The team behind Life of Pi’s four-legged star tell us how they unleashed a wild animal on the West End
This year’s Olivier awards featured a somewhat unconventional win in the Best Supporting Actor category. Taking home the statuette was not one actor, but rather a team of seven – Fred Davis, Daisy Franks, Romina Hytten, Tom Larkin, Habib Nasib Nader, Tom Stacy and Scarlet Wilderink – who together bring Life of Pi’s tiger to life.
The presentation of the award, with all seven of them onstage together, marks a rare moment. The tiger, otherwise known as Richard Parker, is usually operated by two teams of three puppeteers who work in shifts, with Habib Nasib Nader providing the tiger’s voice. Different combinations of puppeteers can lead to different energies onstage, the team explains.
“Me and Romina did a show together for the first time earlier this week and suddenly Richard Parker felt ten years younger,” jokes Tom Larkin.
Fred Davis relates a rare instance of crossed wires: “There was a moment when me and Scarlet hadn’t done heart and head together for a little while… I was looking quite intently at the water at Turtle and Scarlet thought we were going for a face scratch. So suddenly, the paw just comes up and smacks me in the face!”
For anyone who’s seen the show, it’s strange to imagine a version of the tiger that doesn’t move as one beast. Three people manoeuvring a heavy puppet should be a least a little distracting. But almost from Richard Parker’s first appearance you begin to ignore the figures working around him and focus instead on his deliberate, sometimes threatening movements, on the low growls he makes and the way he breathes. The actors have had to learn to become invisible, and to take cues from each other without the audience noticing.
“Obviously, when we’re in show we’re not communicating unless it’s through breath or noise,” says Tom Stacey.
“It takes quite a long time, I think, to really feel that real synchronicity with each other,” says Romina Hytten. “You had like little sparks or moments in rehearsals where you went, Oh, that felt really good. And then other bits that just felt like chaos – like, ‘how am I ever going to make this work?”
These days they are making it work night after night, and finding new ways to make the tiger even realer to the audience as they go. “You get the satisfaction of having the sort of ‘everything’s come together’ joy many, many times over,” says Davis.
Whilst Richard Parker moves as one animal, there are three distinct elements to Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell’s puppet – the Head, the Heart and the Hind – with one team member taking responsibility for each section per performance. On a technical level, each actor only plays a third of the tiger, a fact they almost have to forget onstage.
“I think if you’re just focusing on your bit, you’re not connected to the other people, and then it becomes about what you yourself are doing rather than what you’re trying to make and be part of,” says Daisy Frank.
Frank is making her West End debut as a puppeteer in Life of Pi. Already an Olivier winner, it’s safe to say that it’s been a positive experience so far.
“You’ve got the bug now,” teases castmate Scarlett Wilderink.
Others in the cast have previously participated in landmark projects for puppetry, such as War Horse (Wilderink and Stacey) and Running Wild (Davis and Hytten), and have experience creating theatre magic.
“Puppeteers are like mind readers,” says Hytten. “We might not all be thinking the same thing, but we really believe that we are.”
The connection between the team is evident – there are giggles and inside jokes flying between them. As they recall an unfortunate puppet malfunction (potentially traumatic for that evening’s audience) a big laugh erupts. It might be surprising that a role so technical and highly choreographed can change so much night to night, but after seeing the team interact, it’s not hard to understand how it’s possible.
“It’s like, the connection to one another is rehearsed,” explains Frank. “And the more rehearsed that is, the more you don’t have to rehearse other things and you can be more spontaneous.”
“I think there’s a duality as well to acting and puppeteering where you are listening to each other as one, but you’re very aware of your job and your role,” says Stacey. “So there are some technical things that you will have a part of your mind on, but you will always be influenced by the character and what the other impulses are giving you.”
The mention of their Olivier award is met with more laughter.
“Oh, that old thing,” jokes Larkin. “It was a such a crazy weekend, that weekend. We barely sat down when they announced the names of the award!”
“It definitely did feel like an award for puppetry as a whole,” says Wilderink. “For puppetry and puppeteers and anyone involved with making puppets, fixing puppets, operating puppets, painting puppets, whatever you do in puppetry… or sort of European theatre arts in general.” For the team there is a hope that puppetry will now become a greater part of British theatre culture, with the recently announced My Neighbour Totoro also featuring starring roles for the puppeteers of the West End. “It sort of felt like a time that we could put that on the map in this country.”
“The fact that we had three women in the Best Supporting Actor role, which was also a first, was pretty spectacular – hopefully we’ll not be the last in the near future,” adds Davis.
“It felt really lovely to have that award,” says Stacey. “I’m just hoping that there are people out there – directors, writers, producers – who are now going, what stories can we put on? What worlds can we create?”
Life of Pi is now booking at the Wyndham Theatre until 30 Oct 2022. Find tickets here.