Everyone who knows me personally knows that I am a huge fan of puppetry in theatre. I’d go so far as to say that puppetry can very quickly become my favourite part of a show if it is done well. Therefore, a lot of my favourite shows such as War Horse and The Grinning Man are very heavy on puppetry. However, there is another level to this where nearly all of my favourite puppets in theatre, including the Yew tree from A Monster Calls, Mojo, Jiminy Cricket, Audry II and the Chesire Cat which spectacularly combined ballet and puppetry, all share a creator in Toby Olié. Therefore, when Make Space Studios in London announced that they would be open to the public on the weekend of the 9th of June, which included displaying some of Olié’s best puppets, I simply had to go along for the chance to see them up close.
I’m sure that everyone has, at some point in their lives, heard the warning against meeting the people they look up to in case they do not live up to expectations. However, this warning could not be further from the truth when meeting Toby Olié. This experience was interesting in that each creator stayed in their space with their work in order to talk about their work and answer questions. During my time there Toby Olié was very kind, open and willing to openly discuss the shows and the puppets themselves without any second-guessing of what he should say. The main feeling that I saw when meeting him and seeing him talk about his work was how passionate and knowledgeable he is and it really was so infectious that you also came away inspired.
I will admit that the main draw of this experience to see Olié’s work up close was to see the puppets from The Grinning Man as it quickly became my favourite musical earlier this year. Seeing Mojo specifically immediately took me back to the image of him running across the stage or jumping on Sean Kingsly playing Ursus. It really struck me that Mojo still looked alive and that you could still see his personality come through, despite remaining entirely stationary. The size of the Grinpayne and Dea child puppets was also interesting as Toby Olié revealed that they had to bear in mind that, while Dea’s puppet only had to convey one age, Grinpayne’s puppet had to cover multiple ages. This really made me think about their ages as adults during the show and the age gap between them which admittedly I didn’t think about during my five viewings of the show itself.
I was also really looking forward to seeing Jiminy Cricket up close as I, unfortunately, missed the stunning puppetry of this show while it was running at the National Theatre earlier this year. I am so glad that I got to see this gorgeous puppet up close as the construction and proportions were so intriguing and the finished paintwork was so lovely. It was also interesting to hear of the narrative switch from the Disney classic which saw the Blue Fairy nominate a random cricket to become Pinocchio’s conscience which allowed for Jiminy Cricket to be female. There was also the opportunity to see the finished puppet next to the prototype made out of a plastic bottle which really added to the theme of inspiration which ran throughout the day.
Seeing the sketches of Toby Olié’s adaption of the famous Audry II puppet from Little Shop of Horrors was a very pleasant surprise. His work on Audry II specifically showed that, even if there is a classic version of a puppet, puppetry and design can be constantly evolving and reworked. Personally, I loved his idea to make the plant more mobile and therefore more threatening and sinister. He achieved this by reworking his design for Ursula’s tentacles, from a Japanese production of The Little Mermaid, and particular fish for the vines. The inclusion of visible puppeteers with one even providing the voice on-stage were intriguing breaks from the tradition surrounding the construction of Audry II.
This really highlights one of my favourite aspects of this experience which I really wasn’t expecting. Toby Olié also had three of his A4 sketchbooks on display. These sketches were so intriguing and inspiring as you could see each of these sketches become art in themselves. They also allowed for unique insights into the creative processes within individual theatre shows. My favourite example has to be the rats which never made it into the final version of The Grinning Man due to budget and company restraints.
Generally, the Make Space Studios were lovely and looked like a very interesting and creative space to work in. I was struck by the sheer amount of very well connected creatives actively working in their industries. I really enjoyed this experience as it highlighted the inspiring nature not only of puppetry in theatre but also of a welcoming and open member of the creative community such as Toby Olié. If open days like this are ever repeated I would highly recommend going along and soaking up the creative and inspiring atmosphere.
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