl seeks shelter in his shop. The old man revisits his past, taking her through worlds of story and memory where the lines between reality and make believe are blurred. He then uncovers a chance to change the city forever.
Created by writer/director David Morton, this is a complex production, combining a giant puppet with much smaller ones and live action. It has developed over time, starting with collaboration between DPS and La Boite Theatre, through the latter’s independent theatre season.
“DPS was chosen to be part of the indie season,” says Lowing. “That was so successful that La Boite commissioned DPS to bring The Harbinger into the main house season.” The show has changed a lot to get it to where it is now. Originally performed with no spoken words, script writer Mathew Ryan created a narrative to enable the puppets to speak, while the actress remains silent. “Out of the different versions, this one has been distilled to its purest form,” notes Lowing. “It’s just beautiful.”
A lot of effort is involved in bringing giant Big Albert to life, with four puppeteers involved. “I operate his head, eyes, mouth and breathing and do his voice,” Lowing explains. “Two other girls do each arm and hand and we have a fourth to move his wheelchair around. We have to work together to bring him to life.” It’s challenging for Kathleen the actress, who has to ignore the puppeteers and completely and utterly focus on the puppet. “It’s just gorgeous – breaks my heart every night,” admits Lowing.
She has learnt puppetry after 30 years on stage as an actress, with DPS opening a new world for her. “Standing behind it and bringing this beautiful creature to life, it’s just so exciting.” There’s a certain magic about puppets that borders on the spooky. “When puppets come to life they develop a personality of their own,” says Lowing. “It’s quite odd and I can’t explain it. Big Albert is an odd one – he’s got a sense of humour and he can be angry or naughty and throw things.”
Lowing attributes this to the feature of childhood where toys are so alive, that we focus strongly on them. She finds operating the huge puppet a bit like childlike play, but also incredibly technical, including the use of her voice to animate him. This kind of show also requires a special restraint on the part of the players, where they must not show any emotion. “The audience can see us, but we must not ever ‘pull focus’, so we can’t have expression on our face,” she says. “We must concentrate purely on the puppet and use our voices to betray emotion.”
The Harbinger also involves animation and stage trickery to create the show’s unique aura. There’s a special soundscape that runs constantly through the production, very low so as not to intrude on the action on stage. “There’s also a special technique of shadow storytelling, with light shone through the carved pages of a book,” notes Lowing. “But I can’t tell you any more about that as it would give away too many secrets.”
Apart from Big Albert, there are smaller puppets under a metre, based on the Japanese Banraku puppet design. “The Japanese form relates to the method of moving the puppets and the fact they do not have a working jaw. There is a special way of ‘voicing them’ that requires a specific skill,” Lowing explains. As to her favourite part of the show, she has a ready answer. “When he wakes up and comes to life. Albert is asleep and breathing when the audience comes in. When his eyes open and myself and the three girls start moving him, you can hear the audience take a breath and just gasp.”
As to whether Albert saves the city, you will just have to come along and see the show.
Dead Puppets Society presents The Harbinger at The Street Theatre, Wednesday–Saturday October 1–4. Tickets $27/$30, with special discounts for students, those under fifteen and families, available from thestreet.org.au