At the Laurence Olivier Drama Awards held in London a few years ago, the seven actors who played Richard Parker in Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s novel “The Life of Pi” won the top prize. He won the Best Supporting Actor Award. This was the first time that a group rather than a single actor was praised, and the first time that the award recognized the performance of a character embodied by a puppet. Richard Parker is an unusually named Bengal tiger who accompanies Pai, an Indian boy. On a journey across the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat.
Life of Pi, which arrives in Ireland this month, won five awards on the night. It is not surprising that one of his was sent to Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell, the creators of the tiger and all the other puppets that support the story. The two met after Caldwell, who had worked with top British theater companies such as Cheek by Jowl and the Royal Shakespeare Company, began to tire of acting.
He had enjoyed practicing mask work and physical theater during his training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, so he began “looking for companies and types of work that I would like to emulate and be involved in”. Most of the physical plays and puppet shows he saw turned out to be “really bad and not very rigorous.” Still, inspired, he thought he might be able to change that.
Being able to maintain a story without text is an incredibly different type of acting job.
— Finn Caldwell
During his encounter with Blind Summit’s work, where puppeteers draw inspiration from the Japanese Bunraku tradition that is visible to the audience, he meets puppet designer Burns and together they explore how puppets can express themselves. I started experimenting with. Taking on a fully acting role, “the doll gets to be really involved in things, just like any other role.”
Caldwell’s breakthrough came when he was hired to direct Britain’s National Theater’s award-winning production of War Horse. The production, which stars Joey, a 30kg horse, personified by three performers, “required someone to be extremely fit and strong” to operate the complex puppet. As Caldwell explains, “Someone who understands what it’s like to have a puppet tell a story and hold the audience’s attention for hours without saying anything, and who knows what to show.” [Joey] What he wants, what he needs, and what he fears… Being able to sustain a story without text is an incredibly different type of acting job. ”
Caldwell became one of Joey’s animators and also the production’s assistant puppeteer director. He says it was a traumatic experience. “What we achieved with the horses in ‘War Horse’ could not have given the real horse the same level of emotion through the detailed changes we made to it. From then on, we went all out. Ta.”
In the 15 years since then, Caldwell has designed puppets for Birmingham City Ballet’s production of The Tempest and created an angel to star opposite Andrew Garfield in the acclaimed National Theater production of Angel in America. He created wicker and evil spirits, the Princess of Light and the Lorax, and a menagerie of animals. His characters have graced the stages of the Globe Theatre, the West End and Broadway. But Life of Pi was a special experience.
The show was already well advanced when Caldwell and Burns were invited to join. Actor and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti had written a script about the incredible adventures of Pi. The plot of her play begins at the end of Martell’s book, when Pi, recovering from a perilous journey in a Mexican hospital, is asked to explain her miraculous arrival. “When I read the last part of the book, I thought, this must be the story of the play,” says Chakrabarti. “This gives Pai a reason to tell the story very organically, allowing for almost dream-like scenes.” (Chakrabarti’s dramatic instincts were correct; her screenplay won an Olivier Award won the Best New Play Award.)
Given that many important characters in Pi’s life are animals, his family runs a zoo and many creatures accompany them on their journey across the Pacific. This dream-like logic allowed Chakrabarti to place them at the center of the story. But, as Caldwell explains, “We had the script, but the question was now, how do we play the tiger?”
Caldwell and Burns started by thinking about what Richard Parker symbolized: the threat of the natural world, and how a tiger could embody that. “We knew [our puppet] You’ll have to do everything a real tiger can do. You had to be fast, jump, swim, boat, and survive when other animals couldn’t. So we took these parameters, studied the tiger’s anatomy and bone structure, and projected it life-size onto the wall so humans could see where to go inside the tiger. ” We also needed to make sure Richard Parker would be scared.
Caldwell and Burns created a rough prototype so they could see how the actors would manage the puppets as they worked on the design. But “we tried to hide who Richard Parker was until as late as possible, because it’s not just a question.” [the puppet] Looking like a tiger is all about the philosophy and mindset behind its appearance. ” After all, while Richard Parker looks relatively naturalistic, “he also looks like he was carved from driftwood, like an animal emerging from flotsam or jetsam.” [something Pi] While on board this dilapidated shipwreck, I came up with the idea from the debris I saw around me. ”
As I stood in the wings of the Lowry Theater in Salford, Greater Manchester, as the actors relaxed for Sunday’s matinee, a zoo’s worth of creatures were suspended and brought to life. I’m waiting for it to come. A majestic giraffe towers over the wall. From the costume rack hangs a turtle that can be carried like a very heavy handbag. All puppets are given names to match the gentle way the actors manipulate them and the expressiveness with which they move them on stage. We have a rescued orangutan, Orange and his baby, Tangerine. There’s the elegant Debra, the company’s zebra.
The name further imbues the doll with personality and a kind of humanity, further heightening the stakes of Pi’s story and making the tragedy that accompanies Pi’s triumph all the more poignant. This sums up Caldwell’s puppetry philosophy. “The first thing you have to ask yourself is, why do you need puppets in your show? What’s better about puppets than humans? Puppet shows often depict non-human conditions, such as ghosts, Used to describe weather, accidental animals, etc. These are good reasons, but not great ones.
“A doll should be a better character when played by something constructed than by a human.” Meryl Streep said when people asked her how she chose her roles. , says this surprising thing: She says that when she’s offered a script, she reads it and asks herself, “What would happen if I took out my character?” She won’t do it if the story stays the same. That’s exactly how I feel too. What difference would it make to the story if you took out the puppets and used actors? If it stays the same, what’s the point? Characters need a reason to be dolls. ”
Life of Pi is grand opera houseBelfast, from Tuesday 20th February to Saturday 24th February. Bord Gáis Energy TheaterDublin, Tuesday 27th February to Saturday 2nd March