Interview with Nick Paine on The Wider Earth and the increasing role of puppets within the theatre industry

Third in London Student’s interview series about non-acting careers within the theatre industry, Anthony Walker-Cook exchanged questions with Nick Paine. Alongside questions about making puppets for the theatre industry, Anthony and Nick also discuss The Wider Earth, a new play at the Natural History Museum that uses over thirty puppets designed by Nick. 

AWC: Could you explain some of the design process when you begin to make puppets?
NP: The designs for the puppets used in The Wider Earth were drawn over a one-year period. Creating each creature began with extensive research, studying anatomical drawings and photographs. We also undertook a series of field trips to visit each of the animals in their natural habitats to get a first-hand insight into their movement and behaviour. The sketches made during these interactions and observations were then scanned into a computer and used as the framework for the creation of thousands of individually drawn pieces. Finally, these drawings were then turned into plans that were laser cut out of wood, paper and leather.
Once cut, a team of fabricators assembled these pieces over the course of a number of months. This began with slotting and gluing the main structures together, to give the creatures a base form, which 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 ink. Finally, each had a pair of obsidian (volcanic glass) eyes installed.

Which productions do you think have been integral to increasing the use of puppets in the theatre?
Definitely War Horse and Handspring Puppet Company’s entire body of work. They’re a huge inspiration to us and we were fortunate enough to work with them in South Africa in 2013, which is where the idea for The Wider Earth was born. Julie Taymor’s work on The Lion King is another big one. I think there has been a huge reawakening of the form since these two major works.

Director David Morton, Nick Paine and some friends at the Natural History Museum

What has been your favourite puppet to make and, slightly different, what is the best puppet you’ve ever seen?

My favourite puppet from The Wider Earth is the Blue Footed Booby from the Galapagos! My favourite puppet of all time is the Giraffe puppet from Handspring’s Tall Horse.

How could someone go in to designing puppets?

Find what companies inspire you and spend time with them.

How much training do actors normally need to use a puppet on stage effectively, and what methods are used to train them (the actors, not the puppets!)?

We always prefer to train actors how to use puppets rather than hiring puppeteers, particularly given so much of our work is based on puppets being featured alongside actors. Similarly to the construction, incorporating the finished puppets into each new version of the performance follows a series of distinct stages. The first of these involves creating a shared language with the ensemble that can be used to talk about key manipulation techniques that give the puppets the illusion of life. This includes concepts such as the focus of the puppet, its breath, and its ability to give an illusion of weight and gravity. Following this, the performers begin to play with the various creatures and undertake their own research into the movement and behavioural qualities of each. When working on 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 finer detail is added.
We usually prefer to work with actors who have physical theatre training. It’s amazing how so many talented actors that have never used puppets before can have them looking so lifelike within a single rehearsal period. For The Wider Earth, we all watched a lot of YouTube videos to study animal movement.

What stage show would be amazing if done solely through puppets?

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are!

To take a quote from The Wider Earth press release, could you explain how you ‘use puppets to expand the possibilities of what can be presented on stage’?

We think that puppets deepen the possibilities of storytelling in theatre and can provoke a real sense of wonder in an audience.

Did you look to Darwin much in the design of the puppets?
Absolutely. We were lucky enough to spend three months on the Galapagos Islands! These islands were like nothing we had ever experienced before. We waded through schools of baby hammerhead sharks, and swam with their fully-grown parents, while flocks of blue-footed boobies dive bombed into the water from high in the sky above. We basked with marine iguanas and were followed up and down a beach by a sea lion pup whose tireless mother would collect it every time it strayed too far. It was on these literally unbelievable islands that the script was refined, accompanied by the ever welcome distraction of finches that landed on us as though we were part of the vegetation, and giant tortoises that wandered through the long grass just outside the front door with the gravity of drifting continents. All of these animals were the same as what Darwin encountered during his trip to the Galapagos on HMS Beagle.

Photograph courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum

The Wider Earth has thirty puppets – what were the challenges of producing such a vast number?
Really only time – something we could all use more of! It took over a year to design all of the puppets and then close to another year of fabrication.

What conversations have happened between set design and puppet design?

The design of the puppets and the set happened alongside each other. The set has also been designed to make use of natural timber, so that it forms a playground for the puppets that match their design aesthetic.

Why should audiences come and see The Wider Earth?

We really believe that audiences have never experienced a production like this before. Not only will people learn more about the story they thought they knew but witness an incredibly technically yadvanced production that uses heavily integrated technology to create some pretty beautiful stage magic. We hope to see you there!

London Student wishes to thank Nick for his time to answer our questions and for sharing his expertise. Thanks also to Tilly Wilson of Chloe Nelson PR for organising! The Wider Earth is at the Natural History Museum until the 30th December, 2018.

The feature photograph is from the original Australian production of The Wider Earth. Photograph: Prudence Upton


Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: anthony.walker-cook.17@ucl.ac.uk

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