Unconditional: The new wave of puppetry is taking London’s West End by storm | puppets

Jhe Olive-winning puppets in the new stage version of Life of Pi – including a tiger so magnificent it will chase your dreams – weren’t always meant to exist. Puppets may be becoming more mainstream, but there is still some skepticism. “It took a bit of persuading,” says director Max Webster, whom I caught en route to the National Theater Studio. “I think there’s still the legacy of the connection between puppetry and family theater, which is great – but I think in some people’s minds that may limit its scope or appeal.”

Webster’s response to naysayers? He laughs mischievously: “My response was to text them pictures of people in tiger onesies.” After that came a workshop in which co-designers Nick Barnes and Finn Caldwell created a small-scale version of their prowling puppet: “As soon as this prototype tiger was in the room, we no longer needed have more difficult conversations. .”

Webster believes the growing popularity of puppetry is part of a larger shift in the industry. “It’s all part of a trend, which includes family entertainment on a slightly larger scale – titles like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – which aren’t really puppet titles but have a great physical, visual storytelling aesthetic that a grandparent can bring a grandchild to,” he says. “The possibility of this kind of show being a commercial success has increased over the past 10 years.”

Life begins… A Dalmatian assembles. Photography: Mark Senior

Ever since War Horse thrust puppetry into the mainstream, Finn Caldwell – who worked on the show as a young designer and puppeteer – has been aware of the fleetingness of these theatrical fads. “When I was training at theater school, mask [theatre] had a period of great popularity and then kind of died,” he recalls. “I was also afraid it would happen with the puppets. It occurred to me that the way to make people continually interested in puppets was not to constantly surprise them with the flashy new thing, but to improve the acting.

For Caldwell, Life of Pi’s recent Olivier win for Best Supporting Actor – awarded to the seven puppeteers who portray the spinning tiger – is a significant step forward for his craft; a recognition that “extraordinary things can be achieved using puppetry, not just visually but in terms of the meat of what drama is: emotion and conflict”.

But how to make a puppet more efficient? A lot of things come down to details. Get the anatomy right, says Caldwell, and the character will follow suit: “Nick Barnes and I will always look at the real anatomy of these animals – because if you put all the joints in the right place in the skeleton, the puppet will want to behave like the The team also watches endless videos of the animals to understand “how they do what they do – and why they do it”.

This quest to get inside the head of the tiger is an ongoing process for the puppeteers currently performing in Life of Pi, which I catch hours before curtain up at the Wyndham Theater, talking excitedly and encouraging one another. . Scarlett Wilderink, who plays the heart of the tiger, and Fred Davis, the chef, have a kind of obsession for the animal they bring to life each night: “To this day, we will still find articles on the interaction of tigers: the way they paws when eating or downing prey of different sizes Not everything is helpful, but everything informs the choices Richard Parker [the tiger’s name] is able to do and the interactions it has.

The life of Pi's tiger during rehearsals.
The life of Pi’s tiger during rehearsals. Photography: David Levene/The Guardian

Despite the wealth of detail behind the performance, the experience itself is surprisingly calming for Wilderink: “It’s completely meditative. After you put on a good show, you’re on the floor, physically, but in your mind, you’re so relaxed.

As with so many puppetry careers in the UK, Wilderink’s journey began with War Horse, where she auditioned as a musician but was not accepted. I haven’t looked back,” she says. “It’s the healthiest and most rewarding collaborative theater experience in the world. There is no such thing. When it’s good” – and here Davis finishes Wilderink’s sentence for her – “You’re on cloud nine.

Cloud nine isn’t quite the phrase that comes to mind when I attend rehearsals for the new musical 101 Dalmatians led by puppets from Regent’s Park Theatre. The session is led by puppet director Toby Olié, whose career – it should be said – began with War Horse. There are smiles all around from the four puppeteers in the room (two for each Dalmatian), but progress is proving slow. Really slow. Later, when I talk to the show’s general manager, Timothy Sheader, he’ll tell me – with just a sigh – that the one thing you need, above all else, when working with puppets is time. Much of the time.

According to Olie’s calculations, the 101 Dalmatians team covers approximately 30 seconds of real-time action in a standard day’s rehearsal. (On Olié’s last show, Animal Farm, they got three and a half minutes of real-time action a day.) As I watch the rehearsals unfold with almost painful precision, every fuss in the tale or ear flicker is open for discussion. At one point, Olié cheerfully shouts to the actors: “Don’t be afraid to amplify the dog!” Yana Penrose, who is controlling Perdi, instinctively tilts the dog’s head in Olié’s direction, as if to listen more carefully. Just a tiny bit of that puppet magic seeps through, as these inanimate objects begin to take on a mysterious life.

The hope, says Penrose, is that by the time rehearsals are over, all the logistical worries will be gone: “The technical stuff sinks in, and then you can start layering a lot of stuff on top of it. It takes a while to develop a relationship with your fellow puppeteers, but by the time the show begins, we’re like one person.

For Penrose, it was watching a production of The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (directed by Max Webster, in the small world of puppet circles) that got her hooked. Something was accidentally thrown into the audience and the puppeteers were forced to improvise. “You could see that mistake didn’t throw them off at all,” she recalled. “Actually, it was just another opportunity to have a happy puppet time, and it was a real moment for me. It was such amazing work. This is where we all aim when we do puppetry.

Puppeteering helped Penrose improve his acting in a way that drama school never could: “I was always told to do less and I just didn’t understand what my tutors were talking about. Now, with puppetry, I can step back and believe that these beautiful puppets, which were made with incredible skill, can do some of the work for me. Audiences don’t need much, she says, to understand a lot: “You can get so much out of a little puppet movement. A little earbud can mean so much.

Toby Olié and Daisy Beattie work on 101 Dalmatians.
Toby Olié and Daisy Beattie work on 101 Dalmatians. Photography: Mark Senior

It is this focus on the finer details of performance that Olié, like his longtime collaborator Caldwell, hopes will ensure the puppet’s lasting appeal: The form must continue to surprise people and tell stories. in a way he’s never done before if he wants to stay.

Besides pushing the performance side of things, Olié also thinks the dark side of puppetry is ripe for exploration. It’s an aspect of the art he’s begun to explore in more detail in his recent work on Animal Farm, he says. “We started to push the tone. We said, yes, they are puppets, but don’t expect it to be comforting or cozy. Don’t expect it to be too friendly.

In one particularly heartbreaking scene, Penrose – who played cow, horse and dog – stuffed a much-loved cat puppet into a bag and, with a brutal blow, snapped its neck. “Puppetry is always supposed to be for young audiences and families,” says Olié, “but we can get quite graphic with puppets. You can push the limits. Penrose adds with some pride, “You can really break people’s hearts with puppets.

Life of Pi is at Wyndham’s Theater in London, until October 30; 101 Dalmatians is at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London, until August 28.

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