Something That’s Alive

NOV 14, 2022

Director Max Webster on Pi, Puppets, and the Magic of Storytelling

Actors manipulate a rearing zebra puppet on a stormily lit stage.

How did your journey with Life of Pi begin?

I loved the book and had thought it would make an amazing play. Then it turned out that Simon Friend, a British producer, had already asked Lolita Chakrabarti to write an adaptation. So it was a dream project when they asked me to direct it.

Had you collaborated with Lolita before?

No—but, amazingly, we met twice in one week. I was auditioning her as an actor to be in my production of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic Theatre, then two days later she interviewed me to direct her play. We both had to submit our answers as to whether we wanted each other as director and actor before we knew what the other one would say. Luckily, we both said yes.

And how did your collaboration on Life of Pi progress from there?

Lolita had already written a draft when we first met. We then worked on it together with groups of actors and a slowly growing pool of collaborators over three or four workshops, working out how to bring the story to life. Slowly we discovered which parts of the story were told with words, which parts with action. I think one of the extraordinary things Lolita has done is to take Yann’s novel and create an emotional structure that works over the course of one evening, which is a totally different rhythm than a novel over four hundred pages.

I would never call anything impossible in the theater, but thinking about elements of this story—the long periods of time spent at sea, the animals, the flashbacks—how did you start to get a sense of the way that you would bring this world to life onstage?

Although lots came and went in the process of working out this story, the framing device of Pi being interviewed in the hospital was there right from Lolita’s very first draft. In the novel this happens in the very last chapters—two insurance adjusters come to Mexico and interview Pi. But Lolita’s play alternates between more naturalistic scenes in the hospital, and more theatrically rich or poetic scenes—moving backwards and forwards between the present-tense interview and the technicolor memory of the past.

When we started we didn’t know how we would create the animals. So in our very first workshop, we were auditioning lots of different ideas. We had a version where humans slowly became animals. We had a version where there were masks. We had a version where it was only sounds, but Finn Caldwell and Nick Barnes, the Puppet Directors and Designers, made a very beautiful prototype tiger out of a few wooden rods and some wire clips—something quite basic, but really communicative. And from then on it felt like there was no turning back.

As a director, how do you approach working with puppetry? Does it feel like working with dancers? Actors? Designers?

It’s a bit of all of those things! I studied at the Lecoq Theatre School in Paris, where there is an interest in object manipulation, and an idea that physical text—what you do physically on stage—can be just as communicative as spoken language. And that’s what puppets do, because even though the tiger doesn’t speak lines, the tiger’s thoughts and actions have to be every bit as clear and communicative as the lines of an actor.

In terms of process, puppetry is a bit like working with a choreographer. When you have a dance number in a musical, you know as a director you’re going to be watching for a long time before you can have anything useful to say. Puppetry takes time.

But it’s not like a big musical theater number, because what you’re really doing is a beat-by-beat scene. So you’re actually directing the puppet much more like an actor. It’s the same questions I would ask an actor, such as: Where are you? What are you doing? What does the tiger want? How do they go about getting what they want? And you’re trying to make sure that that story and that relationship are as clear as possible to the audience.

Speaking actors take time to create their performance, because it’s a slow process as the character and text filters into every cell in your body; in puppetry, it takes time as well, because through technique and imagination you’ve got to turn these blocks of wood into something that’s alive. So just as an actor slowly learns to imbue their body with every moment of the role, the puppeteer slowly learns to bring life to every inch of this inanimate object.

I’m thinking also about the world that Scenic and Costume Designer Tim Hartley has created. What can you tell us about how the stage transforms from the hospital into the boat, and through all the other transfigurations of the story?

Well, in some ways it’s a show about storytelling. If you know the novel or the film, you know that Pi tells two stories, and you have to make a choice as an audience member as to which story you like. So it felt important that the design be something theatrical, and imaginative, and also in some ways actor-led. So that you see the magic being created before your eyes. There is automation and video in the show, but I hope that when you see it, you feel that it’s an extension of the story that Pi is telling you. In a way, Pi kind of summons all the theater magic—the pictures and sounds and light and color—out of his imagination. Or another way of saying it is that he asks us to imagine along with him.

Max Webster lying on the ground in front of an open script between cast members sitting on the ground.

Our education and engagement team at the A.R.T. orients our programming around a different essential question for each show, developed in conversation with artists. For Life of Pi, we’re asking “How does storytelling help us cope and survive?” So I wonder: Is that a theme that’s been particularly resonant with this moment in time for you as an artist?

Absolutely. I think it’s almost always a relevant question, because what story we choose to tell about ourselves is key to how we understand our own lives. And if we think of our lives in some sense as a story we tell, we realize we might have some agency in shaping that story, which can be hugely liberating.  I think it’s also an important political question. With huge structural issues facing our society, there can be this idea that “We’re stuck in this fixed system, and there’s nothing we can do.” But when we realize that so much of these issues are about the stories we tell, we realize we can work to create better and more just stories for our society.

As a storyteller yourself, what elements of the technique do you appreciate in Yann Martel’s novel?

One of the things I really liked about Yann’s book is that he’s incredibly logical about things. Although it’s fantastical, the story is incredibly coherent. He has worked out exactly how many days you could live at sea with twelve tins of water, and how long it would take for a lifeboat to get from Manila to the coast of Mexico. He is absolutely meticulous. There’s a kind of logical rigor, and a brilliantly precise scientific mind behind this fantastical story that includes so much magical thinking.

How has working on this story, and living with it for so long, impacted you?

I often think when you work on a story for a long time, you understand it more and more, and in some ways it can become smaller—and you end up with a clearer sense of what it’s about. But for me, Life of Pi has done something else. The more I work on it, the less I know what it’s about, which I think is really beautiful.

In bringing the show to the US from the West End, are there any specific resonances that you’re excited about, or any ways that the piece has continued to evolve?

One of the interesting things about Life of Pi is that different people think it’s about very different things. We’ve had letters from people saying, “Oh, my goodness, it’s a story about family.” “Oh, it’s a story about immigration.” “It’s a story about loss.” “It’s a story about faith.” So I’m excited to see what new resonances this story could have here. I hope audiences are free to create whatever meaning they want, rather than receiving some prescriptive interpretation that we have all decided on beforehand.

In closing, is there anything specific you’d say to audience members wondering how to approach the show?

You don’t need to know the book or the film. The show stands by itself. And if you read the book, that could be a whole other perspective! But it’s an alternative universe, and so it’s absolutely fine if you don’t know the story.

What I love about the show is that there are so many different aspects that you can enjoy. You could be somebody who’s really interested in animals, and really wonder at the life we bring to the zoo and the different animals. You could be a philosophy person: I think the story has a profound and beautiful argument about religion versus what Pi calls “dry, yeast-less factuality”. Or you could go just for fun, laugh at the jokes, and have a great night out. I think the show is a sort of popular philosophical fable which you can engage with in lots of different ways, depending on what kind of a night out you want!

When I stage a story, I want to try and help audiences get pulled into the world and imagine the story themselves. Then once you’re inside, you can sort of swim where you want, but the current takes you along. And when you come out on the other end two hours later, you’re in a different place. And maybe the world is slightly more enchanted.

Interview by A.R.T. Editor & Associate Dramaturg Robert Duffley

The company of Life of Pi in London’s West End: Johan Persson.
Director Max Webster in rehearsal for Life of Pi: Nile Scott Studios.

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