Directing puppet opera – an interview with Alex Sutton

Alex Sutton, director of new opera ‘The Crocodile’, which features a large puppet beast as its star, discusses the intricacies of bringing puppetry and opera together in preparation for the Tête à Tête festival.

Have you worked with puppets before?

I had some involvement with 'War Horse' in about 2006, during the final stage development workshops but from a musical, rather than a puppetry perspective. I ended up working with Finn Caldwell (associate puppetry director of 'War Horse') – we started using prototypes of Joey (the lead horse character) and it was through that connection I learned about the nature of puppetry through performance.

I was observing and learning about puppetry and, in my own work, I was using puppetry elements as a way of creating theatrical worlds without it having to be too literal – this is a real interest of mine. ‘The Crocodile’ is a different sort of piece – it’s quite surreal, so discovering what sort of puppetry and puppeteers would suit it has been a real focal point for me.

Why do puppetry and opera work so well together?

I have worked at the Barbican Pit Theatre Lab, investigating the working practices of singers, actors and dancers and preconceptions that each discipline has about the others, trying to find a mutual ground where everything can work. The physical, non-vocal work tends to be the element that holds everything together and object manipulation, being a physical activity, is something singers, actors and dancers all gravitate towards. So, in terms of bonding an ensemble for an opera, the use of puppetry has, on a directorial level, been a fascinating process.

‘The Crocodile’ is based on a short story by Fyodor Dostoyevksy, in which a man called Ivan is eaten by a crocodile yet remains alive inside the belly of the beast. How have you built on this absurd subject matter?

The way Llywelyn ap Myrddin (composer) has written it and adapted it from the book, a lot of the characters go insane. The opera is set against two polar boundaries of normalness and non-normalness, or insanity and reality. We are creating a real world with singers in period costume – a rational world for the characters, where the logic of their world works perfectly well, but then the crocodile comes along and totally trashes this balance and the absurdity of it all makes the characters go mad.

It would be brilliant to have a real crocodile but this would be too real! I don’t think that’s what the crocodile itself represents at all, it had to be something playful, yet something that could invade this normal world and make it absurd. The absurdity comes from the crocodile itself.

Why is it important for the crocodile to be represented through puppetry?

The play is set in St. Petersburg in the late 19th or early 20th century. Consider the base desires and regressions of this very cultured Russian society, which was pre-revolutionary and very rich, then suddenly you’ve got this absurd beast that comes into people’s lives, shaking up normality. For me, using puppetry to represent an entirely different reality became an important factor of the piece. It has been important for me that the crocodile is a puppet so we can create an entirely new world, juxtaposed against this more normal, human one.

In communicating ideas with Roger and Julie Lade (designers of the crocodile puppet), what were the most important considerations for you?

We went back to consider childish conceptions of what a crocodile is. To begin, we thought it would be a 9ft long crazy beast but it’s ended up looking handmade and ritualistic. We started with the head being the most important part of it because functionally, it must somehow eat Ivan live on stage, but I also wanted it to adopt human characteristics, as if the man inside had started to become as one with the crocodile. So, instead of it just being a crocodile on the floor snapping at people, it could stand on its hind legs and walk around and engage in conversations with the actors.

After being eaten by the crocodile, Ivan sings from inside it. The question was, would he be offstage singing into a microphone or does the sound come from the crocodile itself? So we came up with the idea that he could be contained in a ‘croc box’ – on a green sofa, contained by black, but he is onstage and visible the whole time. The crocodile is free to interact with people but you are also aware of Ivan as a character stuck inside him – Ivan has monologues and scenes with himself as part of the show.

What influenced the team’s ideas when choosing materials for the crocodile puppet?

We were drawn to natural materials. It was more about wood bark and trees as this is totally against the contrived culture in which the opera is set – it’s against bustles and crinoline and crafted jewels and diamonds – against that kind of artistry. What we have ended up with is something that is very recognisably a crocodile but with tribal influences to take it back to pre-western culture. We wanted to create this juxtaposition.

The designer Benjamin Gerlis and I were discussing how we could make it more crocodilian. He found this really exciting West African tribal printed fabric and we have used this to give it a more African feel because through the process of analysing the text, we discovered it is an Egyptian crocodile.

We have also looked at references such as 1980s late American pop art, where the idea of commercialism, conspicuous consumption and high capitalism can be found – themes that are important in ‘The Crocodile’. The crocodile puppet itself is scary yet beautiful and quite playful!

What have been the greatest challenges when working with this puppet?

What I’ve found is that, although I was fairly aware of the time and effort it takes to devise a puppet for production, it’s actually a far more involved process than I initially thought and trying to find the time to experiment with the form is so important. Tiny changes to a puppet, even just to the thickness of the fabric used, can entirely change the character of the entire thing, probably more so than similar changes for a set design or a costume element.

‘The Crocodile’ will be performed as part of the Tête à Tête opera festival – why do you think this festival is an important showcase?

Tête à Tête features a huge amount of creative energy, allowing participants to experiment in the same way they would with a new play. I sometimes feel that a lot of opera forgets to be fun but this is one of the reasons I am directing ‘The Crocodile’ – because it is fun and light-hearted. Some people think this is a dirty thing for opera to be.

There are also some groups within the arts community who hate to think of themselves as entertainers rather than artists and they see entertainment as not being art – this is something I battle with a lot because much of what I do is comedy. I feel this [art/entertainment divide] alienates a lot of people who might otherwise come and watch your production and enjoy it. Tête à Tête is special because it’s open to all kinds of new work, without prejudice.


'The Crocodile', an opera by Llywelyn ap Myrddin, plays at the Riverside Studios on the 15 and 16 August.


"Although I was fairly aware of the time and effort it takes to devise a puppet for production, it’s actually a far more involved process than I initially thought... Tiny changes to a puppet, even just to the thickness of the fabric used, can change the character of the entire thing"

Additional Info

'The Crocodile', an opera by Llywelyn ap Myrddin, plays at the Riverside Studios on the 15 and 16 August as part of the Tête à Tête festival.