Backstage, in the rehearsal room, the animal puppets for Life of Pi hang on rolling racks. They are impressive to look at. The interior is a skeleton made from wood and aluminum, with joints made out of bungee cords to allow movement, and trigger mechanisms to manipulate ears or mouths. The exterior is crafted from a type of foam that is light, easy to carve, and able to take paint without melting. These puppets, co-designed by Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, are works of art.
But to watch them come to life…is mesmerizing. According to Caldwell, through puppetry, “You get to tell the impossible stories.”
Life of Pi, first a 2001 novel by Yann Martel, then a 2012 Ang Lee film, was adapted for the stage by Lolita Chakrabarti. It's the story of an Indian boy, Pi, who, after a shipwreck, is trapped on a boat with a tiger named Richard Parker. Life of Pi the play made its world premiere in 2019 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield and transferred to the West End, winning five 2022 Olivier Awards, including Best New Play. The production also garnered awards for Best Supporting Actor, for its team of seven tiger puppeteers, and Best Set Design, awarded to set designer Tim Hatley and to Barnes and Caldwell for the puppet design. After a pre-Broadway run at American Repertory Theater, the show is now playing Broadway’s Schoenfeld Theatre, where it opened March 31.
In Life of Pi, Pi’s family owns a zoo, filled with all kinds of exotic animals. On stage, the animals—a tiger, zebra, monkey, turtle, and more—are dramatized using puppetry. The materials used to make the puppets stems from the idea that Pi is retelling his story after having been rescued from a shipwreck. That means the characters in his memory are created from the flotsam and jetsam from his time at sea. Pieces of a shattered wooden ship become the stacked sections of a tiger’s tail. Frayed ropes are the mane of a hyena. Bits of fabric sails are butterflies.
In addition to the design, Caldwell serves as the puppet and movement director for the show, helming the team responsible for turning those foam animals into living, breathing characters. He himself started as an actor but he felt that there was something missing. He wanted to tell stories using objects.
“I was really keen to bring some of the rigor that I learned as an actor…to the art form of puppetry,” says Caldwell. In Life of Pi, Richard Parker isn’t just a puppet, a lifeless doll hanging on a rack. He’s a character with motivations. He doesn’t just jump from one place to another. He has a reason for making that leap. That tiger is real. Even when you see the three puppeteers working Richard Parker. “What I love about puppetry is we're showing you on stage how we're doing it. Yet, you still believe it's alive. I think that's the magic, because then there's no trickery,” Caldwell says.
What the audience sees as magic, though, is actually skilled artists working from the principles Caldwell uses to bring something to life, the three most important being: existence, thought, and presence.
Existence begins with breath. The puppeteer inside Richard Parker lifts and lowers the back of the tiger, indicating that the tiger is breathing. Done quickly, with the mouth ajar, the tiger is panting, showing fear or excitement.
Next is thought, which Caldwell says is best suggested by eyeline. “What the puppet is looking at is what the puppet is thinking about. It’s that simple,” he says. From that thought is born motivation and intention.
The third of the big principles, presence, comes into play when the puppet takes action on thought. The tiger can’t just look at a rock and then float over to it. The puppeteers must create the tiger’s sense of presence. “We have to give it two counteracting forces,” explains Caldwell. “Muscularity to make it move around, and a sense of gravity affecting it as if it’s a heavy object.” So, the tiger will jump to the rock by going down into its muscles, then springing out of those muscles, and finally, landing on the ground and recovering back into its muscles.
Three puppeteers usually work Richard Parker together, but a team of eight puppeteers rotate in and out of the role—primarily to give their bodies a chance to recover from its physical demands.
When Caldwell is casting for the roles, he looks for skill, but he also looks for joy and the ability to listen—clues that the puppeteers will be able to create the synergy required to work together. "When the puppeteers are breathing together, their psychology and their emotion starts to align. And if you spend enough time doing that, eventually they get to the place where they can act, move, think and feel without planning it. And that's where it starts to get really magical," he says. "I can get them to give cues to each other on stage as to when the tiger is going to roar, and when it's going to look around. But if I don't, if I encourage them not to use cues, but instead just listen really, really carefully to each other—then there's a kind of energy created by that unknowingness. That fragility, that tension in the air, is electrifying to watch."
Caldwell also has a philosophy on what makes puppetry so special: “Puppetry does what Hamlet talks about: It holds the mirror up to life…It holds the mirror up to the miracle of the fact that you are alive and the fragility of that and the improbability of that. The audience knows that if the puppeteers let go of that thing, it'll just drop to the floor. So, they're showing you how fragile and how miraculous it is that this thing is here and alive. And they're reminding you that you are also in that position.”
See more photos from Playbill's exclusive photoshoot with the Life of Pi puppets.
Want more Life of Pi footage? Watch a scene from the Broadway show, and see how the cast and puppeteers put it together.