Dissecting the eight-foot-tall, 120-pound puppet in War Horse

We talk to the puppeteers who star in the international sensation, which hits Chicago December 18.
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By Kris Vire |
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The National Theatre of Great Britain’s War Horse, based on Michael Morpurgo’s sentimental children’s novel about a boy, Albert, and his beloved horse, Joey, who’s enlisted to fight in World War I, has become an international sensation since its premiere in 2007. The show’s American debut last year at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater racked up five Tony Awards, including Best Play; it’s now playing in London, New York (closing next month) and in touring productions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., including a three-week Chicago engagement starting December 18.

Much of War Horse’s acclaim can be attributed to the stunning, life-size horses created by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, which was given a special Tony (an award that doesn’t fit into an established Tony category) for its work. “Puppet seems too puny a term,” said Time Out New York’s review. “It’s only a mock horse manipulated by actors, yet your heart breaks.” Two different puppets portray Joey, as a foal and as an adult. Here’s an early look at the grown-up Joey.

 

  • Joey is operated by three puppeteers: the Heart and Hind work from inside the horse’s body, while the Head is manipulated from the outside. “They really have to learn to breathe in unison, as one,” says Finn Caldwell, War Horse’s associate puppetry director.
  • Nearly ten feet long, eight feet tall and weighing in at 120 pounds, the adult Joey has 20 moving joints.
  • Joey’s frame is mostly bent wooden cane; an aluminum reinforcement along the spine allows him to be ridden. Chiffon-like Georgette fabric is stretched beneath the frame for skin; Joey’s mane and tail are made of Tyvek, the durable spun-plastic material often used in shipping products.
  • Movable ears and tail allow the Head and Hind actors to express emotion; a harness connects the puppet’s spine to that of the Heart puppeteer, whose movements become Joey’s breathing.

 

War Horse plays the Cadillac Palace Theatre December 18–January 5. Visit broadwayinchicago.com for ticket information.

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