Nicholas Paine: What’s The Wider Earth about?
David Morton: The Wider Earth is a work of fiction drawn loosely from the historical record. It takes memories of real people, places and events and passes them through the lens of myth. Some may call it blasphemous. Others may caution that the simplicity of the tale undermines the real work of its hero. I hope it might stand as a celebration of the incredible complexity of our planet, and go some small way towards humanising the part played by those brave enough to stand against the dominant thought of their time.
What’s it like developing a new work?
Developing new work brings with it the simultaneously liberating and horrifying reality that everything is in flux, and there is nothing to fall back on. It takes a special group of people to inhabit that chaos, particularly with an opening night looming. Over the last couple of years we’ve had the honour of working with an incredible team of creatives and performers. They’ve not only deftly embraced continuous rewrites, the quirks of puppetry, and other obstacles to the process, but had an insatiable drive and passion to push the work to new heights.
Tell me about the design of the puppets.
The design for the puppets used in the show was undertaken during an intensive eight-month process. The journey of each creature began with us spending time with their real-life counterparts, sketching and taking video as studies to determine the key structures and movement qualities of the different animals and how we could best embody these in the final objects. The drawings and notes from these encounters were then turned into three- dimensional digital renderings of each creature to design the mechanisms that would allow for their controlled movements. Finally, these models were broken into cross sections that could be laid at as a plan to be laser cut into wood, paper and leather pieces.
Over the course of four months a team of fabricators assembled these pieces in the Queensland Theatre workshop. This began with slotting and gluing the main structures together to give the creatures a base form that was then further embellished using wicker. The internal mechanisms were activated with the installation of control systems similar to miniature brake cables, and handles and rods were attached. Each of the puppets was given colour using wood stain and arted with ink. Finally, each had a pair of obsidian (volcanic glass) eyes installed.
How were the puppets introduced into the show?
Similarly to the construction, incorporating the finished puppets into the work followed a series of distinct stages. The first of these involved training the ensemble in the key manipulation techniques used by the Society. These include the focus of the puppet, its breath, and its ability to give an illusion of weight and gravity. Following this, the performers were slowly introduced to the various creatures and undertook extensive research into the movement and behavioural qualities of each. When working out the choreography for each scene we first start by devising the large movements – like where on the stage the puppet travels – and as this becomes embodied by the performers more ne detail is added.
The process of bringing a puppet to life on stage takes an incredible degree of commitment and discipline; unlike an actor who spends a rehearsal period developing a character, a puppet has to first learn how to be alive before we can even start to wonder as to what its character might be. Ultimately, the process isn’t completed until the imagination of an audience turns the movement cues that we give into the illusion of life.
If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
The Galapagos Islands, of course!
David Morton: Tell us more about the cast for The Wider Earth.
Nicholas Paine: The production features seven of some of the country’s finest actors and puppeteers. Together, they form the ensemble that will tell you the story. The line between actor/puppeteer is blurred. In some scenes you’ll have actors playing characters alongside puppets, and in other scenes those actors will be manipulating puppets and performing more choreographic sequences. It will certainly keep them on their toes… and hopefully you too!
What is it about Charles Darwin that inspired you to create The Wider Earth?
We were inspired to create this work when we were visiting Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa in 2013. We got talking with the Executive Producer, Basil Jones, about how Charles Darwin stopped in Cape Town on the HMS Beagle just prior to returning home to England. We were both familiar with the work of Charles Darwin but what we didn’t realise was that he was just 27 years old when he made this stop and only 22 when he left on the voyage. We thought that his journey could make a stunning coming of age story, full of exquisite creatures, and to make comment on the wonder of our planet.
Dead Puppet Society went to Brooklyn (New York City) for eight months of pre-production in the creation of The Wider Earth. How was that experience for you?
We were developing the show with St. Ann’s Warehouse for that whole period of time. The specific focus of the development program was on refining the kind of puppetry we wanted to use to tell this story. We were working with eight other companies who also work in visual theatre, which for us was a really eye-opening experience. We’ve never really collaborated or connected with any other puppet-based artists before because it’s not an overly used form in Australia. The residency resulted in a 20-minute work in progress showing. And all of those artists have gone on to further develop their work in very different arenas.
How long from page to stage?
It’s about a three-year process. By the time we open it will have been exactly three years.
If you could take the show anywhere, where would it be?
Shrewsbury, UK. Where Charles Darwin was born.
David Morton and Nicholas Paine are producers of Morton’s The Wider Earth, part of Sydney Festival.
Dates: 17 – 27 January, 2018
Venue: Sydney Opera House