All creatures great and small
All creatures great and small
The 'War Horse' and humans in rehearsal.
Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Melbourne has been overrun by live animals on stage of late - this year gave us dogs (Annie), ducks (The Wild Duck) and the entire creature kingdom of Melbourne Zoo (Animal). Next year there's even more, from the glamour-pooches of Legally Blonde to the uncanny War Horse, and, of course, the biggest ape of them all.
The greatest human actors are often painful in real life. The same goes for stage dogs. ''You want a wanker,'' trainer Peta Clarke says. ''One of those dogs you know is going to be a problem. Because everything they have to deal with, they have to deal with it confidently.''
Clarke is responsible for the three dogs of Legally Blonde: British bulldog Luka and chihuahuas Quinn and Sparrow, who alternate a role. She began her career studying child psychology, and found ''the theory of learning and behaviour is exactly the same, whether you're talking about a child or an adult, human or dog or seal or bird. In terms of reinforcement, punishment, what drives behaviour, consequences, that kind of stuff.''
Along with dogs, Clarke has applied these principles to marine animals, even free-flight birds. She's frequently called to people's homes to help with a pet that won't behave by human standards. ''But quite often those dogs are really enthusiastic about life and overly confident,'' she says. ''They're not too worried about being told off, they'd much rather chase a bird in the air. If they get yelled at, so be it.''
That's the kind of dog she looks for when casting. Trainer Luke Hura agrees: ''A lot of people think, 'I've got the best-trained dog, it should be perfect.' Well, no. Sometimes the best-trained dog isn't the best performer, because it's overtrained.''
Hura has been training animals for film and TV since 1980, working with talent from Neighbours' much-loved Bouncer to the stars of 2011 hit Red Dog. Like Clarke, he treats each animal as an individual. ''People ask me which are the best breeds, but in every breed there's an exceptional dog. You've still got to find that exceptional one.''
He's not even sure of the breed of Buddy, the mutt he found at an RSPCA shelter last year and cast in the Melbourne season of Annie. ''I knew the dog I'd picked was the best dog for the show. He gave us a little bit of grief up until the very last days. He'd bark and carry on and wouldn't sit still. I put it down to a little bit of negative energy being directed at him by people who didn't believe he was the right dog.'' Buddy went on to play the Perth season of the show, and will be one of the six dogs that take to the stage in 2013's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Getting a pooch to follow directions is the easy bit, apparently. ''No matter how complex the behaviour might be, that's still the simple part,'' Clarke says. ''It's getting the dog to do it night after night after night, on a stage with all the lights and people singing and dancing. I remind people it might look astounding that the little dog goes out there and does its thing so confidently, but what the dog has to cope with backstage, with props flying and people running for costume changes, all of that kind of thing, in dim light, is even harder.''
This is one of Hura's key ideas. ''I'm a very big believer in understanding how energy works,'' he says. ''I communicate with an animal on various levels. You've got to create an incredible trust, and once you've got that trust they don't mind doing anything for you.''
Clarke agrees. ''Free-flight birds taught me a lot about giving animals a choice,'' she says. ''If you give them a choice and manipulate the environment to make them choose what you want, but they still think 'Hey, I'm choosing what I want to do', you're streets ahead.''
Emphasising choice seems a long way from the darker corners of entertainment's history of animal exploitation. Relatively recently, the carrot has replaced the stick, and in some countries elephants and bears are still beaten and tortured to get them to perform.
Clarke is conscious of those who argue that animals should never be used for our entertainment. ''I remind myself they've got the animal's best interests at heart. They really think the animal shouldn't be on stage because they think it's detrimental to the animal. But these are my babies. I know in this show these dogs are treated like the kings and queen they are. They sleep on my bed at night, and get taken for walks no matter how tired I am.
''They're really well looked after, and that's all I can say to people who question the use of animals in performance. They love it, their body language indicates they really enjoy going out there and doing it. And that's my job. The job's me saying, 'You want to go out and do that again, don't you?' and for them to say, 'Hell, yeah.'''
A dog in a theatre tends to draw the eye away from everything else happening on stage. It might be because a dog can't act. Forget about playing a character or interpreting a role. The dog on stage is just that dog on stage. Such directness gives us something we don't encounter often in everyday life: the chance to sit still and contemplate an animal being itself.
Of course, it's being itself in a room full of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of strangers. ''You're immediately drawn, aren't you, with the dog to 'What has the process been to bring this dog to the stage? Who is it, really?''' puppeteer Finn Caldwell says. ''It's an amplification of the problems you have when you're watching an actor. A good actor will let you not worry about what he had for tea, what his life's really like, is he married, does he enjoy doing this. But the only reason a puppet exists is to tell the story. In a weird kind of way, it's a purer use of storytelling than something that's alive.''
The internationally acclaimed War Horse replaces animals with life-size puppets, but somehow the sense of witnessing a real horse is amplified. Caldwell was one of the cast members in the original production of War Horse by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company, and is associate puppetry director for the show's Australian tour, opening in Melbourne on New Year's Eve.
''There are some incredibly dynamic sections of the show which are very fast, really dangerous and scary, but I've had friends who have seen the show and they're more drawn to the bit after a fight when the horses are just standing in the background. The horses are just looking around, breathing, grazing, and seeing them reminds you of the miracle of existence. It sounds grandiose, but you're seeing the miracle of life. Horses do that. Puppets do that.''
Grandiose, yes, but during a rehearsal for War Horse the beasts have a startling air of life. Director Drew Barr says the use of puppets and our suspension of disbelief makes us collaborators in bringing the show to life. ''It's funny, because Steven Spielberg has talked about the fact that at the end of making the movie of War Horse, he found real horses weren't as expressive. Partly because we don't need to invest in the life of a real horse. We can be moved by it, but we're not actively participating in bringing it to life.''
When Barr is speaking, he repeatedly refers to the puppets of War Horse as ''real animals''. He's surprised when this is pointed out. ''I wasn't even aware of saying that. But it's essential we continually invest in the idea these are real animals. Because as soon as we fall back on the idea they're puppets, we lose the urgency of identifying with them and caring for them. And so the puppeteers are encouraged and challenged to behave as a real horse would.'' That means being completely disrespectful of human dialogue, of actors hitting their marks, of where they are supposed to be. ''Because we all know what it feels like to be in the presence of a real horse,'' Barr says. ''It's very physically dangerous, unpredictable.''
War Horse is the third in a trilogy of productions by Handspring that put animals at their centre. The first was a tale about chimpanzees, the second the story of a giraffe. ''It's something we feel very strongly about,'' the company's executive producer, Basil Jones, says. ''Positioning animals within the ambit of the lives of people.''
Artistic director Adrian Kohler notes that horses were once a daily part of urban life. Our cities were designed to take them into account, from hay markets to water troughs to droppings on every street. ''The human-horse relationships were a part of how we lived until about 100 years ago. War Horse tries to rekindle that relationship and the incredible generosity of the horse to submit itself. It's a much bigger and more dangerous animal than we are, and yet it does the work we ask it to do in return for food. The relationship between such a big and magnificent animal and people is a very intriguing one.''
It's a big ask to expect an audience to follow the story of a horse for two hours. The show's star, Joey, isn't a metaphor for ourselves. But to emphasise his otherness, his animality, the three puppeteers who animate each horse have to ensure they don't fall back into human patterns.
''It's a complete shedding of your ego,'' Jones says. ''Where you have to start developing a thing called group mind, where three people have to think as one. We find actors all over the world love this totally different form of performance, where it's utterly selfless. When they see the results, where they can effectively disappear on stage in favour of this horse they're creating, most people find that quite elating.''
Once the puppeteers begin to think as one, Caldwell says, the result is ''a state where if something happens on stage, the horse reacts. The puppeteers don't individually have a reaction. The three will have the same reaction at the same time, and that is just extraordinary to watch. It feels impossible, like magic.''
If it takes three people acting as one to bring life to a horse, 2013's world premiere of King Kong at the Regent Theatre is even more ambitious. The six-metre-tall Kong is animated by 11 live puppeteers, plus the two animatronics operators who remotely control his facial and other movements, and an automation department responsible for getting him around the stage.
King Kong's puppetry director, Peter Wilson, has his own version of group mind - ''collective breath''. ''If all 14 operator-performers are in the same space in finding that one breath, Kong will leave that stage and roam Collins Street, in effect. If we're working independently and are quite separate, you'll see that. We won't find that unison of performance by all those players. They're all individual artists but part of the role of working Kong is to give him that single mind, that single intelligence.''
The makers of War Horse and King Kong have done extensive research into their animal subjects, to capture weight and gait, body language and motivation. ''The key the boys from Handspring talk about is finding the essence of what makes that creature alive - what gives us a connection and a belief,'' Wilson says.
As Jones sees it: ''Making animals come alive is one of the big offers of puppet theatre. It's something no other form of theatre can do so well.''
Kong might not be a ''real'' ape, Wilson says, but he does have something in common with the dogs Clarke and Hura train: ''If he lifts a paw, we find that gesture far, far more interesting than if an actor lifts an arm. But then, you know,'' he says, ''we are related.''
War Horse opens at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, on December 31; Chitty Chitty Bang Bang plays Her Majesty's Theatre from January 30; previews for Legally Blonde start at the Princess Theatre on May 9; and King Kong premieres at the Regent in June.
Whiskers in the wings
These days the most famous cats in theatres come courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but there was once a proud tradition of real felines working as stagehands, performers and voluble critics. For centuries, any English playhouse worth its salt had its own resident theatre cat. Legend has it that the practice began in the Elizabethan era. Cats were commonly kept on ships to keep rats at bay and, when sailors left the life of the ocean, they were often sought by theatres for their skills with knots and rigging, so they took their furry companions with them, and cats found new employment as West End mousers.
By the 20th century, the popularity of theatre cats gave rise to superstitions, with playwright Richard Huggett writing that finding a cat's droppings in your dressing room was one of the best omens an actor could hope for. Vivien Leigh had a succession of cats - New Boy, Armando and the dubiously named Poo Jones - who kept her company off-stage. T.S. Eliot immortalised one such moggie in Gus, the "Cat at the Theatre Door", who loves to boast of his days treading the boards, while a scruffy, eyepatch-wearing cat was often spotted lurking in the wings of The Muppet Show.
Theatre cats are mostly a distant memory now, with one local exception. The Astor Theatre has a mascot in Marzipan, a calico-coloured 20-year-old with her own regularly updated Facebook page and who has received postcards from fans on overseas trips. At 2011's 75th anniversary celebrations, the loudest cheers were reserved for her.