GIANT PUPPETRY IN THE HARBINGER
Standing nervously in the customs line at Brisbane airport, David Morton worried that 2½ months of his work would be declared illegal to enter Australia.
“Whoa! Cool!” came the response from the customs officer, upon opening Morton’s bag to discover two wooden puppets.
Relieved, puppet builder Morton, 26, co-founder and artistic director with Brisbane’s Dead Puppet Society, explained to the officer the little wooden men were new characters about to feature in the latest revamp of The Harbinger. The show is currently touring Australia and arrives on the Gold Coast tonight.
Dead Puppet Society was formed in 2008 by a group of Queensland University of Technology drama students.
They create puppet-based visual theatre for adults in Australia, and now the US.
Morton says the company started as a joke between six friends with a university assignment.
“It was a drama course and in our final year of study, we had a professor who challenged us to find something that didn’t currently exist in the local industry,” he says.
“Almost as a joke, we submitted the Dead Puppet Society idea ... then, afterwards, we figured since we had already put a lot of work into it, maybe it was actually worth giving it a real go.”
In 2011, the group’s third show The Harbinger, featuring a 3.5m-tall elderly man puppet in a wheelchair named Albert, became a hit.
Albert took three months for Morton to build and needs four puppeteers to make him move. The giant lives in a bookshop in a post-apocalyptic city and is the focus of the story.
A street urchin girl one day escapes from an orphanage, breaks into the bookstore and refuses to leave. She becomes the catalyst for Albert to relive good and bad memories from his past.
Morton builds his puppets from the ground up. Literally. First comes his vision, followed by a sketch on paper.
Eventually, he draws a chalk outline for the feet on the floor and starts building the puppet’s feet, legs, body and lastly, the head.
“Each puppet has its own demands and needs,” says Morton, who started learning how to build puppets during university.
Morton has made about 50 puppets in the past five years.
Some of the new, small puppets featured in this year’s The Harbinger are hand cut from wood, have about 400 pieces each in them and took Morton three weeks each to build in his Brooklyn studio apartment.
This year, the Dead Puppet Society moved to New York after being accepted into a year-long residency at the New Victory Theatre, the city’s premier off-Broadway theatre dedicated to children and families.
There Morton and the group’s managing producer Nicholas Paine are leading the creation of a stage adaptation of Laser Beak Man, based on the drawings of Australian visual artist Tim Sharp.
They are also working on The Wider Earth in conjunction with Brisbane’s Queensland Theatre Company.
The Harbinger, tonight and tomorrow, The Arts Centre Gold Coast.
puppeteers Emily Burton, Kathleen Iron, Barbara Lowing, Giema Contini and Anna Straker rehearse for their opening night tonight.