The genius puppetry behind War Horse | Handspring Puppet Company
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The genius puppetry behind War Horse | Handspring Puppet Company

August 16, 2019


Adrian Kohler: Well, we’re here today to talk about the evolution of a puppet horse. Basil Jones: But actually we’re going to start this evolution with a hyena. AK: The ancestor of the horse. Okay, we’ll do something with it. (Laughter) Hahahaha. The hyena is the ancestor of the horse because it was part of a production called “Faustus in Africa,” a Handspring Production from 1995, where it had to play draughts with Helen of Troy. This production was directed by South African artist and theater director, William Kentridge. So it needed a very articulate front paw. But, like all puppets, it has other attributes. BJ: One of them is breath, and it kind of breathes. AK: Haa haa haaa. BJ: Breath is really important for us. It’s the kind of original movement for any puppet for us onstage. It’s the thing that distinguishes the puppet — AK: Oops. BJ: From an actor. Puppets always have to try to be alive. It’s their kind of ur-story onstage, that desperation to live. AK: Yeah, it’s basically a dead object, as you can see, and it only lives because you make it. An actor struggles to die onstage, but a puppet has to struggle to live. And in a way that’s a metaphor for life. BJ: So every moment it’s on the stage, it’s making the struggle. So we call this a piece of emotional engineering that uses up-to-the-minute 17th century technology — (Laughter) to turn nouns into verbs. AK: Well actually I prefer to say that it’s an object constructed out of wood and cloth with movement built into it to persuade you to believe that it has life. BJ: Okay so. AK: It has ears that move passively when the head goes. BJ: And it has these bulkheads made out of plywood, covered with fabric — curiously similar, in fact, to the plywood canoes that Adrian’s father used to make when he was a boy in their workshop. AK: In Port Elizabeth, the village outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa. BJ: His mother was a puppeteer. And when we met at art school and fell in love in 1971, I hated puppets. I really thought they were so beneath me. I wanted to become an avant-garde artist — and Punch and Judy was certainly not where I wanted to go. And, in fact, it took about 10 years to discover the Bambara Bamana puppets of Mali in West Africa, where there’s a fabulous tradition of puppetry, to learn a renewed, or a new, respect for this art form. AK: So in 1981, I persuaded Basil and some friends of mine to form a puppet company. And 20 years later, miraculously, we collaborated with a company from Mali, the Sogolon Marionette Troupe of Bamako, where we made a piece about a tall giraffe. It was just called “Tall Horse,” which was a life-sized giraffe. BJ: And here again, you see the same structure. The bulkheads have now turned into hoops of cane, but it’s ultimately the same structure. It’s got two people inside it on stilts, which give them the height, and somebody in the front who’s using a kind of steering wheel to move that head. AK: The person in the hind legs is also controlling the tail, a bit like the hyena — same mechanism, just a bit bigger. And he’s controlling the ear movement. BJ: So this production was seen by Tom Morris of the National Theatre in London. And just around that time, his mother had said, “Have you seen this book by Michael Morpurgo called ‘War Horse’?” AK: It’s about a boy who falls in love with a horse. The horse is sold to the First World War, and he joins up to find his horse. BJ: So Tom gave us a call and said, “Do you think you could make us a horse for a show to happen at the National Theatre?” AK: It seemed a lovely idea. BJ: But it had to ride. It had to have a rider. AK: It had to have a rider, and it had to participate in cavalry charges. (Laughter) A play about early 20th century plowing technology and cavalry charges was a little bit of a challenge for the accounting department at the National Theatre in London. But they agreed to go along with it for a while. So we began with a test. BJ: This is Adrian and Thys Stander, who went on to actually design the cane system for the horse, and our next-door neighbor Katherine, riding on a ladder. The weight is really difficult when it’s up above your head. AK: And once we put Katherine through that particular brand of hell, we knew that we might be able to make a horse, which could be ridden. So we made a model. This is a cardboard model, a little bit smaller than the hyena. You’ll notice that the legs are plywood legs and the canoe structure is still there. BJ: And the two manipulators are inside. But we didn’t realize at the time that we actually needed a third manipulator, because we couldn’t manipulate the neck from inside and walk the horse at the same time. AK: We started work on the prototype after the model was approved, and the prototype took a bit longer than we anticipated. We had to throw out the plywood legs and make new cane ones. And we had a crate built for it. It had to be shipped to London. We were going to test-drive it on the street outside of our house in Cape Town, and it got to midnight and we hadn’t done that yet. BJ: So we got a camera, and we posed the puppet in various galloping stances. And we sent it off to the National Theatre, hoping that they believed that we created something that worked. (Laughter) AK: A month later, we were there in London with this big box and a studio full of people about to work with us. BJ: About 40 people. AK: We were terrified. We opened the lid, we took the horse out, and it did work; it walked and it was able to be ridden. Here I have an 18-second clip of the very first walk of the prototype. This is in the National Theatre studio, the place where they cook new ideas. It had by no means got the green light yet. The choreographer, Toby Sedgwick, invented a beautiful sequence where the baby horse, which was made out of sticks and bits of twigs, grew up into the big horse. And Nick Starr, the director of the National Theatre, saw that particular moment, he was standing next to me — he nearly wet himself. And so the show was given the green light. And we went back to Cape Town and redesigned the horse completely. Here is the plan. (Laughter) And here is our factory in Cape Town where we make horses. You can see quite a lot of skeletons in the background there. The horses are completely handmade. There is very little 20th century technology in them. We used a bit of laser cutting on the plywood and some of the aluminum pieces. But because they have to be light and flexible, and each one of them is different, they can’t be mass-produced, unfortunately. So here are some half-finished horses ready to be worked in London. And now we would like to introduce you to Joey. Joey boy, you there? Joey. (Applause) (Applause) Joey. Joey, come here. No, no, I haven’t got it. He’s got it; it’s in his pocket. BJ: Joey. AK: Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey. Come here. Stand here where people can see you. Move around. Come on. I’d just like to describe — I won’t talk too loud. He might get irritated. Here, Craig is working the head. He has bicycle brake cables going down to the head control in his hand. Each one of them operates either an ear, separately, or the head, up and down. But he also controls the head directly by using his hand. The ears are obviously a very important emotional indicator of the horse. When they point right back, the horse is fearful or angry, depending upon what’s going on in front of him, around him. Or, when he’s more relaxed, the head comes down and the ears listen, either side. Horses’ hearing is very important. It’s almost more important than their eyesight. Over here, Tommy’s got what you call the heart position. He’s working the leg. You see the string tendon from the hyena, the hyena’s front leg, automatically pulls the hoop up. (Laughter) Horses are so unpredictable. (Laughter) The way a hoof comes up with a horse immediately gives you the feeling that it’s a convincing horse action. The hind legs have got the same action. BJ: And Mikey also has, in his fingers, the ability to move the tail from left to right, and up and down with the other hand. And together, there’s quite a complex possibility of tail expression. AK: You want to say something about the breathing? BJ: We had a big challenge with breathing. Adrian thought that he was going to have to split the chest of the puppet in two and make it breathe like that — because that’s how a horse would breathe, with an expanded chest. But we realized that, if that were to be happening, you wouldn’t, as an audience, see the breath. So he made a channel in here, and the chest moves up and down in that channel. So it’s anti-naturalistic really, the up and down movement, but it feels like breath. And it’s very, very simple because all that happens is that the puppeteer breathes with his knees. AK: Other emotional stuff. If I were to touch the horse here on his skin, the heart puppeteer can shake the body from inside and get the skin to quiver. You’ll notice, of course, that the puppet is made out of cane lines. And I would like you to believe that it was an aesthetic choice, that I was making a three-dimensional drawing of a horse that somehow moves in space. But of course, it was the cane is light, the cane is flexible, the cane is durable and the cane is moldable. And so it was a very practical reason why it was made of cane. The skin itself is made out of a see-through nylon mesh, which, if the lighting designer wants the horse to almost disappear, she can light the background and the horse becomes ghostlike. You see the skeletal structure of it. Or if you light it from above, it becomes more solid. Again, that was a practical consideration. The guys inside the horse have to be able to see out. They have to be able to act along with their fellow actors in the production. And it’s very much an in-the-moment activity that they’re engaged in. It’s three heads making one character. But now we would like you to put Joey through some paces. And plant. (Whinny) Thank you. And now just — (Applause) All the way from sunny California we have Zem Joaquin who’s going to ride the horse for us. (Applause) (Applause) (Music) So we would like to stress that the performance you see in the horse is three guys who have studied horse behavior incredibly thoroughly. BJ: Not being able to talk to one another while they’re onstage because they’re mic’d. The sound that that very large chest makes, of the horse — the whinnying and the nickering and everything — that starts usually with one performer, carries on with a second person and ends with a third. AK: Mikey Brett from Leicestershire. (Applause) Mikey Brett, Craig, Leo, Zem Joaquin and Basil and me. (Applause) Thank you. Thank you. (Applause)

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  1. just saw the show a few days ago, mindBLOWING puppetry but i have to admit i found the play as disappointingly boring as the movie was, the story alone just seemed really weak, and nothing seemed to be a greater metaphor for anything, like the era or the society etc. plus i dont know if it was an off night or what but the acoustics of the voices were pretty terrible compared to most theatres in london iv been to and the lead boy didnt seem to be acting so much as earnestly shouting his lines…

  2. Inspired by the work of Handspring and other puppetry companies, Effigy is a new contemporary puppetry company creating work full of humour, heartbreak and heckling.

    Go to my page to see a new puppetry/dance film featuring Effigy and choreographer Max Evans which has had some great responses so far.

    We would love some feedback and thoughts.

    Also find us on facebook/effigytheatre and twitter @effigytheatre

  3. That's all you have to point out? Really? They weren't even "shoving it in the faces", he quickly mentioned it and moved on because that's how they started working together. and I'm sorry to say this, but if something like that makes you so uncomfortable that you have to bitch and complain about it instead of just moving on, you're going to have a really sad life.

  4. I've been to see Warhorse at the New London Theater,
    It was fantastic to watch,
    I would recommend it to anyone.
    In fact I would like to go see it again!!

  5. Grandioos dat mensen dit kunnen creëren en fantastisch hoe deze twee heren dit met passie kunnen vertellen 🙂 Chapeau!

  6. You know how hard that is? I do technical theater at my school and just with the sets and props it is already hard enough. It would be very difficult to have a real live horse in the show and what about on stage? The horse may be scripted to be alone on stage and the way the horse acts on stage is critical for the storyline. Creating a puppet to use on stage gives control over what the horse behaves, subtle motions (such as ear flicks and the tail) are very vital to the horse's mood.

  7. I saw this performance in my city on Tuesday and it was spectacular. The horse's movements were so fluid and appropriate. Even though you knew there were puppeteers in there, you hardly noticed them. It was like each horse was it's own entity.

  8. In movies they can do it in multiple takes and often have more than one horse to represent the same horse. Stage productions are done live. Horses aren't always willing to follow instructions, puppets do everything you want.

  9. Because I'm sure you could develop a puppet horse so much better to be used in a live performance. Grow up, 12 year old.

  10. War horse was the best play I've ever been to, from the start you forget the horses are just puppets,-it's amazing to see how they do it here. Great talk!

  11. I'd never heard of this production;  that was such a fantastic job of puppet construction and puppeteering!  I'm completely blown away!

  12. awesome but no idea why the guys inside are not dressed in black as they really mess with the look of the horse. strange choice to put them in a color similar to the horse thereby making it look like it has 8 legs

  13. Handspring puppet company has been part of life in Cape Town for over 30 years. They have always inspired with their creativity , passion, social commitments. I am excited to see the show next week – it's finally got to Cape Town. Well done, Basil and Adrian and all involved in this creation.

  14. Wow. Joey is simply amazing. Those who actually know what art truly is will know this. Ignore the ignorant among us.

  15. I get that they were trying to look good because it was a performance as well as a showcase of the engineering behind the puppetry, but I think a better choice of clothing would have been the black body suits that most puppeteers wear so that it seemed less evident that there were humans controlling it.

  16. I saw this is person years ago. One of my biggest wishes is for it to return to the stage in the US. So moving.

  17. That girl does NOT know anything about riding probably. She looked absolutely aweful although its a puppet still she looked absolutely horrible

  18. Heels down lady and what the heck was that movement when she was exiting on the horse. Also she was riding western like in English etire. That was so cringey lol

  19. Thank you so much for this absolutely beautiful posting I've been breaking and training Grand Prix horses my entire life.. watching Joey come to life has been absolutely amazing for me.. In tears❣ impeccably love the war horse! America should definitely have a statue of him!! For all of the horses that fought the War for us without any choice and we're 100% committed regardless of life or death!! God bless everyone of them and also for every soldier that was with them every step of the way!!!!

  20. Honestly puppetry like this should be in Disney to bring animal characters to life. Think about how many more people would come to see puppets of famous Disney animal characters like Aladar or Simba

  21. Maravilhosossssss!! Genais! Estou fascinada, como amante de cavalos e da arte genuína!! Parabéns aos criadores e executores do Joey! <3

  22. To all the people complaining about the woman ridding the puppet, she is not a horse rider in any way shape or form, her name is Zem Joaquin and she is an eco designer, no doubt seeing that she shares a passion for eco friendly building and crafting materials is most likely why she was given the chance to ride joey.
    Never hurts to do a little reading before flying off the handle about her not keeping her heels down, sitting too far back or mounting from the right. also she most likely mounted form the right so the audience wouldn't see her being given a leg up, it doesnt look good as part of a demonstration

  23. I watched War Horse in Hong Kong last night, it’s unbelievable, the horses came to live. Thank you for the great imagination and creativity. It worked and I’m completely in awe.

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