“It’s swoon time, ladies and gentlemen. Joey...is the kind of matinee idol New York hasn’t seen in ages. Tall, high-strung and handsome, with chestnut hair and eyes that catch the light, this strapping leading man is so charismatic you can imagine fans of both sexes lining up at the stage door with bouquets. Or maybe lumps of sugar and handfuls of hay”. -The New York Times
As the theater darkens, three puppeteers take the stage, dropping the wooden hooves of a nervous “colt” to the ground. Miraculously, the metal, wood, and leather contraption instantly takes on a living, breathing energy that electrifies the room. As the colt prances on clumsy legs, the puppeteers quickly disappear and Joey the horse becomes the star.
The story, taken from a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo, is emotionally charged. When young Albert’s horse, Joey, is sold to the cavalry during World War One and shipped to France, Albert embarks on a dangerous quest to find him. After running away from home and enlisting illegally, Albert finds himself in the trenches, watching men and horses fall around him, overpowered by the cold strength of invincible tanks. (Over 8 million horses died in the war.)
Unlike the book on which it is based, War Horse is not told from the horse’s perspective. Instead, these horses become our lens, through which we watch the effects of war with innocence and detachment.
The amazing horse puppets, larger than life-size, are hand-made from aluminum, warped cane, nylon mesh, and leather. Built to be light and easy to control, the design of the puppets is constantly evolving, tweaked to fit the actors’ needs and improvements to the play’s performance. Designed and made by the Handspring Puppet Company, located in South Africa, a puppet takes a team of ten craftsmen over six months to make. Not particularly realistic, the puppets arrive, their first moves jolting. It is a unique thrill to see a collection of artificial parts transformed into a subtle yet majestic horse. Though the play’s sentimentality is hardly as subtle as Joey’s small ear movements and cautious breathing, it pulls the heartstrings of any of us who can remember their childhood pet as one of their truest loves. Joey’s distress is so realistic, you could swear you saw his muscles quiver and his eyes widen. When he feels fresh, he overwhelms the small stage with thundering hooves, swinging his huge head out over the audience. It takes a only a few minutes to forget that he is but a moveable frame, a sort of three-dimensional sketch, in which our imagination fills the details. After seeing the show, one reviewer remarked, “Last night was heart-breaking, and so alive was Joey that, from the very start, I breathed with him, ached for him, flinched at the whip, dreaded the barbed wire.”
Bringing the Horses To Life
A team of three puppeteers brings each puppet to life: two within the horse’s body, and one controlling its head from the outside. Known as the “head, heart, and hind,” the team works together to evoke the behavior of a horse. The “head”, who stands near the horse’s shoulder, appears to be leading the horse, and controls the horse’s focus through its ears, which move separately, and its chin. The “heart” stands within the puppet, and moves the front legs, creating the illusion of the horse’s breath by lifting the body subtly, up and down. Finally, the “hind” stands in the rear of the puppet, attached to the actor in front of him through the aluminum spine of the horse, which is connected to a rigid harness that fits over each of them.
Though none of the actors are dancers by trade, each team has an amalgamation of styles and training that gives the horses their character. They have studied classical acting, musical theater, movement, filmmaking, and puppetry. It is a physically demanding show. The puppets are built to be ergonomic, but still, they weigh nearly 80 pounds, not counting the occasional rider, whose weight is divided between the two interior puppeteers. Throughout the play, actors mount, ride, and are thrown from the horses with a natural movement that leads one to quickly forget that their weight is held only by the two puppeteers.
Four teams of actors rotate through the cast, playing each horse twice per week. The constantly changing combinations of personalities are so varied that each performance is inevitably an interplay of untested dynamics and circumstances. Unable to speak while inside the horse, each team solves the problem of communication differently. Breath cues, shifts in weight, and vocalizations of the horse can help to set a movement into action.
The skin of the horse, a semi-transparent nylon mesh, allows the interior actors some vision, while appearing mostly opaque to the audience. This way, when something happens on stage, the team can see it, or trust one of the others to see it, and react to it. The energy transfers from one puppeteer to the next the way a message from the brain is transmitted through the body, and the reaction of a turned ear might follow a hand’s touch to the flanks by only a split second. One of the puppeteers, Joby Earle, explains “the goal is to have every decision of the horse be made as a team, which is measured in milliseconds. It’s not magic, but it is exhilarating when it happens.”
In effect, each actor is thinking like a horse. But how did they learn to portray a horse’s behavior so well? “A lot of research,” says Ariel Heller, another of the play’s puppeteers. Given a certain amount of general knowledge when they began, the actors continue gathering more specific information throughout their experience in the play. They have visited horse farms, learned to ride, and studied literature and videos. Though none of the actors had horses in their lives, they learned, individually and together, about equine behavior, anatomy, and about what it’s like to be around horses. For example, when Joey is put in front of a plow, the actors must emote the strength required, and believably represent the movement of this power from the horses rear hooves up through the neck and shoulders. To solve this dilemma, the actors found a video of a horse pulling weight, and studied the physics that made it possible. “Still, it’s not just a matter of mechanics,” says team member, Enrico Wey, “a lot of our research focuses on psychology.”
One of the first places the cast began was with a documentary about Monty Roberts, the famed Horse Whisperer and expert horse behaviorist. From this film, the puppeteers learned about the relationship between horses and humans, and about the huge amount of information that a horse sends out through its stance, its ears, its vocalizations, and its movements. “When we are in the horse, we have to disassociate from the language of the play, both speech and music, and listen instead to changes in volume, pitch, rhythm, position… and that ideally, is what directs where we go next,” explains Wey. Throughout the play, the horses move away from what is dangerous or frightening, and toward what can be trusted. The trusting relationship between the characters and the horses is what drives the play forward, and what makes the story emotional and fascinating. Puppeteer Joby Earle explains, “A horse in distress is looking for a leader. They’re a pack animal and they are looking to join up. So when we’re playing the horse, we are always trying to decide what is the safest place, whether we can trust who we’re with or if we should flee” In many ways, this behavior shapes the play, and what ultimately makes the story of a boy and his horse so compelling.
Year's Best Play
Having just taken Best Play at the 2011 Tony Awards, and extended to an open run at New York City’s Lincoln Center, War Horse’s successes are mounting. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, slated to hit theaters this Christmas, will tell the story with real horses.
“The message of the show is one of peace,” says Heller, “Seeing the war through the eyes of the horses draws out the absurdity of the violence. They had no choice. They didn’t understand the fight, but horses died in huge numbers for it. It’s great to have this story out there, to spread that message, that war is not the answer.”
Article courtesy of Equestrian Quarterly magazine. Photos by Paul Kolnik show Seth Numrich in the National Theatre of Great Britain production, directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, produced by Lincoln Center Theater in association with Bob Boyett at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 105 West 65th St, New York, NY. Tickets available at Telecharge.com