May 27–June 1
Sarofim Hall, The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts
800 Bagby St.
In War Horse, a teenager named Albert in Edwardian England is separated from his beloved horse, Joey, when his father sells it to the cavalry to be used in World War I. Crushed by the loss, Albert volunteers for the army and is sent to the front lines in France in hopes of finding Joey and keeping him safe. To bring Joey and the other horses in the show to life, the South African Handspring Puppet Company designed life-size, fully articulated horse puppets operated by three puppeteers, known as the head, the heart, and the hind. The heart and the hind stand inside of the puppet, operating the legs, while the head puppeteer walks in front of the horse, manipulating its head from the outside.
Jon Hoche, the head puppeteer and puppet captain on the show’s North American tour, said that his three-man team strives for authenticity in its portrayal of Joey. To prepare for the show, the team visited stables in New York, watched video of horses to understand their movements, and even attended two weeks of “Horse Camp” before regular rehearsals began to learn how to work the complex puppet and, even more importantly, how to work with each other.
“First and foremost, the horses in the show are wild animals,” Hoche told me. “They don’t sing and dance and go into musical numbers. They’re real.”
Hoche, a New York–based actor, was cast as Joey’s head after a series of grueling auditions that pitted him against dancers, gymnasts, and professional puppeteers. It couldn’t have hurt that Hoche’s hobbies include everything from dragon boating to taekwondo to yoga. He and the other puppeteers need all their strength to play their roles night after night, in a traveling production now entering its second year. The body of the horse weighs around 70 lbs, and has to occasionally carry a 170-lb rider. A physical therapist travels with the company to take care of strains and other injuries. “We have to treat ourselves like athletes,” Hoche said. “People ice their forearms and legs after shows.”
To produce the illusion of a real horse galloping around the stage, the three puppeteers have to constantly communicate non-verbally through movement and breathing. Achieving that level of cooperation takes constant practice. “It truly is a kind of marriage of three,” Hoche said. “You get really close because you’re always observing these other two team members. You learn their eccentricities, their quirks.”
Although they follow some basic blocking, and rehearse certain movements like rearing and kicking, the puppeteers are encouraged to change their movements in reaction to what the human actors are doing, a spontaneity that ensures no two shows are exactly the same. Any one of puppeteers can initiate a movement by, for example, leaning forward slightly or breathing faster.
On rare occasions, Hoche said, the three achieve a kind of flow state in which Joey appears to move by himself, like the indicator on a Ouija board, without any conscious design by the puppeteers. “What we think marks a really great performance is when the horse just starts to move, and neither the head, the heart, or the hind knows who initiated the move,” he said. “It just happens organically.”