It started with a shared love of Julie Taymor.
The famed Broadway director's book Playing With Fire was hot property when Nick Paine and David Morton were both studying drama at the Queensland University of Technology in 2007. Thankfully, Paine had two copies. “So we met for coffee and I gave one to David,” Paine says. “Then it all kind of went from there.”
The pair’s personal and creative lives have been intertwined ever since. By now, Paine and Morton are best known for their visual design and production company Dead Puppet Society and in particular The Wider Earth, its recent five-time Matilda Award-winning and Helpmann-nominated theatre production.
Dead Puppet Society also began back in university days, taking shape in the pair’s final year with Morton as creative director and Paine executive producer. But unlike their relationship, it took a while to flourish.
A slice of good fortune would prove the difference. In 2013, Morton was working on his PhD, studying South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, best known for the stage version of War Horse. Having reached out to Handspring numerous times without a response, Paine’s father picked up a late draft of Morton’s paper left on a coffee table, only to reveal he knew the company’s founder, Adrian Kohler, a childhood friend. “Two hours later we were on the phone to him, and a month later we were in South Africa with them and spent three months there,” Morton says, still with a sense of disbelief.
The placement created connections in New York, where they moved soon after. The pair were married in October 2014 while in New York and it remains home for six months of the year. There, they’ve worked with the Jim Henson Foundation and had residencies at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan and St Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn. “But every year, we were coming back here for enough of a chunk that a solid lease over there just became an unattainable thing,” Morton says.
And so, the decision to settle at Mount Nebo, on the outskirts of Brisbane. When Broadsheet visits the pair’s red mountain-top cottage in late August they’re deep in the rehearsal period for their new show, Laser Beak Man. “The deadly third week,” Morton says, laughing. “It’s always fun to push through.”
Laser Beak Man is an adaptation of the celebrated visual works by Brisbane artist and autism campaigner Tim Sharp, with music by Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack. “We’ve been working closely with Tim on the work,” Paine says. “He’s an artist that has autism, we’ve got an amazing relationship of teasing out the ideas that are in his head.”
In-between times, Paine and Morton are busy working on the house, pulling everything down inside and slowly rearranging it into their own home. “We’re really lucky,” Morton says. “It’s basically a big wooden tent frame, nothing internal is structural, so it really gives us a lot of room to work with and pull things down to make space where we need it.”
A shed space has been converted into a workshop for puppet production. “It’s an amazing spot,” Morton continues. “You can open up the doors and see right over the house out to the mountains.”
When asked about the work-life balance, Paine admits “it can sometimes get intense because we’ll often have ideas at different times of the day.” “Or night,” Morton chimes in.
“A lot of people always say, ‘How on earth do you work together and then be together as well?’ But we’ve always found it to be the best thing,” Paine says. “It makes the relationship exciting, but it also makes the work great.”