Based on Michael Morpurgo’s childrens book and popularized by Steven Spielberg’s feature film of the same name, “War Horse” follows the fate of a horse named Joey, who is sold into the British army and serves on both sides of the conflict during World War I.
Life-sized horse puppets, each run by visible puppeteers, are the highlight of the show, which opens Tuesday at ASU Gammage. Jon Riddleberger, Patrick Osteen and Jessica Krueger are Joey’s puppeteers. They recently took time out of the national tour to discuss with us their unusual role, how they manage to move in sync, and how the play differs from the movie.
Q: Tell us about your individual roles.
Jon: I’m in control of Joey’s head and neck and his ears, which are emotional indicators.
Patrick: I control the front two legs and Joey’s breathing. There’s a breathing slot that the front two legs are connected to, keeping the front legs apart from the rest of the horse, allowing the chest to move up and down freely from the legs.
Jessica: I operate the hind legs and the tail, another emotional indicator. I also control the gait of the horse.
Q: Together you control a life-size horse on stage. How do you coordinate your movements so that you move in sync with each other?
Jon: The show is a mixture between set choreography and improvisation. We’ve been given a lot of freedom to improvise within the choreography. It’s been the product of constant communication and discussion and we’ve been building a very physical awareness of each other. Each of us can read each other’s physical rhythms and respond to each other.
Jessica: We’re miked. We make the horse sounds and to some degree that’s how we’re able to work together. I’m breathing with Patrick. When he inhales, I inhale and when he exhales, I exhale. That makes the (horse) noises a bit easier and it also helps in terms of how one breathes and moves at the same time. When Patrick changes the patterns, I can see him, so I am not only able to pick up visually, but I can also feel him (move). We share the weight of the bulk of the horse, as well as a rider. The cage weighs about 120 pounds.
Patrick: My communication with Jessica has very little to do with visual. I can see Jon and what he’s doing every once in awhile. There are things inside the horse that can tell me the angle of the head, and if I can’t quite see the angle of the head, there are slight movements. As far as my communication with Jessica, it’s definitely physical. She can give me a slight push forward and she’s going to pull me back when we need to back up. Once she starts moving, it tells me the way to move. If the back legs start moving the front legs, I must adjust. It’s this vocabulary between us.
Jessica: If he doesn’t want to move or I don’t want to move, there’s a sort of “I want to move but Patrick doesn’t” and so I stop.
Q: You are playing a horse, which most people would say can convey emotion. How do you do that through a puppet?
Jon: It’s interesting acting as a horse… a horse processes the world in a different way than we do. A horse has almost 360 degrees of vision, with a blind spot on its nose and back. It can see a lot of things at once. The ears are sort of how you know what the horse is focusing on. The ears move independently of each other. The ears help the audience understand Joey’s focus and indicate attention. When the ears are back it means the horse is upset or frightened. If the ears are forward or up it means he’s interested in something. It’s all about focus and telling the story of Joey’s focus.
Patrick: I’m rather glad I don’t have Jon’s job, it takes a lot of focus. My emotional indicator is the breath. If the horse is startled, the breath is going to be faster and more jagged, (and I make) the sounds that go along with it. If the horse is relaxed the breathing will be nice and easy and slower. There’s a wide range of things that can be covered by the way the horse is breathing.
Jessica: I tend to lift the tail more as a warning of fear or alert or pain. I’ll give little movements of the tail, indicating playfulness or pleasure, or happiness of sorts... When we sniff something, I’ll do a slight movement of the tail —little movements that connect the entire body to show that the horse has completed the thought.
Jon: With all the different jobs we do, the game we play is figuring out the complete picture of the horse... how to pass each other moments.
Q: How long does it usually take the audience to suspend their disbelief?
Jessica: I’ve been told it takes three minutes or less. I think we can kind of sense when the audience is right. It depends on the house… how far away the audience is, how big (it is). It also varies by city, how each region of the country watches and experiences theater. It’s interesting to tour and get a gauge on different audiences.
Q: How is the play different from the Steven Spielberg movie?
Jon: I’m the only one who has seen the movie. It’s interesting because (the story) has been translated into three different mediums: the book, the play and the movie. Spielberg took the book as his inspiration. Ultimately, as a play on stage, we’re required to use more imagination. On film, you can be more realistic, and show more things. (The show) is very bare bones. If you’ve seen the movie, the play will be a completely different experience, but it’s the same story told in a different way.
Jessica: The way we as theater makers expect an audience to participate is very different than movie makers do. There is a participation asked for in theater — whether you actually believe in the horses in 3 minutes or 2 hours is up to you, and we leave that up to you. You can see my feet and Patrick’s feet and Jon’s entire body the entire time. It’s a different medium and I think it lends itself to the story.
Patrick: I think audiences are surprised how ready they are to suspend their disbelief and become attached to a puppet. The puppet of Joey has little resemblance to an actual horse. The puppet designers didn’t try to make an exact replica of a horse, they gave the idea of it. That’s how Jon stands next to the horse and you can see our hands working. Because of that and the raw nature of what’s being given, it allows people to let their guard down in a wonderful way and go on a journey with this creature (that) they form this emotional bond with throughout the story; it is part of the genius.
Q: What’s the message of this show?
Jon: To me the story levels the playing field. You get to see World War I through the eyes of a creature who is utterly innocent and has made no decision to be in the war, and you get to see how every side of the conflict suffers, and you’re being asked to contemplate what it means to be peaceful and be in a peaceful world. Michael Morpurgo said it is an anthem for a peace. You get to experience the hope in the midst of the suffering.
Patrick: I think that’s a pretty sound answer. It’s an anthem for peace. I think there are no good guys in this play and no bad guys. It’s a play about the human condition inside a thing as awful as World War I or any war. It’s a detailing of the absurdity of war.
Jessica: It’s also how far you would go to support a friend. I think it rounds out the anthem for peace, but also the process of support and friendship and how you support others, animal friends and human friends.
IF YOU GO
What: ”War Horse”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5; runs through Feb. 10.
Where: ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Ave., Tempe.
Information: (480) 965-3434 or www.asugammage.com.
“Heroes Night”: Opening night, Feb. 5, has been specially set aside as “Heroes Night” for active duty military, veterans and their families. A ceremony honoring Major Sean R. Gibbs, Commander of the 56th Security Forces Squadron at Luke Air Force and all members of the United States Armed Forces begins at 6:30 p.m.