They earned raves in New York and London—even a smitten Queen Elizabeth II had one “horse” lead a Windsor Castle cavalry parade. The 120-pound equine puppets of the World War I play “War Horse” are the creations of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler and their South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Co. Giving each puppet life falls to a three-person team with acting, dancing, and gymnastics skills. “The big scenes are choreographed, but aside from that the puppeteers have some freedom,” Kohler says. Each individual has a role—the head, heart, or hind—but works collectively to create the horse’s movement and sounds. It’s grueling: Four teams rotate among the principal horses, Joey and Topthorn, and seven others to ease the burden, and a physical therapist travels with the show. “One of the rules of puppetry is that the puppeteer is almost always uncomfortable,” says cast member and Tustin High grad Brian Robert Burns, “but it’s like being in a devotional state to give yourself over completely to the puppet.”
1 • Tail Kohler originally used a polystyrene packing material, but it lacked durability. He replaced it with white paper that has to be painted. Each tail is a mix of 10 colors, and each puppet has its own color palette.
2 • The Hind Burns says this role is the “engine” of the puppet. Each hind leg is operated by an attached ski pole. Atop each pole is a bike handbrake, which moves the tail—squeezing one brake flicks the tail side to side, and squeezing the other moves it up and down.
3 • Body Kohler likens the horse to a 3-D drawing, an effect achieved with the cane exoskeleton. The nylon mesh “skin” allows the puppeteers to see outside. An aluminum bridge under the horse’s spine between the puppeteers supports riders.
4 • The Heart Breathing convinces audiences that a puppet has life, Kohler says. With each bend of his knees, the puppeteer manning the front legs makes the chest rise and fall. Moderate lunges show exertion, while deep bends signal exhaustion.
5 • Ears Made of leather, they can rotate 180 degrees via a handle outside the horse’s head. The handle has a lever for each ear and a third to extend the animal’s head. “Ear movements are small, but they can be a huge part of telling the story,” says puppeteer Danny Yoerges, who operates the head.
6 • The Head An actor guides the horse, using one hand to operate the ear and head controls, while the other holds a padded handle on the animal’s cheek. “It’s pretty rudimentary,” Yoerges says. “It makes the horse look like he’s hearing, smelling, and seeing things.”
“War Horse” runs Jan. 22 through Feb. 3 at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 714-556-2787, scfta.org
This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of Orange Coast magazine.