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Puppet master pulls strings to ensure craft's future

SONNY Tilders has built a career on bringing massive puppets to life. Now, dozens of artists under his leadership are building the towering animatronic ape for the upcoming stage show, King Kong.

Tilders says puppetry and animatronics are burgeoning fields and the Australian King Kong production proves there is local work available for skilled artists.

''I think Victoria has a great opportunity here,'' he says.

But he worries about where the next generation of specialists will come from. The Victorian College of the Arts is believed to have offered the only degree in puppetry until it was suspended several years ago. But now, the VCA is considering how it can revive puppetry studies.

Tilders, creative director of the Creature Technology Company, believes a practical education is crucial to fostering the art form. ''We can't just sit back and expect there will be people to do these things.''

Tilders, son of late blues guitarist Dutch Tilders, has worked on many film and theatre projects, including Walking with Dinosaurs, Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith and The Chronicles of Narnia.


He says it is becoming increasingly difficult to find young people with the skills to embark on a puppetry career.

VCA director Su Baker says puppetry might have attracted a small number of students but it plays an important part in film and theatre productions. ''The program was difficult for the VCA to sustain. We really need to look at a better model,'' she says.

Baker says she will consult professional puppetry companies about what kind of courses they believe the industry needs. One option under consideration is short, intensive courses before examining whether a full degree is possible. ''I think it's probably more likely to be a masterclass workshop like some of the international programs.''

The VCA supplied eight graduates for King Kong's all-Australian cast, the most of any tertiary institute.

VCA graduate Chris Ryan, 32, will play a leading role in the production. He says intensive study has been crucial to his development as an actor. ''It was everything for me because I really didn't know how to apply my talent. I knew I could act but I just felt I needed a practical education.''

Five VCA music theatre graduates will appear in the show. That course was cancelled for a short time after the college's controversial merger with Melbourne University but has since been revived.

Much of the King Kong cast is Victorian, with the Prahran-based National Institute of Circus Arts supplying six performers.