Stage preview: The art of 'War Horse'

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The gait was unmistakably a horse's as the beast moved down the aisle and onto the Byham Theater stage in March to promote the coming of "War Horse" to Pittsburgh. The wiry outer shell and three puppeteers operating Joey, the loyal horse at the heart of the award-winning play, were lost in the authenticity of the movement. And that's just the way the humans like it.

From the National Theatre in London, the puppeteers who made Joey come alive that night were Ariel Heller (head), Ross Green (heart) and Ian Piears (hind).

'War Horse'

Where: PNC Broadway Across America -- Pittsburgh at Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Tuesday through Sunday. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $35-$85; or 412-456-4800. More at

"We play one character as three people," said Mr. Heller, the lone American in the group, who was recruited after a stint with Blue Man Group. "It takes an open mind and checking your ego at the door. It starts with the breath when it comes to puppeteering ... those elements combined with physical ability and lots of training."

"And absolute trust," Mr. Green said. "It takes a long time to gain that trust and know the other person is working at the same pace you are. You become so in tune. It's this weird type of sensitivity where we grow together, and it becomes really firm when you get to that stage."

"That's when you start to become a horse -- you think together, you move together. It's very exciting," said Mr. Piears.

The "War Horse" tour that arrives at the Benedum Center Tuesday was adapted by writer Nick Stafford and director Bijan Sheibani from the show that won five Tonys, including best play, and the equivalent in London. The origins were the 1982 Michael Morpurgo young adult novel about a boy and his horse struggling to survive during World War I.

The life-size horses that became an instant sensation onstage are the product of South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company. They whinny, they rear, they suffer -- they are every bit the fully realized characters they were in the book and Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated movie.

In "War Horse," a teenage boy, Albert, bonds with a faithful workhorse, Joey, that is conscripted by the British armed forces for service in World War I. The plot honors the hundreds of thousands of horses that died in the battles and the humans who earned their loyalty.

Puppeteers who will operate the horses in Pittsburgh are Brian Robert Burns, Jessica Krueger, Rob Laqui, Christopher Mai, Gregory Manley, Patrick Osteen, Jon Riddleberger, Derek Straton, Danny Yoerges, Laurabeth Breya, Catherine Gowl and Nick LaMedica.

The puppeteers are continually aspiring to the most authentic performance possible.

"Our responsibility as good actors is to know what our role is, what our character is, and our character is a horse," Mr. Heller said. "We go to stables, the Kings in London and the Kensington Stables in Brooklyn. We have an inhouse blog where people can post videos, articles, sounds. We study all the sounds. Everything we do, we research quite extensively, and we continue to. We keep finding things."

Finn Caldwell, who narrated Joey's demonstration, was an actor for Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company and worked in London's West End theater district before turning his sights to puppetry.

"The puppetry scene in England 10 years ago had pockets of brilliance, but it was really quite twee. ... I started to work with companies that are quite dynamic, and through them, bumped into Handspring. Then we made 'War Horse,' " said Mr. Caldwell, associate puppetry director of "War Horse," who worked as a horse and a goose in the play and is now part of an English contingent working for Handspring.

Getting the horse onto the stage in different venues has been tricky at times, but the audience reaction hasn't changed much. It starts with astonishment, then becomes pleasure. "And then they become somewhat giggly," he said.

The reaction from the horse, though, is dependent on the environment and the audience.

"Reactions are not preprogrammed. There's a basic choreography, but if one does something slightly different, the others will respond. If the audience has a big reaction, it's a horse, they will respond as a horse," Mr. Caldwell said. "We had a great example of a team that was working in London, and a light blew [he makes a noise]. The horse ran. Not the actors -- as a horse, it ran."

Creating an authentic experience is one reason the show continues to move people to tears throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, in Toronto and Berlin, and, most recently, in Australia.

The evolution of Joey and the other horses in the show has been a twofold process, which includes working with folks such as horse behavioral specialist Monty Roberts and the King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery, ceremonial riders who keep alive the military equine tradition in England.

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring came up with the puppets' finished design through trial and error.

"Adrian, who is the main designer, built a model and [then] a prototype, and he took it to England and we tested it. Then he took it to Africa and threw it in the bin. Then he built another one. So it was a process of years," Mr. Caldwell said.

Now, the details, right down to the twitching ears and fly swatter tails, have even the most dedicated equestrians bobbing their heads in approval.

Previous Handspring shows that featured giraffes and hyenas gave them a head start when it came to producing the "War Horse" puppets, but after the initial run at the National Theatre, the horses were falling apart.

Front legs held together with garden hose pipe couldn't cut it for a long run. So design engineers were brought in. "Now we have some industrial mechanisms," Mr. Caldwell said. "There's no change in the design. We've just made them lighter, stronger."

And durable. When the Broadway production of "War Horse" closes on Jan. 6, the show will have played 718 regular and 33 preview performances. Now in its fifth year in London, the play is due to run through late October 2013.

The horse teams seen around the world come from all walks of theatrical experience. "In our group, Ian trained as a dancer, me and Ariel trained as actors," Mr. Green said. "But within the company there are trained puppeteers as well. It's very important to have a varied, eclectic group of performers because it gives the different aspects to the puppet."

Some qualities come up over and over, for instance, the ability to withstand physical discomfort and to play well with others.

Mr. Caldwell summed up what it takes to be a member of a horse team in "War Horse":

"We look for actors who have physical ability, people who have had maybe martial arts or dance experience, musical theater people," he said. "We're also looking for people with little ego and a good sense of humor, because learning to do that really hurts. We put someone in a horse for about 10 minutes, and if they're shouting at someone, we don't employ them. If they're crying, we don't employ them. If they're laughing and crying, that's a good bet."


Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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