The magic of the theater will be quite evident when War Horse opens Tuesday for an eight-show run at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Many may know the story from the 2011 Oscar-nominated movie of the same name, but watching a real horse run on screen and seeing the amazing horse puppets on stage will be completely different experiences. The audience knows that the beloved horse Joey is a mass of cane and gauze, but the preening, snorting and galloping figure that bursts onto the stage will appear flesh and blood. While most people on stage want to be noticed, it's the job of the puppeteers to be invisible in plain sight. "Once there is enough puppet pulling you in, you start filling in the rest," puppet designer Adrian Kohler told the Washington Post last year. "But you've got to be convinced in the beginning, and that's the hard part." Here's a look at Joey and how the puppeteers bring him to life.
A horse's evolution
Joey is the culmination of years of puppet designer Adrian Kohler's experimentation in designing and refining puppets that move like animals.
1992: Joey's leg mechanism can be traced to the play Woyzeck on the Highveld, in which a miniature rhinoceros needed to tap its front leg to pretend to count. The jointed leg was controlled from behind with a lever and pulleys.
1994: Two years later, a cynical, anthropomorphic hyena in Faustus in Africa had to be able to play checkers, so a more articulated paw was created in which two movements were controlled by a single cable. It was this puppet that future War Horse co-director Tom Morris saw and kept in mind.
2000: The lead character in The Chimp Project required extremely flexible limbs and hands, because in the story, a domesticated chimp teaches sign language to wild chimps. It also needed to be able to bare its teeth, so the head control system became more complex.
2004: The production of Tall Horse required a massive but lightweight giraffe with human puppeteers inside, so the Handspring craftsmen came up with the crane frame and transparent mesh skin that they would use for Joey and rival horse Topthorn in 2007.
Joey begins as a foal, a cross between a thoroughbred and a draft horse. The puppet is less flexible than the adult version but still requires three puppeteers. No puppets in the show contain electronics or robotics (with the exception of a tank made by another company). Kohler prefers simple mechanisms operated by people, so that each performance is unique.
From early in training, puppeteers concentrate on walking, trotting, galloping and even pulling a plow and limping as a horse would. Walking is a specific four-count pattern: front right, back left, front left, back right. Trotting is two counts as hooves move in pairs. Galloping is six counts: one-two, three-four, with five-six being air time. Within weeks, the gait becomes automatic.
The puppet's body is made primarily of cane, which is easily shaped when wet, but is strong — yet not rigid — when dry. The puppets are wired together first, then each wire is replaced with waxed twine for more flexibility. The wispy, transparent skin appears to change color with the lighting. Joey is about 8 feet tall and weighs about 85 pounds.
Joey's spine is made of aluminum strong enough to support a rider. The puppet's legs bear no weight; the heart puppeteer and hind puppeteer carry it all using custom-tailored, backpack-style harnesses that slide into the torso. Because of the weight and instability of a rider balanced above two puppeteers' heads, scenes with riders are limited to less than seven minutes.
He stands outside the horse and operates the ears, head and neck. The control handle flips easily to either side so that the puppeteer doesn't get stuck between the horse and the audience. One of the head puppeteer's main responsibilities is using a fixed handle behind the puppet's eyes to make sure the head is oriented correctly, so the horse appears to be looking where it's supposed to be looking.
He operates the front legs and part of the neck, but his key responsibility is the horse's breath. The puppet's torso rests in slots over the legs so it easily slides up and down, making the horse appear to exhale and inhale as the heart puppeteer bends and straightens its knees. While an audience may not notice consciously, Kohler said Joey's breathing is what makes him seem to be alive. For that reason, the heart puppeteer is constantly in motion and has to be the strongest of the three puppeteers.
He operates the tail and back legs from angled rods that resemble ski poles. He often initiates movement because his view of the stage can be better than the heart puppeteer's, who is sometimes blocked by the head and mane. Both the heart and hind puppeteer stand upright and must be of similar height, usually 5 feet 6 to 5 feet 10.
They are a horse's key emotional indicator. If its ears face forward, a horse is relaxed, or may be interested. Backward? It senses danger and may run or fight. Kohler spent 25 years perfecting a mechanism that would make leather ears twitch 180 degrees as quickly and effortlessly as a horse's do. The solution was a simple cable and a rubber band pulling in opposite directions around a dowel. With the flick of one finger, the head puppeteer can move one or both ears. This system flaps the wings of the bird puppets in the play as well.
They are the most natural-looking element in the puppet, Kohler said, even though Joey's don't move. Clear resin is affixed over the painted iris and highly polished, so there is a wet look to it. "The way it catches light keeps it alive," he said. Puppet eyes are so important that Handspring has an entire eye department.
It appears to nip and eat, ears appear to flatten and eyes seem to widen in terror. But none of these things actually happens. The eyes are fixed, the ears stay upright and the mouth has no moving parts.
It telegraphs a horse's feelings and performs key tasks such as swatting flies, so a tail needs to be extremely flexible. Its "hair" is strips of Tyvek, a very strong but lightweight synthetic fiber. (An original foam tail was highly flammable — not ideal on a stage with gunfire and explosives.) Bicycle brake cables mounted on the hind leg rods move the tail up, down and sideways.
Sources: Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Co., the Lincoln Theater, the Kennedy Center, puppeteers Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui