NEW YORK, NY.-
Fair warning: This article is riddled with spoilers about puppet deaths in Life of Pi, the stage adaptation of Yann Martels bestselling novel about a shipwrecked teenager adrift on the Pacific Ocean. He shares his lifeboat first with a menagerie of animals from his familys zoo in India large-scale puppets all, requiring a gaggle of puppeteers and eventually just with a magnificent, ravenous Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker that takes three puppeteers to operate.
Now in previews on Broadway, where it is slated to open March 30 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the play picked up five Olivier Awards in London last year. Puppetry design by longtime collaborators Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell was included with Tim Hatleys set in one award, and, unprecedentedly, a team of puppeteers won an acting Olivier for playing Richard Parker.
Caldwell, who is also the productions puppetry director, and two of those Olivier-winning puppeteers, Fred Davis and Scarlet Wilderink, sat down at the Schoenfeld one morning last week to talk about bringing the shows puppets to life and then, in several scenes, to vivid and often gruesome death. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Its a very crowded lifeboat. Who all is in there, and how complex is that dance?
SCARLET WILDERINK: That is such a beautiful way to describe good puppetry. Because it is a synchronicity like dance that looks completely unchoreographed. Well, what have we got in there? Weve got hyena. Rat for a short time.
FRED DAVIS: Zebra. Orangutan. Tiger. And Pi.
FINN CALDWELL: In the end of the first act, where we see the tigers about to kill the hyena, and the hyenas killed the zebra and everything else we call that section Megadeath. How many puppeteers do we use in Megadeath?
WILDERINK: Three, five, six, eight, 11.
CALDWELL Eleven puppeteers. Thats the most puppeteers weve ever used on a show in one sequence.
Q: Richard Parker is such a cat. He seems plush and furry with padded paws, and he hogs the bed. How do you figure out animal movement?
CALDWELL: We look at anatomy. We look at pictures of skeletons of tigers, blow that up to a real tiger size and start marking on pieces of paper on the wall where the joints are all going to be. Because when we build on a framework, our armature, it wants to move like a tiger, because the limbs are all the right length. The joints want to move in the right way.
DAVIS: In terms of bringing it to life, we start off by looking at videos of tigers moving in different environments when theyre relaxed, when theyre hunting, analyzing their foot patterns and how their weight shifts from one paw to another, how their tail flicks when theyre feeling a certain way. One thing that is always challenging for us to do is the noises. Because no human has the same lung capacity or vocal cords as a tiger.
WILDERINK: One of the most helpful tools for us is imagination. If the puppeteer is really seeing the thing, the audience will see the thing. The tigers fur, you know, he doesnt have real fur. But if you imagine the softness of it, this sort of stretchiness of their skin, the weight like if he collapses into Pi, how do you make him look like hes soft in his lap? Its part of the design because weve got all those bungees that tie all of the armature together, which makes him look like that. But the sensory stuff, I think, is in our minds.
Q: What is it that makes the audience believe?
CALDWELL: Its you and I as 3-year-olds going, Theres a doll. Should we agree that this is real and play a game together? Thats the same offer that you make to the audience: Heres a tiger. Do you want to agree that its real with us? That means that they then take part in the creation. Intellectually, we know its a puppet. But really quickly, most people want to buy into the game.
Q: Why is violence sustained by puppet animals so shocking and affecting?
CALDWELL: If it was the real animal, youd be really worried about the situation. Youd be like, Is that a real hyena? With a puppet, no matter what its playing, all you have to worry about is what its telling you onstage. The puppets are only there to be themselves, so that when you start to wound them, all the audience is thinking is, well, (a), Ive taken part in bringing this thing to life, and now youre killing it in front of me, and (b), this is all thats happening. All youre getting is the pure story, the pure thing thats happening, and so I think you get the straight emotional connection to it.
Q: And yet you really do not expect to hear a puppets neck crack.
WILDERINK: It is so rare that you get to do something so grisly with puppets. Thats why I love it so much. If the zebra is being attacked, the orangutan is being killed, the goats being killed, I love hearing the audience react to it and then be surprised by their own reaction. Because they dont realize how invested they are until it happens. They feel the shock and the pain of the orangutan dying, and then theyre surprised by the fact that they believed it so much.
DAVIS: One of my favorite things thats happened: The goats head came detached from the goats body. Something got broken in there. Through that last scene in the zoo in Pondicherry, where the goat gets brought on and shoved in the tiger cage, the puppeteers doing a dutiful job of keeping the body and the head attached. And then we get in there and the goat gets attacked by the tiger. As the tiger, you dont know that the heads come off the goat. So the neck breaks, and then you see that its actually disconnecting. What we decided in the moment, we left with the body, left the head on the stage. The tiger went away, came back, picked up the head and then left. We spoke to the actors afterward and they were like, I was crying. Im scarred from seeing that happen. Why did you do that? Im like, Well, you know, its a tiger.
Q: Im wondering: What did winning the Olivier mean to you?
DAVIS: It was really big. Its also really validating, because I think when youre involved with the puppetry that weve done over the last few years, we believe and invest in these puppet characters as much as anyone would a human character.
Q: Its acting, yes?
DAVIS: It is acting. But I think a lot of the time, from an outside perspective, it cannot be considered acting or judged as harshly as acting. We want people to be looking at it and considering it worthy of criticism. Thats what was so heartening: that what we were doing was believable enough that people wanted to judge it.
WILDERINK: I had people from all over the world puppeteers, puppet theater companies contacting me on social media, saying how many waves its created in their communities. It felt very special on a global scale.
CALDWELL: It was just amazing that the industry sat up and took notice. It mainly just feels like a door opened and an invitation to what we can do next.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times