'War Horse' Puppet Masters Bring Their Secrets To The Bushnell

What's it like to play the title character in one of London and Broadway's biggest hits — and be anonymous at the same time?

For the puppeteers who master the steeds in the five-time Tony Award winning play "War Horse," it's emotionally rich, artistically fulfilling, physically exhausting and nothing like anything they've ever done before.

The show, whose national tour arrives at Hartford's Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts for a one-week run beginning Tuesday, Jan. 28, centers on a horse named Joey and the poor Irish boy who loves him as the animal goes from a foal, to work horse to cavalry charger during the course of the epic story set during World War I.

The live-size creations were created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa led by Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, and their work in the show won a special Tony in 2011. It takes three puppeteers to manipulate Joey, as well as other animals in the show.

It is clear there are teams of puppeteers working the 7-foot steeds, abstract creations costing $100,000 each made of sticks, cane, rattan and aluminum. But their work is so graceful, nuanced and organic, the manipulators all but disappear from the audience's eye.

The horses trot and gallop around stage, and in one stunning scene, with their flanks heaving and nostrils flaring, they jump over a wall of barbed wire in a military attack, ridden by actors. But it's the quiet moments between the animals and the play's human characters that are the most effective, with some audience members so emotionally engaged with the puppets by the play's conclusion that they are sobbing.

Getting Literally In The Character

Four puppeteers who have performed at various "War Horse" productions gathered last fall in Hartford to talk about their experiences as the title character. Rob Laqui, Isaac Woofter, Jude Sandy and Lute Breuer — and others who have performed as the horses in the show's multiple companies around the world — come from various backgrounds: theater, puppetry, circus arts and dance (Laqui was a member of the Connecticut-based Momix company from 2004 to 2010).

"It's a show unlike any other because the lead character is an animal — and one that is not anthropomorphize," he says. "And these character don't speak or sing like in 'Lion King.' The show, first presented at London's National Theatre, is based on the young adult 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford.

He says it's the first time puppets have been used on this scale, in a large-scale international show where the emotional center of the work is a leading character that is a puppet.

(Connecticut is home to two internationally acclaimed puppet arts institutions: UConn's Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry as well as the school's department of puppetry and the National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford held every June.)

It's a unique acting experience, says Breuer. "You have to be physically engaged at a really high level and collaborate with others working the same puppet in a very intense and intimate way. You are literally in the character and it is a world unto itself."

But it's also an immense physical challenge, not only manipulating the mechanisms of the horse but also being ridden by actors at several points in the play. Even with physical therapy, acupuncture and massage, it takes its toll on the actors.

Breuer, for instance, developed carpel tunnel syndrome and lower back pain because, as the hind part of the horse, he can't stand up straight, "otherwise the hoofs would levitate. You have to get good at centering your weight so it's evenly distributed, allowing the weight of the horse to go through your legs and not stop at your back."

But then there's the feeling that all eyes are on you. "After all Joey is the star of the show," Breuer says.

Choreographed And Improvised

Sandy remembers the first time he performed as part of the three-person "Joey team."

"Oh my gosh," he says. "There's the big moment of transformation when little Joey [the colt] becomes big Joey and we'd be behind the curtain getting ready to go on and the first time I performed I felt faint and nauseous. I was convinced that I would mess it all up, like drop the head or something."

Woofter agrees.

"It was for me personally the most challenging acting job of my life," he says. "I don't think I'll ever work as hard on stage as I do for this role. It's choreographed but its improvised, too. Not only are we all doing this internal work but there's so much stimulation thrown at Joey constantly during the show that you have to react in specific ways and be ready to improvise and you do it with all this internal communication with your teammates. Its the biggest acting challenge you'll get to do."