Life-sized tiger puppet is prowling Sheffield Crucible stage for Life of Pi

Puppet designer Finn Caldwell has created all creatures great and small, including tiger Richard Parker, who prowls the Sheffield Crucible stage in Life of Pi.

Monday, 1st July 2019, 11:50 am
Updated Wednesday, 3rd July 2019, 16:26 pm
Puppet designer Finn Caldwell watches performers working with Richard Parker the tiger during rehearsals for Life of Pi at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield

Finn, who works with co-designer Nick Barnes in their theatre company Gyre and Gimble, is also puppetry and movement director on the show, which had its premiere this week (July 2).

Life of Pi has been adapted from Yann Martell’s best-selling novel about Pi, a 16-year-old boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific Ocean.

He is stranded on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and Richard Parker, which is the name of a hungry Bengal tiger, all from his family’s zoo. But who will survive?

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Finn, who has worked on the iconic show War Horse, said: “I regularly direct my own shows and direct puppetry for other people’s shows.

“It makes much more sense to be designing the puppets. Then I know what it is and how it’s going to work on stage.”

So how does he create a huge puppet like Richard Parker or Lola the elephant from Michael Morpurgo’s Running Wild?

After looking at real tigers and their anatomy and how they move around, Finn and Nick created the puppets from conceptual drawings.

They made sketches of the mechanism, then built a prototype to see how it works.

Parts were laser printed and hand-sculpted pieces added on top. The working models, which have sprung joints, were taken into rehearsals.

Constant adjustments have to be made as the performers find out what they can do and what isn’t working.

The puppets started off black, then they were painted and finished.

The tiger Richard Parker is performed by three specialist puppet actors. Owain Gwynn moves the head and back from the outside, Kate Colebrook is right inside the puppet and Fred Davis operates the back legs.

They have to learn how to move naturalistically like a tiger, learning its unique rhythms, and also how to respond to the other actors and create the tiger’s reactions convincingly.

They have worked together on many shows in the past. Other members of the cast have varying experience with puppets, so part of Finn’s job is to work with them.

Finn said: “As well as the tiger, we have an orangutan, hyena and zebra. We call them the big four. They all have character arcs and go on a journey.”

He added: “There is an amazing relationship between the boy and the tiger. It lends itself to a really subtly developing relationship between the two characters.”

Finn worked as an actor before returning to his passion for visual storytelling.

“I’d never touched a puppet before. I took a big step back and a pay cut and formed my own company and worked with similar companies that did more visual, physical theatre. I was performing for a while but you can’t perform and devise and direct. The shows got bigger and bigger.”

During that time Finn was part of the original puppetry team for War Horse.

Gyre and Gimble has worked on or created shows including Dr Seuss’s The Lorax and a reimagining of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Finn also worked on Angels in America, a story about gay people during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, creating an angel with huge wings.

So what’s next? Finn said: “I love a challenge. One of my biggest desires is to create a dragon which is eight feet high with two wings and a tail.

“I don’t know how many puppeteers that would need!”

Life of Pi is at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield until July 20. Box office: visit the theatre, call 0114 249 6000 or go online at www.shefieldtheatres.co.uk