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Puppet masters create magic with ‘War Horse’

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War Horse” the Broadway hit that captured five Tony Awards continues its trek throughout the United States and continues to amaze audiences with the puppetry genius of the horses that make audiences believe the unbelievable.

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The show opened, Tuesday, April 2 in Kansas City, and on Wednesday, April 3, three of the puppeteers came to Union Station to meet with the media and explain their involvement with the show and explain more about the horse puppets.

Puppets, horse puppets, steal each and every scene with their realistic movements and the endearing story about unconditional love and loyalty. “War Horse” tells the story of a mixed breed foal in England, his bond with his young owner, and the life love bond between man and horse, across about an eight year stretch with World War I as the backdrop to the story. WWI creates the conflict and separation of the horse and owner in a story that rips at the heartstrings of the audience.

While the story unfolds onstage, the horse evolves from a young foal to a full sized horse, capable of carrying real characters as mounts. That may not seem difficult for a horse, but these are not real horses. They are puppets. Being puppets, they rely on actors/puppeteers for each and every move.

Even though the puppets star in “War Horse,” it’s the unheralded work of the teams of puppeteers that makes the vision seem real to the audience. According to one of the actors in the current national tour of “War Horse,” John Milosich, songman, the full sized puppet of Joey weighs about 125 pounds. It is manipulated by a team of three actor/puppeteers who serve as front legs, back quarters, and head movement.

Milosich, who continues with “War Horse’s” national tour said he had been with the show for over two year and never tires of the show or the reaction the show generates. He said that many people after seeing the show are moved and enjoy sharing their comments and feelings. He said many have stories to tell of their connection to horses, animals or World War I. He said that always helps keep him fresh and strengthens his commitment with the show.

James Duncan said he works as a head puppeteer for the two main horses in the show, Joey and Topthorn. He said he rotates nightly between horses and even sometimes takes on the comical puppet of the goose with an attitude.

“There are 12 puppeteers that rotate for the two horses. Because of the physical demands of the horses, we rotate each night,” Duncan said. “You get to see a different team perfoming every night. We know four different shows.
There is an element of improv that come into play each night. Yes, there is a choreography for each horse, but we want to keep it fresh and exciting.. We want to keep the horses as real as possible.

Adam Cunningham was the heart of Topthorn. He was the front legs and breath of the horse as opening night for “War Horse” in Kansas City on April 1.

“It took me three months of practice and work to get all the movements and understanding of the part,” Cunningham said. “I simulate the breath of the horse and the front leg movements. I am a trained actor and I have learned the puppeteering for this show. I had zero puppeteering experience. The casing director thought I had the physicality to do the show. So, I was cast.

As for Aaron Haskell, March 26 marked his two year anniversary with the show. He said “War Horse” is his first national tour. He said he was a trained actor and a puppeteer. He said most all of the cast have an element of performance in their backgrounds and that most are trained actors, singer, dancers, etc.

“You have to be able to release the show after your bow, and then, just let it go. I try to get to the show early to be prepared, and then after the bow, I let it go”, Haskell said. “We are mostly one week engagements on this tour, other than Detroit when we did three weeks in December. But, mostly, we travel on Mondays for Tuesday openings and Sunday closings.”

Duncan said his favorite part is the challenge of three minds trying to work as one in the horse. It’s a constant challenge to think as one. He said the challenge is constant and helps keep them all on their toes each night.

“You’d be surprised how much emotions this releases in others” Cunningham said. “I hear about people and their horses. I heard all about my great grandfather’s times in the war. I have all of my great grandfather’s war effects. I heard about how my family gave up two horses for the war effort. The show just stirs those feelings in the audience.”

“War Horse” continues galloping its way across the nation, ending it’s Kansas City run on April 6. From there, the show travels to Omaha and beyond. Through Sunday, it continues at Kansas City’s Music Hall theater in the Municipal Auditorium.

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