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Pachyderms and Puppetry

These Amazing Mega-Puppets Allow Our Old Grey Circus Friends to Return to the Wild

By Marisa Finetti

Imagine being taken back in time to the early 1900s. You’re just eight-years-old, living in Small Town, USA. With heart pounding, you race down to the center of town with anticipation to see where all the commotion is coming from. Down the street come wagons decorated in bright colors, a trumpeting elephant, a majestic lion, prancing horses. It’s one of the most anticipated days of the year. The day the circus comes to town.

The circus has changed since those days, yet still offers the showmanship, edge-of-the-seat suspense and wonder of artists who gather audiences to whisk them to a place away from everyday life. Circus 1903, now performing at Paris Theater inside Paris Las Vegas, captures the golden era of the circus. The producers have teamed up with the award-winning puppeteers from War Horse, to bring a thrilling, turn-of-the-century circus spectacular to the Las Vegas Strip.

Led by a cunning ringmaster, Circus 1903-The Golden Age of Circus’ production features amazing and dangerous circus acts from all over the globe. All the different performances you expect to see, from strong men to contortionists, acrobats to musicians to high wire walkers and an exciting new twist – sensational puppetry that puts elephants back into the ring as never seen before.

After live elephants were phased out of the circus and Ringling Bros. & Barnum & Bailey ended its 146-year run of the Greatest Show on Earth, the solution for Circus 1903 was the creation of two life-size pachyderms. The London-based puppet workshop, Significant Object, created and directed the elephant duo to life with an ensemble of puppeteers. It takes four people to bring mother elephant, Queenie, to life, and one person for her little baby, Peanut.

Luke Chadwick-Jones, who plays Peanut, is alone in his role of the light hearted baby elephant. He says that playing Peanut is physically demanding, as he is always moving swiftly across the stage on all fours, and more specifically, on his toes.

“Mervyn [Millar, director of Significant Object] designed the puppet so it pushes my weight forward to be in the right position because that’s…elephants walk on their toes,” says Chadwick-Jones. “Then, there’s the stamina of Peanut. He’s much quicker and fun.”

To see the elephants for the first time on stage is a moment that requires pause for examination. Their movements are so lifelike, the puppeteers completely convincing in guiding the massive puppet – made of jute and molded silicone - and bringing the mother elephant to life.

Queenie’s puppeteers are divided through the beast’s head, heart, hind, and trunk.

“Puppetry is about connecting with other people and trying to become one vessel,” says puppeteer Jimmy Duncan, who operates Queenie’s head.

The puppeteers trained for weeks before the show, observed anatomical movements on video and established ways in which they can manipulate and operate Queenie in the most convincing way. They say that the synergy outside of the puppet is just as important as when they are inside it.

But how do multiple people move a singular, large puppet and create life-like fluidity? According to the puppeteers, they communicate. But not through words.

“The first thing that brings the puppets to life is our breath,” says Chris Milford. “We stand in the wing and just breathe and that will connect the three of us [operating inside the puppet]. That’s where the sensitivity starts, then you bring connectivity and finding the balance.”

On stage, they demonstrate their movements by first standing in one line. Their breathing is exaggerated, their hands on each other’s shoulders help them to feel the rhythm of their breaths. Almost as if they have shared intuition, they move forward, adopting the elephant’s unique gait, motion and character.

“One of the principals of the training is that we want the puppeteers to be responsive. We want to keep the performance fresh and alive. To get that is not through repetition, it’s to be more sensitive and to understand each,” says designer Mervyn Millar.

Like a chain of signals, even the bigger movements are cued from a single breath. It’s based on trust and what is required to pass the thought, to each other and then to the audience, of what the animal is feeling at the time of the performance.

“We mix it up. And that’s the joy of it all. We discuss, ‘What if she was grumpy tonight?’ Or, ‘What if this time she came on really excited?’ We play with these ideas, discuss, and make choices together,” says Daniel Fanning, who plays Queenie’s hind.

Maria Jose Dominguez and Florian Blummel are also part of the synchrony, working outside of the puppet, acting like a trainer. Even so, they are keyed into manipulating the trunk and carrying forth Queenie’s character.

“They need to be extraordinary technical performers, they need to be good actors and on top of these things they need to share,” says Millar. “They need to be generous to each other and share the character.”

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