Step into the Jim Henson Company’s Los Angeles office and a gang of doozers from Fraggle Rock greets you at the front desk. Fozzie Bear peers out from a filing cabinet, Sesame Street’s Big Bird poses in a giant rococo frame, and one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things squats on a corner cabinet, hairs sprouting from his nose.
But among these American puppet idols hanging around the workshop of Henson’s company is an ornament that will delight fans of Japan’s Studio Ghibli. It is the prowling catbus from its 1988 animated film fantasy My Neighbor Totoro. For the uninitiated, that’s exactly what it sounds like: a bus with fluffed-up tail, furry seats and headlight eyes that speeds on to the screen, breaking into a Cheshire grin and giving a wild miaow.
That must be one of the most anticipated moments in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming London stage adaptation, which last month broke the Barbican’s box-office record for sales in one day. Tickets got even hotter when it was announced that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would be making the puppets. The show’s goaled American puppet master, Basil Twist, relishes the challenge. “I’m glad people call on me to say, ‘How are we going to do this?’” He laughs before jokily inserting his fist into his mouth.
I’m here to meet some of the Totoro team but, this being the new normal of theatre-making, Twist has Covid so join us via laptop. The Creature Shop’s creative supervisor, Peter Brooke, and fabrication supervisor, Scott Johnson, let me rummage through the space where catbus and co will be realized for the stage. There’s one room for mold-making, sculpting and mechanics; another for foam and fabric – the basic materials that made Henson’s superstar Muppets. All around are animatronic contraptions – Brooke and I work the handles of one device to bring a puppet tentacle to startling life. Cables, laptops and a 3D printer are cheek by jowl with glue pots, scissors and brushes, echoing the mix of handmade and digital production techniques used at Ghibli HQ.
Although best known for TV and film projects, the Creature Shop has long collaborated on stage productions and will next year bring Henson’s The Dark Crystal to the Royal Opera House, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Totoro’s puppets are still shrouded in secrecy but Twist feels it’s important to present the magical scenes from a child’s perspective. In the film, sisters Mei and Satsuki move to the countryside with their father while their mother is convalescing. There they discover a world of soot sprites and the whiskered, cuddly forest spirit Totoro, who we first see through Mei’s eyes. The play’s puppetry won’t be confined to the creatures but will inform the whole set design: even the family’s ramshackle house is a puppet.
Joe Hisaishi – who composed the wistful and bewitching music for the movie, which includes an irresistibly upbeat opener (“Hey, let’s go! Hey, let’s go!”) – has been given the blessing of the film’s director Hayao Miyazaki to take the reins of this international collaboration. His music will be played by a band on stage, not hidden in a pit. Totoro’s stage director, Phelim McDermott, says that when he first asked Hisaishi who he had in mind for the puppetry, he expected him to suggest a veteran Japanese master of the bunraku art form. But Hisaishi nominated Twist, an old friend of McDermott’s. Early on, Twist made some Totoro prototypes “out of very humble materials” to show the production’s Japanese partners. “And they got it – not in spite of the humbleness of the materials but because of it,” says Twist.
Twist, who studied puppetry traditions in Japan, stresses the tranquil and elliptical nature of Totoro’s storytelling, which contrasts with the more plot-driven western animation style for young audiences. “The first scene where we see Totoro, he’s basically asleep,” says Twist. “He doesn’t even do very much.” There’s a challenge in bringing the film’s meditative pace to the huge Barbican theatre. “It has this mysterious stillness so, for a stage show, it’s like, hmm” – Twist scratches his head like Stan Laurel – “how is that going to work?”
Puppetry, Twist suggests, is about “something mysteriously coming to life” so is intrinsically connected to Japan’s Shinto tradition, which recognizes the spirits that exist in nature and infuse Totoro’s tale. Mei and Satsuki’s dad talks of a time when trees and people were once friends. It is only the children who can see Totoro and have that special connection to nature. That’s a resonant message amid our climate crisis, although McDermott stresses that the film is never didactic.
Twist is known for productions that employ natural elements for their effects. In Symphonie Fantastique, set to Berlioz, fabrics swirled and shimmered in a water tank as if they were sea creatures. Put a piece of fabric in water, he says, “and you really don’t need to do very much and it becomes totally alive. Play a piece of music and it will find itself in the music.” His staging of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was done with billowing silks and smoke. When Alfonso Cuarón brought him in to work on the look of the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Twist created them with fabrics for a flowing effect. “Ultimately they did it all with computers,” he explains, but the happiness-munching monsters’ style came from “screen tests we did with the water and the wind”.
As a child, Twist was obsessed with the Muppets and “totally into Miss Piggy”. A shy student, he would do book reports at school with the assistance of his puppets. People assume he has a stage name – after all it captures the eccentric wonder of his shows – but he really is Basil Twist III, a third-generation puppeteer. His grandfather was a big band leader whose act used marionettes of musical stars including Cab Calloway. When Twist was 10, his grandmother gave him those puppets and it “sealed the deal”. Growing up in San Francisco, he had watched puppet shows put on by his mother and her friends at hospitals and birthday parties. Before long he was making his own shows, casting his younger siblings in roles: “I was always the impresario.”
When Christopher Wheeldon recruited him for his Royal Ballet version of The Winter’s Tale, Twist was tasked with Shakespeare’s famously fiendish stage direction: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” His solution was to have the animal painted on a huge piece of silk whose movement was choreographed with as much care and impact as the dancing. While in London, Twist collaborated with Kate Bush on her Before the Dawn gigs. “It was a big, ambitious project outside of the normal box of how rock concerts or stage productions are performed,” he remembers. His work was entwined with that of magician Paul Kieve. “We ended up being a sort of barometer for how the project might or might not succeed because of the sensitivity of the way magic tricks or puppetry helped guide the entire project.”
The Henson company has similarly built stage puppets for musicians including Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Today’s music acts use sophisticated digital visuals, acknowledges Brooke, but the physical space that puppets take up on a stage is “an effect that digital couldn’t compete with”. What did Kanye’s monster look like? “A big sand-worm dragon,” says Brooke. Is it in their workshop or Kanye’s mansion? Johnson laughs: “He’s got it in his compound out in the desert.”
Mainstream theater has embraced puppetry in a big way. The Lion King and War Horse helped pave the way, and the RSC’s last Christmas family show, The Magician’s Elephant, had an ear-flapping, trunk-swinging delight of a main attraction, controlled by a trio of puppeteers. Earlier this year, however, some eyebrows were raised when the Olivier award for best supporting actor was shared by the team who control the puppet tiger in Life of Pi: one gives the creature a voice, and three pairs of performers each represent its head, heart and hind. Is that acting or puppeteering?
“It’s performance at the end of the day,” says Brooke. “There’s no reason why a horse or a tiger isn’t a member of the cast.” Johnson thinks the award shows that people are finally seeing beyond the technical side of puppetry to appreciate the acting inherent in the art form: “In the past, when you got hired for a film, producers would often be confused about whether they’re hiring acting performers or behind-the-scenes technicians.” Brooke says puppetry in Britain, where he grew up, was always limited to children’s theater and TV whereas in other parts of the world it is recognized as a sophisticated form of adult storytelling.
A really well-made puppet, Twist believes, has performance already built into it – whether it is wooden, sewn or sculpted. A good puppeteer teases those qualities out rather than forcing the object into particular movements. “Frequently in puppetry, we say we are manipulating a puppet,” he says, “but I prefer the sense ‘to animate’. You’re bringing something to life.” Working with the Henson company, he knows the puppets will have that magic built into them. “Then,” he says, giving a catbus grin, “we can let them do their own thing.”
My Neighbor Totoro is at the Barbican, London, 8 October-21 January. Chris Wiegand’s flight to LA was paid for by the production.