For the actors who operate the equine puppets in the hit play War Horse, each performance is like playing an instrument in a trio, says Mervyn Millar, the show’s associate puppetry director.
“You know the music, and you’re trying to find those moments when you’re absolutely in tune with each other,” he says.
Seventeen different actors, working in teams of three, will play various horse puppets in the show currently playing in Toronto. To learn to do so, they were taught some basic principles of puppetry and observed horses both at riding stables and with the Toronto Mounted Police Unit in order to see how horses trained for militaristic purposes behave differently.
But Caden Douglas, Bryan Hindle and Brad Cook, one of the teams that plays Joey, the horse at the play’s centre, said in an interview during rehearsals that it is in improvising together and learning each other’s subtle cues that the actors will really begin to make music.
“The breath is key,” Cook says of creating Joey’s respiration. “We work at breathing together, but when you breath together and you’re not thinking about working at it, you’re like, ‘Yeah, here we go.’”
Because they can’t cue each other verbally, each actor must respond to the others’ movements, which travel through the puppet’s frame like the signals dance partners send each other.
“If Brad [who operates Joey’s head]notices something and his head goes up and ears go back, usually we stop,” Hindle said, adding that from Joey’s centre he can signal his intentions through the horse’s breathing rhythm. “We’ve built a bit of language that’s not verbal.”
All three actors are crucial to the performance, but unlike in traditional puppeteering where the head is the most important part, it’s the person who plays Joey’s front legs, called the Heart, that is the linchpin, Millar said.
“The head notices things, but it’s the guy playing the Heart whose telling you through the breath and the posture what the horse thinks,” he said. But which part of the horse is most important at any given time depends on what’s happening in the play. “If a guy slaps [Joey]on the rump then it’s the guy in the hind who notices it first.”
The three must also convey the character entirely through action, a challenge for any actor who has always done that with the words of a script.
“Their lines are movement,” Millar said. “If they want to change the circumstances of what’s going on around them, they do it by stepping toward someone or pushing someone out of the way or backing off.”
It doesn’t always work perfectly. One of the big challenges during rehearsal was nailing the sounds Joey makes – not just the difference between a whinny and a scream, but also making it sound like whatever noise the horse is making is coming from a single animal and not three different men.
“We’re still working on getting it together so that it’s not fragmented sounds,” Hindle said.
Even learning how to make the horse walk properly could be challenging during rehearsals. “Bryan and I will end up walking on the same feet as opposed to a horse’s gait, or a hoof will roll over and get dragged a little bit,” Douglas said.
Joey will have to hit certain marks throughout the show, but otherwise the horse’s actions aren’t choreographed, leaving the actors playing him with a very large amount of improvising to do.
“Oddly enough this is some of the most freedom I’ve ever had,” Hindle said.
There’s no formula to ensure the actors playing Joey are perfectly in sync with one another, and it is a much harder challenge than many audience members might realize, Millar said.
“For three people to try to be one horse is sort of impossible,” he said. “And to try and do it for a sustained period every night is even harder.”