The fantasy maker

Bringing his life-sized puppets to this year's Israel Festival, Neville Tranter says his art form isn't just for kids.

Neville Tranter 88 298 (photo credit: )
Neville Tranter 88 298
(photo credit: )
With no hint of irony at all, puppeteer Neville Tranter says that "puppets have helped me become a better actor. They can portray every aspect of the human soul from innocence to evil. And they can do this with an incredible honesty..." This comes from a man who makes near life-size puppets, writes and speaks their texts and manipulates them on stage to the delight of audiences and the acclaim of critics all over the world. Tranter, 52, the founder and only member of Stuffed Puppet Theater, is making his local debut at this year's Israel Festival with Vampyr (2006). It's a tale of a father and his ailing teenage daughter who come to a very strange campsite run by a 373-year-old vampire and his uppity son, who's a mere 316. "'Vampyr' is my first fairytale," says Tranter. "It is my most poetical piece and I thank my writer Jan Veldman for helping me create a place where every character has a completely different view of life, and yet they have to live or die with each other. Horror and humor, hand in hand." Kiddie stuff? No way. Tranter makes puppetry for adults. "Vampyr" explores the world of teenagers and their parents. It was created in response to the very positive reaction from young people to "Vampyr"'s equally humorous-horrific predecessor, "Schickelgruber: Alias Adolf Hitler" (2003) - a subject that "a lot of young people didn't know much about." The decision to make puppet theater for adults was taken early in his career. Tranter grew up at Mt. Colliery in Queensland, Australia where his father was a coal-miner. After high-school Tranter decided to become a teacher and started going to drama classes in the evening at the same college in Toowoomba. "My teacher was Robert Gist, an American actor and film director. It was because of him that I decided to become an actor instead of a teacher." Tranter studied with Gist for four years. It was in his second year that "I saw my first live puppet show...discovered puppets and their world of fantasy, and I knew immediately that I would work with puppets." His first professional gig was the midnight show at a Melbourne nightclub where he had to gain the attention of the mostly drunk clubbers. There, according to a German language piece about him, Tranter learned to evaluate audience reaction and take it seriously. Then in 1978, he and Stuffed Puppet came to Amsterdam's famous Festival of Fools "together with an Australian cabaret group that had been invited for the second time. The reactions to the puppets were so enthusiastic that I decided to stay. I felt at home in Europe and because I only wanted to perform for adults, I didn't have to travel far to find an audience. In Australia that was a problem." He settled in Amsterdam, where he still lives, and recreated Stuffed Puppet there. His first solo piece was "Studies in Fantasy" in 1981. It was compiled of short pieces, including a five minute sketch concerning a marionette clown who couldn't decide between a blue or a red rose. It was also around then he decided on life-size puppets "because they are the most direct kind of puppet to communicate with an audience," and most practically, "because I want people sitting in the 10th row also to see the puppets clearly." Since that time he has created 13 productions. Three are always in repertory, the newest replacing the oldest. Every new piece "has to be a challenge: as an actor, a puppeteer and a theater-maker. I always begin with an idea or an image. Then I choose which characters are necessary to tell the story. Then I make the puppets...which are also the scenery. My role is generally the last I work on." As well as doing theater, Tranter also gives workshops (he'll do one here) all over the world and this year will direct his first opera. But the bottom line is theater, and theater "means drama and drama means conflict." The puppets' honesty that Tranter speaks of so simply, he "has always admired and believed in. They can portray human fears and dreams in a way a real actor cannot do. That's why I have always felt obliged to go to the edge with my puppets, but I always knew I was making theater." The Stuffed Puppet Theater will appear at Sherhover Theater in Jerusalem on June 7 at 8p.m. and at the Holon Theater on June 8, at 8 p.m. For tickets and further information on this show and the Israel Festival, go to or call 1-700-702-015.