Power of puppets! RSC uses puppet captions for My Neighbor Totoro extravaganza | Arrange
SWalk into the Los Angeles office of the Jim Henson Company and a bunch of Fraggle Rock doozers greet you at the front desk. Fozzie Bear watches from a filing cabinet, Sesame Street’s Big Bird poses in a giant rococo frame, and one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things crouches on a corner cabinet, hairs sprouting from its nose.
But among those American puppet idols hanging around the Henson company workshop is an ornament that will delight Studio Ghibli fans in Japan. It’s the prowling cat from his 1988 animated fantasy film My Neighbor Totoro. For the uninitiated, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a bus with a puffy tail, furry seats and headlight eyes that streaks across the screen, breaking into a Cheshire smile and emitting a meow savage.
It has to be one of the most anticipated moments from the upcoming stage adaptation from London’s Royal Shakespeare Company, which last month broke the Barbican’s box office record for one-day sales. Tickets got even hotter when it was announced that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would be making the puppets. The show’s American goatee puppeteer, Basil Twist, loves the challenge. “I’m glad people are calling me and saying, ‘How are we going to do this? “” He laughs before happily inserting his fist into his mouth.
I’m here to meet some of the Totoro crew but, this being the new norm in theatre, so Twist a Covid is joining us via laptop. The Creature Shop Creative Supervisor Peter Brooke and Manufacturing Supervisor Scott Johnson let me dig into the space where catbus and co will be made for the stage. There is a room for mold making, sculpture and mechanics; another for foam and fabric – the base materials that made Henson’s Muppets superstar. All around are animatronic contraptions – Brooke and I work on the handles of a device to bring a tentacle puppet to surprising life. Cables, laptops and a 3D printer sit alongside pots of glue, scissors and paintbrushes, echoing the mix of artisanal and digital production techniques used at Ghibli’s headquarters.
Although best known for its television and film projects, the Creature Shop has a long history of collaborating on stage productions and next year will bring Henson’s The Dark Crystal at the Royal Opera House, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. The Totoro puppets are always shrouded in secrecy, but Twist believes it’s important to present the magical scenes from a child’s perspective. In the film, sisters Mei and Satsuki move to the countryside with their father while their mother recovers. There, they discover a world of soot sprites and the whiskered, cuddly forest spirit Totoro, whom we see for the first time through Mei’s eyes. The puppet in the play will not be limited to the creatures but will inform the whole scenography: even the dilapidated house of the family is a puppet.
Joe Hisaishi – who composed the film’s melancholic and haunting score, which includes an irresistibly upbeat opening (“Hey, let’s go! Hey, let’s go!”) – received director Hayao Miyazaki’s blessing to take the reins of this international collaboration. His music will be played by a band on stage, not hidden in a pit. Totoro director Phelim McDermott says that when he first asked Hisaishi who he had in mind for the puppet, he expected him to suggest a veteran Japanese master of the bunraku Art form. But Hisaishi named Twist, an old friend of McDermott’s. Early on, Twist made Totoro prototypes “from very humble materials” to show off the Japanese production partners. “And they got it – not despite the humility of the materials but because of it,” says Twist.
Twist, who studied puppetry traditions in Japan, emphasizes the quiet, elliptical nature of Totoro’s storytelling, which contrasts with the more plot-driven Western style of animation for young audiences. “The first scene where we see Totoro, he’s practically asleep,” Twist explains. “He doesn’t even do much.” It’s hard to bring the film’s meditative pace to the huge Barbican theatre. “He’s got this mysterious stillness so, for a stage show, it’s like, hmm” – Twist scratches his head like Stan Laurel – “how’s that gonna work?”
The puppet, Twist suggests, is about “something mysteriously coming to life,” so it’s intrinsically tied to Japan’s Shinto tradition, which recognizes the spirits that exist in nature and permeate Totoro’s tale. Mei and Satsuki’s father talks about a time when trees and people were once friends. Only children can see Totoro and have that special connection with nature. It’s a resonant message in the midst of our climate crisis, though McDermott points out that the film is never didactic.
Twist is known for its productions that use natural elements for their effects. In Symphonie Fantastique, directed by Berlioz, the fabrics swirled and shimmered in a tank of water as if they were sea creatures. Put a piece of fabric in water, he says, “and you really don’t have to do much and it becomes totally alive. Play a piece of music and it will end up in the music. His staging of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was done with puffy silks and smoke. When Alfonso Cuarón had him work on the look of the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Twist created them with fabrics for a flowing effect. “In the end, they did everything with computers,” he explains, but the style of the bliss-hungry monsters came from the “screen tests we did with water and wind.”
As a child, Twist was obsessed with the Muppets and “totally interested in Miss Piggy”. A shy student, he reported to school with the help of his puppets. People assume he has a stage name – after all, he captures the quirky wonder of his shows – but he’s really Basil Twist III, a third-generation puppeteer. His grandfather was a big band leader whose act used puppets of music stars, including Cab Calloway. When Twist was 10, his grandmother gave him these puppets and it “sealed the deal.” Growing up in San Francisco, he had watched puppet shows put on by his mother and friends at hospitals and birthday parties. Before long, he was doing his own shows, casting his younger siblings in roles: “I was always the impresario.”
When Christopher Wheeldon recruited him for his Royal Ballet version of The Winter’s Tale, Twist was tasked with Shakespeare’s famously diabolical staging of “Go Out, Chased by a Bear”. His solution was to have the animal painted on a huge piece of silk whose movement was choreographed with as much care and impact as the dance. While in London, Twist collaborated with Kate Bush on her Before the Dawn concerts. “It was a big, ambitious project outside of the normal box of how rock concerts or stage productions are run,” he recalls. His work was closely related to that of the magician Paul Kieve. “We ended up being kind of a barometer of how the project might or might not succeed due to the sensitivity of how magic tricks or puppets helped guide the whole project.”
The Henson Company has also built stage puppets for musicians such as Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Today’s musical acts use sophisticated digital visuals, Brooke acknowledges, but the physical space the puppets take up on a stage is “an effect that digital can’t match.” What did Kanye’s monster look like? “A big sandworm dragon,” Brooke said. Is it in their workshop or in Kanye’s mansion? Johnson laughs: “He’s got it in his compound in the desert.”
Mainstream theater has widely adopted the puppet. The Lion King and the War Horse helped lead the way, and the RSC’s latest Christmas family show, The Magician’s Elephant, had ear-flapping and trunk-swaying delight at a main attraction. , controlled by a trio of puppeteers. Earlier this year, however, a few eyebrows were raised when the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actor was shared by the team that controls the puppet tiger in Life of Pi: one gives the creature a voice, and three pairs of performers each represent her head, heart and doe. Is it theater or puppeteering?
“It’s performance at the end of the day,” says Brooke. “There’s no reason why a horse or a tiger shouldn’t be part of the cast.” Johnson thinks the award shows that people are finally seeing beyond the technical aspect of puppetry to appreciate the inherent acting in this art form: “In the past, when you were hired for a film, producers were often unsure whether they were hiring performers or backstage technicians. Brooke says puppetry in Britain, where he grew up, has always been limited to children’s theater and television, while in other parts of the world it is recognized as a sophisticated form of adult storytelling.
According to Twist, a truly well-made puppet already has built-in performance, whether wooden, sewn, or carved. A good puppeteer teases these qualities rather than forcing the object into particular movements. “Frequently in puppetry, we say that we are manipulating a puppet,” he says, “but I prefer the sense of ‘animating’. You bring something to life. Working with the Henson Company, he knows the puppets will have that magic built in. “So,” he said, with a catlike smile, “we can let them do their own thing.”
My Neighbor Totoro is at the Barbican, London, 8 October-21 January. Chris Wiegand’s flight to Los Angeles was paid for by the production.