Creating the Elephantom – an interview with Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell
As ‘The Elephantom’ opens at the National Theatre’s Shed for Christmas, we talk to co-directors Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell (who previously worked together on War Horse) about creating a new play with a huge ghost puppet as its star.
What’s most exciting about telling this story through puppetry?
The show has no dialogue, so the entire narrative is told through movement and visuals. So, given the central character is played by a puppet, this puts a lot of onus on the quality and depth of the manipulation.
How did you share the role of directing ‘The Elephantom’?
We arrived in puppetry from extremely different backgrounds, so the varying ways in which we approach problem solving in the creative process both compliment and challenge each other. We were the puppetry directing team for a number of years on War Horse in the West End, so the technique of one of us standing back to observe while the other gets stuck in on the details has evolved from that.
Do you direct the puppets or the puppeteers?
It changes throughout the day, depending on whether it is a moment clarifying the puppeteering technique or the character’s intention. One thing’s for sure, the habit of addressing the puppet instead of the manipulators definitely occurs more readily as the puppeteers begin to unify and think as one.
Very often, when an actor is working alongside a puppet, they adopt a slightly different approach to their performance style and physicality, which echoes the clarity of gesture and rhythm that a puppet uses to communicate its story visually.
The Elephantom itself is described as ‘larger than life’, so I imagine it's quite a big puppet... How many puppeteers are needed to bring it to life?
The number of puppeteers varies from a single operator to a team of six throughout the show, depending on his form in the scene and its movements.
The focus/eyeline and intention of a larger puppet is hard for the puppeteers to develop, as very often they aren’t in direct contact. In our case they can’t even see each other most of the time. We have also had a challenge with some of the Elephantom’s smaller gestures as his floating, ethereal quality makes certain nuances hard to read, so the other action on stage must help to focus it.
Puppetry is increasingly used in big theatre productions. Why, and what impact is it having for the art form?
With such sophisticated technology so readily available to us in our daily lives, there is a hunger for and celebration of the low-tech, more handcrafted techniques in visual art forms, and puppetry is a fine example of this.
There is certainly a risk of puppetry being overused in bigger theatrical endeavors as an effect or gimmick because it is so popular. However we feel increasing awareness of the art form comes down to puppets playing central characters in productions, where they drive the narrative, affecting the chain of events on stage rather than being passively affected by it.
We also asked Toby Olié specifically, what challenges did you face from a puppet design perspective?
The show needed not only a life-sized elephant puppet that is a ghost, but one that has to disappear and reappear in front of the audience and be operated by as few puppeteers as possible since we only have a cast of six. We also knew the elephant would be in scenes with at least three other actors playing the family. There is also little to no wing space in The Shed so it had to be able to be stored in very confined spaces. In a way, this list of priorities became the design brief.
In the end I brainstormed and tried out ideas with a number of different makers who had different specialities to see what versatile means could tick all of the boxes. The technique that we ended up going with was the one I was most skeptical about, but it’s so cool I’m keen to keep it a secret until people see it!
What materials did you use in the construction of the puppets?
There is a very specific kind of fabric that was sourced to be used in the technique which I'm also keen to keep under wraps. It took many prototypes and variations of fabric to get the right ‘ghostly’ effect. But the hard work has paid off I think. I always aim to keep my puppets as lightweight as possible, and since the Elephantom was going to be so large and onstage for the majority of the show, things like plastazote for the sculpt of his head were essential in avoiding strain to the puppeteers' bodies.
What is the most exciting production you have worked on, in terms of puppetry design?
‘The Light Princess’ at the National Theatre was exciting due to it being the biggest scale design job I have done to date, in the end there were 60 puppets in all manner of weird and wonderful species. ‘The Little Mermaid’ for Walt Disney was fantastic as I was given free rein by the designer Bob Crowley to flesh out the underwater world with puppets that could suggest swimming. I also helped to bring Ursula the sea witch’s octopus tentacles to puppeteered life.
'The Elephantom' by Ross Collins
The Shed, National Theatre
Director – Finn Caldwell
Director and puppet designer – Toby Olié