The Challenging Battle to Bring War Horse Puppets to Life

Spectacle is a word many have been tossing around when referring to Lincoln Center Theater’s production of War Horse, a play that earned five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and follows an exceptional run in London. What makes this new work so fascinating is its central character, a horse.  When the creators of War Horse set out to craft the show, nearly everyone involved believed that the idea of a play featuring a non-speaking animal would be an extreme challenge.

War Horse, based on a children’s novel by English author Michael Morpurgo, depicts a young man’s relationship with his horse, Joey, and tells how his love of the horse was so powerful that it transcended World War I, during which time the horse was sold to the military for battle.

“It’s been a huge challenge and a huge privilege,” War Horse’s playwright, Nick Stafford, recently told me after winning a Tony Award.  “In the beginning, it seemed like an impossible task to write this play.  To have the main character not be able to speak was a challenge.”

That non-speaking puppet horse seems to steal the show for many in the audience and the theatrical community, as its creators, the Handspring Puppet Company, also took home an award on Tonys night.  They’ve spent the past 30 years designing puppets, but it wasn’t until bringing War Horse to New York that they realized just how powerful a puppet could be.

“We began War Horse some years ago in London, where we got satisfying recognition,” Handspring’s co-founder Adrain Kohler said.  “But, it’s fantastic to see what New York has done with the show.”

Kohler’s partner Basil Jones was stunned by the attention that Broadway audiences were giving War Horse.  “Towards the end of the show they are shouting instructions to the performer.  There’s screaming at the end, not just clapping.”

Jones and Kohler said they travelled around South Africa and England observing horses in the lead up to the War Horse opening in London.  In order to make the nuances so realistic, it takes three puppeteers controlling every part of the body, working together as a unit, to accomplish that task.

Beyond the idea of getting audiences interested in a puppet, War Horse’s co-director Tom Morris said the mere idea of Americans emotionally connected with a horse was daunting.  “We were a bit worried that the Broadway audiences wouldn’t have the same type of relationship with horses that British audiences do.  Then we discovered that New York audiences were falling in love with the horse and even crying by the show’s end.”

“We are two experimental British theatre directors who made a show fooling around with puppets,” Morris said.  “It was never intended to be a commercial show in London, let alone here.”

Now that War Horse has wowed Broadway audiences, the National Theatre’s production is gearing up for a national tour, launching in Los Angeles next year then making stops in 19 other cities.  Then there’s the film, directed by blockbuster filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who decided to return to the director’s chair following a bit of a break in order to adapt War Horse for the big screen.  The film adaptation is scheduled for release this December.

“Sometimes I go and see the show in order to watch how audiences are reacting,” playwright Stafford said.  “The reception has been fantastic.”  He now hopes that the drama of the story and the sense of loss that’s felt on stage, will wow audiences across the country, and will translate as emotionally to the big screen.

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