a photograph of puppeteers on the stage at the barbican.
Photo credits: 363958. Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC, with Nippon TV. Features members of My Neighbour Totoro company.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘spell-bind’ as a word which means to ‘fascinate’ or ‘enchant’, first noted by Robert Southey with the implications of physically fixing a person in place by some kind of sorcery. There is no better word to describe the Royal Shakespeare Company’s play My Neighbour Totoro. Appropriately dubbed ‘dazzling’ by The Guardian, ‘awe-inspiring’ by Time Out and ‘enormously beguiling’ by The Stage, this show is also the recipient of six Oliviers and five WhatsOnStage awards. It is extraordinary because it is a visually astounding show, but also because it recreates the thrill and warmth of childhood. This is a show not to be missed, by Studio Ghibli fans and newcomers alike. Bright Ong, a puppeteer on the show, shared the magic of the play and his own experiences as a performer with me in the following interview.

What is your favourite scene in the play?

That’s a very difficult question, as there are so many to choose from! One scene that cracks me up is the scene where Kanta has a “conversation” with his chickens. The play between human and puppet in that scene is just hilarious, and it creates this beautiful sense of naïveté that the show does so well. Another one of my favourite bits is the opening scene where the family arrives at their new house, and the string players begin to play in pizzicato. It is a joy to behold these fantastic musicians do their thing!

Photo credits: 363963. Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC, with Nippon TV. Features Ka Long Kelvin Chan as ‘Kanta’ and members of the My Neighbour Totoro company.

What are some parts of puppeteering we would find surprising?

There are so many things that go into puppetry and puppeteering that people often won’t see. Aside from the discipline and work that goes into the craft, I think one of the more surprising things about the artform is this sense of “letting go” that needs to happen when you’re puppeteering an object. While there’s a large amount of intricacy and sensitivity in our control, learning to listen to and flow with the puppet is key to a harmonious performance. What makes it look easy and smooth is the puppeteers “letting go” of their own will, and letting the puppet take over. I find it interesting how audiences will often blank out puppeteers in a live performance. Though the performer is visible on stage, it’s always satisfying to hear how people un-see the puppeteer and focus solely on the puppet. Of course, this only happens when we do our job well!

What first brought you to puppetry?

I’ve always found a great joy in watching puppets in performance, be it for screen or theatre. I was lucky enough in my early years as a professional performer to have met the right people at the right time. It wasn’t until 2017 that I took the plunge and started developing my craft seriously. Lecturing, researching, attending festivals worldwide, making, building, devising, directing, and the whole lot! Puppetry is such a magical artform which allows us to tell such impactful stories. The puppet is such an “innocent” and truthful object, that I feel a human actor cannot quite compete against it. It allows us to warp physics, time, and reality. It has such a powerful quality of being uncanny. Even now, just over a decade into my career, I’m still finding the joy of discovery in the philosophy of my practice in puppetry.

Is there a specific routine you follow to get ready?

Like every performer, we all have our own ways of getting ready for a performance. Puppetry is such an “unnatural sport” (a quote from one of my mentors; we do have to do some very odd things with our bodies in puppetry mind you!) and so I change up the preparation process for every different show. No two puppets are the same, and neither are two shows when there’s a puppet involved!

There was one show in particular where I had to train a specific set of muscles in my lower body to withstand the duration of the performance. It always took people by surprise that it was my lower rather than upper body that managed the bulk of the manoeuvring. In other shows, finger dexterity and strength were a priority in the preparation, and it involved a fair bit of proprioception activation as a warm up.

In some instances, alongside the specific warm ups, I’d have to do vocal exercises if my puppet character was singing. By and large, a lot of focus goes into sharpening my sensitivities towards my puppet, particularly in expanding my peripheral vision. Being hyper aware of your surroundings is key in giving the most convincing performance.

Is the way you puppeteer generally the same or do you mix it up every once in a while? How do you bring emotion into puppets?

This is a whole thesis statement, and I believe every puppeteer has a different approach.

Personally, I find myself changing my approach every performance. The puppets and actors are tools to tell the story and so serve its vision. This calls for different approaches every time. To paraphrase a quote from Mervyn Millar, (Puppetry Associate on My Neighbour Totoro) the saying “that’s how we used to do it” has very little mileage in creating new work. What works for one production may not work for another, as there are entirely new sets of realities and possibilities in each show.

It does take a lot of bravery to stray from what is tried and tested, but it is exactly this that helps us discover better ways of creating worlds in a performance. Sticking to old recipes and trying to force it upon a new project is often very limiting.

As for bringing emotion into puppets, I personally believe that is the audience’s job. Watching a puppet on stage is a three-way conversation that happens in real time. Our job as puppeteers is to gently guide the audiences into the world of the puppet. But ultimately the audiences are the ones who have to determine what the puppet is feeling for themselves. Puppets struggle to truly live, and actors struggle to truly die. Puppets don’t have the same micro-expressions human actors employ. And we are so intuitive with searching for signs of life, i.e. breath, thought, will, etc. The conversation happens in that circumstance. You then have to learn this new language and the “rules” of the puppet’s world. Puppetry relies on an audience that is willing to partake in suspending disbelief and diving into its world. Even differentiating actions like looking versus seeing, or hearing versus listening, change the emotions the audience perceives the puppet has. It is a team effort between performer, puppet, and audience that gives a puppet its emotions.

When did you first begin to puppeteer? How has the process been?

You probably did this the same time I did, and that was when we were kids, playing with toys! Puppetry as a profession is pretty much the same sort of play that we did as children. We treat an inanimate thing with empathy and imbue it with character and life. Funnily enough, like in our childhood, we too are told to treat our toys nicely, and keep them away once we are done!

I was quite lucky that I did a variety of theatre work very early on in my career. I had the fortune of learning on jobs which coincidentally had various types of puppets I could learn from. Of course having the mentors I’ve had in different fields has made the experience well-rounded. It is a never-ending process, to be honest, as you’re constantly trying to discover new things. Now, with new tech available, I’m gearing up for endless possibilities with the work.

Photo credits: 363994. Photo by Manuel Harlan © RSC, with Nippon TV. Features Ami Okumura Jones as ‘Satsuki’, Ai Ninomiya as ‘the Singer’, and members of the My Neighbour Totoro company.

What are some interesting technical aspects of puppeteering in Totoro?

One of the most interesting things I love about the puppeteering in My Neighbour Totoro, is, ironically, the technical simplicity of the puppets. They really require everyone to be in sync and in tune with each other.

There’s a level of attention to detail and discipline needed to do even the simplest move. In my humble opinion, that’s what really separates a good performance from an excellent one

The simpler the puppet, the more it requires the puppeteers to work harder to give them the “feel”. This is because they only have us to implement a sense of life in them and not rely on technical mechanisms.

How was your first day on Totoro?

Amazing! So many fresh faces and new names in the company. I remember being

flabbergasted at the number of people there were in the room: from the acting company, to the crew and creatives, to the management team. It was awe inspiring to see how many people it took to bring this behemoth of a show to life.

Personally, it was a special moment for me as it was my second job here in the UK. I only landed in January 2023, and it was, of course, a little bit surreal that I had the immense privilege of working with some wonderful people whom I looked up to. The returning company was so welcoming, and everyone has been brilliant to work with. I think I’m still pinching myself!

How would you describe the experience of Totoro?

It’s hard to say what the experience of watching the show is, as I’ve never watched it myself. From what I can see in the wings, when I’m not under or in a puppet, is that it is a show that is full of heart and magic. When I do get glimpses of the audiences sometimes, it is a precious and lovely feeling to see the look on their faces. The gasps of wonder and cries of joy are immeasurable!

It’s also nice to chat to the people who have come for the show. Whether young or old, they all comment on the magic and spirit of the show. I guess the only way to verify that is to come see it for yourself!

My Neighbour Totoro plays at the Barbican until 23 March.