A horse is a horse, of course, unless that horse is one of the amazing puppet stars of "War Horse." The national tour of the Tony-winning play that opens tonight at the Benedum Center, held a meet and greet for the media with Joey, the loyal horse that bonds with British lad Albert and embarks on a harrowing World War I adventure.
The horses in the show, designed by Handspring Puppet Co. of South Africa, are operated by trios of humans acting in harmony. Bringing Joey to life for Pittsburgh audiences are Danny Yoerges (head), Brian Burns (heart) and Gregory Manley (hind).
This morning, Joey emerged through double doors, in the Benedum lobby, all twitching ears and flapping tail, whinnying and making nice with Pittsburgh Cultural Trust CEO Kevin McMahon.
While Joey's puppeteers were in full-on horse mode, colleague Danny Beiruti -- the heart of Joey's horse pal, Topthorn, in the show -- explained what it takes for three humans to become one horse.
Mr. Beiruti began with the job closest to his heart: what it takes to be the heart of an award-winning puppet horse.
"One of the big things the heart person does, he lifts the horse when he rears up," he said. "This is a big move, and it happens in a moment of conflict or when the horse is scared, and it can be quite heavy. The horse is 120 pounds. Also, the carriage of the horse goes up and down, and it's the bulk of the heart's job to do a motion that makes the horse breathe. Along with the vocals, assisted by the hind and the head, this helps to really bring a puppet to life. It's always moving, always breathing. It's never just a puppet onstage, it's always a very much a live character."
After eight months on tour, the puppeteers who will be onstage at the Benedum said the learning process never stops.
"From the first day, it's a constant expansion of your scope of what is to listen, and to be with somebody and to try to communicate and take people with you," said Mr. Burns, the heart of Joey. "So learning to communicate is always in flux, but I think we take pretty good care of each other."
"I think we speak two different languages," said Mr. Yoerges, who as the head of Joey, operates outside the confines of the puppet's outer shell. "One is when we're speaking English to each other, the other is when we're onstage or in the horse, and we have this other vocabulary where we're totally tuned in."
Nothing goes smoothly all the time, especially on a stage crowded with battle scenes and life-size animal puppets.
"At one point Danny's fallen, I've fallen, but the nice thing about having three people is you've got two people to bring you back up," said Mr. Manley, who as the hind who controls the back legs and tail of Joey. "I don't know if the audience noticed either of those times. It may have looked like the horse did something strange, but we've got two people justifying any strange position we make."
The trio's counterparts as Topthorn have had their moments, too. "Charging through war" night after night, as Mr. Beiruti put it, can be daunting.
"There have been moments where I've been a little bit tired. But it is such a wonderful challenge," he said, "and you are always aware that you are a part of this wonderful story, so you always pull through."