By L.A. Pomeroy
While the cinematic theater release War Horse makes headlines and dominates holiday season buzz among families across the country, the play War Horse readies in the wings, awaiting its eventual return to the stage March 5. It’s not every day that a play like War Horse comes to the stage, opening at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York before galloping cross-country to the Curran Theater in San Francisco for an Aug. 1-26 run. Originally produced by the National Theatre of Great Britain, this stage production was presented on Broadway by Lincoln Center Theater and Bob Boyett, and grossed roughly $900,000/week during its stay in the Big Apple, a particularly uncommon achievement for a non-musical with a relatively unknown cast.
The young man snorting across Lincoln Center before the start of Saturday’s matinee I would soon discover was among the puppeteers who breathe life into each 18-hand or higher equine character.
Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of Handspring Puppet Company and creators of the breathtaking puppets central to this story, began perfecting their craft in South Africa, where a belief in the magical “life” of objects fueled the philosophy behind their art.
Jones and Kohler met at art school in 1971 while majoring in sculpture. In an interview for the Lincoln Center Theater Review, Jones said, “Professors were constantly admonishing Adrian for making puppets, and reminding him that, at art school, they produce artists, not puppeteers.”
Kohler added, “We admired a Russian puppeteer, Sergey Obraztsov, who studied with Stanislavski, and came to theater having worked with the classic Russian glove puppet, Patrushka. Obraztsov believed that the soul of the puppet lives in the palm of the hand. The further you got away from the hand, as with string controls, the further the energy got from the puppet (and) the less able it was to perform well. When we started our company we hoped good things would spring from the palm of the hand.”
To Kohler, creating the saga’s namesake warhorses meant they must “learn how horses think.” Jones added, “As a puppeteer, if you study a horse in that way, your respect for animals changes profoundly.”
As a string controls a puppet, so a lead rope controls a horse. In War Horse, the puppeteers controlling its equine stars, Joey and Topthorn, meld into their roles as horse handlers in the truest, yet most invisible, sense.
“It’s been our rule – and not every puppeteer follows it, but we feel that, when there is a visible manipulator on the stage, the audience initially thinks they’re in the way.
Particularly while there are two people in a horse and a person standing outside the head,” said Kohler. “By not making eye contact with the audience, that performer on the stage disappears. They’re simply working the horse. It’s the horse that’s engaging with the other characters and the audience.”
That engagement, between horse and human, is the cornerstone of War Horse, and was inspired by a real-life encounter Morpurgo watched unfold years earlier in Birmingham, England, between a farm horse and a boy named Billy: “Bill, I was told by the teachers, had been fostered by several families, was withdrawn, and so tormented by a stammer that, by the age of seven, he had given up speaking at all.
“One November evening… I found Billy standing under the stable light, talking freely to one of the horses. He spoke confidently, knowing he was not being judged or mocked. And I had the very strong impression that the horse was listening and understanding, too. It was that extraordinary, inspirational moment that gave me the confidence I needed to begin writing War Horse.”
Gallop to see War Horse and let its puppets – and message of love – speak to you.
By L.A. Pomeroy
Lincoln Center Theater Production
Credit photo: Â©Paul Kolnik