David Morton: bringing back The Harbinger

David Morton and Dead Puppet Society’s The Harbinger returned to La Boite’s stage for a preview audience on Saturday night. It opens on Thursday night. Book here.

We asked David to tell us about this new version of the production.

The Harbinger

David, this is the re-imagining of The Harbinger and the second time we’ll see it on La Boite’s stage. Can you tell us what we can expect to experience this time?

This time around we’ve done away with most of the AV content that was in first version of the show and replaced it with more puppetry. I think that it’s made the piece more magic, and it’s been a wonderful challenge dreaming up the different puppet characters and how they work on the stage.

How has the process been different for you, particularly with regard to the additional creative input of Matthew Ryan (boy girl wall) and others along the way?

It has been a different process this time around because we went into rehearsals with a full script whereas last time we had only a set of story points. So the process has been more about realisation than development. Working with Matt has been a treat, we have quite different, complimentary skill sets and it’s such a privilege to work so closely with such an amazing creative mind.

The construction of each puppet is a fascinating process. Can you tell us how many puppets will be used and how they are crafted?

I think all up there are 24, but the count seems to change whoever you speak to. The construction process is varied and almost completely different for each of the types of puppet that we use. Most of them begin their lives as clay or plasticine sculptures that are cast in plaster and moulded with latex or silicone. But each puppet requires a number of different hand made pieces in order to build the mechanisms that allow them to perform. This year we’ve put a huge amount of effort into developing a new way for building our smaller bunraku style puppets using similar methods to the stop motion industry. In these new puppets one articulated head has more than twenty individual pieces that need to be hand made before the head can be assembled.

Do you have a favourite puppet? Do you find they take on an identity of their own before the actors even begin to imbue them with their qualities? At what point do they become human?

I do have a couple of favourites. But I reckon it might be bad luck to say which ones. They definitely do take on their own identities, there’s something in the way that their joints force them to move that gives each a distinct quality. It’s always an incredible moment when they become real, and it’s not usually until very late in a process. There does always come a point though where they become so self contained, and are dreamt to life with such discipline, that even their operators can feel them moving themselves.

What do you notice about the actors who work with puppets?

The process is very similar most of the time. Nearly all actors begin with the widely held notion of the puppet as a crazy, almost disturbing figure that moves far too much and lives in the realm of the grotesque. But as they come to respect and understand the objects that they are sharing the stage with, they learn that small movements are stronger, and that in order to weave the life of the puppet you need a gentle hand. There comes a point where they are able to surrender completely to the puppet character, and at this point, the puppet takes over and they stop acting completely.

What do you notice about audiences watching actors working with puppets?

I think that puppet works ask for a special sort of complicite from an audience. We all know that the puppets’ little bodies aren’t real, but when you let that thought go, the poetry behind their fragile attempts at being alive can be quite moving.

Do the puppets have an impact on the way you view and review the tale you’re telling? Do you ever find yourself talking to the puppets and expecting them to answer?

Yes, they absolutely do. The puppets fit so well in tales of memory or magic, they don’t do the mundane very well at all. We always carve our works to serve our puppet characters. I can’t say that I’ve ever spoken to one of them and expected them to respond, but I often feel very strange working on them after I’ve seen them performing. Because I know that they’re just material objects, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s something else there.

Are there some darker moments this time?

Yes. Definitely. And because we’re not really using projection they all happen live in front of the audience.

What led you to explore the world of puppetry?

I’ve always been entranced by them. I love the form because it takes so much care and nurturing to bring the characters to life. I also like the way that it acknowledges its presence.

The Harbinger

“A puppet doesn’t just pretend to be a character like an actor, it pretends to be alive.”

What/ who influences your work?

Our work gets aligned with Tim Burton all of the time, and I agree that there are similarities, but I don’t think that we’re at his level of the gothic or grotesque. All of our works begin with an impulse to create a character that would suit a puppet actor, and then the rest falls into place. People watching is the best.

What are you reading?

At the moment I’m bouncing between Gould’s book of fish by Richard Flannagan and The Hobbit.

If you could choose to work and play anywhere in the world when this show closes, where would you go and why?

South Island of NZ. Of anywhere I’ve been I find that landscape the most inspiring, and I love the smell of the air down there.

What do you do outside of the theatre?

Outside of Dead Puppets I teach at QUT, but that’s in the drama department so I don’t think it counts. I’m in the final few months of the PhD program there as well, but also in theatre. Between the company, teaching, and study I don’t really have time for much else, but I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

What did your parents expect you to do? What would you be doing if you were not involved in the theatre?

I’m not really sure what my parents expected me to do, but until very late in high school I always intended on studying biology. If I could pick any job outside of theatre I’d love to work in the art department of a film studio.

What’s next?

Some down time first, I think. We also have some exciting programming opportunities for 2013 and are working towards having The Harbinger hit the road.

See The Harbinger at La Boite from 11th August – 1st September 2012

The Harbinger


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