How do you bring pelicans to life on stage? Peter Wilson knows. Wilson is an acclaimed Australian puppeteer, whose body of work goes back decades – he was a part of the opening ceremonies for the Sydney Olympics Games 2000, and more recently, he has worked on productions like The Red Tree and King Kong. When Sydney Theatre Company and Tom Holloway decided to stage a production of the classic Australian story Storm Boy, about a boy who nurses three young pelicans to health after their mother is killed, they knew that puppet master Wilson was the man to call.
Wilson knew he was up for a challenge, and spent a long time researching pelicans before commencing his own work on the show. “You see pelicans around from time to time, at the beach and places like that, but I wasn’t overly familiar with them,” he says. “I therefore needed to spend a lot of time preparing for Storm Boy. I found footage of pelicans and watched as much as I could, studying the ways they move and interact. The thing is, you’re not putting a real pelican on stage, you’re making a puppet, so you need to find the most intrinsic and recognisable qualities of a pelican to bring it to life. You need the audience to say ‘aahhh, that’s a pelican.’”
In his research, Wilson decided there are three key characteristics that make a pelican into a pelican. “There are three things we admire when we look at these birds,” he says. “First of all, there are the beautiful feet. Secondly, there’s the huge wingspan, and the fact that those wings can expand out so widely and then fold back into themselves. Then you have the long, graceful neck that leads to the lovely snapping bill, the big gullet. They’re the three things we really decided were intrinsic to the pelican, so we emphasised all of those things on the puppets. All these elements on the puppets are workable, and all work together to emphasise the humour and the playfulness of the birds.”
There are three key pelican characters in the show – Mr Ponder, Mr Proud, and the leader of the gang, Mr Percival. Each has his own unique characteristics, but as the main pelican, Wilson knew that Mr Percival’s intelligence was the main quality that needed to shine through. “He’s a very intelligent character,” he says, “and there’s also an empathy and a warmth there. Ultimately, you need the audience to fall in love with the character. You can see Mr Percival’s thought processes as he moves around – the mind is always the thing I look for when I work with a puppet. It’s important that people warm to Mr Percival, and know that he’s real.”
The menagerie of Storm Boy includes not just pelicans, but also penguins, and even a snake. It’s a lot of creatures for Wilson and his team to bring to life, and also quite a challenge for the human cast of Storm Boy, who themselves have not had any kind of extensive experience working around puppets. “It took people a little bit of time to get used to the idea,” he says, “but we got there. The rule is that you never look at the puppeteer, you only look at the puppets, and that’s the main thing we’ve taught all the actors. Their relationship is with the pelican, or with the penguin, not the person. The puppeteer is the giver of life, and the creature in question is the primary focus.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN