Life of Pi comes to the Hippodrome main stage next month. Based on the best-selling book by Yann Martel, the five-star hit show tells the story of Pi, battling an epic storm, accompanied by hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a Royal Bengal tiger. The animals are all portrayed by stunning puppets, and we spoke with Romina Hytten and Akash Heer, two of the puppeteers, about their experiences and how they bring Richard Parker, the Royal Bengal tiger to life.
Tell us a little about your background and how it led you to this role?
Romina (tiger heart and hind): Puppetry is amazing in that you do get to play the most bizarre roles. I learned puppetry at Chichester Festival Youth Theatre when I was 16, although I did my first puppet when I was 11 and that was a tiger, which is funny – I have been typecast! I didn’t train at drama school, but I managed to learn on the job and have been inspired by everyone I’ve worked with in the last ten years. And here I am with Life of Pi.
Akash (tiger head): When I got the part I was excited but also shocked because I’m an actor. Movement was an important part of my training, but everything I’ve done has been acting. I auditioned for some of the characters in Life of Pi and took part in a movement workshop and then they invited me back for a puppetry audition. I was quite surprised but they really liked my movement. The audition was so much fun. To see the passion they all had for this production made it more exciting. Normally you have audition nerves but I was just honoured to be in this space and to learn different techniques. I would leave the auditions revved up and wanting to continue. The energy in the room was electric. When I got the part I was over the moon.
Is learning a part like this similar to playing a musical instrument in that you have to master the notes on the score before adding your own interpretation?
Romina: Yes. It’s incredibly technical when you first pick up a puppet. You have to learn to move in specific ways. This show is very physical and you have to train your body to cope. You have to learn to breathe and to be the tiger. After you’ve learned all of that and your brain is exploding, you get to a point when you know your teammates so well you can read their minds. You can improvise on stage and that’s so beautiful. That’s when the tiger comes to life.
Akash: They’ve given us the structure, but they are continuously open for us to explore and discover. Once you’ve got the format down, you’re open to explore. I think about what my tiger would be like if they were human. I even have a Spotify playlist for my tiger. Music is such a huge part of me and I like to create music that fits my character.
How important is it to work as a team?
Romina: Each puppeteer brings a different energy and you have to tune in with them. I did the show for 15 months in London and we were still finding new things right in the last week. We keep learning from each other and the show gets richer. We have a rotating system because it would be too physically demanding to play the tiger every night, so we get to watch each other. When you’re in the puppet you can’t tell if what you’re doing looks good so you have to rely on your teammates to tell you. It’s very collaborative and a lovely way to work.
Akash: It’s three different bodies but you sync and connect with breath. When the breath beats through to the heart and the hind only then do I feel truly connected. You feel you have connected to two other souls and you are in charge of this beast. You walk forward, you pause, you react, you attack and when everything syncs up it’s such an exhilarating feeling.
Can you bring your own personality to it?
Romina: It’s very collaborative so lots of my ideas have gone into it. There are little tricks you’ve been able to come up with, so if you step off the bed in a particular way it becomes known as the “Romina move” or whoever the puppeteer is. We’re acting Richard Parker, so you bring your own emotions to each scene. As the heart, I might react differently from one of the other puppeteers in that moment. There are individual energies.
Akash: Each team has a different tiger. Yes, we have the same scenes, intentions and objectives, but each tiger is different. I’m a tiger that’s more dominant, more ferocious. You’ll have another tiger that is more cautious and observant. I’m so excited to see how my tiger develops over a month, three months and a year. They encourage us to explore and it is liberating to know you can add more flavour to your tiger.
Is it hard to be in full view and yet not be seen?
Romina: Yes. There is a set of puppetry principles that allows us to disappear. When you’re playing a tiger, you’re very fierce and you’re making big tiger roars. I don’t put the energy into my body or into my face but into the puppet. I find it meditative. You feel everything but you’re sending the energy away. You have to have no ego to go on stage and say, “Don’t look at me, look at this.” Also, you can’t look good unless your whole team looks good so you have to want to be a tiger with your team. When you’re really in sync that’s when you disappear and people will just see a tiger on stage.
Akash: In our first week of rehearsals I went with my actor’s cap on and I had to work on connecting with the puppet so the puppet was more dominant than me. I am a 6ft 1in guy and when I’m on stage you see me. I have learned so much about not overstepping the line: the puppet is the dominant figure and the three puppeteers are part of it. It’s such an empowering experience. When you allow yourself to be open and to surrender to the puppet, it can take over your emotions. It makes me feel strong, grounded and emotional – I feel like a tiger.
Life of Pi comes to Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 12 February – Saturday 17 February. Tickets can be booked here.