Evolution of a Tiger

NOV 14, 2022

Puppeteer Kate Brehm (Visiting Lecturer in Harvard’s concentration in Theater, Dance & Media) spoke with Life of Pi’s Puppetry Design & Directing Team about their work on the show.

Rowan Magee manipulates the head of the tiger puppet while Celia Mei Rubin holds up its torso.

When I stepped into the rehearsal room for Life of Pi, I was immediately transported into a menagerie of make-believe. Surrounding the rehearsal stage was a plethora of full-size zoo animals: towering zebras, a giant tortoise, carrot-colored orangutans, half of a hyena body, a rat, and a two very vicious-looking tigers. It would have been quite frightening, had they not all been suspended by wires and clips, quietly waiting their turn to play. From the animals’ sculpted foam bodies and subtle control rods I could clearly recognize them as large and exquisite puppets. It was here that I met with renowned British puppet direction and design team Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes for an interview.

Kate Brehm: As a puppeteer myself, I’ve heard a lot of people’s stories about how they became a puppeteer. Typically it is a circuitous route! I am curious how you each fell into puppetry.

Nick Barnes: Basically, I thought I was going to be an actor. Then, I realized I wasn’t an actor, so I went off and studied theater design instead. I went up to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show I had worked on with some friends from university. And I saw some performances at Edinburgh that really engaged me—there was a puppet that somehow walked across a group of people, and I couldn’t figure out how it was done! That was the moment I thought, “These are fascinating.” Actually, that one moment was probably the best bit of puppetry I’ve ever seen, because I was so new to it at that time. Then, gradually, I incorporated puppets into the designs that I was doing for theater and opera, and I eventually started a company called Blind Summit.

Finn Caldwell: I started as an actor as well, went to drama school. And when I was at drama school, I loved all the visual stuff. I was big into mask, big into physical theater. When I came out, I was really lucky: I went straight into big talkie theater and worked with Declan Donnelan’s company Cheek by Jowl, in the West End, and at the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was great training and I really enjoyed it. But about five years in I thought, “I know I’m very lucky here, but I’m not enjoying this as much as I think I should.” And so I started making my own work and decided that I wanted to work with puppets and got introduced to Blind Summit.

Nick: You made your own puppets as well.

Finn: I did, yeah. I made a puppet of the Elephant Man with no idea how to operate it! I threw myself into this life-size version of the Elephant Man with way too complicated joints and all. We were at the Battersea Arts Center, and the person who ran it said, “You should speak to Blind Summit, because they already know what they’re doing.” I think I wrote them a letter saying, “Anywhere, anytime, no money or not, can I work with you?” And so I met Nick and was deeply inspired. We made a bunch of shows together.

Later, when I was invited to work on War Horse, I walked into this room of creation and amazing full-size horses and shadow-play boards where a tiny puppet horse, scaled to full size by the shadow, could interact with a human. I just couldn’t believe how exciting the room felt—like I was looking at what all of theater could be, exposing it and stripping it back. Bringing fundamental elements of theater together in a very playful way.

Kate: You are both Puppet Designers for this production, and Finn, you are also Puppet & Movement Director. How do you collaborate and influence one another in these roles?

Nick: The two roles are very tied together, but I think one answer would be to go back further and say that, through all the different projects we’ve worked on together, we’ve evolved a certain style of performance—a type of very driven, physically emboldened style of puppetry performance. And certainly, we’ve evolved a style of puppet. I think the two have gone a little bit hand in hand, step by step. Our style uses direct contact and is inspired by Japanese bunraku. It’s very breath-led, very thought-led. It kind of combines thought and breath with object, story, and narrative.

Finn: Interestingly, when we’re training puppeteers, I spend quite a long time having to persuade them that it’s not okay for the puppet to come onstage and do something simple, like move a box around. People think that basic movement is enough, and, I’m being a bit critical here, but it’s not. We have to give puppetry the same rigor that we apply to drama, that we apply to acting. So if the puppet comes on stage and moves its head or moves its tail, like with our tiger, no movement is without meaning.

Nick: For me, nothing we do is arbitrary as humans or animals. Everything is in response to our environment. And so as a puppeteer or actor, from the moment you walk on stage, that puppet, that character is building its own narrative. Where it came from will affect how fast it’s coming on stage. What obstacles does it need to avoid? Is it comfortable avoiding those obstacles, or are they problematic? Is this a routine journey that it makes? All of these things…

Finn: …Because the puppet is a signaling engine. That is the only reason it’s been built, the only reason it exists on stage. The audience subliminally knows it’s there to communicate something. So they’re looking for communication all the time. And I think there’s a muscle that the puppeteer can develop, which means that “If I move this way, that means something.” You have to learn to tell stories.

Nick: I guess that’s what an actor does as well. But with puppetry, you are trying to find ways to use the puppet. To make that journey quite physical. It is also great just to watch a puppet thinking.

Kate: In puppetry, there is often a research and development period where people get in a room together and play with mock-up puppets. What are the questions that you try to answer in that part of the process?

Finn: Most people making puppetry have to make something new for each project, and that’s really exciting. Will it work or not? With our tiger, we had no idea. I was concerned with how fast and dangerous we could make it look. That’s a very specific question for this show. Other more general questions include, “Will the puppet have an emotional effect? Will it deliver whatever it has to deliver for the story?”

Kate: How much of the puppet do you have to complete in order to discover the answers to those questions?

Nick: Usually the beginning is quite simple. We start with a sketch of the shape and the geometry and joints. We’re all trying to get different things from the R&D. Finn’s trying to figure out, is that going to work dramatically? And I’m sort of thinking, is that going to need to be 10% bigger?

Kate: In puppetry, we always have to make a decision about whether the audience sees the puppeteers. Can you talk a little bit about your choice to have the puppeteers be seen in Life of Pi?

Finn: When I did characters like the goose in War Horse, I learned from Handspring Puppet Company that there’s a real line to walk when puppeteering. You have to fuel the puppet without overtaking it… Handspring Puppet Company are called Handspring because they believe the life of the puppet springs from your hand. Therefore, the closer you are to the thing you’re operating, the more specific you can be. And so I think on a technical, practical level, seeing the puppeteer adds a lot. But also aesthetically, I really enjoy when the puppeteer’s body is dynamically adding to that shape. In this show, for the hyena, the puppeteer’s back legs become the back legs of the hyena. Equally, when someone’s performing the tiger and there’s a visible puppeteer, you can see their face. You can see the tension going through their body. That addition to the performance adds a layer which is unique to what we do.

Nick: You could mask the puppeteers, but you wouldn’t lose them. They’re still there… I think that the image is more exciting because it’s expanded by the puppeteers. It’s more interesting to see three people lifting and carrying this tiger than to try to hide them.

Kate: Do you think that there’s anything about the story of Life of Pi that is especially suited to seeing the puppeteers?

Finn: Life of Pi is about stories—it’s about what story you choose to believe. I think the character Pi is in the same situation: he’s playing with stories and with the question of what’s real and what’s not. Ultimately, Pi tells two stories. And hopefully we are deliberately showing you a version of the story on stage in which it is equally possible to believe that each one is true.

Kate: If I were a ten- or fifteen- or twenty-one-year-old who wanted to become a puppeteer, what advice would you give me?

Finn: I’d say just go and do it. Because everybody finds their own route into it. Try and find companies that you like that are doing it, and try and find a way to work with them. That’s worked for me.

Nick: I completely agree. I think you’ve got to do it. If you want to be a maker, make something.

Kate: I definitely think just doing it is such good advice. Most of my opportunities came from making my own puppetry and then meeting people who saw that I was doing it. Sometimes people say, “Let me think about what it is that I want to do with this figure that I have in front of me. I’m going to talk about it, I’m going to plan it out.” And it doesn’t work that way. You have to just actually get it in your hands and go out and do it.

Finn: I’ve got a seven-year-old daughter, and so I’m allowed to say that it’s quite useful what they say in Frozen: just do the next best thing. Just do the next right thing.

Kate Brehm is a puppeteer and movement director professionally certified in the Margolis Method. Currently a guest lecturer in Harvard’s concentration in Theater, Dance & Media, Kate lectures and leads workshops in puppetry, theater, and live art. Her company, imnotlost, produces puppet shows, plays, and interactive events in New York City. Her research explores a critical history of performing design. She performs and directs internationally for the critically acclaimed puppeteers Basil Twist, Mabou Mines, Torry Bend, and others.

Rowan Magee, Celia Mei Rubin, and Nikki Calonge (“Richard Parker”) in Life of Pi: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.

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