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Who’s pulling the strings behind the RSC’s next big show?

Designing a huge elephant that can be moved by puppeteers is no small task, but the RSC’s Mervyn Millar (of War Horse fame), is a seasoned pro. He tells us how it's done.

The RSC launches The Magician’s Elephant later this month and we can’t wait (18 Oct – put it in your diary!). Along with being an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza it includes a huge puppet elephant.

Obviously, the RSC isn’t going to do things by halves, and has commissioned Mervyn Millar – who previously worked on War Horse and on Paul McCartney’s Appreciate – to take on the mammoth task (geddit?!). Muddy finds out more about this puppet master’s creative process.

This isn’t the first elephant puppet you’ve been commissioned to build. How do you go about designing them and is each elephant different? 

It’s lovely to be able to draw on previous experiments but every elephant is a bit different. The first thing we need to do is to read the script, and the book in this case, and try to engage with the personality of this particular elephant. She’s a young female African elephant, and there’s quite a lot in the book about her life. We also find images of real elephants that we use as our models and that gets us thinking about the texture and materials that we might want to use to embody her.

Is there a particular moment for you when the puppet comes alive? 

For me, there’s a process in the rehearsal room when the puppeteers really start to engage with the character. That’s what I’m waiting for – the moment when the puppet really comes alive. That’s when it stops being something that I’m imagining and becomes something that I can see in front of me, in the same way that an audience member does.

Puppetry seems like a collaborative craft, how do you work with the creative team? 

Puppetry is extremely collaborative. This character will be played by three principal puppeteers. If you imagine an actor approaching a role, these three people need to agree and coordinate on their interpretation of the character. Then you have a bunch of different directors. There is a movement director, plus myself and Sarah Tipple – the main director for the show. What I want to do in the rehearsal room is to almost act as a technical coach for those puppeteers so that Sarah can direct the character of the elephant as another actor on her stage. To do that I need to bring the puppeteers together, show them how the puppet can work and find out from them how they want to play the character. We will be doing research into elephant psychology as well as looking at the story and the script in detail.

How long does it take to build a puppet of this scale and complexity? 

The build time for this project is six weeks of focused work, and there will be different numbers of people for different parts of that build. There are some parts of the build that we want to do slowly with fewer people, and some parts you can really fill the room and get stuff done. Before that, we need time to do our research and drawing. We were able to show some samples of textures and finishes, and that’s an important part of the process – even here it is a collaboration. Eventually though, you have to blow the whistle and it’s time for rehearsal. 

What is your favourite thing about designing and working with puppets? 

I think my favourite thing about working with puppets is the people – we work in theatre because it is collaborative. I’m particularly lucky in that I get to bridge the divide between the designing and the directing of the character. First I lean on the skills and expertise of the makers, then the puppeteers take it to a new level, and finally you get to sit quietly at the back of the auditorium and see if it resonates. It’s lovely to be connected to that whole process. 

The Magician’s Elephant runs from 18 Oct to 1 Jan at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

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