The Directors – an interview with Mervyn Millar
In the first of three interviews ahead of a Puppet Centre masterclass on directing for puppetry, Mervyn Millar - perhaps most famous for directing Handspring productions including 'War Horse' - discusses the joys and challenges unique to working with puppets.
From your personal experience, how would you describe the role of the director in a theatre production?
The director's job is to connect all of the other creative elements of the production: performers, writer, lighting and stage designers, composer; and hopefully to see how their connection might grow into something greater than the ordinary.
Does the buck for a show’s success or failure ultimately stop with you?
Yes. I think this is an important thing to acknowledge for a director. By placing yourself at the heart of the process, and asking the other creatives to trust you, you really have to be the one who carries the can. Of course it might be worth agreeing on what measure you are assessing 'success' – but you only earn the 'right to fail' by giving everything you've got to succeed.
When does the director’s job begin and end?
Directors aren't performing the play. In the rehearsal room you help the performers to find and understand a way of approaching the material and you co-ordinate what is hopefully a shared vision of how this might communicate to an audience. Over previews (or the first clutch of shows) you and the team, including the performers, are frantically responding to the truth that you're getting from the audience – what you misjudged, what resonates unexpectedly, what needs a little tweak here or there.
But it's your responsibility to step back as soon as possible and give it to the performers. That connection in the room between them and the audience is where the love is in theatre – audiences are quite rightly dazzled and awed by the courage and skill of the performers. Once you're up and running, your job is to pop in, watch from time to time and talk it through with the actors from time to time – "Are we still aiming for the same thing?" "Have we found a new or better way of getting there?"
What made you first decide to work with puppetry as director? Did it feel like a radical or a natural thing to do?
Puppetry didn't seem at all radical and I still need to remind myself from time to time that it can be. To me, when I was starting out as a director, it seemed like one of the things you might want to use on stage, like music or dancing or masks. I suppose I hadn't seen all that much, and perhaps what I had seen had been quite eclectic. Having said that, I wanted to work in theatre because of its possibilities, not to create things that I had already seen – so if that is a 'soft radical' agenda then I suppose formal experiment is the natural way to do it!
My reasons for looking into puppetry were quite different at first from the reasons I still work with it. Initially I was interested in the comic and the grotesque – puppets as masks, bringing big strong energy onto the stage (whether big or small, they are packed with energy). At the moment I seem to spend a lot of time pursuing the smallest, most emotionally precise moment the puppet can offer.
But that is part of the joy of being a 'specialist' in something that has such a wide remit. To be drawing and cutting shadows for a lyrical sequence couldn't be more difficult from finding the movements that give the most to a three or four metre giant. The more you think you understand about the power of the puppet in the room, the more the language offers you something different. Similarly, coming to a workshop like this poses a difficult question – in one day we can only look at a tiny fraction of the things puppets can offer – but which ones??
What kinds of stories appeal to you as a director of puppetry? And what kind of puppetry? How do you select the shows that you work on?
It's as often as not someone else who brings an idea. The first question is about the ambition. Have I done this before, or seen it before? I'm interested in pushing myself and the audience to see something they haven't seen before – whether it's in the realm of spectacle or connection.
The great pleasure of theatre is that it holds so many stories – so as an antidote to the epic emotional sweep and scale of ‘War Horse’, the subsequent two projects have been a dark, experimental dance/poetry project, ‘Crow’; and now what is essentially an existentialist novel adaptation in which the central puppet pushes the edges of an identity in ‘Stiller’ (here in Germany). I want to make new work and I like working with writers – but I do love working with a writer and sharing the job of imagining the world with them.
Do you direct the puppets/objects or the people who manipulate them, who then in turn direct the puppets? Or both?
That's a really interesting question. Usually you look at the show from an audience's point of view and in that case it's the character – the puppet – who you are watching, but when you need to give a note you'll often want to connect with your real colleagues – the puppeteers. Directors watching theatre are always watching on more than one level – reading the impressions but also analysing how they are coming about, and this is made even more evident when you're a puppetry specialist.
Does the relationship seem weak or the thought seem unclear because of an emotional or a technical problem? Is it something to do with the design of the puppet or the performance of it? And is the note one for just the puppet's legs, or just its right arm? At work you're engaging with people, and every moment is different. Typically you are working with the puppeteers to make the puppet as vivid as possible – and occasionally that is best served by giving a note to the character, something for all of the puppeteers involved to think about.
One of the delights of puppetry is that the character often sits in between the performers and the audience – and the performer can see the performance they are giving. This can radically change the way the performer feels about their work – they can be objective about the character in a different way from when they are embodying it.
What are the joys and the challenges that are unique to directing puppetry?
I think the important thing is to demystify puppetry and bring down some of the barriers that stop people experimenting with it. When you're starting out, puppetry can look like a dauntingly technical thing to try to include. Sometimes I talk to teachers and directors who feel that they are not qualified or expert enough to work with puppetry. But the same people are willing to give it a go when they need to include a little singing or simple choreography.
If you have a vision for what a puppet could do in your show, put it there and see if you're right. I think we should be teaching simple puppetry skills to actors and directors in their training so that they can feel enabled to develop them when the urge grabs them. Sometimes the right answer is to bring in an experienced puppetry director – just as you would a singing coach or fight director when your vision is very specific – but what I'm hoping to see is new directors taking puppetry to places I haven't thought of.
How involved are you as a director in the visual design of a production?
As much as possible! The more shows I've worked on the more I appreciate the brilliance of colleagues, and the best feeling is discovering how your lighting designer or composer has brought the ideas further - and the best productions are ones where you have the luxury of time to really share ideas and visions so that all of the creative aspects really extend and develop each other.
Puppeteers' costumes can be the hardest thing to get right. Of course the relationship between the puppet design and set design is critical - the puppets' relationship with the stage world needs to make sense. I really hope for a level of meaning to be created by the materials, colours and textures involved in the set and the puppets - in sympathy or in contrast - and in a really successful show the 'scenography' feels all of a piece and developing and changing as the story is told.
Is scale something that interests you?
Even with figures of a consistent size, puppetry draws attention to the shifts in focus the audience make - to look at a sweeping movement across the whole stage, or to zero in on the quiver of a single finger. My work recently happens a lot on the scale of breath and muscular tension. It's thrilling to feel a whole audience hold their breath when the puppet does – the empathetic relationship can be even closer than the one created with an actor.
And playing with figures of different sizes is wonderful. The audience needs no apology for it as long as the design choice 'feels right' (or 'makes sense' depending on your preference). The stage world is a make-believe, designed space, even where the stories it deals are rooted in emotional realism. It's in our gift to offer characters who change size from one moment to the next, or poetic images where giants can cower from the strength of tinier characters.
Which of the productions you’ve directed are you most proud of and why?
It would be strange to have favourites. In a given moment I'm always gripped by excitement for the one that's coming next. I loved the chaotic energy and strength of ‘Crow’ – a really distinctive and strong piece from last year – and it's a delight at the moment to explore mind-bending questions of identity and psychology through puppetry in ‘Stiller’.
How healthy do you think the UK puppet scene is, especially productions for adults?
The whole theatre is scene is squeezed at the moment and with puppetry being more time-consuming to make it feels the pinch particularly hard. A lot of our best companies work on the touring circuit, bringing inventive small-scale work to audiences all over the country - and in the current climate it's harder and harder for those venues to offer good terms to the companies. The commercial sector offers a context where producers are interested in the 'wow' factor of puppets - but it's rarely a place where we can new or innovative work happen.
I'm excited by the artists who work in the sector in between - bringing audiences and directors a taste of the excitement and beauty of puppetry, and encouraging them to keep including it in their work. I'm excited by how many young performers on the fringe, in the street or in cabarets use puppetry as part of their performances – but we'll have to be lucky if one of them is to hit the big time and provoke another wave of interest in our art form. Never mind the ‘War Horses’ and the ‘Avenue Qs’ – they fly the flag high, but the health of the sector is in the new work and the groundbreaking experiments.
How do your experiences in different countries compare to working in the UK?
It's hard to say much about this. When I've been abroad I've largely been working with ‘War Horse’, which is a known quantity, bringing the local puppeteers to join our pre-existing vision. But everywhere in the world you will find puppeteers among the artists in the major cities. Each country and culture brings its own theatre culture and energy. It's enormously rewarding to allow your assumptions to be questioned as you adapt to working in the way your collaborators feel most comfortable - and enjoyable to bring something of your traditions for them to share.
If you could offer a budding puppetry director just one piece of advice what would it be?
Get your hands dirty. Make work as much as you can, on whatever budget you can, but more than that, get involved with making the puppets, playing with the puppets, and even performing if you can. Much more so than when working with actors, it really makes a difference when you know what it feels like to put your ideas into practice. Knowing what those puppets feel like and what their limitations are will give you a far better chance of helping your puppeteers to use them well.
Mervyn Millar is a theatre and puppetry director. He has a long association with Handspring Puppet Company and has directed puppetry for their work in 'War Horse' (in London, New York, Toronto and Berlin), 'Crow' and 'Stiller'. His work has appeared in productions for the National Theatre, the RSC, the Royal Court, Young Vic, many of the regional reps, Strasbourg Opera, BAC and wireframe, who made pioneering installation theatre in the 1990s, when he was also director of the Finborough Theatre.