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War Horse Review and interview with two talented Puppeteers

War Horse at Tennessee Performing Arts Center


Last night was opening night for National Theatre of Great Britain's production of War Horse at Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) in downtown Nashville. The show is being presented at TPAC June 3-8 and is a one of a kind theatre event you do not want to miss. The final production at TPAC's 2013-14 HCA TriStar Health Broadway series, War Horse is a story of an extraordinary 16 year old boy and his extra-extraordinary horse, the bond that is formed between an animal and his human, and the loss felt when the two are separated by World War I.

Albert and Joey. Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui (Joey) Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Albert and Joey. Andrew Veenstra (Albert) with Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, Rob Laqui (Joey) Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Now playing at TPAC
Linda Talbott Brewer

It's interesting; I've noticed that the first thing I do when entering a theatre is to take note of how the stage is set up, what accessories are added, like a second floor, tracks for moving scenery and curtains. You know, the scenery sets the stage for the production, gives you an idea of what delight might follow and sets the mood and ambiance. Having said that, as I walked in last night, the first thing I noticed was lack of scenery and a screen that only had what looked like a mountain range painted or printed on it. Then the curtain rises and again, I expect props, scenery, walls, colors - something.. anything; but before me is a stage that is bare, nothing to suggest walls, fences, texture or purpose. Then a few seconds later, actors run in with long sticks topped with puppet-like birds, giving the image of birds soaring through the air, but mostly what I saw was the men holding sticks. And to be honest, I was wondering why the birds came flying out at that particular moment, but after seeing the show, I think it was simply to prepare your mind to accept men controlling and manipulating the main characters of the play, without really seeing the men; giving you time to adjust to these people on stage who, believe it or not, would soon be all but invisible to you, once the story began.

And begin it did. With a subtle shift of his head, a whinny, a slight movement of his legs and as if just having been given the breath of life, the little pony was born into a living, breathing, feeling near-sentient creature, with his own personality, right before your eyes. You are instantaneously aware that it is a wild pony, for instance, unsure of himself, scared, jumpy and nervous, yet the three-manned puppet hasn't even moved more than a couple inches yet. Then, to skip ahead into the production, the boy patiently befriends the pony which soon grows a beating heart, takes on definitive characteristics and you find yourself falling in love, with not only Joey, the pony, but also with Albert, a sweet teenage boy, growing up on a poor farm set in the English countryside of 1912, right before World War I becomes a dark reality.

You know within the first five minutes of this play that it is going to be a really good show, then all of a sudden, Joey grows up right before your eyes, the swap between two different sized puppets happens as subtlety as a young boy growing into manhood and is probably the most amazing feat of the show. Later on, when you think this meant-for-kids story can't get any better; It. Does. Because with the beginning of the war, the sweet, now tame horse is sold, against Albert's will, into the dangerous and insane Hell that was World War I, and with that, you are leaning into the action, sitting on the edge of your seat, rooting for what is no longer a puppet, but a real, live, feeling, breathing horse with a thumping heart and the horse's incredibly passionate and devoted human boy.

I really don't want to give anything more away, just suffice it to say that this is one play that neither you, nor your kids, nor even your great-grandmother will ever forget. It's a passionate life-race through growing up, facing reality, accepting challenges and downright determination. It's a subtle, intense, happy, tearful, scary, peaceful two plus hours of incredibly well-written, well-acted, well-synchronized and incredibly-choreographed entertainment, a night to bond with your child, loved one or best friend, as you hold hands to brace yourself for the next gunshot, blast or burst of laughter. Don't miss this play, I am so very glad I didn't. Get your tickets at right now and give a young kid, old kid or anyone in between a night - and horse named Joey - they won't soon forget.

Even before I sat mesmerized by another and quite possibly the most incredible production I've seen at TPAC's Jackson Hall, I had a chance to pose a few questions to two of the unbelievably talented puppeteers. These guys, who seem to be equal parts actor, dancer, puppeteer, engineer and magician, are the inner movements of the clock that is War Horse, the ticking brain behind the puppet, as well as the moving force, both literally and figuratively, of the show. Our conversation went down like this:

I asked the same questions of both Jon Hoche and Mairi Babb, two of the War Horse Puppeteers, to two different insights into what goes on "behind the curtain" of the production, War Horse.

First up: Jon Hoche

Linda Brewer: The first question that comes to my mind is how does one develop the interest in and learn to be a puppeteer?

Jon Hoche: You can start by simply going out and buying a simple puppet from a toy store and working at home; watching shows like Sesame Street and try to imitate what you see on screen. There are a lot of groups, schools and puppetry guilds across the country; explore and build a (puppeteering) community.

LB: What led you to War Horse, did you audition as a puppeteer?
JH: I did audition as a puppeteer. However, they weren’t looking for strictly puppeteers. We are comprised of actors, puppeteers, physical performers in War Horse. We were cast mostly for our ability to listen and work together, once cast we were taught to use the very specific puppets for the show

LB: I've read other reviews that the puppeteer virtually becomes invisible to the audience after a few moments, so that the horse is born into a life of it's own to the viewer. How do you make a puppet seem so real, so alive?
JH: Most importantly we want to make the puppet breathe. Breath is life. I find that the puppets are most effective in reflecting life not when (doing) gestures like galloping, but simply being present onstage, breathing and listening. It’s what pulls the audience in. We as puppeteers seem to disappear by devoting 100% of our focus to the puppet.

LB: Did you get to live with real horses to study their movements, habits, characteristics?
JH: Early on in rehearsals we went to stables in New York and observed horses. We also continue to watch footage online and even when there is horse racing on TV. Many times when we arrive in a new city we have a press event where we meet real horses as Joey, and that always feeds our library of horse behavior. We never stop learning.

LB: Can a puppet of this magnitude break down, glitch or quit working on stage?
JH: We put the puppets through a lot each performance. We gallop, rear, fight and we have actors riding us for extended period of time. Thankfully we have a puppet tech that tunes up the puppets before each show and just like in NASCAR can also act as a pit crew during the show just in case something goes wrong.

And now, Mairi Babb
LB: The first question is how does one develop the interest in and learn to be a puppeteer?
Mairi Babb: This is actually my first experience with being a puppeteer! But every War Horse rehearsal process starts with a two week puppetry intensive for the horse puppeteers so that everyone can share the same vocabulary and technique, ensuring the show has a unified style and vision and language, and also making it easier for us to join companies around the world seamlessly.

LB: What led you to War Horse, did you audition as a puppeteer?
MB: I have been fascinated by War Horse since it's development at the National Theatre of Great Britain. But my goal was just to see it one day - I never dreamed of being IN it! So when I was invited to audition for the Toronto production, I was beyond thrilled. I auditioned for all of the female roles, then was asked to come back to work with Baby Joey. There were three of us working as a team to animate a man made out of paper, then eventually we moved on to Baby Joey. We had to give these puppets breath, thoughts, opinions and they had to respond honestly to stimuli in the room. Our puppetry director was looking for communication skills, improv skills, and the ability to work as a team.

LB: I've read reviews that the puppeteer figuratively becomes invisible to the audience after a few moments, so that the horse is born into a life of it's own to the viewer. How do you make a puppet seem so real, alive?
MB: The first few moments of the show are genius. The puppets and direction teach the audience HOW to watch the show. We start with some of the smallest puppets in the middle of the barest, least populated stage - the swallows, who draw the eye away from their much larger puppeteers; and then we move on to Baby Joey who stands there and breathes and exists in and explores his space. We draw the audiences in through the breath and the micro-movements of a tail swish, or an ear twitch, or a leg quiver. It's as if the audience enters into a contract of imagination with the puppets and us, so we can disappear. It gives the audience ownership over some of the creative process. Some people who have seen the show swear they've seen Joey blink - and that's all their imagination; Joey has no eyelids!

LB: Did you get to live with real horses to study their movements, habits, characteristics
MB: I was very lucky to have grown up with horses - one of the reasons I've been so in love with this show for so long. It's kind of a dream job - my two greatest passions coming together. But during rehearsals, there were trips to barns and farms to watch horses just being horses, but also being ridden. And we try to see them as much as we can on the tour. We have been invited to some amazing equine organizations as a cast, and some of us have even gone trail riding or taken riding lessons, just for horse behavior refreshers. The more time you can spend with them, the more you learn about their expressiveness and personalities - and the more detailed your work can become.

LB: Can a puppet of this magnitude break down, glitch or quit working on stage?

MB: It's live theatre! Anything can happen at any time! But we are so fortunate to have an amazing crew. Willie Wilson maintains the puppets on a daily basis and Kurt Oostra and Wendy Beckwith are our showtime pit crew. If something breaks, the puppeteers can usually mask it until they get off stage, where the crew will be there to fix it as fast as possible. Joey won't miss a beat and the audience will have no clue!

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