Having seen the life-size puppets in War Horse in action on television I was utterly bewitched and compelled to find out more about how they are operated and constructed. Also, how such fabricated constructs can have such an emotional impact on the audiences for the War Horse play all around the world. It seems that the audiences love the fact that their imaginations are making the horse manipulators disappear and go from seeing them to – not seeing them – in the heightened moments of theatre magic.
So today (13 June 2017) I went along to the Robin Hood statue by Nottingham Castle to be a part of the promotion of War Horse (the national tour 2018). I am ridiculously excited for the show to arrive at the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham 14 March – 7 April 2018.
On behalf of my company (www.eastmidlandstheatre.com) I was also invited to the launch at the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham today to hear all about the talent that goes into the horse puppeteer’s skills and the War Horse show itself.
From puppetry director, Matthew Forbes, myself and the invited audience discover that in the horse puppet Joey there are three puppeteers, two inside and one outside of the life-size puppet horse made by Handspring. There’s someone operating the head and two others controlling the heart and the hind. They’ve all got a technical job and an emotional job to perform and they’ve all got an emotional indicator. On the head, the puppeteer has got the technical job of maintaining the eye line. Where the eye line falls tells the horse about what another animal or another human being is thinking about. The eyes on the horse puppet don’t move but are made of densely dark glass that picks up the lights in the theatre and give the illusion of life. The horse puppet, just like the real animal, indicates emotion visually through the movement of its ears in co-operation or discord with the rest of its body. So the head puppeteer is able to make the ears twitch and swivel and go back on the head when the creature is either engaged or disturbed.
The puppeteers in unison have had to learn to react as a horse would and, as horses, they see the forward facing eyes of a human and they can conceive us to be predators if we as humans try to hold their gaze. If the human actors in War Horse do this or move towards the horse puppet and its head. the ears go back and the puppeteers behave through mimicking the horse’s stressed snorts and grunts & foot stomping movements. coupled with a swishing, agitated tail. If the human actor’s body language then turns away from the horse puppet – then the ears relax and the horse becomes more docile, as in real life.
The heart puppeteer (as they are known) has the technical task of telling the audience visually of the weight of the horse. In the fore legs of the puppet there is no actual weight going through the legs to the ground. All of the weight goes through the human legs. The illusion that it is a real horse is done through the puppeteer showing the audience, through his positioning inside the frame and his actioning each horse footfall with the implication of weight. The actor/puppeteers have to be as conditioned and strong as athletes in War Horse. They have also got the breath of the horse to convey and without that it becomes a dead horse. Like an actor coming on stage and telling stories through breath the puppet does so in order to ‘be ‘alive’.
What makes the play War Horse really special is the audience’s willingness to suspend belief and believe in the life and breath of the puppet horse. Even watching video of the show there is an amazing emotional connection and love that extends from the audience towards these puppet creatures and the skills of the puppeteers who, quite incredibly, seem to disappear whilst on stage.
The auditory aspects of the horse breath performed by the puppeteers themselves can demonstrate how the horse is feeling. Short rapid breaths indicate that the horse is afraid and tense or if the sounds are deeper and throaty it can indicate that the horse is exhausted. Thrusting short snorty breaths show that the horse is angered or ready to charge. Often all three of the puppeteers work together to produce a collection of noises including whinnying noises that start in the human chest and dependent on the puppeteer’s range become higher and higher to the point of a shriek. Gareth Aled, Matt Tait and Derek Arnold (expert puppeteers at the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham War Horse launch) explain that the ‘horse’ breathing and vocalising techniques are difficult as the lung capacity of a horse is much greater than that of a human.
The hind puppeteer has the emotional indicator of the tail and like the ears that can show us about the mood of the horse whether it is alert or irritated and it is made of a non flammable substance like the mane. This puppeteer’s job is to demonstrate the weight of the hind. When the horse is about to set off walking, or galloping the hind part dips, the back legs appear to push off the ground, seemingly propelling the horse puppet forwards. As well as showing the audience the power of the horse the puppeteer also has the job of visually telling the spectators about the gait of the horse. When the horse is walking it walks in a four pattern and the hind is responsible for that because the front legs can’t ‘look’ back so the hind has to look forward and make sure that he’s in line with those front legs.
When the horse goes into a trot the four count becomes a two count pattern. Again the hind is maintaining that and as the horse shifts up into a gallop the pace naturally becomes faster and the count becomes a faster four count. The founders of Handspring created their company in South Africa in 1981 and one of their shows was about a giraffe given to the King of France as a present. Each giraffe was operated by two manipulators on short stilts, one at the hind and one at the heart position controlling a less sophisticated head and neck than the more complex ten horses in War Horse.
Basil Jones, co founder of Handspring, said the challenge of creating believable horses that move credibly was in the fact that the centre of gravity in a horse is much lower than in a giraffe and they had to decide quite quickly that the audience would be seeing eight legs rather than four. The original prototype had a sort of steering wheel to operate the horse head and neck but it would only work when the front legs weren’t in operation. It soon became clear to them that the head needed to be articulated at the same time as forward motion was going on so a third person and method was introduced in the early workshops.
Joey, the puppet horse, is known as a contact puppet. Although there is no real technical term. the men operating the horse are touching the object and the company is called Handspring because they believe that the life of the puppet springs from the centre of the hand. Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, founders of handspring believe that the soul of the puppet is in the palm of the hand. They also believe that the further you get from the palm of the hand the further you get from the essence of what a puppet is. These ideas originally sprang from glove puppetry but apply to rod puppetry too. Plus, the closer the hand is to the object the more subtle a life the puppeteer/actor is able to give it. This thinking has been learnt from Russian masters of puppetry and against the practice of string puppetry that is considered to be more dreamy (ok for flying) than the more direct and robust and contactable rod puppetry. “Rod puppetry is also considered to be much better in passing things on or interacting between characters” says Adrian Kohler of Handspring.
In War Horse there are ten life size puppet horses as well a puppet swallows and a rampant goose puppet. The birds are controlled by one puppeteer each.
Contact puppetry is a westernised version of a Japanese art form called Bunraku. They use two third life size puppets, usually human and they are operated by three people, one on the head, one on the back of the hand and one on the feet. A long time ago Bunraku was even more popular than what we might consider as conventional theatre with live actors.
Joey’s mechanisms are mainly in the ears and are controlled by the head puppeteer and can be controlled individually through a hand grip. The frame is made of aluminium and cane and is very strong in the saddle area because the puppet has to be able to withstand the weight of a rider. The rider’s weight is supported by the hind puppeteer who in turn has to be very strong and the aluminium goes down into the back packs of the hind puppeteers and that allows them to bear the weight. Not only is the puppeteer’s job dexterously very difficult it is physically very hard on their arms and could be seen as the equivalent to training a sports team.
Joey the horse is a hunter which means he is a cross breed and has the power of a draught horse and the athleticism of a race horse.
Two years ago I caught up with an actor friend, Sean McKenzie who played Sgt Thunder in War Horse nationally and internationally and asked him about his experience as an actor working with these puppet animals. He was very enthusiastic to tell me the following:
“Working on War Horse has been a huge pleasure and honour for me Phil. Watching these inanimate objects come to life is not only thrilling for an audience, but also for me and the whole cast. It takes eight weeks of very hard work and physical strength for the puppeteers to bring Joey, Topthorn and Lucy the goose to life. Built out of bamboo, lightweight metals, gauze and cabling the horses and goose are the work of the dedicated staff from the world famous Handspring Puppet Theatre Co from Cape Town, South Africa.”
Sean smiled and added “For me, from the moment baby Joey appears at the beginning of the play gambolling through his infancy you are completely hooked. Then when the transformation from baby to fully fledged horse happens it is a unique theatrical moment.”
This reviewer cannot wait until the show hits Nottingham Royal Concert Hall in early 2018! War Horse is directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and designed by Rae Smith. Lighting is by Brighton based Tony and Olivier award-winning designer Paule Constable and movement and horse choreography is by Tony Sedgewick. The puppetry directors are Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler with video design by 59 Productions Ltd. Song making is by John Tams and the music by Adrian Sutton and sound by Christopher Shutt.
Kash Bennett, the producer of War Horse said: “ We are absolutely delighted to be bringing War Horse to the Royal Concert Hall Nottingham. We hope that today with Joey’s appearance in the city, we can bring the people in Nottingham a taste of the theatrical magic and artistry that audiences can look forward to with this very special show.”
War Horse ran for eight successful years in London, and has been seen by over 7 million people worldwide since its premiere at the National Theatre in 2007, with record-breaking runs on Broadway, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa and most recently, China. It has won 25 awards including the Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway.
Written by Phil Lowe.