Based in the Midlands, Leviathan Workshop are a company of exceptional prop makers and puppet specialists who have worked on commissions for television, live events and theatre. We chatted with Managing Director, Jake Linzey, to find out how the company got started and some of the fabulous fabrication they’ve produced.
Leviathan Workshop produces puppets and props for a range of organisations worldwide. How did you get started? What sparked your personal interest in fabrication?
Puppets have always been an obsession of mine and my parents still have a photo of me taped to the fridge (aged 7 or 8) with a puppet I’d proudly made from newspaper. As a teenager, I always preferred to be in theatre rather than in class, and so I trained as a dancer before progressing to technical theatre as a part of Oxford Youth Theatre at Pegasus Theatre.
I always preferred “learning by doing” rather than academic study, and my days working as a circus performer taught me invaluable skills like load calculation and applied physics. At that age, I always thought I wanted to work in the film industry, but soon came to learn that I far preferred the immediacy of live events and touring shows.
I studied Theatre Design and Production at Trinity College Carmarthen, where I now return as a guest lecturer to teach the fundamentals of puppetry and puppeteering. Whilst a student there, my passion for puppets really came to life and I knew this was what I wanted to do for a living. After three years of studying, I was very ready to get into the “real world” and began working for Blunderbus Theatre Company (sadly now closed). This was fantastic for my professional development, as the environment encouraged creative thought and no idea or suggestion was ever wrong. I could experiment (occasionally making the odd mistake) to find new solutions to problems and work autonomously in a place always filled with laughter, despite the usual long industry hours and creative challenges. Bill Davies made it a place that was a joy to work, and I stayed with them until I was in charge of puppet mechanics and scenic construction.
After that, I settled in London doing some fantastic projects as a freelancer, working on events and shows like X-Factor, and alongside I ran a small puppet and theatre company. Life had its ups and downs but the list of clients I was working for grew and I was often subcontracted to do large puppet builds. After a few years, I took a full-time job at an opera company but after a few months I realised I was psychologically becoming ready to be my own boss full-time. With my severance pay, I brought a load more tools and set up Leviathan Workshop in a single garage. That was back in October 2013. My dream for the company was always to focus on creating high-end, bespoke, large-scale props and puppets as we do now, although for the first few years we also built scenery and sets to help expand our client list and establish our professional identity.
After a year or so of trading, I moved the company to Tamworth for a much larger workshop. Here, I met my business partner Carrie- Anne Badhams, who after working with us for a year became a director of the company in May 2016. She brought with her a wealth of sales and management knowledge and, despite not being originally from this industry, is a very talented scenic painter. Our differing backgrounds and working styles are a real strength and we work exceptionally well together. We have a balanced, creative, realistic outlook of our work and the future of the company. In the last few years we’ve gone from strength to strength, developing a fantastic team and amazing clients, and our journey is proof that if you’re willing to work incredibly hard for your passion, you can achieve anything.
You often produce large scale puppets for stage and other events. What has been the most memorable puppet build so far?
The one that always stands out for me is the Brit Awards in 2017, it created a fantastic working relationship with one of the worlds biggest pop stars. I was away from the workshop late one Sunday afternoon at my parent’s house in Oxford. Carrie-Anne was in the office when a peer from Brilliant Stages called out of the blue. They had a huge problem with two large puppets and we were asked if we could help to fix the puppets, which of course, we were more than happy to do. The problem was that we only had a little over twelve hours to make it happen, the puppets were in London, and we had no idea what technical issues we were up against. It was one of those “drop everything” moments.
After a swift phone conversation between myself and Carrie-Anne (our conversational shorthand is beyond efficient), we kicked into action. I packed up my tools and set off to 3 Mills Studio in London to pay a diagnostic visit to the puppets. Meanwhile, Carrie-Anne began organising an emergency overnight crew. An enormous volume of people were contacted; our regular staff, people they recommended, new applicants to work for us, anyone who might have the technical skills to help. At this point, we still had no idea what we were up against, so it really was a case of “all hands on deck”. People came from as close as Birmingham to as far away as Cardiff – all with backgrounds in puppetry but with hugely varied skill sets. I arrived at the studio and assessed the puppets. They were over four metres tall, designed to be worn on the back of the puppeteers, and they weighed probably close to 100kg each. Problem identified. Whilst chatting with the Production Manager, Jay Schmidt, I casually enquired who the music artist was. Jay looked at me like I was bonkers and replied “Katy Perry”, to which I rather stupidly responded “Oh! I know who she is!”… as though that was some unexpected feat.
Whilst me and the huge skeleton puppets were on our way from London to Tamworth, our crew were travelling to the workshop, and Carrie-Anne was frantically clearing enough room for us to work (we had another job ongoing) and ensuring we’re fully stocked with caffeine, sugary drinks and snacks for the night ahead. Within a few minutes of one another, everyone and the puppets arrived, and we worked out the “plan of attack”. Our goal was to strip as much weight as physically possible from the puppets and completely rebuild them in less than twelve hours. And less than twelve hours later, the workshop was strewn with removed aluminium, polystyrene and PU coating…and we’d done it! The puppets now weighed less than 30kg, and were comfortable to wear and moved beautifully. There was certainly a case of the giggles as they were loaded back into the van, and very much a sense of “did that just really happen?”
But, it didn’t end there. I went to the O2 to help with rehearsals as a puppetry consultant, grabbing a couple of hours sleep on the way. After sending the overnight crew home, Carrie-Anne and a fresh member of staff tackled the ongoing job in the workshop which had a deadline of the very next day. Supervising the rehearsals, working with the puppeteers, and the performance at the O2 went smoothly, and it was great to work with such an incredible team. The performance was four minutes long, and I knew the workshop team would be glued to the screen at home, cheering it on. It was a massive team effort, and a testimony of what can be achieved if you have the knowledge, technical ability, and an infallible work ethic.
To this day we still have a fantastic relationship with Katy Perry’s entire production team and have worked with them on several more projects. I couldn’t be prouder of the work we did as a team that night. And what happened to the puppets? They live on and have been touring around the world on Katy Perry’s The Witness tour.
What’s next for Leviathan Workshop?
Whilst I can’t talk about specifics, there are a lot of things on the in the pipeline. What I can tell you, at the time of writing, is that we are currently in communications about this year’s Brit Awards, work on cruise ships, holiday parks, shopping centres, large-scale live events, and exhibitions. Some of those will happen, some of them won’t, but it’s always nice to be asked to the party. In terms of going forward as a company we are always looking for ways to create better puppets that perform better and can be operated better.
We don’t believe in doing things the same way every time, as we strive for constant improvement with everything we do. Last year projects included a full-size elephant for P&O, giants, animatronic cow costumes, Cadbury commercials, and “dead” bodies for The Lieutenant of Inishmore West End show. I love how varied our work is. We’ve just completed work for Butlins which spanned multiple and varied items: everything from Punch and Judy puppets to 4-metre-long dragon puppets. The dragons are a real source of pride for me and the team. They’re based on a bespoke puppet rig we have been improving and perfecting for a few years. The boom system is great and allows incredibly dynamic and responsive puppetry. Since we knew we had weight limits and didn’t want to lose any detail in the sculpture of the dragon heads, we created our own method of crafting them from carbon fibre. The heads are unbelievably light, being 9ft front to back and only weighing 5kg – I can lift the skin with one arm!
I feel incredibly lucky to do what I do, I have a fantastic business partner who keeps impressing me, and a team who really love what we do, be it sculpting, or foam fabrication, or mechanics. Every job comes with new, unique challenges and opportunities to redefine how puppets are created and operated the world over. We’ll keep investing our time in new techniques and materials, so who knows how big the puppets will get or where they’ll be seen! There are always exciting things on the horizon and its great to get to share our love of puppetry with you and your readers.
Bring on the next adventure!
Interview with Emma Windsor