Matthew Forbes is the puppetry director on Babe, The Sheep-Pig, which is here in Norwich this April. He chats about how he got into puppetry, and how the animals of Hogget’s Farm are brought to life in this new stage production.
How did you get into puppetry directing?
I trained as an Actor at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, specialising in Collaborative and Devised Theatre. This still had all of the elements of a classical actors training, but with a focus on more contemporary styles of theatre. Inspired by companies such as Complicite, DV8, Punchdrunk and Blind Summit, the course gave me a huge insight into a more visual approach to theatre making. I think this training helped me secure a place in the National Theatre’s smash hit; War Horse. I performed in London’s West End for three years, totalling over 1000 performances. Bringing those puppets to life every day was a huge learning curve and gave me an incredible practical puppetry training, very much learning on the job. After leaving the performing company, I was asked by the National Theatre to join the creative team for the show, and was given the responsibility of looking after the puppetry on touring and international productions of the show… the rest they say, is history.
You have spent a huge part of your career working on War Horse. What do you think is special about the puppetry in the show?
The horses in War Horse are arguably some of the most famous puppets in the world. Joey is the star and he’s been all over the world, met more celebrities, heads of state and members of the Royal family than some of the biggest Hollywood stars. The puppetry in the show tells an incredible story and it’s all thanks to Handspring Puppet Company, the South African team who created and built the puppets. During rehearsals we get the performers to think like horses- I think that’s what makes them so special- the puppets look so life-like without moving them, the difficult job is to make sure that they think and respond like horses. As a nation we have a huge infinity with animals and so can spot when the puppet is being truthful and horse-like. People’s eyes are always drawn to the horses and so even the smallest ear flick, breath, or tail swish brings life and makes us believe they are alive.
What types of puppetry can we expect in Babe, The Sheep-Pig? Which characters are brought to life using puppets?
The puppets in Babe are fantastic! They’ve been beautifully designing by Max Humphries and Dik Downey; Max has been working with Cirque du Soleil and we’ve worked closely together on several shows before. The performers do an incredible job of bringing a farmyard of puppets to life. Each life-size puppet is wonderfully unique and requires a different amount of puppeteers to bring them to life. Babe, our Hero, is a fully articulated puppet; he blinks, walks, talks and even wiggles his snout! He totally steals the hearts of our audience, he’s adorable and brought to life by the entire company. Oliver Grant is the core puppeteer of Babe, he is responsible for the characterisation and voice of our piglet, but he works closely with a revolving team of supporting puppeteers who all provide so much detailed work. That pink pig really comes to life before your eyes! Babe is joined on the farm by Ma; an adorable older sheep, three cheeky Puppies, a cunning Cat, a very opinionated Cockerel, three daft Ducks and a scary Worrier Dog- who Babe bravely stands up to! Our incredibly talented cast of actors, musicians, and puppeteers bring all of the puppets in the show to life; singing, dancing and telling Babe’s story.
How do you go about training actors to work with puppets? What are the challenges?
Puppetry is a very ego-less and selfless style of performance. As an actor on stage you normally want people to look at you, but when you’re puppeteering you don’t want them to look at you- you want them to look at the object in your hands. One of the biggest challenges is to therefore get our puppeteers to disappear. We don’t hide them behind a screen, they’re always visible, but the attention and focus they give to the puppet directs the audiences eye to the puppets, so the puppeteer in effect vanishes in to the background, and we watch the puppet. This can take a long time to master, but our wonderful cast make it look easy. Some of the puppets in Babe require two or three puppeteers to bring them to life. Getting actors to work as a team to bring a single character to life can sometimes be a challenge- the last thing you want is the head going in the opposite direction to the tail!
Why should families come and see Babe, The Sheep-Pig?
The show is truly magical, the puppets are beautiful and the cast are incredibly talented! Watching Babe struggle and overcome the challenges that are thrown his way is really inspiring. Our little pig has big dreams; he wants to be a sheep-dog! He’s told he can’t be, but he perseveres, keeps trying and doesn’t give up. That is an important morale that we should all remember; when we put our minds to it and try, we can do anything! Children and adults will be sat on the edge of their seats, following Babe’s journey, willing him on to succeed. The show has original songs and music, it’s funny, will make you laugh and cry, you’ll get completely immersed in the story and you’ll find yourself shouting out and joining in. Everyone is welcome at the Hogget’s farm and you can’t help but leave with a smile!
Babe, The Sheep-Pig is here in Norwich on the 16 & 17 April, and tickets are available now.