Puppetry designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell on creating magic in 'Life of Pi'

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

Are there more puppets than actors on our stages at the moment? Well, perhaps not quite, but this is certainly a golden age of puppetry in British theatre — from Life of Pi, Frozen, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and The Lion King in the West End to Animal Farm on tour, and the upcoming 101 Dalmatians at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Crucially, puppets can make the impossible seem possible.

Finn Caldwell, co-puppet designer and puppetry and movement director for Life of Pi, knew the show's director Max Webster from collaborating on several previous productions. "Weirdly we were doing promotional work for The Lorax, and I said to Max in a lift ‘Wouldn’t Life of Pi be good? Look at all the time between the boy and the tiger, wouldn’t that be exciting?’ And he said: ‘That’s so strange: I’ve just been approached about Life of Pi. I thought it was unstageable, but if you’re excited I’ll look at it again.’"

So Webster did, and the stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s philosophical novel — which features a shipwrecked boy trapped in a lifeboat with numerous animals, but primarily Richard Parker the bengal tiger ­— went on to become a huge hit: first at the Sheffield Crucible, and now in the West End. Not only that, but *Life of Pi* is the most-nominated play at this year’s Olivier Awards with nine nods. That includes nominations specifically for Caldwell and Nick Barnes’s puppetry work, as part of the Set Design, as well as for the seven actors who play the tiger in the Supporting Actor category.

Caldwell and Nick Barnes, his fellow puppet designer on the show, chatted about the process of creation, why audiences love puppetry, and the infrastructure needed to secure its future.

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How early in the Life of Pi creative process were you brought in?

Finn Caldwell: Max [Webster] and [adaptor] Lolita [Chakrabarti] asked us to come in for the first physical R&D [research and development] workshop, and Lolita had written her first draft already. Initially, Lolita and [producer] Simon Friend said “Yes, puppets could be good – but can we try masks as well?” Nick and I, coming from the world we did, couldn’t see a person in a mask pulling this off! But we tried both. As soon as people saw what we could do with the puppet prototype, that was it.

I called in some performers Nick and I had worked with in the past, and we wondered if there would be space to get somebody inside the tiger puppet. By day three we had someone inside it and we understood what the movement could be like.

When did you decide how naturalistic to make the puppets?

Nick Barnes: That came a bit later. Early on, we just worked with structure: so that’s armatures, basic wooden and elastic shapes, which meant we could hack at it and get it working physically. We could be flexible. Then the look of the puppets had to mesh with the overall production design. Max said “What about driftwood?”, so I went off and looked at driftwood sculptures, and did these sketches which fragmented the puppets into lumps of wood.

FC: What’s nice about driftwood is that it’s nautical. In our version of the play, this is all a memory of Pi’s that he’s recounting in his hospital room. So, if he’s on the lifeboat looking across the sea at the wreckage of the ship, seeing all this broken wood and twisted shapes, what happens if those twisted shapes become the animals in his memory?

NB: It’s interesting how people see them as quite realistic, despite the fact that they’re fragmented, they’re battered, not all parts of the animals exist.

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What materials did you use for the tiger?

NB: The Richard Parker tiger puppet is based on a real tiger's skeleton. The Richard Parker tiger has a plywood armature, and then we used aluminum and nylon, with elasticated bungee cords for the joints. The bulk of it is made from a lightweight foam material called Plastazote. It’s soft and it can be sculpted and painted, and at about 44 pounds, the tiger’s not too taxing for the actors to hold.

How long did it take to make?

NB: Around 345 days. You can lose days just trying to sand down the surface to prepare it for painting, and there are so many nooks and crannies. At least five or six people will have worked on each puppet [at Barnes’s workshop in Hove], doing the armatures, the sculpting, the painting, and the assembly.

You mentioned the audience finding them realistic. I definitely felt that — I got far too emotionally invested in the doomed goat…

FC: I think part of bringing a puppet out on stage on a subconscious level is when you’re saying to the audience “Shall we all believe this is real?” Then they’re playing with us; adults remember how to be kids, playing with their toys. They’re emotionally invested in the characters because they’re taking part in the process. So when those characters get hurt or die or feel joy, the audience feels like they did as a child when their toy succeeds or fails.

And everyone else is playing with us too: lighting, sound, staging. The goat you fell in love with, that is deliberate. We’ve purposefully put in a scene where the goat plays with a young child. Then we bring the goat on and it’s bleating, and we’ve done the lighting so you can’t quite see the tiger approaching it, which makes it more frightening.

That’s crucial here, isn’t it? That the tiger is genuinely dangerous

FC: Yes, we always think about what the puppet’s narrative function is — and top of the list for the tiger is that it has to be scary. Puppets aren’t traditionally scary in England. So we thought about its anatomy, and that’s why we needed someone inside the puppet: they move much faster than if they’re outside it. The audience has to believe that the tiger could be on you from across the room in a second.

NB: There’s something very exciting about making life-size puppets. Often, when you’re watching puppetry, it’s a smaller version of something. What really gives the tiger, or the zebra, that sense of reality is putting people inside to power them. Now you’re getting the pleasure of animals you wouldn’t normally see outside a cage and you enter into the imaginative game. That’s thrilling.

How do you train actors to operate the puppets?

FC: You tend to get a core team of puppeteers — on Life of Pi we have six — and then actors with some puppetry skills, and inevitably some who have none. We have a week at the beginning of rehearsals just doing puppetry training: it takes that long for even our highly skilled core team to get their heads and bodies around the puppets. You don’t want to teach puppetry technique — going over how to sit, lie, jump — while also creating the show.

But it’s always fun taking adults who haven’t done puppetry before and seeing how quickly they pick it up. If they’ve taken the job, they’re already excited about puppetry. The only thing people are unprepared for is how physically demanding it is operating puppets of this scale.

Is it harder when there are multiple people on one puppet — like three operating the tiger?

FC: They work in teams — we have three tiger teams. If one person goes down, inevitably the teams start to mix. A big part of their training is listening to each other: I value that more highly than choreography, even though the whole show is choreographed. They have to be almost telepathically connected, super in tune.

I think that’s what makes puppetry so compelling. They say don’t work with children and animals, because they’re constantly unpredictable. But with three people operating one character, even if they do the exact move as choreographed, it’ll be slightly different every time. That makes it exciting to watch – and to perform.

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You also have the challenge of much of the action being confined to the lifeboat…

FC: There's a sequence with the orangutan, the zebra, the hyena and the boy in the boat. In terms of complexity, that’s the hardest sequence I’ve ever worked on in my life. Because all of those performers in that very tight space have to be so clear about what we want the audience to see at any given moment. If we want to see the hyena jumping over the bench and going for the zebra’s guts, the orangutan has to not pull focus. In that sense, it becomes incredibly sophisticated choreography.

Life of Pi is an action-packed show. Does that take a toll on the puppets?

NB: Yes, they’re physical objects getting battered around. We have a very capable puppet technician, Emma Cook — she does day-to-day maintenance. Actually we did a check recently and I was amazed at how well they’re holding up. But they do sometimes need repainting or bits fall off.

FC: On our last night in Sheffield, the actor playing Pi [Hiran Abeysekera] was fighting the hyena and really swinging punches — and he knocked the hyena’s head clean off! Decapitated it in one blow. Luckily, the puppeteer was there to grab it and bring it back. The way they’re built, they’re incredibly well maintained, but they are vulnerable. They’re only ever really robust sculptures; they do need love.

There’s so much puppetry in shows at the moment. Have directors realised what they can contribute?

NB: When people see a show like Life of Pi or War Horse, it opens up possibilities. Directors come along and think “Oh, maybe we could tackle that with puppets.” The practical caveat is that they’re quite expensive to put into a production. They tend to be for larger-scale shows. But creatively, they offer a lot of possibilities.

What’s really important, and what’s capturing people’s imagination in Life of Pi, is that the animals aren’t just there as eye candy — they have a really integral role in the plot and in the psychological narrative of the piece, so you can really engage with them as characters. That’s the kind of theatre with puppetry that becomes really interesting

FC: Puppets transport us. I also worked on The Ocean at the End of the Lane [the stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel], and that has these supernatural interdimensional monsters which take us into a magical world. Puppets remind us of the miracle of being alive because they bring something to life. We really need these transformational shows right now.

Photo credit: Life of Pi (Photo by Johan Persson)

Originally published on

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