CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Director Tom Morris uses the phrase “happy accident” to describe the success of his Tony-award-winning play War Horse, whose central character was a puppet.
“At the time, it seemed like a really crazy experiment to invite in an audience and put basically a nonspeaking puppet in the middle of an epic adventure,” said Morris, who is artistic director for Bristol Old Vic, the longest continuously operating theater in the United Kingdom.
Morris now has another puppet-based creation making its American debut at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA. The new production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream features live actors manipulating puppets of everything from birds and masks to disembodied limbs.
As he did with War Horse, Morris is collaborating with the South African-based Handspring Puppet Company to produce the new version of the traditional Shakespearean play.
The director isn’t completely surprised by the appeal puppets have for theatergoers.
“We are all instinctive puppeteers. A bit of us understands that,” he told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “If you put a puppet on the stage and the audience wants to hear the story and follow the story, the audience will imagine the puppet is alive.”
But that’s not necessarily easier for the director, he added.
“The bigger the scale of the imaginative investment, the more you need to take care of it, in a way,” Morris said. “There is a risk, because there could come a moment when anyone in the audience could say, ‘Hang on. That’s not a boat, it’s just a bundle of wood,’ or ‘That’s not a horse.’ ”
Morris worked with Handspring’s puppet designers Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones in developing the show, which came together differently than War Horse.
In War Horse, the challenge was merely to create a horse that everyone would believe was alive, while in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the designers need to create objects that reflect abstract concepts such as changes of heart and pretentions.
“It was a case of saying to Adrian, ‘Here is this profound text. Show me your response — show me your sketchbook,’ ” Morris said. Those sketches led to puppets representing everything from scorpions to Greek masks and birds.
Casting the play was a complex process, the director noted.
“The actors need to be able to deal with text, they need to be able to deal with music and all of them are puppeteers,” he said. “You are not only casting the role, you are casting the aptitude for learning physical puppetry.”
Nigel Redden, Spoleto Festival’s general director, said the production has exceeded his expectations.
“Puppets and actors work seamlessly together to bring life to the puppets and expand the emotional and physical possibilities of the actors,” he said.
Morris, who had not really worked with puppets before War Horse, expects they will find their way into future Bristol Old Vic productions.
“My understanding of what puppets can do was completely transformed by working with Handspring,” he said.
The Spoleto Festival USA opened May 24 and continues through June 9. The festival was founded in Charleston in 1977 by the late composer Gian Carlo Menotti as a companion to his festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy. This year’s schedule calls for 160 performances and a final concert on June 9 by the Red Stick Ramblers – a Cajun, honky-tonk and swing ensemble. The festival’s shows are followed by fireworks. Information: spoletousa.org/home/.