The Puppy Master
His canine army's Rep-side
The Hundred and One Dalmatians opened last week, at The Rep. At rehearsals taking place a fortnight before curtain-up, we spoke to Jimmy Grimes — War Horse alumni and puppet director for the new production. Plus a dachshund, a pug, a chihuahua and an adult-size dalmatian or three. Welcome to the fascinating, obsessive, personality-filled world of puppetry — it's all a little bit spellbinding.
Stealing into the rehearsal room, three fully-fledged adults are debating the name of an inanimate lump of Plastazote: Floyd has just been christened. He's a sausage dog, and he's also a puppet, and we're the only people in the room that think that's a little strange. "He can't be too bendy at the spine — real sausage dogs can't do that" Jimmy says. "If you slightly tilt the rod you'll get more movement out of him". Actor Lewis Griffin obeys, and Floyd the tail-chaser springs into life right in front of us. Our minds are blown, we want to pet the damn thing, and that was before Floyd received ears, eyes or fur like he had by the technical rehearsal (pictured above).
The task of creating the 101 eponymous pooches, controlled by just 14 actors, has required a huge amount of creativity. There are 15 hand-controlled, individual, mechanical puppies — true to size (pictured bottom), with the remaining 85 being made up of clever backdrops, collections of tails, and "dogs on sticks" as the cast have been calling them. A number of "ensemble dogs" have also qualified for this honour, including Floyd, and Jimmy's favourite, the pug (pictured above). "In picking out the breeds to use for the wider dog community, it was a case of matching breed to owner — maybe they look like the actor who'll be controlling them, or maybe they act like them." Lewis is frenetically showing off Floyd at this point. He doesn't stop moving his puppety-pup until we ask him if he'll be keeping his new best friend at the end of the process. Dog and owner both dip their heads in unison. "I won't be allowed," Lewis says. We don't know which one to console first.
Though hugely complimentary on the topic of his experience as puppet director forWar Horse, Jimmy is clearly loving presenting a completely new production, and doing so at The Rep. "In an auditorium this big, and with so many different puppets, it's crucial audience members can see bags of personality within individual dogs, and that's what I've tried to achieve, bringing out features which add loads of value (like the sausagey shape for Floyd), without making puppets so complicated the actors feel inhibited. Most of the cast haven't previously worked with puppets and it's part of my job to teach them how." Jimmy brings a heap on the floor to life as he talks "I did lots of research into how dogs move, but it's things like posture that make the biggest difference on stage — like a proud chest offers a strong and confident dalmatian, while when bowing down he starts to look quite submissive." We're dazzled.
On puppetry today, Jimmy gives the huge live production of The Lion King a lot of credit for its popular resurgence. "In terms of mainstream appeal and venues being behind it, the production completely changed the picture. Then War Horse got audiences thinking puppetry may well be for adults as well as children." Looking to the future, Grimes sees a continued place for puppets: "That you can see what's happening without fancy animatronics, and at the same time get lost in the story of it, that's the brilliance of puppetry for me — and however much technology advances, that's not going away."
Get your mind blown. The Hundred And One Dalmatians Dalmatians is on until January 13. Tickets from £15.
Pictures: Graeme Braidwood
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