Behind the scenes with Erth
Erth puppeteer Kath Ellis working on a victim puppet in their workshop at Carriageworks for Erth's Sydney Festival Show 'Murder'. Photo: Tamara Dean
Inside the cavernous Sydney workshop of the puppet company Erth there is a horse made from aluminium, foam, cable ties and a fake coat hanging from the rafters.
A five-metre tyrannosaurus, a dwarf allosaurus and an australovenator - the apex predator of Australia's dinosaur family - are suspended nearby.
Below, designer and sculptor Steve Howarth is standing back from an eyeless puppet, its wooden legs dangling from a wide workshop bench. No more than bits of balsa wood sandwiched with rubber hose and screws, it is padded with foam to give form to a pinched torso and two large breasts. Howarth is pondering whether to give the puppet, named Nellie Brown, one eye or two. White heels or red?
To Nellie's right lies the quietly leering face of Stagger Lee, the sociopathic menace of Erth's Sydney Festival show, Murder. As slash theatre goes, Murder has it all - dark momentum, bone-jarring violence and a pile of corpses.
The R-rated meditation on popular culture's morbid fascination with homicide couldn't be more different from the company's previous productions, including the beautifully realised I, Bunyip, inspired by Aboriginal folklore, and The Dinosaur Petting Zoo, an exploration of prehistoric Australia.
The change in direction is no accident. The company is in its 21st year and artistic director Scott Wright says there is no better time to shake up audience perceptions and showcase original Australian stories for an adult audience.
''We are not a company that can be pigeonholed,'' he says. ''As far as ambition and direction, we have a strong sense of what we do.''
In an attempt to deconstruct the urban mythology of violence, Wright turned to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' 1996 album, Murder Ballads, which provides the backbeat and dark undertow for Raimondo Cortese's script.
Cave's contemporary recording of the traditional folk song Stagger Lee tells the tale of the ''bad motherf---er'' with a Colt 45 and a deck of cards who, ''back in '32 when times were hard'', filled a barkeeper's head full of lead.
Howarth and Wright have created Stagger Lee as a gangster in a stetson hat, with an oversized grinning smile. They have framed the character as a ruthless, lawless brawler and amoral killer.
The moral equivocation that underpins Murder crystallised in Wright's mind during a recent visit to Canada, when he saw a wall outside a Walmart store with posters of missing people on one side and images of wanted felons on the other. ''It goes to the idea that there are two sides to us all,'' he says. ''Are you the wanted or the missing? Is there such thing as a good murder, a mercy killing? Why is it we remember serial killer Ivan Milat and the cruelty of his crimes but his victims' names are forgotten?''
Wright started with a question: can an audience be complicit in murder? The production refers to the Milgram experiment conducted by a Yale University psychologist in the 1960s, which suggested ordinary people were willing to follow the orders of an authority figure, even when it involved killing innocents.
''My question to people is: has our attitude to murder changed since the Colosseum, when 8000 people were killed annually in the name of entertainment?'' Wright asks.
''I think we've gone further, I think the way we view murder as a term of escapism has increased exponentially. From the glorification of serial killing within the media, there has been a plethora of televisions series whether it is Murder, She Wrote or NCIS. I think there would be a percentage of the world's population sitting online playing virtual killing games, all in the name of entertainment. No longer are we passive observers.''
Puppetry, he says, is at its best and most subversive as adult art. In these stringed mannequins lie a child's innocence and wonder, yet they can be terrifyingly animate, capable of summoning death and psychological horror.
Wright takes the first rough-hewn prototype of Stagger Lee and sits him beside me. ''A puppet only lives for as long as it breathes,'' he says softly, and the puppet's ribcage inflates almost imperceptibly. ''It is the puppeteer who keeps him alive.'' Another shallow breath.
From the corner of my eye I see Stagger Lee's wizened hand start towards me. Wright has a fingertip feel for the subtleties of movement. The rag doll suddenly turns sinister. The Twilight Zone played around with the horrors of the mannequin-come-to-life, but the antecedents of Stagger Lee go back to Punch and Judy and beyond to ancient cultures in which puppets were used to reanimate dead souls.
The point at which lifelike qualities no longer feel familiar but strangely disquieting is called the ''uncanny valley'', a term that goes back to Freud. Getting to this state and animating the puppets with human expression has been a ''big learning curve'', puppeteer Kate Ellis says. Less familiar with human forms than they are with animal anatomy, the puppet makers of Erth have spent two months fashioning their marionettes to mimic the movements of ligament, tendon and muscle, bringing in the revered puppeteer Rod Primrose to turn Howarth's original drawings, roughly sketched on hotel stationery, to life.
For Wright, puppets became a ''substitute parent'' when, at age five, his mother, Glenda, died from breast cancer. ''It all started with Sesame Street,'' he says. In 1987, Wright met Howarth, a sculptor, also from Ballarat, who made ''the kind of things I wanted to climb inside - they were life-sized, oversized''. Erth was born.
Wright has long been a fan of Nick Cave's mournful lyrical fictions, and Murder also incorporates Red Right Hand, O Children, Cannibals and Mercy Seat.
Cave, who is based in Britain, has given the show his blessing. If fan and idol ever meet - and Wright hopes they will - the pair might find they share similar emotional undercurrents. ''From the age of about six, I had recurring nightmares for at least a decade that were a coping mechanism to make sense of the loss of my mother,'' Wright says. ''The nightmares were extremely brutal and I still can't explain why, at such an young age, I was manifesting such horror … I was in somewhat familiar territory when devising and developing the show, so much so that I have included some of those dreams into the storytelling.''
In the Erth studio in the Carriageworks complex in Eveleigh, curtains of black and beige calico serve as the makeshift divide between the company's repertoire and its current production. Gimlet-eyed, the dinosaurs watch over their makers. The creatures will be resurrected for a season off Broadway at the New Victory Theatre in January, just days after Murder's two-week festival season ends.
Looking about, Wright says: ''It's like a factory of gods.''
Murder is at the Seymour Centre from January 5-19.