Ever-Evolving Puppetry

Foreground, from left: Fred Davis, Scarlet Wilderink and Finn Caldwell. Behind the tiger, from left: Andrew Wilson and Rowan Ian Seamus Magee. Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Puppetry is a rare topic in these pages, but as cultural heritage goes, this ever-evolving form is worth at least a few minutes of reading time related to this new production:

Puppetry So Lifelike, Even Their Deaths Look Real

Members of the puppetry team for “Life of Pi” discuss making the show’s animals seem all-too-real on a very crowded lifeboat.

Richard Parker, the Royal Bengal tiger in “Life of Pi” takes three puppeteers (including Celia Mei Rubin, bottom left) to operate in the production opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater on March 30. Nina Westervelt for The New York Times

Fair warning: This article is riddled with spoilers about puppet deaths in “Life of Pi,” the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-selling 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 on March 30 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the play picked up five Olivier Awards in London last year. Puppetry design by the 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.

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.

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…

Read the whole article here.

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