The producers of the North American touring production of War Horse are in town today to hold a press conference where they will trot out one of its four-legged stars.
It has already been announced that the 2011 Tony Award winner for best play will make its Winnipeg debut at the Centennial Concert Hall June 18-22, 2014. But those producers want to dispel any notions among prospective Winnipeg ticket-buyers that:
-- the horse must be real, like in Steven Spielberg's movie version;
-- the equines are portrayed by pairs of guys in campy horse costumes; or
-- actors in their street clothes gallop around the stage neighing.
The star of the press conference will be Joey, War Horse's title steed. The play is based on Michael Morpurgo's 1982 children's story, which traces the enduring friendship between young Albert and his horse, who is sold to the British cavalry in 1914 and shipped to France.
Joey was fashioned by South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company out of moulded cane, leather and aluminum with flowing Tyvek manes and tails. Three performers (two work inside and one outside the puppet) are flying to Winnipeg to put Joey through his paces for the city's media.
"Once you see the horses, it's easy to get people excited about the show," says Rob Laqui, who is one of the puppeteers coming from Las Vegas, the current tour stop. "It's so unlike anything even people experienced in theatre get to see."
The magic of War Horse, which I saw on Broadway last December, is similar to the amazing stagecraft displayed in The Lion King. Puppeteers are in plain view, but after a while you almost forget they're there, because you become entranced by their work.
To learn how that happens, I went straight to the horse's mouth. Well... one of the horse's mouths, and she will be familiar to local theatre-goers. Mairi Babb is the War Horse tour's assistant puppet captain and a former Winnipegger who starred in scores of productions here, including Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Pride and Prejudice, Brief Encounter and Educating Rita. She also plays baby Joey and will be in Winnipeg next June.
"Handspring Puppet Company are geniuses," says Babb. "They teach the audience how to see the show. We start with the swallows, puppeteered by some of our tallest puppeteers. Tiny little birds on the end of long poles that draw your eye away from the large people manipulating them."
Then appears Baby Joey, the smallest horse in the show, at the very back of the large stage. The stiff-legged foal just stands and breathes and listens to birds and swishes his tail. These are termed micro-movements, designed to focus the audiences eyes on the colt's tiny indicators of mood, drawing viewers in even more, Babb says.
"On top of all that is the puppeteers' focus and neutrality," says Babb, who grew up riding and had to choose between theatre and horses as a career. "We look at the puppet all the time, using mostly peripheral vision to navigate and sense impulses from other actors and see visual cues. And because we're neutral, we're not pulling focus from the what the puppet is feeling, which is the main point of the story."
Each of the trios animating a horse voices all the snorts and whinnies, although there is no talking inside the horse. That's a huge change for an actress trained to learn lines and lyrics.
"War Horse is one of the hardest and most rewarding things I've ever done," says Babb, who was first cast in War Horse in the 2012 production in Toronto, where she now lives. "I've never thought of myself as a physical theatre performer, and I never thought I would spend more than two years of my career as a puppeteer.
"This show took away my biggest tool, my words. It has forced me to communicate in an entirely different way... Your vocabulary is breath and whinnies and snorts. I think I've learned a lot about being an actor from being a puppeteer."
Every performance physically taxes the 34-member cast. The big-horse puppeteers spend 21/2 hours in a puppet that weighs 55 kilograms and must carry a 170-pound rider. That's why they have split that load by having two teams perform four shows a week.
"Everyone has their own post-show routines, depending on what hurts or needs some TLC: lots of ice bags, sometimes ice baths and we're keeping the makers of a homeopathic anti-inflammatory cream in business," she says.
Tickets go on sale today exclusively for RMTC subscribers and groups of 10 or more. Single-tickets sales will begin sometime next spring.