Puppeteering ’War Horse’ :: The ’Woo-Woo Effect’
Few recent plays have the emotional pull of "War Horse," Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel about a boy and a horse and a World War. That war, the First World War, violently jolted old Europe into the 20th century, decimating an entire generation of young men in the process; a tragedy the play so eloquently expresses.
Morpurgo thought Stafford was crazy to make a play out of his 1988 children’s novel, which follows the bond that develops between Albert, an impoverished farm boy, and a horse - named Joey -- his father buys with hopes that it will save the family farm. World War I separates them - Joey is recruited as part of the cavalry, while the boy - too young to serve - must stay behind. But once on the front, Joey becomes a horse whose allegiance isn’t to one side or another, but to both as he finds his way on both sides of the fronts. Albert, still to young to join the military, runs away to France in search of Joey.
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because of Steven Spielberg’s big-budgeted film version, which was released last Christmas to middling reviews. Many felt that this realistic, old Hollywood treatment of Morpurgo’s story missed the lean, stylized approach that made the play such a sensation after it
opened at the Royal National Theater in the fall of 2007. It subsequently moved to the West End (where it is still playing) and to Broadway (where it closes this coming January after a 20-month run).
In love with puppetry
What has made it such an extraordinary theater experience is the stagecraft that brings to life a pair of horses through the use of seven-foot high, intricately designed puppets that need to be light enough to gallop across the stage but strong enough to support a rider. Created by the team of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler (of the South African Handspring Puppet Company), the puppets (made of cane, silk and aluminum) lift their hoofs, shake their tails, move their ears, and in the most amazing effect, appear to breathe as a real horse would. To make this happen, it takes three actors to maneuver them: two inside the horse (who play the Heart and the Hind), and a third that stands outside who plays the Head. Part of the magic comes with how the puppeteers appear to disappear to the audience, creating the illusion of a living horses with emotional dimensions and distinct personalities.
Jon Riddleberger plays the head for both Joey, the war horse of the title, and Topthorn, a military horse he befriends at the front, in the national company that runs at the Opera House through October 21. The out, 26-year old actor came to the production when he saw an ad for puppeteers for the tour. He fell in love with puppetry while a student at NYU as part of the school’s experimental theater program. "I really liked puppets. I found them a really exciting theatrical tool," he explained from Atlanta recently where the production had settled in for a week’s run.
After college the New Jersey native worked for a number of downtown theater companies; then he saw a casting call for puppeteers for the national company of "War Horse." Having seen - and been impressed - by the play, which was drawing sell-out crowds at Lincoln Center Theater after winning a number of Tony Awards, he decided to try out to play one of the horse puppeteers.
"It was one of those lucky things," he recalled. "I did a 20 minute phone interview and they invited me to audition. The auditions were really cool because they were workshops with the horses. I was in a room of people that didn’t know what to do. We were at the beginning of the learning process of how to bring these horses to life. It was a pretty great audition."
What Riddleberger learned was not only was he to be evaluated on his own puppetry skills, but also with how well he works as part of a team, a crucial component in the complex maneuverings involved in giving these puppets a life-like dimension. "They were looking for people with a strong sense of ensemble and collaboration, and humility. You have to fight your ego away all the time because you are sharing your part with two other people. I think this audition process gave them a sense of who would fit into this work."
Losing himself in the moment - that is, disappearing into whichever horse (Joey or Topthorn) he was playing was hard at first, but then it became second-nature. And by playing the head, the most visible of the puppeteers, it seemed natural to think that he’d be the puppeteer in charge, which is not the case. The reason he isn’t is simple. "I have no part in the making the horse move. I can tug and pull as much as I want, but it is my partners that move the horse. I think of my job on the head as the sprinkles on top of the ice cream. I feel that the two people inside the horse have a lot of control on where the horse goes, how the horse responds to things. It’s my job to help the audience understand the horse’s movements emotionally and intellectually. As we developed our team there are definite ways that I have to queue actions to my teammates that I thought were appropriate. The goal isn’t one leader - the goal is the lead can come from any of us."
Head, Heart, Hind
Their achievement is considerable. "It is how Joey is summoned into being, along with an assortment of other animals, that gives this production its ineffably theatrical magic," wrote Ben Brantley in the New York Times. "... I would wager that for a good while, you’ll continue to see Joey in your dreams."
To create the illusion calls for a considerable effort: the production travels with two teams of three puppeteers for each of the main horses, then an addition team for the baby horse at the beginning of the play, which makes for a total of 15. The four teams for the two main horses alternate with each actor playing the same role (Head, Heart and Hind).
"It’s really interesting playing two different horses. We understand as actors what makes humans different in their personalities, but it’s been an interesting process to distinguish two different horses and their personalities. That’s been the most challenging aspect. Joey, who is the main horse, is smaller and a little bit wider; Topthorn is a thoroughbred - very tall and skinny. He’s been raised as a military horse, very Alpha male. So they’re different to puppet. There are these physical differences that change the way we have to puppet the horse."
What may be the most difficult trick for the puppeteers to pull off is to ask the audience to suspend disbelief to the point where the actors fade away. It may seem strange, but from all reports, it is key to the bond the play has on its audiences. But how do they do it?
"The trick is to give all the energy to the horse," Riddleberger explained. "I stare at the horse’s eyeball the whole show and do my best not to move my body unless the horse’s head is moving as well. I am there - completely exposed - but everything I do relates to the horse. The horses are so complete in their design that the audience decides the horse is more interesting than I am. And if I decide to make the horse more interesting than I am, the audience can lose track that I am there. It’s all about pushing energy to the horse. Basil (Jones), one of our Handstring puppeteers, describes it as the ’woo woo’ effect of puppets, which as a puppeteer I convince myself that if the puppet is having a thought, the audience will see that too. It’s hard to describe, but it works."
What also works is the integration of the production elements into suggesting the play’s various landscapes, which range from the Devon countryside to the bleak war zone. "The design is minimal. There is just enough in the representational design for the audience to understand (the locales), and find that exciting. To ask the audience to be a part of the imaginative process of the story is what I crave in the theater."
A speaking role?
He’s also pleased by the growing use of puppetry in the theater, from long-running hits like "Avenue Q" to the work of Basil Twist and the extravagant designs seen in recent productions at the Metropolitan Opera. "Puppetry is one of those things - you have puppets in television and film, but a puppet on stage is the essence of theater. And I think it is cool that it is becoming such a mainstream tool. And I think ’War Horse’ is groundbreaking in that the animal that doesn’t speak is put at the center of a play. And the fact that the puppetry can convey that is really exciting."
But one thing that Riddleberger misses (jokingly) is actually speaking on stage. A veteran of numerous downtown Manhattan theater productions, his role in "War Horse" requires his silence. "I was saying to someone the other day that when I’m done with this show, it will be great to speak words. But we are definitely acting in our roles. We have to re-arrange the way we see the world around us, which I think is what every actor does on stage. You have to create different rules for how you react and observe the world. What we’re doing is creating those rules as a animal, not a person."
As for being out, it’s no big deal. "It was never something that I needed to hide. I have never found it to be an issue. The theater is an incredibly open community, especially to LGBT individuals. I know there are celebrities in the media that don’t want to come out because there’s a feeling that gay people can’t play romantic roles; but that’s such an outdated notion. You have straight men playing gay men and you have gay men playing straight men - it’s all just acting."
"War Horse" plays through October 21, 2012 at the Boston Opera House. For more details, visit the Broadway In Boston website.