BWW Interview: Cirque du Soleil Puppeteers Talk TORUK - THE FIRST FLIGHT
BroadwayWorld spoke to puppeteers Helen Day and Antony Antunes about the show.
Who inspired you growing up?
Antony: I was inspired by physical theatre companies - who, at the time, were laughing the boundaries of theatre. They included DV8, Théâtre de Complicité and Cirque du Soleil. I also adored the puppetry of Jim Henson.
Helen: I was always incredibly inspired by my mum's work ethic. She held down a high-pressured job whilst raising two girls. She definitely inspired me to think that anything is possible, which is hugely helpful as a performer.
What drew you to puppetry?
Helen: I briefly dated a puppeteer and puppet-maker, years ago. He moved on fairly quickly, however he left me a puppet he had made for me. I started to play and experiment with her, and realised that my love for him might have faded, but I was starting a love affair with puppets!
Antony: For me, it started at a young age. Loving the classic puppetry styles (The Muppets, Sesame Street etc.), I became interested in exploring physicality in different ways. Later, I continued exploring this at university.
How did you get involved with Cirque du Soleil?
Helen: I saw a casting call when Cirque du Soleil was specifically looking for puppeteers for the original creation of TORUK - The First Flight. I sent in an application and some video footage, and was invited to a live audition. About three weeks later, I was offered the job!
That was back in 2015. I've worked on this show from the start and am very proud to still be touring with it today.
Antony: I had auditioned as a puppeteer and clown for Cirque du Soleil four years ago, also for the creation of TORUK. I wasn't successful at the time, but I stayed on file and in contact, so my time came eventually!
What can we expect in this new TORUK - The First Flight production?
Antony: TORUK - The First Flight is inspired by James Cameron's epic movie AVATAR. It's a collaboration combining the creative forces of his team and Cirque du Soleil, so it's a unique live multimedia experience.
Helen: Expect to see a very different side of Cirque du Soleil! Our show has a strong storyline, and acrobatics, puppetry and theatre are all combined to tell that story. It's a spectacular piece on a grand scale with projections covering the entire stage.
The show is named after its 'star' - a giant bird/dragon creature feared by all on Pandora, and known as 'the last shadow' because, if you encounter it, its shadow is the last thing you see before you die. Fans of the movie AVATAR will remember that Jake was the sixth 'Toruk Makto' (Toruk rider). Our show tells the story of the first Toruk Makto, hence the name.
Why was AVATAR chosen as the inspiration?
Helen: Cirque du Soleil has long been known for transporting audiences to other worlds. At TORUK, audiences are swept away to the moon Pandora and the beautiful world of the Na'vi. The message behind AVATAR also matches our company ethos. It's a good fit.
Antony: The world of Pandora is so wide with possibilities; I think the source material is endless. Creating a live show was another way to expand that rich universe. The result is a true collaboration between the creative forces behind AVATAR and Cirque du Soleil.
What characters do you play in the show?
Helen: I operate all of our puppets - namely Viperwolves and Direhorses (both of whom fans will remember from the movie); Austrapedes (created especially for our show, but now part of the Pandora landscape); a gorgeous turtle creature, a turtapede, which we've nicknamed Jeff; and of course the terrifying Toruk!
I also start the show as a Na'vi. I play a member of the Omatikaya clan, and can be seen in an aerial drum and rope sequence.
Antony: The puppeteers on TORUK are known as the spirits of Eywa, the force that connects all living things on Pandora. I puppeteer one of the Viperwolves, who chase and hound the Na'vi; the Austrapedes, who are cute and funny birdlike creatures; and the Toruk itself, a terrifying, nightmare creature.
As puppeteers, we give life to all the creatures of Pandora, but we also give them voice and breath: we wear microphones and make all the sounds of the animals live on stage.
How do you keep the show fresh after all this time?
Helen: The show was created in 2015 and has been open a long time now. We've toured 22 countries and 95 cities so far... However, we're constantly tweaking it to keep it in tip-top shape.
Antony: On top of that, everyone trains regularly throughout the week, to keep up their strength and cardio. Our stage is almost 2,000 square metres and we manipulate large-scale puppets, so being a puppeteer on TORUK is physically demanding!
How much input do you get in the puppetry design process?
Helen: The puppets were elaborated by Patrick Martel, a professional puppet designer from Canada. As we added new creatures to the world of Pandora, it was a long process that started before the puppeteers arrived on the show.
However, we've since made some amendments to the physical, as through use, we have wanted minor modifications so that we can make them look as lifelike as possible. I'm the Artist Coach for puppetry on the show, so have collaborated with our props team and external puppet-makers several times to make these amendments.
Antony: Besides, we're encouraged to keep the moments and characters alive, so we all have input into the characters and choreographies.
Any advice for aspiring performers?
Antony: Practise, train and make as many connections and friends who are in the same field as you as you can.
Helen: Try everything! Don't get bogged down by the idea that you're a specific type of performer before you've even started.
I was totally convinced that I was going to be purely a 'straight' actress, performing Shakespeare. Now, I'm a circus puppeteer touring the world! Be open to different skills and opportunities - you never know where it might lead.
If you had to operate one puppet for the rest of your life, which character would you be?
Helen: Definitely Jeff the turtapede. He's the easiest of our puppets to operate, but also lots of fun.
We basically get into the turtle-like shape and propel him forward with our feet. I think I could manage him well into my old age. The others might be a little difficult in later life.
Antony: For me, it would be the TORUK, for sure!
Why should people come to TORUK?
Helen: I think TORUK is unlike any other touring show that I've heard of. The scale, the projections and the sheer spectacle of the piece all make it an experience not to be missed.
Antony: It's a visual feast of incredible proportions. We have projections larger than five IMAX screens that cover the entire stage and showcase multiple landscapes of Pandora. Add the puppets, the music, the beautiful costumes, and the acrobatics... you get a beautiful show for the whole family.
TORUK - The First Flight at the O2 Arena June 26-30