Yesterday, Broadway In Detroit’s Director of Sales and Marketing, Scott Myers, hosted an event at the Fisher Theatre for loyal subscribers and members of the media to officially present the 2013-2014 Subscription Season.
As previously reported, the new season, which is sponsored by Chrysler, includes: “Miss Saigon;” “Elf;” “War Horse;” the launch of the all-new revue“The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber;” the Queen tribute, “We Will Rock You;” and “Sister Act.” In addition, there are two add-on shows, "The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess," and "Mama Mia."
Monday morning's gala announcement show was calculated to build buzz, tease the audience with highlights from the upcoming shows, and secure new subscriptions. And who want to see these shows? The audience response was most enthusiastic.
The event opened with a delightful performance of the Queen and David Bowie classic, "Under Pressure," performed by two men from Wayne State University’s Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance. This was followed by two duets featuring performers from the Michigan Opera Theatre company, singing "Sun and Moon," from "Miss Saigon," and "All I Ask of You," from "The Phantom of the Opera."
The biggest draw, however, was the promised celebrity appearance of one of Broadway’s biggest stars -- figuratively and literally. Joey, the 7-foot tall eponymous star of “War Horse,” trotted out into the Fisher Theatre lobby with his three handlers and was greeted by applause, oohs, ahs, and squeals of delight. Children from Camp Casey, the non-profit horseback riding program for children with cancer, were invited to meet Joey, and they interacted with him just as they would have with any other horse, stroking his nose and laughing when he sneezed.
To describe Joey as a giant puppet doesn't do justice to the majesty and distinct personality brought to life during each performance of "War Horse." Created by the master puppeteers of Handspring Puppet Co., in South Africa, he simply must be seen to be appreciated.
Joey lives, breaths and neighs courtesy of three actors working in tandem, like dancers. Or, as one of them pointed out, improvising much in the way of a jazz trio. In the "War Horse" company, there are four teams of three actors who rotate assignments for Joey and his equine friend Topthorn. They not only move as one, but actually combine vocally to create the horse's voice.
We were lucky enough to chat with one of the three-actor teams that combine to animate the character of Joey, who is onstage for roughly two-thirds of the 2.5-hour-long show.
Curtis Jordan is the Head Puppeteer, controlling Joey's head and ears.
Isaac Woofter is Joey's Heart Puppeteer, the man in the middle who "breaths" for Joey, manipulates his front legs, and whose continuous movements keep Joey alive for the audience.
Lute Ramblin Breuer is the Hind Puppeteer, working Joey's hind legs and articulated tail.
That's just the rudimentary mechanics. Working together, the three actors combine to create one amazing character. Here's what we learned in an impromptu interview.
Curtis: We’re encouraged to form quite a strong bond within our teams, and over time you get where you can pick up on the nuance of their movement, the nuance of their breath – just a kind of inhalation – and you can start to predict what they’re going to do. Or, you get the same kind of mood, of being cheeky or exploratory or whatever, and you find a rhythm within your particular team. And the very exciting thing is when that rhythm gets broken – when you get put with a new team, because the show then feels entirely new. You can’t rely on any of your tricks …
Isaac: Those are the shows I love the most ...
Lute: It’s radically different team to team. It’s always really surprising how much of an adjustment it is. It’s not necessarily a difficult adjustment, because you’re so attuned to a high level of sensitivity. If you’re the new member of a team with two previous members, it's key to remain very sensitive to their activity and pick up on their rhythm as much as possible. But it does really refresh the show in an amazing way.
We wondered if the horses' voices always start with the Head Puppeteer.
Curtis: Anyone can start a noise … but everyone has one certain noise they feel more comfortable with, so you do more of that, or support what someone else has found…
Lute: People definitely have sounds they’re more comfortable with, or particular moments where their sounds are more appropriate, more vocal in a calmer moment, and there are moments where it’s really key to have all three loudly chiming in, moments of high tension or high aggravation.
Isaac: And there are a lot of times in the show where we can’t do anything because it will pull the focus away from the story moving forward, important moments between the actors.
Of course, with a live show, no two performances are exactly a like. We asked if they ever had unexpected things to deal with. Issac described a time on stage that's supposed to be a quiet, touching moment. But he had to sneeze... so he signalled the other actors as best he could, and they all went with it.
Isaac: The Head Puppeteer looked at me and sort of smiled. … but everyone did their part … and everybody in the audience just thought the horse sneezed. But all the people on stage knew. And there was sort of a traveling chuckle that moved through the stage.
We also wondered if the Head Puppeteer acted as Joey's eyes, because he stands outside of the puppet and can see the best. But ironically, he needs to keep his eyes on the horse, and trust the Heart Puppeteer to watch where everyone is moving.
Curtis: We do a lot of exercises with peripheral vision. Horses see nearly 360o, because their eyes are on the side of their heads. There’s a blind spot in front of their nose, and they have a blind spot directly behind them, but comparatively they can see a lot more, so we spend a lot of time in which we get into the mind of the horse, if you like, using our peripheral vision. And that’s something, as a Head Puppeteer that’s very important, for me, to be able to see where I’m aiming his mouth, if he’s trying to eat something, as well as what’s going on, on the stage around me.
Isaac: The person in the middle can see the most. A lot of the time, the Head Puppeteer is moving backward, or he’s keeping his gaze, his eyesight, on the horse. Because the more he watches the horse, the more it makes the audience watch the horse. The moment he starts looking around, the audience will start looking around.
Curtis: There’s this weird thing where, if the three puppeteers are doing too much, looking around individually, the intention of the puppet won’t quite read in the same way. It’s much better if everyone’s got the same focus, it means the puppet’s focus will be much stronger.
Lute: It’s a symbiotic thing, there isn’t really a single center of gravity.
It's hard to describe, but magical when you see it. Although this reporter caught the show at Lincoln Center, we can't wait to see how it's been re-staged for conventional proscenium theatres as part of the national tour.
If you weren’t lucky enough to see “War Horse” in London or New York, or you hope to see it again, you should act quickly to secure your tickets for the Detroit show, which hits town next winter. And the best way to make sure you can get tickets is to subscribe to the full season. (As if you needed a reason to enjoy all that sumptuous theatre fun.)
For more information about the 2013-2014 Broadway In Detroit Subscription Season packages (renewals and new subscriptions), visit the website. If you are already a subscriber, the renewal info will be out soon. New subscription orders are priced beginning at $259 for all six shows. For additional information, or to order subscription tickets now, call the Fisher Theatre at (313) 872-1000, ext. 0, Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Subscription tickets may also be ordered online.