‘Circus 1903’ puppet master brings ‘animals’ to life

"Peanut" the baby elephant in a scene from "Circus 1903 --- The Golden Age of Circus." | PHOTO BY MARK TURNER

If you are have tickets to see “Circus 1903” at the Oriental Theatre this week, you’ll be treated to all sorts of artistry courtesy of various traditional circus acts.

But you’ll also encounter the work of puppet master/director Mervyn Millar, the artistic director of Significant Object, the design company behind two massive, mechanical elephants featured in the show. Millar’s artistry can be seen in  dozens of stage productions across the globe, most notably in the Tony Award-winning “War Horse” (with Handspring Puppet Company). For “Circus,” Millar crafted two life-sized elephants, reminiscent of their real-life counterparts once prominently featured in circus performance.

In a recent email interview with the Sun-Times, Millar talked about bringing these elephants “to life.”

Q. There are two elephant puppets in the production. Do they have names?

Mervyn Millar: Our mother elephant is called Queenie and her calf is called Karanga. Karanga was named by a competition winner in Australia. It’s Swahili for Peanut. We love this image, so we usually call him Peanut!

Big Top wonder is at the heart of ‘Circus 1903’

Q. What are they made of? Do you know how much each of them weighs?

MM: Queenie is about 3.2m [more than 10 feet] tall. She’s the real size of a large female African elephant. The largest ever measured, the famous Jumbo, who also came from London to travel the world, was a bull measuring 4m at the shoulder. So she’s pretty substantial! Peanut is proportioned to suit the performer inside. We always use the anatomy of the real animal as a reference when we work on our designs. If you get the relationships right then the movements are much more likely to feel “real.” So in Peanut’s case the performer’s arm (including his hand) needs to be the same length as a the baby elephant’s ulna/radius — and we scale out from there.

Mervyn Millar | YOUTUBE

Each puppet is made around an internal frame of aluminum for lightness and strength. The puppeteers inside Queenie and the one inside Peanut are all strapped into the frame with harnesses. The human brain processes movement even if the form of the image of incomplete — you do it all the time whenever something is partially obscured — so we’ve found that the audience can “fill in the gaps” in the silhouette. So the idea for the outside of the puppet is that we have these large shapes that are able to move relative to each other to create the sensation of a real animal. We need to make them as light as possible but strong enough to withstand repeated use — and in the case of Peanut, falling over and a bit of rough play!

My co-designer Tracy Waller and I opted for a type of thermoplastic mesh, stretched across plastic pipe forms. The make them we needed to draw the elephant in a computer and have the pieces cut in huge polystyrene blocks to use as formers. The mesh makes the inner layer of “skin.” To create the outer skin, with irregular wrinkles, we needed to make our own mesh, dissolving the plastic to soak it into our netting, to create a heat-moldable material that will hold a 3-dimensional shape, let light through and allow visibility for the puppeteers, and be light enough to be controllable.

The “elephants” have returned to the Big Top, courtesy of ‘Circus 1903’ and puppet wizardry of Mervyn Millar. | MARK TURNER PHOTO

Within the puppet there are many other materials to make the mechanisms work. … There’s dozens of joints or moveable elements: I’d never try to count them. Puppet design is all about movement so a lot of the work is in finding way to allow things to have natural movements that create further movements in other parts — everything exists in relation to the whole, and moves in relation to the whole. The whole process of design and manufacture, including prototyping took a year and we employed a big team of makers. Simon Painter the producer had a big vision for this show and we knew that we had to come up with something that would look special to fulfil it.

I don’t know the weigths — I am a bit frightened to find out! They’re just about manageable.

Q. How many puppeteers are needed to operate each elephant? How much training must the puppeteers undergo to become experts in operating such huge puppets?

MM: When you come into a show like this there’s no real precedent for the work you’re going to do. We brought in a range of performers, some of whom had puppetry experience, and some who didn’t. Some of these guys have worked on “War Horse” or “Walking With Dinosaurs,” in both of which they need to do this unusual job of imagining into life a character that is bigger than them, and shared with other performers. The kind of coordination of thought and impulse that you need for the elephant can only really be built up by working really well together — so the atmosphere of the rehearsal is an important factor.

Queenie takes four puppeteers. We wanted to develop the ideas that we were familiar with from working with Handspring’s “War Horse” puppets — which are certainly the inspiration — and scale it up to create something new. We’ve taken the bodies of the puppeteers up into the silhouette of the body by putting them on stilts. So these two guys who work the legs, spine and tail are balancing two feet up in the air strapped in and loaded with weight. It takes quite a bit of strength — and of course as soon as the other puppeteer moves, the weight distribution alters. So they need to know what each other are doing and be ready. The head puppeteer is on the ground but the head is the heaviest part — there’s much more detail in that sculpture and he needs to stay under it. Those three guys learn to breathe together and to feel where an animal’s movement might originate and how the balance of the elephant shifts as it lifts a leg. Thy need to be observant of all of those details in order to get the rhythm and posture of the puppet right. So we spent a lot of time looking at elephants and getting a feel for how they shift energy and tension.

The elephant’s trunk — which is an amazing combined lip-nose thing — is really important. The fourth puppeteer, who also plays a character in the scene, comes in to manipulate the trunk when it’s needed. They need to be able to drop in and out of the mood of the elephant character, maintain their own character in the scene, and do the detailed manipulation that tells us so much about what the elephant is thinking and doing.

The system on Peanut is the same. He can plod around the stage quite happily with one puppeteer but in the key emotional or storytelling moments, a second puppeteer joins to give precision to the focus of the head and trunk. This kind of puppetry is a real virtuoso display of teamwork. Everyone has to listen to everyone else so that they can feel like an animal who is responsive and reactive — they need to be comfortable improvising.

So that takes time to learn each other and to learn the technique. We worked for two weeks alone, and two weeks with the rest of the company before starting the tour in Australia. But every puppeteer will tell you that they are always improving both their relationship with the other puppeteers, and their mastery of the puppet. So the more shows they do, the more the puppets are capable of.

Albert and Joey. Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with John Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger ( as Joey) in the U.S. national touring production of “War Horse.” | Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg

Q. How are they transported from city to city, in pieces or as whole entities?

MM: The puppets need to break down for shipping — but they need to be assembled and disassembled fast. So that is another influence on the design. The puppets can come together, or break down into their cases, in less than an hour.

Q. Your designs/puppets wowed the world in “War Horse” and other productions. What best defines your company’s brand of stage “magic”? Why do your puppets elicit such powerfully emotional reactions from audiences?

MM: I was thrilled to be able to be part of Handspring’s work in “War Horse” and to help develop and direct the puppetry on the show. It’s had a big influence on how people see puppetry and what they are willing to allow it to do. “Lion King” showed everyone how visually stunning puppetry could be; “War Horse” showed them that puppets can also act and be an emotional center for a theatre audience.

I feel that we’re in a good time for puppetry; and I think your recent puppetry festival in Chicago showed a lot of that, too. There is really great technique out there and very ambitious storytelling, so a real community of visionary theatre-makers are cohering around this very varied art form.

I think what our company does — and this is closely allied to Handspring’s style — is not to try to create illusions. We try to bring something on stage that, in its design and in the way it’s manipulated, it invites the audience to work the magic in their imaginations. We only provide half of the elephant — enough in the object and the movement to inspire you to do this incredible thing, that you do so well, of creating in your mind a real animal with feelings and thoughts and emotions.

… [The] circus connects with the audience so directly. The incredible work that the other acts do — just jaw-dropping virtuosity and extraordinary physical feats — connects the audience to their bodies and their emotions. It brings the audience alive and you can feel their enthusiasm building through the show. And to walk on stage in the middle of that, in these huge venues, and invite over 1,000 people to imagine something tender, and gentle, and wise, and mischievous like an elephant is, is a lovely opportunity.

Q. Have you always been a fan of the circus? Why?

MM: This is the first time I’ve worked in circus. I’m in awe of the ability of the performers. They have such dedication and skill. So much of our entertainment is based on special effects now, or technical aesthetics like editing rhythms or lighting in cinema; it is so unusual to really be in a room with someone who can do something that you can’t believe. When Mikhail balances on his teetering tower of tubes, or Elena goes through her aerial hoop practice, or the acrobats deliver their flips and tricks time and time again with such poise and perfection, it’s stunning. What’s refreshing about this presentation is how the emphasis is back on the acts themselves and the simple fact of celebrating their skill. I can watch this show again and again.

Q. Is there more than one set of the elephant puppets (just in case)?

MM: No! Scary isn’t it? We packed them onto a boat after we’d made them in London, and off they went to Australia with fingers crossed. Thank goodness they made it. Puppets like this, with so many moving and technical elements, need maintenance on the road, so the team have the raw materials and the paints to do repairs and touch up. But they are good tough old things and they will acquire a few dings along the way before their next big refurbishment.

Previously from Entertainment