The Dead Puppet Society: Don’t Call Them Puppeteers

The Dead Puppet Society: Don’t Call Them Puppeteers

Dead Puppet Society creators (David Morton, Helen Stephens and Nicholas Paine) outside the Natural History  Museum for the London season of “The Wider Earth.” Puppets include the Flightless Cormorant, Saddleback Tortoise and Amazon Iguana.
Dead Puppet Society creators (David Morton, Helen Stephens and Nicholas Paine) outside the Natural History
Museum for the London season of “The Wider Earth.” Puppets include the Flightless Cormorant, Saddleback Tortoise and Amazon Iguana.
© Guy Bell

Text: Ray Bennett

Australian stage producers, David Morton and Nicholas Paine love puppets and puppetry. Their ambitious shows feature wonderfully articulated creatures made of plywood, aluminium, brass and steel rods and they call their company the Dead Puppet Society. Just don’t call them puppeteers. Ray Bennett explains, why.

Partners professionally and personally, they have achieved international acclaim with productions in New York and London, especially with their Olivier Award-nominated hit show “The Wider Earth” about the travels of the young Charles Darwin in 1831. Paine was the creative producer, and writer/director Morton co-designed the production with Aaron Barton. Debuting at the Billie Brown Studio, Brisbane in 2016, it was nominated for two Helpmann awards, Best New Australian Work and Best Set Design, in 2017. Following this success, the show opened at the Natural History Museum in London in October 2018. Staged in a 357-seat performance space built especially for the production in the Jerwood Gallery, it ran successfully until February 2019. 

The show features a massive wooden structure that revolves to become a home, an office, a ship, a rocky cliff and an island as the play follows the adventures of the young Darwin to the Galapagos Islands. A giant screen provides settings and environments, while actors and puppeteers move about the stage with 30 handmade puppets including finches, arctic terns, an iguana, a giant tortoise and a fossilized glyptodont. 

Due to restrictions at the museum, the stage was reduced in size and the screen was smaller than the one used for the performance in Australia. Yet, Paine and Morton have nothing but praise for the way the museum staff worked to make the show a success. The museum’s scientists, led by palaeobiologist Professor Adrian Lister, author of “Darwin’s Fossils,” worked closely with them and as the Darwin Centre is next door, audience members were immersed in the scientist’s work.

Proud of their work, especially their use of laser cutting for their models, Morton and Paine are light-hearted about their avoidance of the word puppets. “It does strange things particularly when you’re trying to find an audience,” says director Morton. “It’s a key word and the demographic drops by about 30 years.”

That’s because people tend to associate puppets with toys. “It’s the connotation of dusty dolls and the Muppets. It’s very difficult to break that,” says executive producer Paine. They named their firm, obviously, after the “Dead Poets Society” but also were inspired by “theory and literature around dead puppets as the unanimated object,” Morton says. “The idea of the ‘still thing’ ready to be brought to life.”

The puppeteers (Brad Foster, Marcello Cruz, Matt Tait, Andrew Bridgmont and Ian Houghton) bringing to life the Glyptodon.
The puppeteers (Brad Foster, Marcello Cruz, Matt Tait, Andrew Bridgmont and Ian Houghton) bringing to life the Glyptodon.
© Mark Douet

Paine adds, “We also liked the idea of being a society more than a company, to build an environment where it’s very collaborative and people come and go, like a family.”

They met while studying drama at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane where Morton, now 31, was born. Paine, 29, grew up in Alexandra Headland on the Sunshine Coast an hour north of the city. At that time, the American director who created the long-running worldwide-hit stage version of “The Lion King,” was the subject of a book titled “Julie Taymor: Playing with Fire” by Eileen Blumenthal.

Paine happened to have two copies and gave one to Morton, with that they bonded, 
he says. “I was in my second year and David was in his third. We were both doing performance studies and did a unit of study together. We had an assignment to identify a gap in the arts sector of the Brisbane landscape. We discovered we both have a love of puppetry and since there were no puppet companies in Brisbane, we proposed that there should be. The university supported the idea and put some funding into actually creating a company.”

Brad Foster as Charles Darwin, in the Amazon, for the London production of “The Wider Earth.”

Their aversion to renown only as puppeteers started early. “When we were first starting work back in Brisbane, it was difficult to take the idea of puppet theatre for adults seriously, very, very difficult,” Morton says. “We had real trouble trying to get some of the big companies to support the work – they were interested but, like, wary that there were no audiences.”

Fortunately, the Australian Council for the Arts, Arts Queensland and Brisbane City Council all provide funding schemes, and the pair went on to secure further funding from foundations, donors and sponsors. Over the last decade, they have produced several shows and made puppets for other companies. They have also created the Dead Puppet Society Academy 
to train mid-career artists and tertiary students.

They always speak of their work as visual theatre: “We both have a love–hate relationship with large musicals,” says Morton. “We love the production elements – the wow – but not necessarily the form. We wanted to create a performance world that tried to mash up some of those things. Much less dialogue-heavy and more picture-heavy. We’re still playing around in that world. Most of the time we talk about our work as visual theatre rather than puppetry, because we don’t always use puppets and puppets are at the centre of each work to varying degrees.”

Still, if luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity, they agree that the Dead Puppet Society has been very lucky. Not only was “The Lion King” an international smash, but in 2007 London’s National Theatre presented “War Horse” with puppetry by the famous South African Handspring Puppet Company. 

The Flightless Cormorant (operated by Andrew Bridgmont) and Charles Darwin (Brad Foster) in the London production of “The Wider Earth.”
The Flightless Cormorant (operated by Andrew Bridgmont) and Charles Darwin (Brad Foster) in the London production of “The Wider Earth.”
© Guy Bell

“When ‘War Horse’ did its national tour in Australia, that changed everything,” says Paine. Not only that, but a coincidence put them on a path to work with the Handspring.

“It’s a crazy story. We had been trying to get in touch with the Handspring creatives and I’d sent several e-mails because I was working on my doctorate and wanted to interview them, but they were busy people,” says Morton. “Then one day, while up on the Sunshine Coast staying with Nick’s family—”

Paine continues: “David was proofing his thesis and he left it on the coffee table where my father, Darryl, who gets up very early, took it upon himself to have a little read through. When we got up, probably five hours later, he said ‘This Adrian Kohler guy in South Africa. I’m sure there can only be one.’ We Googled Kohler, who is co-founder and artistic director of the Handspring Puppet Company, and there was a photo. Darryl said, ‘I grew up down the road from that guy. We went to school together, we were mates who hung out on the Red House River near Port Elizabeth in South Africa.’”

Three hours later, they were in touch with Kohler, who promptly invited them to visit. With a grant from the Australian Arts Council, they spent three months in Cape Town under the mentorship of veteran puppeteers who were now world-famous. “They were kind of slowing down as ‘War Horse’ came so late in their careers, but they were in the final stages of building the eighth set of puppets for another touring version,” says Paine. “It was a critical time, really, because all of their staff were being let go after that, and we got to see the whole process and got to know the guys.”

Says Morton: “To see the set up for ‘War Horse,’ the fabricators and the workshop, was like being in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. That was what we were witnessing, the end of an era. Many of them had been together the whole time. It was extraordinary.”

It was there that they had the idea to create “The Wider Earth.” As Paine’s mother holds an American passport, the partners moved to New York in 2013 to work with the theatrical company St. Ann’s Warehouse, whose productions include “The Jungle,” presented in London’s West End in 2018. They also worked on another show called “Laser Beak Man” at the New Victory Theater, which will tour towards the end of 2019. Their plans include possible further productions of the Darwin show and a futuristic version of “Moby Dick.”

To cap the London run of “The Wider Earth,” in February 2019, a gala charity performance was attended by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex to mark the 210th anniversary of Darwin’s birth; the show was also nominated for the 2019 Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Family.

Morton and Paine returned to Australia where they began work on a new production titled “Storm Boy” with the Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company, opening in Melbourne in June 2019. “We’re building 12 pelican puppets,” they say proudly. 

Just don’t call them puppeteers.

About the author

Ray Bennet

Ray Bennett is an English journalist with a long career covering entertainment in the UK, Canada and the USA. To him, looking behind the curtain of creative endeavours is the best part of his job: “I sat on Johnny Carson’s famous talk-show couch and interviewed him in his dressing room. I talked to stars such as Gregory Peck and Peggy Lee in their homes. I was on the set of films such as ‘Back to the Future’ and the James Bond picture ‘A View to a Kill.’ I stood in the wings at concerts by Johnny Cash and Charlie Rich. I was in the engineer’s booth when Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer recorded his score for ‘Gladiator.’ To go backstage at ‘The Wider Earth’ and see the puppets unanimated with some disassembled in their laser-cut flat-packs made seeing them come to life onstage all the more magical.”
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“The word ‘puppet’ does strange things particularly when you’re trying to find an audience. It’s a key word and the demographic drops by about 30 years.”

“Articulate clearly how what you are doing is unique.”
Nicholas Pain and David Morton tell Ray Bennett, how to survive as a creative team.

What were your childhood ambitions?

Nicholas Paine: To be a theatre producer or work in hospitality.

David Morton: To be an environmental scientist.
Who was your inspiration?

Julie Taymor (creator of “The Lion King”) and the Handspring Puppet Company (who created the puppets for “War Horse”).

What was your first venture at university?

An independent production of “The Timely Death of Victor Blott,” a co-production with Metro Arts.

What was your first professional project?

“The Harbinger,” a co-production with La Boite Theatre Company.

How do you feel about the production at the Natural History Museum?

They really embraced this new endeavour, and both regular and new audiences loved the opportunity to experience theatre in such a different location. As a company, we learned so much about producing commercial theatre and we made a stack of new contacts that will help launch us into the future.

What was your reaction to receiving an 
Olivier Award nomination?

Of course, we were so thrilled and happy that the entire team and five years’ hard work had earned global recognition.

Where do you want to be in five years?

Over the next five years, we hope to be able to develop the company to extend the reach of our work. We’d like to think that over the next decade we’d have a team capable of producing and touring multiple works simultaneously and internationally.

What advice would you give to anyone who aspires to do what you’ve done?

Work on being able to articulate clearly how what you are doing is unique.

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