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Posted on Tue 02 Jan
Lolita Chakrabarti’s innovative stage adaptation of Yann Martel’s award-winning novel, Life Of Pi, was an immediate hit when it premiered at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre in 2019. A West End transfer followed in 2021, as did a handful of Olivier Awards - including Best New Play. A menagerie of exotic creatures is at the heart of the show, all brought to life through the magic of puppetry - as expert puppeteer Romina Hytten recently explained to What’s On...
Romina Hytten is an expert on the behaviour of a whole menagerie of creatures, from goats to orangutans and hyenas to tigers.
As puppet captain and puppeteer on the tour of the hit West End show Life Of Pi, Romina needs to know and understand their every movement, to ensure she can make the animals on stage appear as realistic as possible.
Romina, who was also a puppeteer for the show’s run at the Wyndham’s Theatre in London, says it is essential to breathe life into the creatures - especially the tiger, who plays a key part in the story.
“It’s a pretty crazy role, but it’s amazing getting to play a tiger and trying to play it as real as possible. We do a lot of animal study at the beginning of rehearsals. We research all about them, about their habitat, eating habits, and we watch endless videos of how they move so that we get their movements really accurate.
“That’s a really fun part of the process, getting to really study the animals - and also all the sounds, as we make all the sounds of the animals in the show. So we study how and why they make sounds, and then we train our voices to be able to make a deep tiger growl and try to make it sound as authentic as possible. It’s a really bizarre role but a really fun and creative one.”
In the show, based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, Pi and his parents run a zoo in India but decide to sell up and emigrate to Canada. After a storm wrecks the ship on which they’re travelling, Pi is cast adrift on a lifeboat which he shares with some of the creatures from the zoo - most notably a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
It takes three people to work the life-size tiger puppet, and Romina plays both heart and hind on rotation.
“We’re working as a team of three, from a larger team of eight puppeteers who all rotate through the tiger and all the other animals in the show. We’ve become a real team, and we’re constantly watching each other, learning from each other and stealing little bits of puppetry from each other!”
And each rotation can add new nuances to the creatures.
“Everyone brings their own little character to all of the animals, so when a different head puppeteer is on Richard Parker, he may have a slightly different character to one of the other puppeteers. It’s the same with the hind or the heart - we all bring our own energy to the show.
“Also, we are always improvising on stage, so it feels really live. That’s part of making the animals feel as alive and as realistic as possible. We don’t want it to be too choreographed or too set in stone. So there’s room to play every night, and you get to feel that exciting buzz of not being quite sure what the tiger is going to do next.”
Despite the tiger being the most physically demanding of the puppetry roles, Romina has a real soft spot for Richard Parker.
“The heart of the tiger is always going to be my favourite because that’s what I started as. And I love the tiger hind now - that’s a new role for me for the tour, and getting to operate the tail is really fun. You can be really cheeky! I always love watching my cats and their tails. They’re fascinating; they do these incredible moves and you think, what does that mean?”
Adapted by Lolita Chakrabarti, Life Of Pi was originally staged at Sheffield Crucible in 2019. Then, after a pause due to Covid, it opened in London, where it picked up four coveted Olivier Awards, including Best New Play. It also won Best Actor in a Supporting Role, which went to the puppetry team playing the tiger.
“Winning the Olivier was incredible; it still feels very surreal. It felt so much larger than us, like a real recognition for puppetry as an art form and for ensemble and movement and that sort of teamwork. It didn’t feel it was really about us. It was extra special, and every time I see my award on the shelf, I pinch myself.”
Romina first became interested in puppetry as a member of the Chichester Festival Youth Theatre, where she worked with professionals including Finn Caldwell - who is puppet & movement director and puppet designer for Life Of Pi - and Toby Olié.
“I sort of fell in love with puppetry at the age of about 16, when I was doing a show called Running Wild, which also had big, life-size orangutans and elephants and a tiger. So youth theatre kickstarted my career and I learnt on the job.”
Based on the book by Michael Morpurgo, Running Wild toured the UK, giving Romina invaluable experience and confirming her love for puppetry.
“There’s something magical about working in a team to create one thing and letting go of all your ego. It becomes quite meditative in that way, as you’re stepping onstage in front of thousands of people and telling the audience not to look at you but to look at this creature and believe this is a real Bengal tiger living and moving on stage. It’s a bit like a magic trick.
“And there’s always something to improve, so every night we’re working at trying to make it better. I’ve done hundreds of shows now, but I’m always excited to do it again and improve and work with new puppeteers and see what they bring to it.
“I think puppetry brings back imagination. When you watch a movie now, computer-generated imagery is so incredible, but there’s something about live theatre and taking an audience on a live journey without any of those tricks. Puppetry is such a raw art form in that way of forcing the audience to use their imagination and go with you on the journey, and I think that is something special. It’s a very ‘live’ thing.
So much of life is digitised now, but puppetry will never be the same unless you see it live.”
For Romina, the success of Life Of Pi is down to both the story and its staging.
“The book was hugely popular, so there’s a real love for the story already. And I think there’s a little part of people wondering ‘How are they going to do that on stage?’ So there’s an element of curiosity there.
“I do really think that it blows people away. It’s visually stunning, there’s incredible projection and lighting design, and the puppets are incredible and steal the show.
“It’s a beautiful story which is relatable in lots of ways. It’s a story with real heart - a story of survival, of grief, of love, of family - people take something different from it. And it really makes you think. You come away pondering what it meant and what it means to you and how it affected you. It takes you on an adventure on the ocean with Pi and the tiger.”
Feature by Diane Parkes
Life Of Pi shows at Birmingham Hippodrome from Monday 12 to Saturday 17 February; Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tuesday 23 to Saturday 27 April and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury, from Tuesday 7 to Saturday 11 May.
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