Coffee Break Toby Olié  

Toby Olié created and directed the puppets for Animal Farm which is currently touring nationwide. Susan Elkin spoke to him.

How did you get into puppetry?

I enjoyed Sesame Street as a child because the puppets exist within a human world and no one thinks anything of it. Then when I was eight years old and going through my dinosaur phase, I found, in the school library, an Usborne book: How to Make Puppets and it all grew from there. A lot of improvisations with toilet rolls, cereal boxes and the ironing board followed for the entertainment of my encouraging family. Eventually I went to Central School of Speech and Drama and took their puppetry course, which is no longer available. Although a degree in puppetry sounds pretty unlikely, my parents were very supportive.

And then you got an exciting first job?

Yes, in my third year at drama school I was involved in developing the prototype of the titular War Horse at National Theatre and was then cast as the back legs direct from college. I moved to the head for the tour. It was an amazing experience working with NT and sharing and absorbing their collaborative way of working. And playing the role is the puppeteer’s equivalent of playing Hamlet because the horse doesn’t leave the stage for the whole of the show’s two and a half hours. It was a bit like a completely bonkers MA.

So how did your career develop from there?

I directed the puppetry in other shows and then Finn Caldwell, also formerly a puppeteer on War Horse, and I directed Elephanatom for NT, after which we set up our own company Gyre and Gimble. We create our own work as well as working on other shows.

Tell me about Animal Farm

It’s been a massive project. There are 30 different puppets in the show, some life sized and some miniature, and it took over eight months to make them. We started in April last year. Then came very intense rehearsals working with director Robert “Bob” Icke and fourteen puppeteers. It’s the tiny movements, such as the twitch of a tail or the resettling of ears which really bring animal puppets to life. Fortunately, Bob and I both think pictorially – cinematically almost – so we were both comfortable developing the physical sequences.

I noticed some of the characters had changed from the book

Yes, we made Clover into a cow rather than another horse just for a change really – otherwise some scenes would look too dominantly equine. We also merged Orwell’s donkey and goat into a goat called Benjamin for the same reason.

Your workshop must be an exciting place?

I like to think it is, but actually there’s a lot of wood dust and glue guns lying about which isn’t very glamorous. I like to keep puppets from previous projects in my space – they’re much more like musical instruments than props because they have to be fine tuned for performance. So I try to avoid their being packed away in storage or someone’s garage.

You’ve been doing this for 20 years now. How would you advise an aspirant puppeteer today?

Well there’s a shortage of puppeteers in the industry and although there are elements of puppetry in some of the course strands at Central, the course I did has disappeared as part of the school’s general restructuring. Sarah Wright, whose parents founded Little Angel Theatre, runs a 6-10 week course called the Curious School of Puppetry at the beginning of every year. It gives intensive training to 15-18 students and is taught by people who already work in the industry. That’s what I recommend to potential puppeteers now.

Have you ever thought of creating a training organisation yourself?

Oh yes! Sarah and I would like to set up a full time, permanent puppetry school within which I could have rehearsal space and workshops. If only we could find a suitable building … we are definitely looking.

What are you working on next?

I’m rehearsing a Japanese animated film via Zoom and there will also be a stage show. Then it’s 101 Dalmatians at Open Air Regents Park this summer which was postponed from 2020.

Animal Farm is touring until the end of May: Salford, Plymouth, Nottingham, Coventry, Blackpool, London, Liverpool. Canterbury, Wolverhampton and Bromley

101 Dalmatians: a new musical opens on 12 July at Open Air Theatre, Regents Park