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Friday, October 4, 2013

Interview with Puppeteer/Actors in Broadway Across America's "War Horse"

Jude Sandy (Head); Isaac Woofter (Heart); Lute Breuer (Hind).
Photo by Frankie Steele.

Interview by Scott Dowd. Entire contents copyright ©Fearless Designs, Inc. All rights reserved.


Last month subscribers to PNC Broadway in Louisville were invited to a special presentation at the Bomhard Theater. About five hundred people turned out that evening to meet Joey, the star of the Broadway sensation War Horse. Joey, in case you are not yet familiar with the characters in Michael Morpurgo’s novel, is a horse. Not a human character in the form of a horse – a real, live, breathing horse. Steven Spielburg’s screen adaptation features an actual member of the species Equus ferus caballus. The creative team behind the stage version, however, had to be a little more creative. Directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris worked with South African puppet designers Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring Puppet Company to create Joey, Topthorn and the other puppets that star in the Tony Award-winning production of War Horse. But wonderful puppets and an engaging story still were not enough. The team turned to choreographer Toby Sedgwick to develop the movements that would allow audiences to willingly suspend their disbelief and accept Joey as a living member of the cast. Sedgwick drew heavily from the traditional Japanese puppet form bunraku and Thai puppet theatre to train the three-person teams responsible for actualizing the characters of Joey and Topthorn. Following their presentation, I sat down with the team that includes puppeteer/actors Jude Sandy, Isaac Woofter and Lute Breuer to lift the veil a bit on the techniques they use to give Joey life. They began by telling me about the physical and emotional tasks assigned to each member of a given team.

JS:  I am the “Head” puppeteer. I express Joey through the height of the head and relationship to the shoulders to show the level of alertness, or fear, or comfort, or exhaustion. I am responsible for the eyes. People think that the eyes are moving, but they are set, and it really is about subtle head movements that make the eyes live. I also control the position of the ears, which are very indicative of mood. 

SD:  What prepared you to take on this role?
JS:  I began studying dance and moved quickly into theatre. I’m originally from Trinidad, but at the age of twenty-five I enrolled in the Resumed Undergraduate Education Program at Brown University. I promised myself that if I got to go to Brown, I would take a dance class. It was the first thing I did, and I fell completely in love. I went back to Brown to study acting as an M.F.A. student and have been working primarily as an actor since then. 

SD:  Isaac, tell me about your part in bringing Joey to the stage.
IW:  As the “Heart” puppeteer, I share some of the physical weight of the puppet with Lute. I control the two front legs and, depending on the action, I am responsible for running, stomping, pawing the ground or toe-tapping. I can indicate a change in the horse. That goes well with the other thing I do, which is giving the impression of breathing. 

SD:  How do you vary that element?
IW:  If we’re alert and scared, the breathing is high and sharp. If Jude brings his head up at the same time and the ears go back, the emotional state of the horse changes. 

SD:  It’s an amazing effect. The rib cage isn’t expanding, but you certainly give the illusion of inspiration and expiration. What is your background training?
IW:  Growing up, I played all the major sports:  baseball, basketball, soccer, football. I was also a studio artist. As an under grad, I wanted to do something that combined both. I thought the physical nature of theatre would work. I went to Columbia University for my master’s degree. I’ve also trained in Poland. 

SD:  What was your primary medium in the studio?
IW:  I worked mostly in pen-and-ink and oil pastels. I also worked in colored pencil. I’m doing some sculpting now.

SD:  That’s interesting, considering that you are working inside a sculpture.
IW:  Yeah.


Joey – brought to life by Jude Sandy (Head); Isaac Woofter (Heart);
Lute Breuer (Hind). Photo by Frankie Steele. 

SD:  Lute, tell me about your role.
LB:  As the “Hind” puppeteer, I manipulate the two hind legs. They are behind me, so most of it is done blind. I act very much as the anchor for a lot of the big moves:  rears and cutting, things like that. I also try to create the illusion that I am initiating a lot of the forward movement. I don’t always. Often I can’t see beyond Isaac,  so I have to wait for him to give a subtle cue that we can go. But it should always appear that the hind legs are pushing the horse forward and setting the rhythm. I do have the advantage of being able to see the front legs, so if anything gets out of sync, I can correct a lot more easily than he can. I also get to play with the tail. The tail can say a lot. 

SD:  How do you control the tail?
LB:  I have two bike brake mechanisms on top of the rods I use to manipulate the hind legs. So the tail can be playful or “at attention.”

SD:  How did you arrive at this point?
LB:  I grew up in a family of theatre artists and have been working in the theatre in various capacities since I was about three years old. At school, I studied writing and film, but I have had a fair amount of puppetry experience. I had the good fortune to perform in a couple of bunraku shows with some pretty masterful puppeteers. That style, probably more than anything I’ve done in the theatre, helped with this. There are big differences but, like this, it’s a highly choreographed art. There is a lot of dance-like movement in it – it’s three people working in unison. The major difference is that bunraku is a hierarchical structure in which the head puppeteer is very much in charge of what goes on. You don’t go anywhere without that person leading it. 

SD:  It also has a very rigorous apprenticeship process.
LB:  Yes, you sweep the floor for ten years, then you do feet for ten years, then you do the left arm for ten years and then, maybe, you get the opportunity to become the omozukai and control the head and right arm of the puppet. War Horse is different in that it is much more egalitarian. 

SD:  Do you always function as a unit? Or can you bring in a swing to control the head for one performance?
JS:  We always work as self-contained teams. When we’re off, we’re off together. We always stay in the same positions unless there is an extraordinary circumstance. 

SD:  What is it like on those occasions when someone from another team substitutes?
JS:  It’s always fun. We get so much new information, and when your teammate comes back, we talk about the new stuff we found out. 

SD:  How many people in the show work as puppeteer/actors?
IW:  There are thirty-five on stage with a couple of swings. There are twelve puppeteers for the two big horses, Joey and Topthorn. Two teams go on each night in those roles and the other two teams play ensemble tracks in the show so we can rest our bodies.

SD:  So you are in the show for every performance in some way.
IW:  Yes. We do each of the big horses twice a week and one each of the ensemble tracks.
LB:  There are other puppets as well. There are some less taxing puppets that have moments throughout the show. 

SD:  I saw a goose in the preview video.
IW:  The goose is a big ham.
JS:  She thinks the play is about her.

SD:  How much does adding a rider change what you’re doing?
IW:  About 170 pounds. It makes a big difference. 
LB:  For the sake of safety, we can’t improvise quite as much. We really could throw the rider off. I also find that I have to be a lot more precise. The puppets weigh about 120 pounds.

SD:  How many hands high are they?
IW:  Joey is 21; Topthorn, 25. They’re a little bit taller than actual horses; otherwise, we would be crunched inside. They also didn’t look quite right on stage at actual size. 
LB:  But the performers who have actual experience with horses are much easier to work with as riders. They have a more intuitive sense of how to ride. And because these puppets are constructed in such a way that they move like horses, you can feel their weight disappear. 

SD:  It sounds as though there are a lot of similarities with riding a real horse. 
JS:  One of the joys of this is having the actor say to us that they often forget that we’re there. They actually talk to the horse off stage as if Joey is an actor in the play. They have told us that it really feels like riding a horse. 

SD:  How much time do you spend on stage as Joey?
IW:  Joey’s on stage about two-thirds of the play. Topthorn, less than that.
JS:  About half. 
LB:  Yeah, but Topthorn’s track is fastpaced. He hits the ground running and he’s very dynamic. It can be exhausting. 
IW:  There’s like a 30- to 40-minute stretch where he’s on nonstop.
JS:  Joey has some long stretches of high drama very early in the show. So as soon as you’re on, you’re really on. 

SD:  As actors, how do you/Joey interact with the human characters emotionally?
IW:  A lot of it depends on the actor’s response. If we’re running at them and they don’t move like they would if a stampeding horse was bearing down on them, the magic is lost. But we are a horse. They can say whatever they want to us, but we don’t understand English. We react or fail to react in the way a horse would. 
JS:  One thing that became an important element in the production is teaching the actors how to interact with a real horse. What is permissible? What signals prompt particular responses? How do you approach a horse in a way that is not threatening? You can’t just walk up to a horse and say, “Hey, Joey!” 

SD:  I noticed the presenter today walked behind you in such a way that I was actually anticipating a kick.
LB:  Yeah, it was tempting. 
IW:  But as far as Joey’s interactions, it’s like a king coming on stage. The king doesn’t act “kingly.” It’s the reaction of everyone else on stage that creates that character. 
LB:  We have to be careful that we are always responding as a horse. It’s very easy to do too much with the puppetry to announce the fact that this is a horse: “C’mon, look at us. We’re a horse.” You really don’t want to do that. It’s a negative space type of thing, and the other actors complete the illusion. 

SD:  During the subscriber event, the presenter talked about how you all developed the sounds of the horse. How much of the physicality did you create? Did you just figure out how to mimic the various gaits?
LB:  The puppet has some limitations, so we have to fudge some things to give a consistent impression of a horse, rather than trying to realistically represent each small movement.
IW:  We spent a couple of weeks early on in technical rehearsal just to understand how the puppet works. During that time we learned to walk together – at first without the puppet. Then we added the feet and moved into a trot and, later, a gallop and on to more advanced maneuvers. We were coached early on to work on our internal rhythms as a team. We would count out loud the rhythmic pattern of each gait. 
JS:  In addition to that technical element, there is the team component. We are dealing with different people of different statures. There are points in the show where Topthorn, for instance, makes a big run around a set piece to face off with Joey. Some people take three gallops to get there and some take four – all of that had to be worked out as a team. 

SD:  You are improvising throughout the performance. How much does the character change from show to show?
LB:  A lot. We have all these teams cycling through and each develops a distinct personality. I found that after a little while I could instantly recognize who was in any of the horses at any time. As a team, we have as much freedom as any performer to improvise and react differently. I have found even greater freedom in that regard because we have this great combination of a deep psychological life that is not a human psyche. So we have this great secret that we are working with. We get to really indulge physically in its expression. Movement in space is very dynamic and mercurial, especially when it is running through three different bodies and minds. 

SD:  Jude, you have a dance background. Isaac and Lute, do you have music in your history?
IW:  I would say most of the puppeteers do. Musical background really helps with the internal rhythms of the various gaits. 

SD:  Jude, you are physically outside the puppet. But what can you two see from inside? Can you see the set and the other actors?
JS:  Actually, they can see more than I can. My attention has to be on the eyes as much as possible. I’m looking at the horse, whereas they can see through the mesh “skin.”
LB:  We can’t see much though.
IW:  Our eyes can wander a little bit.

SD:  Like looking through a scrim? 
IW:  Exactly.

SD:  Do you feel the audience?
LB:  We can tell when they click.
IW:  We can tell when they become alert. 

SD:  Describe the response to the show. Do you get a lot of variation?
JS:  It feels like people tend to have the same experience. They are overwhelmed by how much they believe and how much they invest. People get very emotional and we can hear them sobbing in the audience. Sometimes people yell out “No!” in an attempt to protect Joey. The uniform response I hear from people is that they are moved – deeply, deeply moved – by the story and by the puppetry. 

SD:  There was a little girl here today. This is an emotional story, with violent conflict. What ages would you say are appropriate for this show?
JS:  It’s recommended for ten and older.
LB:  The volume during the battle scenes might be difficult for some children. The story itself is great for kids. It is affirming and there is a youthful character they can identify with. Children have a really intuitive sense about animals:  they get into the horses immediately. They don’t have the transition to suspension of disbelief. 

SD:  Does Joey ever make personal appearances outside the theatre?
IW:  He met the Queen of England.
JS:  He went to a Mets baseball game.
LB:  And a Memphis Grizzlies basketball game. I was hopeful that we would get to hang out with some real horses here. 

SD:  Maybe you’ll get to Churchill Downs.
LB:  I hope to.
JS:  We’ve had some horse-to-puppet encounters that have been really good. They very often warm up to Joey and interact with him like a horse. 

SD:  What is it that makes War Horse a unique theatrical experience that shouldn’t be missed? 
JS:  This is a one-of-a-kind play. This is the first time ever that the main character of a show is not only a puppet, but he is an animal puppet that has not been anthropomorphized. This is first time ever that the main character of a play is truly a horse. This is a new iteration of puppetry. If you were to come on two separate nights, you would see two different shows. Each horse team delivers its own interpretation and personality to the show, so bring your imagination and complete the experience with us!

PNC Broadway in Louisville will present War Horse at The Kentucky Center’s Whitney Hall November 19-24. For more information and to buy tickets, go to louisville.broadway.com or call their ticket Hotline at 800.584.7777.

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