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Behind their scenes... The Elephantom

Posted 12th May 2014

Behind their scenes… with The Elephantom puppeteers Finn Caldwell & Toby Olié

We sat down at The Elephantom launch with the show’s extraordinarily talented co-directors, Finn Caldwell and Toby Olié, who also worked together on the smash hit War Horse. They spoke to us about developing The Elephantom, moving the production to the New London Theatre from the National Theatre Shed, and the intriguing career of a puppeteer.

Was the launch the first time he Elephantom’s been in the New London?

Finn: Yes – it was really exciting seeing it with the lights and all the children (and adults!) in the seats.

Did you have any concerns about moving the show to the New London?

Finn: The size! We were worried that the Elephantom wouldn’t fill up the space, even as vast as he is – the New London theatre is another two foot each side of the NT Shed. But that’s not the case at all, we’re very pleased with how much both the Elephantom and our set fill up the theatre, and that physical interaction is possible – already you could see some of our puppeteers squishing their bums and messing around with the audience!

What skills do you look for in a puppeteer? Does it vary from show to show?

Toby: People who are still smiling after a large amount of physical exertion!  Auditions for War Horse are about 2-3 hours long; if people are still smiling at the end of that – even if they’ve cried during the process – or you see them going back in early after the tea break to perfect something, then you think ‘ahh…’.

Finn: War Horse is incredibly physically tough. Elephantom isn’t quite as physically tough, but those guys in the suits can barely see anything!

Toby: The puppeteering in Elephantom isn’t as tough because the puppets are inflatable, but the guys out there are playing all the parts – if they’re not the elephant then they’re back playing the mum or the dad. It’s not as if they can go off stage and say ‘right my scenes done’. If they’re not on stage, they’re probably getting changed to get back on stage in 5 minutes. So it’s a good thing the puppets are light.

Finn: You need lots of physical awareness and to enjoy communicating stuff with your body. If you’ve never had any puppetry experience you need to at least understand that we’re using the puppetry to communicate in the way that you would normally communicate with text. Rather than using text to convey story and a character, in puppetry we create story and character through the movement of the puppet.

We’ve got to know… how do you get into puppetry?

Toby: When I was younger I watched lots of Sesame Street… I also remember recreating the ‘Lonely Goat’ in the Sound of Music; I made all the goats out of toilet rolls and performed that whole sequence on my grandparents’ dining table. So when I told my parents I was going to do a puppetry degree at the Central School of Speech & Drama they already saw it coming!

Finn: I actually trained as an actor, and for about 5 or 6 years just worked in text theatre – and I got to work with some great people and great companies, like the RSC and Cheek by Jowl. But that I realised that when I was training it was the physical stuff I really loved– using your body, physical theatre, masks, puppets. So at that point I took a massive pay cut, stopped working with those big companies, and started working with very small companies and making strange theatre. Both (mine and Toby’s) paths led us to War Horse. I think War Horse inspired us to believe that there is no reason why the art form we work in needs to be sidelined – it totally works for mainstream people. We were excited about making a show knowing that kids would love it but that the puppetry was sophisticated and chaotic and exciting enough for adults; we wanted to make a show for ourselves.

What advice would you give someone on beginning a career in puppetry?

Toby: Watch a lot – because there’s more and more appearing in theatre and getting integrated into shows. We always say the difference between good and great puppetry is really tiny, and people developing their own opinion about what works and what doesn’t is important to knowing what’s good and what’s bad!

Finn: I’d say make some – it’s not hard to do! You can make puppets really easily and they don’t have to be very sophisticated to be effective. Often when we’re teaching workshops we make paper puppets in about 2 minutes, then spend the rest of the workshop working with those puppets – and they can communicate brilliantly. Have a go.

What’s been the most bizarre part of your career so far?

Finn: Moving from the National Theatre to the New London on an open-topped red bus with 5 elephants was certainly one of them!

Toby: We took Joey (War Horse protagonist) to a World War One Remembrance Day event at HighClere Castle where they film Downton Abbey. We puppeteered Joey around the drawing room where they have tea and everything. Now when I’m watching it on TV I think ‘Joey’s been there!

Finn: After we started directing War Horse we did quite a few promotional events – and we’ve been to some crazy places around the world.

Toby: Just seeing people’s reactions to puppets of that scale and in that detail, like today with the elephants, never gets old.

Can you see Elephantom going global?

Finn: We hope so! We made it wordless so that anyone can enjoy it, and we think it could work really well internationally.

Tell us about the sound the Elephantom makes…

Finn: (laughs) Whenever we were describing the character and working out how to make the puppet I would sort of go ‘ho ho ho ho ho’ (a deep, chuckle type sound). The difficulty comes in training people to do it – there’s a lot of technique… you’re always in danger of it sounding scary or creepy!

Toby: As soon as you hear it you should want to hug it!

Finn: The noise actually tells us a lot about the character, as he gets very excited then very tired very quickly (gives a demo ‘ho ho ho….hmmmmm’ – a chuckle noise which suddenly wilts).

Do you have any mottos?

Finn: We want to make more shows that have puppets as central characters – that’s been our mantra recently.

Toby: My mantra, even since my last dissertation at uni, has been ‘less is more’. If the puppet is moving all the time an audience can’t make sense of it. As soon as a puppet goes still, you’re giving an audience the chance to read its thoughts. So very often we’re thinking ‘simplify it’; keep all the intention but make the movement really clean, and give the audience the headspace to consider what it’s thinking.