BWW Interviews: WAR HORSE National Tour's Megan Loomis
Galloping into the Saenger Theatre tomorrow night is the Tony Award winning play WAR HORSE.
Set in early 1900s Europe at the onset of World War I in a town called Devon, England, WAR HORSE takes us on a journey with a boy named Albert and his friendship with his horse Joey. Joey comes to Albert at a time in his life where he is unsure of himself. Through taking care of Joey, Albert finds his confidence and grows up. One day, Albert's dad decides to sell Joey to the army (cue pet owners across the world crying hysterically), and Albert takes off to find him.
A play about a boy and a horse sounds simple enough, right? But how do you control a horse on stage? Joey, audiences will find, is a very special kind of ensemble member. He's a puppet, created by Handspring Puppet Company, who is controlled by three puppeteers simultaneously!
WAR HORSE actress Megan Loomis gave me some insight on what it's like to work with this magnificent character as well as how she got her start with music, her path to musical theatre, and her experience working with this production.
I read that you started out with a love of music, and you play a whole lot of musical instruments. Which ones do you play?
I started on the piano when I was really little, and then moved to violin. I still play violin, but a little more in the style of fiddle playing. I also play the viola, and in the show I play the accordion. I understudy the accordion player. And then along the way I've picked up a few others like mandolin, ukulele, guitar... anything with a string. And then also I play in a brass band in the show as well.
What was the hardest instrument for you to learn, or does it come easily for the rest once you pick up one of them?
Well I think they definitely all have their own challenges. I think it depends. Each one has kind of its own individual problems. It just comes down to practicing. I think I feel really lucky that I started on instruments like the violin because it's sort of an awkward instrument. I know that my friends that have started playing later in life, the posture is difficult to grasp so I'm glad that I kind of started with that. Sometimes I think singing is the hardest instrument, especially living on the road with changes in altitude and climate. It's possibly one of the most challenging instruments because you kind of never know what your voice is going to do, whereas you can tune a guitar or a fiddle and they will respond similarly each time. So I think the voice is the most challenging.
Is there one that you enjoy playing the most?
I think it kind of depends on the day. Right now I'm really enjoying getting to know the ukulele, actually. It's really portable, and I'm learning to do a whole lot more with it than I thought. But, my heart probably lies with the fiddle.
You said you play instruments in the show?
Yes, I play brass. I play a tenor horn in the show and I understudy both the singer and the accordion player, which are two people called Song Men. Occasionally I go on for them.
What is the dynamic like of being able to play an instrument in a show?
I think this show is particularly special because there's a great marriage between music and storytelling... using the music to help tell the story of WAR HORSE. It's not a musical, it's more of a play with music. I think when John Tams, who was our song maker, was bringing the traditional English country songs to the show he did such a wonderful job of incorporating some songs that he wrote and some songs that are traditional songs in order to help move the story along. And I think it's wonderful to be a part of that, and I find that when I get to go on as Song Woman, I find myself standing in the middle of the stage in some scene that are exclusively only the Song Woman or Song Man can be right in the middle of. I think it heightens the storytelling, and helps it really affect people and affect the mood. We want you to feel like we're in the country, and we're not in a big theatre, we're in the country. We're asking everyone to kind of make an agreement with their imagination, and the music plays a really big part in that.
What came first for you... singing or playing instruments?
I think singing in church was the first thing. That was my first exposure to music. I'm really lucky that my parents have been incredibly supportive my whole life and neither one of them are musicians. They were kind of in uncharted territory with me. They were really great about... they got me into choir and then they found out, when I said I wanted to play the violin... my mom just looked at me, she had no idea what to do. But a woman at church took lessons so she asked her, so then we started to carpool and that's really where it all started.
How did you transition from singing and music into the world of theatre?
Well I had always done theatre in school, like the plays in junior high school and high school. Then when I was looking at what sort of undergraduate education I wanted to get I looked at a few musical theatre programs and music programs, and I decided to focus on music. I decided I wanted to focus all of my attention in terms of my education on music. I wanted to study history and theory and languages and all of those things. When I graduated, I went to Eastman School of Music, I moved to New York and my intention was to continue studying singing and also be in dance classes which I've done for a long time. I started auditioning, and I just started going to things and auditioning. I started booking work in theatre and I had every intention of looking at graduate school, possibly going back to graduate school for opera, and once I started booking work there was no looking back. I was learning so much on the job from people who are more experienced than me, from trial and error, performing eight times a week, rehearsing all day, from touring. There are so many things within that that require... you can't be taught, you just have to learn on your own. So that's kind of how I ended up in theatre.
Can you give me a summary of what WAR HORSE is about?
It starts in Devon, England, which is in the west. It's a very rural farm country. We're introduced to Joey, baby Joey, who is the horse. And, the story is about... this horse winds up being bought by a man who has a son named Albert. Albert's a bit of a misfit. He's a shy boy. They don't have a lot of money but they end up with this horse, and Albert raises Joey. Through raising Joey, Albert really matures a lot. He finds his own voice and he finds his best friend, Billy. And this is all happening right before World War I. When England decides to enter World War I, Albert's dad sells Joey to the army, and Albert and Joey are separated. And the rest of the story is Joey's adventures once he goes to France and the people that he meets. Then Albert runs away from home to try and find Joey, and I don't want to tell you anything more than that because I don't want to spoil it for you!
So then how does your character fit into the story?
In the first act I play several different characters, sometimes recognizable, sometimes unrecognizable. I play a soldier, I play a townsperson, I play a band member. And then in act II my main part is Paulette, who is a French farm woman. I'm the mother of a little girl named Emilie, and the horse Joey comes to my farm which is occupied by German soldiers. Once Joey gets to my farm he and my daughter become friends. That's how they enter my life, my character's life.
So Joey is actually a puppet. What's it like working with this completely non-traditional type of character?
Well there are three puppeteers who manipulate the horses, so there are basically three people playing one character. That's kind of amazing. I've been working on the project for over two years now, so we all know each other really well. We're really familiar with each other, which is great. In order to cut down on the physical strain, the teams of three people rotate. So every night it's a different team of puppeteers playing Joey. That is pretty amazing because it means that you're acting with different people every night. Everyone has their own things that they bring to the characters. It's pretty wonderful because it's built in that every night is a little bit different, which we're very lucky for because I've done almost seven hundred performances of this production. And the other thing is it keeps you guessing, which is great. Their main direction is to be horses, and so sometimes they blow at you, sometimes they stamp at you, sometimes they come up and the nuzzle you, they look for a treat in your pocket. I'm one of the few lucky humans in show. I get to ride a horse, so that's pretty cool.
Does it ever get distracting working with Joey since there are three people and a puppet that you have to interact with?
I think at this point it's pretty... we're definitely very focused on Joey himself as a horse. I tend to try to concentrate on his eyes the same way as if it was a real horse. I think I've possibly once or twice found that I've... the head puppeteer works outside of the head, and I found that I'd gone to pet Joey's nose and then accidentally when I walked past him I touched the head puppeteer and like patted him on the back. I think I did that once and I caught myself. I was like oh my gosh, what have I done?! But you know the head puppeteer is kind of an extension of the puppet, but I think that was very early on. Now I'm a lot better at focusing. I don't find it distracting at all. I find it just a part of Joey, the character.
How do audiences tend to react the first time they are introduced to Joey?
I think very similarly from what I've gathered from people I've talked to - my family, my friends, and other audience members Similar to the way that I reacted when I first saw the show, which was when we first see Joey we see his three puppeteers, and I remember thinking oh man am I gonna have to look at this for the next two and a half hours? Within under 90 seconds, I didn't see them anymore. I was just looking at the horse, and how the horse was breathing, and how was moving. I think it's something that's really special about the Handspring Puppet Company and Adrian [Kohler] and Basil [Jones] who created the puppets for us, that they don't try to hide the puppeteers. The minute you hide the puppeteers, the audience starts looking for the puppeteers. So they put the puppeteers in plain view in period clothing and complementary colors. They're basically presenting you with an opportunity or an agreement, and they say this is what you'll be looking at for the next two and a half hours, enter into this, open your imagination and come with us on this. And I think that audiences do it! They really do. Once in a while they see them, but for the most part you get so wrapped up in the story that you just don't see them anymore.
To wrap things up, in a couple of sentences why should folks come see WAR HORSE?
Because you'll be sorry you missed it! It's a beautiful piece of theatre. There's nothing like it, and I think it'll be a long time before something like it comes around again.
Take Megan's advice and go see WAR HORSE at the Saenger Theatre while it's in town from May 13 through May 18. Check out http://saengernola.com/ for tickets and more details.
To support NOPD's Mounted Patrol you can purchase tickets for either Tuesday, Wednesday, or Sunday night's shows by visiting http://www.eventusher.com/. Type in password NOPD, and when you purchase your tickets, a portion of the proceeds will be donated.