How to be a “War Horse” Puppeteer
Three actors explain how the magic is made
When you see War Horse on Broadway, you might forget you’re watching puppets. The story of a British boy’s remarkable relationship with his horse Joey—and their mutual adventures on the terrifying battlefields of World War I—the play evokes its animal characters with sophisticated puppetry. When Joey is an adult, for instance, three puppeteers operate a puppet that’s large enough for an actor to ride, and more importantly, they operate it to suggest an actual animal. Working in sync, they mimic a horse’s breathing, its movements, and its quiet stillness.
As a result, it’s easy to accept the animals are real. Even though you can see the puppeteers, who have been trained by Britain’s Handspring Puppet Company, they’re so focused on their performances that they essentially disappear.
By now, the puppeteers have mastered their work. They started rehearsing several months before War Horse began Broadway performances in March 2011, and at this point, they rotate among every puppet in the show, rarely operating the same animal two nights in a row.
The puppeteers are divided into small teams that stick together, so the same group that operates Joey on Wednesday will operate a different animal on Thursday. Recently, I sat down with a team—Ariel Heller, Jeslyn Kelly, and Alex Hoeffler—to learn what it takes to create this theatrical magic. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
TDF: You’ve got incredibly complicated jobs. When you’re playing Joey, for instance, how do “divide the labor?” How do you know who’s responsible for what?
Ariel Heller : We each have two tasks: A technical task and an emotional task. Technically, my job is to control the eye-line of the horse, because where he’s looking is going to cue you into what he’s thinking about. And my emotional indicator is the ears. If something is threatening Joey, his ears will pin back, and if they’re forward, he’s kind of docile. And again, the audience is going to take the emotional cue off of that.
With Alex, he’s got the front legs. He’s got to control the weight of the horse, and you’ve got to believe that horse weighs almost a ton. And his emotional task is the breath, which is very important. It’s what connects us. It’s what keeps us together.
And Jess, in the hind, is controlling the weight of the horse and the gait of that horse. Alex can’t look behind and see what the back legs are doing, so it’s her responsibility to make sure that the gait’s going and the horse is in sync. And her emotional indicator is the tail. If the tail is rigid, the audience is going to know that something’s up, and if it’s more docile or just swatting a fly, they’re going to know the horse is a little bit more relaxed.
TDF: And like you said, you can’t see each other while you’re doing this, and you certainly can’t talk to each other on stage.
Alex Hoefller: Right. We can’t look at each other, and we can’t say, ” Hey! Psst! Ariel! Let’s try this.”
Ariel: It’s really about understanding the push and pull of everyone’s ideas.
Alex: I’m hyper-aware of the puppeteer in front of me and behind me, and after working with them for so long, I know their little idiosyncrasies. I’ll see Ariel kind of lift his heel up off the ground, and I’ll think, “Okay, maybe he wants to go forward a little bit.”
Jeslyn Kelly: There’s a lot of guesswork I do in the back, because I don’t ever see Alex’s face. I just see him breathing, and I try to match his footwork. There are subtle realizations all the time. Even when it gets hard and you get tired, it keeps you ready for something you don’t expect.
TDF: It’s important that you’re playing “regular” animals. They’re not “Disney animals” that can talk to the human characters or even understand what they’re saying. As an actor playing a horse, is it challenging to remember that you can’t act like you understand what you’re hearing?
Jeslyn: It was really hard in the beginning, but now, it’s kind of this great gift of freedom to not be responsible to do what you think the other actor is expecting. I think it’s probably more challenging for the actors to not always be given what a “Disney horse” would give them. When they say a certain line, they can’t count on a certain reaction.
Alex: They want us to be unpredictable.
Jeslyn: But when it was difficult, it was tricky, because it was all three of us having our actor reactions.
Alex: The hardest part in the beginning was actually squelching all of those impulses to react to everything that a human would react to, and just being okay with stillness. We would see so many [real] horses that would just be chilling out—be really boring, actually—and it’s easy to be on stage and think, “I have to keep showing them I’m a real horse and respond to everything that’s around me!” When horses, really, are pretty docile, boring creatures, and you have to be okay with that.
Jeslyn: It’s harder to be still.
Alex: When I know someone out in the audience, I’ll be like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do the things that show I’m a horse!’ And I find that in those shows, I’m less still. But that’s one of the things that Handspring says the most: You look more like a horse when you’re just there breathing, listening to things. You don’t always have to be there making all this busy noise with the puppet.
Jeslyn: And when you are still, the smaller, more detail-oriented things really do make an impact, even in a huge room. If the horse has been still, and all of the sudden the tail flicks, it really reads.
TDF: It sounds like your performances are never about you, as an individual actor. Is that hard to deal with?
Jeslyn: Actually, there’s this thing about being the animal where I’m a little less self-conscious than I am as an actor.
Alex: The work is all about “no ego,” because we’re sharing one being among three people. My actor ego leaves when I walk through the front door here.
This fall, TDF’s education programs will send hundreds of students to see War Horse on Broadway
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo by Paul Kolnik