Since being part of the world premiere of Life of Pi at the Sheffield Crucible in 2019, Fred Davis is currently performing as the Tiger in the West End production at the Wyndham’s Theatre. At this year’s Olivier Awards, Fred won Best Actor in a Supporting Role alongside his fellow puppeteers, with Life of Pi picking up a total of five Olivier Awards, and the cast also performed at the ceremony. Before the pandemic, Fred was cast in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the National Theatre, and in 2018, he appeared at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in Peter Pan. As an Associate Artist with Gyre & Gimble, Fred has worked on many shows including Running Wild and The Hartlepool Monkey and, for his training, he attended Chichester Festival Youth Theatre. Alongside his stage career, Fred also has screen experience with puppeteering, having filmed for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Recently, we chatted to Fred about performing as the Tiger in Life of Pi, winning Best Actor in a Supporting Role at this year’s Olivier Awards and his work with Gyre & Gimble.
You are currently in the cast of Life of Pi in the West End at the Wyndham’s Theatre, how are you finding your time in the show and how is the run going so far?
I’m absolutely loving it, having the the most incredible experience! The show is so beautiful and the company is full of wonderful people, I count myself very lucky to be able to spend my days at the theatre with them all.
What is the Tiger like to perform as and how much did you know about the story before booking the role?
Richard Parker is an incredible beast to be a part of. He is so beautifully designed and made that most of the character work has already been done for us. The puppetry team that I perform with are of such a high calibre that it rarely feels like we’re working, more like playing! I knew the story before starting so was aware of what a huge role Richard played in the story which was slightly daunting initially. The emotional and physical journey that the Tiger and Pi go on together is mega and was so much fun to explore in rehearsals and to continue to explore now!
How was it being part of the world premiere of the show in 2019 at the Sheffield Crucible?
The Sheffield version was so lovely to be a part of. To be a part of something that had been in development for three years with that specific theatre in mind was truly wonderful. It felt incredibly special while we were doing it. Our instincts and the audience reactions we got gave us all an idea that we had something worth sharing with as many people as possible.
At this year’s Olivier Awards, you and the rest of the puppeteers at Life of Pi won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, how was it being announced as the winners and collecting the award?
It was so surreal to be awarded something I’ve seen people I admire win in previous years, never even imagining I might be in that position myself one day. It felt like a dream. I was so proud of everyone for the hard work they have and continue to put in every day to make that character what it is and to keep the quality of our show as high as possible.
Life of Pi won five Olivier Awards, how did you find the experience attending the event and what’s it like seeing the success of the show?
It was incredible! The whole evening was an absolute blur of running and joy. We did our Sunday matinee show then rushed over to the awards to walk the carpet, rushed into our costumes to do our performance and finally rushed back into our smart clothes to attend the rest of the ceremony. We had about 30 seconds sitting down before the Best Supporting Actor was announced, all very exciting and fast-paced!
What are you looking forward to most for continuing your run in the show at the Wyndham’s Theatre?
I am looking forward to seeing how the show shifts and grows the more we do it and explore the characters and their interactions even more. This is the longest run of a show I’ve been a part of so I’m eager to witness what that is like.
Can you tell us about performing in The Ocean at the End of the Lane at the National Theatre and what was the production like to be part of?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane was an absolutely incredible show to be a part of. The whole cast, crew and creative team was of such a high standard and wonderful to work with. The story itself was fantastic and I hadn’t even heard of it before the job came along so to delve into it was an absolute treat. I’m so glad the production has had another life in the West End, it’s meant I’ve been able to actually see the show, which isn’t usually the case with things I’ve been involved with previously.
What did you enjoy most about working at the National Theatre and was there anything that drew you to the play?
Neil Gaiman’s writing has always been interesting to me and I’ve always wanted to work at the National Theatre. The creative team was full of people at the pinnacle of their fields so that was an absolute dream to be led by a group of such incredible minds. The Dorfman stage is such a beautiful space so to transform it with our set was magical.
In 2018, you were part of Peter Pan at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, what was this like?
That was some of the most fun I’ve ever had on a job. Regent’s Park in the summer in a show where we get to play children was like a paid holiday with my best mates. I had an incredible time there. Outdoor theatre is something I really enjoy as it’s so changeable which keeps everything so alive every show.
We understand you are an Associate Artist at Gyre & Gimble, can you tell us about this?
I am indeed, I work with Gyre & Gimble performing/developing their shows and exploring ideas for new projects. Alongside that, I am part of the training aspect of the company, helping bring puppetry skills to a wider and more diverse pool of people.
Your shows with them include Running Wild and The Hartlepool Monkey, what were these like to perform in?
These were both wonderful shows to be a part of. My role in both of them centred around primate characters, so I was eyeball deep in primate knowledge and research for a long while! I was able to tour the UK with both productions, which I am so grateful for, the experience of a lifetime!
How did you find your time training and performing with Chichester Festival Youth Theatre and what are some of your favourite memories from working with them?
I had such an incredible time at Chichester. The youth theatre is run so well and the introduction they give to young people looking to get into the industry is out of this world. What I learned there set me in incredibly good stead when entering into professional jobs as an adult. The Christmas shows are in the main house so you’re performing to massive audiences even though it’s a youth production. My favourite show that I was a part of was probably The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when I was about 13. The show was beautiful and huge and the company was just like a massive family, there for each other at the highs and lows. I learnt a great deal.
On screen, you have worked on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, what was the experience like on set?
It was like setting foot into a different world. The set was so detailed and absolutely huge that you literally couldn’t see anything that would base you in our version of reality at times. It was my first experience of screen puppetry so there was a lot of learning for me to do. Very fast-paced and exciting from start to finish.
Did you always know you wanted a career in puppetry and acting and how did you get started in both?
I first became interested in acting when I saw the West End production of The Lion King when I was a child and afterwards said to my mother “I want to be Simba”. I joined Chichester Festival Youth Theatre to learn more about acting and make like-minded friends. I always planned to go to university and study engineering while continuing to act. Get a job in engineering to make some money and then delve properly into acting once I had some stability. But then I took the puppeteering role in Running Wild at Chichester, caught the puppeteering bug and ultimately had to choose between finishing my A-Levels and performing in the Regent’s Park transfer of Running Wild. I chose to bin my A-Levels and do the job and the rest is history!
Do you have a favourite aspect of working as a puppeteer and what would you say have been some of the stand-out highlights of your career so far?
My favourite part of being a puppeteer is being able to create and perform characters with a group of people, with all of our minds coming together to form one being. It’s magic. I’d have to say puppeteering for the Queen is up there, alongside winning an Olivier!
What advice would you give a puppeteer starting out in the industry?
I would say be as open to possibilities as possible. Take each step as it presents itself and don’t try and plan ahead too stringently. Be bold as a performer and try out ideas but kind enough to graciously drop them if needed. And most importantly, have fun, hold on to your sense of play. It’s what will keep you sane.
How do you like to spend your time away from performing and what are some of your favourite theatre shows to watch?
I like to go climbing and I’m quite a handy person, always fiddling and fixing things around my place. I enjoy spending time with my mum and sister and pack of five dogs down in West Sussex. Most of all, I enjoy just relaxing with my partner Katy. I’ve been quite lax in my theatre watching of late but I thoroughly enjoyed Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre, it’s an absolute must-watch!
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