Puppetry so lifelike, even their deaths look real

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Puppetry so lifelike, even their deaths look real
In front, from left: puppeteers Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink and Finn Caldwell with the puppet Richard Parker, held by Andrew Wilson and Rowan Ian Seamus, the Royal Bengal tiger in “Life of Pi,” at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater in New York, March 17, 2023. The production, which incorporates large-scale puppets to tell the story of a shipwrecked teenager adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with animals from his family’s zoo in India, opens on March 30. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

by Laura Collins-Hughes

NEW YORK, NY.- Fair warning: This article is riddled with spoilers about puppet deaths in “Life of Pi,” the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel about a shipwrecked teenager adrift on the Pacific Ocean. He shares his lifeboat first with a menagerie of animals from his family’s 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 Hatley’s set in one award, and, unprecedentedly, a team of puppeteers won an acting Olivier for playing Richard Parker.

Caldwell, who is also the production’s 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 show’s puppets to life — and then, in several scenes, to vivid and often gruesome death. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: It’s 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? We’ve 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 tiger’s about to kill the hyena, and the hyena’s 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. That’s the most puppeteers we’ve 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 they’re relaxed, when they’re hunting, analyzing their foot patterns and how their weight shifts from one paw to another, how their tail flicks when they’re 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 tiger’s fur, you know, he doesn’t 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 he’s soft in his lap? It’s part of the design because we’ve 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: It’s you and I as 3-year-olds going, “There’s a doll. Should we agree that this is real and play a game together?” That’s the same offer that you make to the audience: “Here’s a tiger. Do you want to agree that it’s real with us?” That means that they then take part in the creation. Intellectually, we know it’s 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, you’d be really worried about the situation. You’d be like, “Is that a real hyena?” With a puppet, no matter what it’s playing, all you have to worry about is what it’s 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), I’ve taken part in bringing this thing to life, and now you’re killing it in front of me, and (b), this is all that’s happening. All you’re getting is the pure story, the pure thing that’s happening, and so I think you get the straight emotional connection to it.

Q: And yet you really do not expect to hear a puppet’s neck crack.

WILDERINK: It is so rare that you get to do something so grisly with puppets. That’s why I love it so much. If the zebra is being attacked, the orangutan is being killed, the goat’s being killed, I love hearing the audience react to it and then be surprised by their own reaction. Because they don’t realize how invested they are until it happens. They feel the shock and the pain of the orangutan dying, and then they’re surprised by the fact that they believed it so much.

DAVIS: One of my favorite things that’s happened: The goat’s head came detached from the goat’s 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 puppeteer’s 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 don’t know that the head’s come off the goat. So the neck breaks, and then you see that it’s 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. I’m scarred from seeing that happen. Why did you do that?” I’m like, “Well, you know, it’s a tiger.”

Q: I’m wondering: What did winning the Olivier mean to you?

DAVIS: It was really big. It’s also really validating, because I think when you’re involved with the puppetry that we’ve done over the last few years, we believe and invest in these puppet characters as much as anyone would a human character.

Q: It’s 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. That’s 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 it’s 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.

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