War Horse comes to life through art of puppetry

The people behind the horse tell a human story in ward-winning production

A major theatrical production that stars a horse seems frankly a recipe for disaster. Until you look at the success of War Horse a play that received five Tony Awards in 2011 and is now touring internationally including a run in Calgary starting Tuesday September 10.

At the story’s core is the relationship between a boy Albert and his horse Joey a friendship that is interrupted by the First World War. Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry and Joey goes to France. Worried about the well-being of his horse Albert enlists in the service to try and find him.

Needless to say War Horse does not use a live horse onstage. Instead the production relies on the art of puppetry to bring Joey to life which requires three puppeteers: one for the head one for the midsection and front legs and one for the hind end.

“We had to do numerous auditions that were about three hours each and were really intense” says Jon Hoche who operates Joey’s head.

The puppeteers manipulate a series of levers and pulleys to create Joey’s movements. “We’re using state-of-the-art 16th-century technology” he jokes.

Hoche says making Joey appear to breathe which is something fellow puppeteer Adam Cunningham controls is crucial because it really brings the horse to life. While Hoche stands outside Joey Cunningham is inside the puppet and wears the horse’s mid-section like a backpack. He controls the front legs with his arms as well as the horse’s breath.

“Breathing is created through the movement of the horse…. Breath is a visual thing that can indicate the emotional story and state of the horse” Cunningham explains.

The other two emotional indicators are the tail and the ears. “Each puppeteer has control of one of the emotional indicators. We have to be three minds working as one. As soon as you start working separately from one another it will read false” Hoche says.

Although Hoche argues that Joey is life-like and people shouldn’t dismiss a horse puppet lightly (he suggests skeptics check out a clip of War Horse on YouTube to see for themselves) there’s is no attempt to pretend it’s real.

“We don’t try and disguise the fact we’re using puppets…. I think the audience can appreciate it more then. It brings them in” Hoche says.

While Joey is the show’s star he’s not the only puppet onstage. For example there’s Topthorn Joey’s equine pal among others. “All told there are eight horses on stage at one time” says Cunningham.

The production takes place on a fairly bare stage and uses projections to enhance battle scenes and cavalry charges.

Cunningham’s great-grandfather fought in the First World War which he says makes this production all the more personal for him. “I’ve talked to my grandfather about it the toll the war took on an entire generation…. War Horse kind of screams as an anthem for peace” says Cunningham.

“You can’t help but want with everything in your being for this horse to be reunited with this child…. It’s a very human story.”