The Star Steeds of 'War Horse'
by jared bowen
From the moment War Horse galloped on-stage in London, it has been a theatrical phenomenon. Based on a popular British novel, the play centers on Joey, a spirited horse raised by Albert, a young man in the British countryside. Conscripted by the British military during World War I (against Albert’s wishes), Joey is sent on a wayward journey through Europe—serving on both sides of the war—as Albert makes it his own mission to find and rescue his horse from the horrors of war.
In arguably the most striking use of puppets since The Lion King, the breathtakingly realistic Joey and War Horse’s other beautiful animals were crafted by the Handspring Puppet Company, which received a special Tony Award for the effort last year. The show features 14 animal puppets, including nine horses, a goose, and four other birds. But the horses are the centerpieces. At 120 pounds, 10 feet long, and 8 feet tall, they are framed in cane and aluminum and draped in a hosiery-like Georgette fabric that comprises the skin. Each is manipulated by an extensively trained team of three puppeteers using levers and harnesses to enact movements including breathing, tilting the ears, and whipping the tail. One head puppeteer works outside the horse’s frame, while two others operate from within the horse as the “heart” and “hind.” Boston Common spoke with one of Handspring Puppet Company’s co-founders, Adrian Kohler.
BC: Had you been intimately familiar with horses prior to working on this project?
Adrian Kohler: I rode horses when I was a kid on my grandfather’s farm, and so did Basil [ Jones, Kohler’s Handspring co-founder]. He rode as a youngster. We studied real horses on a farm, the horse racing movies, and read as much as we could. The way horses respond to other horses and to people in the world is what provides the substance of the horse characters in our show.
BC: Were there any fundamental elements of the novel that most informed your creation?
AK: This horse starts its life on a farm in a fairly idyllic (in horse terms) situation, with a boy who loves the animal. When the war comes, the horse is sold to the war and starts off as a British horse and crosses the line in France and becomes a German horse. He goes through all four years of the war—not taking sides in the war like people do. He has to survive. And because of that you start to feel, well, how futile is this war? There are people who don’t want to be there who are killing each other. And the horse really seems to highlight that by being a neutral character.
BC: The puppetry must require an intense concentration.
AK: I t’s a huge job. The horses are the main characters on stage for nearly the whole of a two-hour production. And the horses go through a lot of trials in that time. They both have to hit their biographic marks and also have to show the trajectory of the character and have no words to do that like people do. We start with a two-week training period where the puppeteers learn the mechanics of the horse, observe live horses, and work solely on the puppetry without any interaction with other actors or scene work. And then it’s followed by a rehearsal period where the rest of the cast joins in.
BC: In terms of the puppeteers, how do you decide what the audience members will see on stage?
AK: It takes about five minutes for you to get used to it, and then you don’t see the puppeteers anymore. And it takes quite a particular actor to agree to obliterate him- or herself on stage. Only by doing that will the character show through. If the performer is not ready to let go of his or her own persona, the puppet won’t live. The consequence of that sacrifice is you get a huge reward because the audience imagines the horse is a real horse in front of them.
BC: People find themselves sobbing at the end. Does that represent the ultimate measure of success for you?
AK: I’ve seen the show many times, and I worked on the mechanics. For me, there’s no illusion anymore, and yet I am still caught up with the emotion. The story is simple but strong. And I think there’s something very real in the way it touches the emotion in you. We all feel for creatures that are defenseless, whether they are human or animal.
BC: Is there something particularly moving about the horse?
AK: In a way, all our cities until 1920 were designed around the horse. The working horse was everywhere and then during the First World War, which is some of our play, so many horses were killed and the landscapes in Britain, France, and Germany changed completely. The machine took over. I think the play is a reflection of both the horrors of war and the war on innocent creatures. It was also a period when the world changed, and we lost something.
photography by brinkhoff/mÖgenburg