Theater always asks us to use our imagination to some extent, but that’s even more the case with War Horse. The production, which uses ingenious puppetry to bring its main character to life, will ask Austin audiences to open their minds and hearts during War Horse’s one-week engagement May 6-11 at Bass Concert Hall.
"As an audience member, you're asked to invest in these horses as real beings, and once you kind of jump in, you’re rewarded greatly," says War Horse Associate Puppetry Director Matt Acheson. The Tony Award-winning play follows the journey of a young man in his quest to find his horse, Joey, after he is enlisted to support English troops in World War I.
Joey is a 120-pound puppet made out of cane, aluminum, fiber glass, leather and fabric. The horse is operated by three puppeteers: one who manages the head from the outside, and two inside managing the heart and rear of the horse. The puppeteers can’t see or speak to one another during a performance, making it an even more delicate operation. In unison, they operate the horse’s ears, head, body, legs and tail, and create its breath and sounds.
Acheson describes the teamwork involved in breathing life into Joey and the other eight life-sized horses in the play. "The major part is team dynamics because there’s three people who have to constantly think as one horse … It’s a complicated system of communication that they have to develop over time."
It took years of development and the involvement of world renowned Handspring Puppet Company to recreate a living breathing horse on stage. "There was a lot of concern using a horse with essentially 10 legs," Acheson explains of testing the design. "So they brought in audiences and showed them the horses and asked questions like, 'How many legs did the horse have?' When audiences responded, 'Four,' they knew they had a winner."
It doesn't take long, Acheson says, for audiences to forget about the puppeteers altogether. "It is just amazing, with the help of the puppeteers focusing your attention, what we choose to look at and what we decide to make a reality." Even the puppeteer outside — controlling the horse's head — fades away. "He kind of disappears, while still constantly being in front of your face — it’s a suspension of disbelief that the audience is asked to do, and I also think that’s why [the play] is so engaging."
Audiences are encouraged to leave preconceptions at home and to allow themselves to become entrenched in the story. "War Horse, at its core, is such an emotional story. And the horses being puppets is perfect because they are beautiful to look at … And once you start seeing them move and breathe in synch, you become really connected to them."
While there's some stigma that comes with the word "puppet," Acheson promises that Austin audiences will be swept up in this performance that has raised the bar for puppetry around the world. "There’s this moment of just magic when you, as an audience member, completely buy into and celebrate the lives of these particular horses … There’s something about a puppet that’s pure and honest … There’s something visceral about that that people react to."