It is utterly bewitching and compelling to discover how the life size puppet horses of War Horse are operated and constructed and how such fabricated constructs can have such an emotional impact on the audiences for the show 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. These things we discover through a combination of research and our invitation to a press meeting for the arrival of War Horse at Curve where it is playing Weds 18th September to Saturday 12 October. We also get the opportunity to interview War Horse actor Clive Keene from Leicester who is especially thrilled to be back in his home town performing on the main stage at Curve.
Video by Phil Lowe
I discovered that there are three puppeteers, two inside and one outside of each life size puppet horse made by Handspring. There’s someone operating the head, the others 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 gives the illusion of life. The horse puppet, just like the real animal, indicates emotion visually through the movement of his 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 actors in War Horse do this or move towards the horse puppet and it’s head the ears go back and they behave through mimicking the horse’s stressed snorts and grunts and foot stomping movements coupled with a swishing, agitated tail. If the 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 actioning each horse footfall with the ‘implication’ of weight. The actor/puppeteers have to be as conditioned and as 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 so does the puppet 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.
The hind puppeteer has the emotional indicator of the tail and like the ears they can show us about the mood of the horse whether it is alert or irritated. It is made of a non flammable substance like the mane. This puppeteer’s job is to demonstrate the weight of the hind and when the horse is about to set off walking or galloping the hind part dips and 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 puppeteer 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 puppet 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 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 thereby 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.
The War Horse actors say “ Watching these inanimate objects come to life is not only thrilling for an audience, but also for 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. 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.”
Many thanks to Curve for this great opportunity to connect with the National Theatre War Horse touring production. Phil Lowe
War Horse production images credit. Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Do check out our other theatre interviews on our new YouTube site by the link below and don’t forget to subscribe and like.