While the design team fit the many puzzle pieces together during the planning stages of War Horse, Handspring Puppet Company worked on the core mystery. “Can we embody Joey?” says Mervyn Millar, Handspring’s associate puppetry director. “Can we create this stubborn, fiery, curious, dedicated, ingenious character in the mind of the audience using our movement and the mechanics of this puppet? [And the same impossible task exists for each of the puppet characters.] The first element is the design of the puppet itself. It looks like a drawing of a horse. The interplay of flowing lines of bent cane, solid blocks of timber, and intricately cut panels of plywood (with all possible excess removed to reduce weight), the delicate stretch georgette skin and the light Tyvek mane and tail strips all combine to make a sketch of the animal. [Handspring's] Adrian Kohler works with accurate anatomical proportions to help the movement of the joints echo those of the real animal, but his skill is to be selective about which joints are there, and how they are positioned for the operators.”
Millar explains how the puppeteers work. “The three operators—'head,’ 'heart,’ and 'hind'—each have technical expertise to pick up during the rehearsal and training process to work the leg, neck, tail, and ear joints. Heart and hind operators share the weight of the aluminum-reinforced frame (and that of the rider) and can effect subtle changes of position by altering their leg and body position. The subtlest movement of all—the horse's breath—is created in this way, but the real challenge for these performers is to subsume their ego in one single consciousness and translate their analysis of horse movement into something emotional and natural. Being accurate is only the beginning of the journey of performing these characters. Most of these men and women have never held a puppet before they were cast in War Horse—it's their care and clarity that make the characters come alive night after night.”
“During this workshop period, we began to think about how we could create the voices of the horses, and we went through various options such as voiceover artists on mics in the wings, puppeteers wearing speakers on their costumes, using real horse sounds, etc., but none of these seemed to be right,” says sound designer Christopher Shutt. “With the real horse recordings, it was soon clear that we would never get the range of expression necessary to tell the whole story anyway, particularly when the horses are often in pain or peril, so we decided that the puppeteers themselves would make the sounds as well as the movements.”
Stay tuned for more coverage on the lighting, projection, set, and sound design for War Horse.