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BWW Preview: Surprise Visit from WAR HORSE at Texas Performing Arts

Austin's Texas Performing Arts had a Season Preview Party on Thursday, April 25, 2013. There were many special guests invited to the unveiling of the new season including many season ticket holders and other VIP's. But the surprise guest was the biggest one there. Joey, the famous horse from War Horse made a special appearance to introduce the next season's Broadway in Austin shows. Making Joey work takes a team of 3 actors/puppeteers to make him seem as real as any horse. In attendance Thursday evening were Curtis Jordan who operates the head of Joey, Isaac Woofter who operates the heart of Joey and Lute Breuer who is in charge of the hind. When Joey made his grand entrance, those in attendance gasped and applauded. It was a sight to see so up close and personal. And many forgot Joey was a puppet and seemed a little frightened of him as they approached him. After the presentation, some members of the media including Olin and Joan from Austin Entertainment Weekly were privileged to sit down with Curtis, Isaac and Lute to discuss how they make Joey seem so real to audiences.

KATHY: How long does it take you to get in sync when you first start working together?

ISAAC: It took us about 2 minutes.

LUTE: It's an ongoing process as you can imagine. We are a relatively new team. The three of us met about 6 weeks ago.

ISAAC: We got into the horse about 2 minutes before we went out.

CURTIS: It's a sort of involved training process that is the same for War Horse productions around the world. What usually happens in a production is that the 12 puppeteers who operate the 2 main horses are divided into 4 teams of 3. You develop a rapport and a relationship with those 3 and you learn with those 3 and you learn the nuances and the body, how the weight's distributed, their height, their breath, the indications of what they want to do with it. You do really bond with 2 other people; that's the idea, but within that structure, within that, everyone works with each other and you have to get used to working with each other and mixing teams as well which proved pretty easy when the 3 of us starting working together.

JOAN: Does one of you tend to take the lead in identifying an emotion or reaction?

LUTE: No that's one of the things that is interesting about this as opposed to Bunraku puppetry in the Japanese tradition where the head puppeteer does the head and the right arm and it's very hieratical; he or she is leading all the movement. They never imitate anything. They initiate everything and everyone else follows. Their task is to not trip them up. In this case any of the 3 of us can initiate any movement or a sound. It's highly improvised. Although the parts themselves tend to have indications of which way they signal; certain things maybe the head. The ears are very specific in what they can do. They indicate the hearing and the focus and things that the hind just can't do. As far as general movements, just the way we get about the stage, there is no one leading that.

CURTIS: People sometimes think it's the head puppeteer because it's the one they can see but actually the head puppeteer is pretty powerless. The only things he can do is make Joey look and listen and think. So as a puppeteer, I can't decide to go because these two are in control of that. And likewise the heart can't really initiate movements forward when it signals between the 3 of us. Again could prove powerless. Should the hind decide that it wasn't the right moment. So each of us is only really responsible for a section and unless we are working together complicity, the puppet jars and it's very hard for an audience in some ways.

ISAAC: So if the horse was startled and the head went up, and the ears moved but the breath didn't change then it would be a little out of sync but if I can do the breath and maybe there's a tail flick and there's something that the head or the ears do then it can kinda complete the picture.

CURTIS: And that's the way we work and the audience can't pick up on those tiny things as much as we would towards giving the most expert we can and make these beautiful puppets that do the work for us really come to life.

ISAAC: And I think that it seems like we will do something to show that the horse is this. I think we mostly just listen and that will show even more with small subtle changes as opposed to all of us trying to freak out for one moment. If it's something quick and held then that really says something that's more powerful.

OLIN: I really love the humanity that you bring to the character and you take from being just a mere animal into someone who has emotions and feelings. I think that's really telling by the way that your parts are described instead of being the head and the body and the butt of the horse, you're the head, the heart and the hind. That is telling of the characterization that you put into it. How does the story and the character and the puppetry; how does that moment of synchronization happen? Is it like you hit at the same moment or does it happen at different times for you?

CURTIS: You say there's a great deal of humanity to it and one of our main tasks is to not make them anamorphic. They're not meant to be like the ones in Lion King. They're not meant really understand much about what's going on. Our task is to make them appear as animalistic as possible. Having said that, there's a reason why real horse weren't chosen to be in this production is that they would be pretty useless in telling this story to an audience as beautiful as it would be to see horses onstage, you can't get them to show the nuances that are necessary for the audience to engage with it imaginatively as well as narratively. As much as we're playing dumb, and I don't mean any disrespect to horses by saying that, but they are basic in their needs, as much as we're trying to do that, we are also aware of the story. There's a duality among actors that do puppeteer is that you're partly very much in that moment and part of you is slightly detached and thinking about the bigger picture. I'm often looking at the whole horse not just his eyes. My focus is that I'm using my peripheral vision to see what his whole body's doing so that I'm reading the picture that we're making to an audience so I know that LUTE in the hind is responding with a tail and that Isaac's leg is about to move to make sure it's not me locked into my own performance of it.

LUTE: I think that duality applies to particularly to the technical aspect of working as a puppeteer in this show. The teams that really work great together and when the show really pops is when the basic technical aspect of working with the puppet has that duality as well. But you have this technical mastery that is this inanimate object that you are able to manipulate and do these amazing things with and then to pass that point where it becomes an extension of your body in that you're really able to view it with this feeling and to act inside this horse rather than to be manipulated. That's what really makes Joey come to life as a character within the narrative rather than this beautiful object that you're watching.

KATHY: How did you come about doing War Horse? What was the audition process like?

ISAAC: We all had an audition and the audition was more unlike most auditions where you have 5 minutes of a monologue or prepared sides. This was more like a workshop, a few hours. There were 9 or 12 of us in the workshop and we did some exercises using peripheral vision and listening with our bodies and some focused stuff with inanimate paper, rocks and things. Then they put us in the horse. They put us in the position randomly with people we didn't know. Then they would take us out after and talk a little bit about it and go through some of the basic technical aspects like pick the feet up and you guys inside the hors just try walking without trying to drop the feet down. We didn't know who the other people were so it was fun because we really got a chance to work. Then they took us out and switched people out and we tried a different position.

CURTIS: And they cast the net quite wide in terms of who they look for to get a lot of people each time they are going to cast a show. In London, there's a sort of growing underground scene of adult puppetry. You are getting different types of puppets and different puppets that are used to tell stories instead of just for children. There's this network of people if you are in or on the board of that network, it's likely that you'll get seen for War Horse just because they're looking for not only somebody who can master it technically but also the most important thing is that you can embody it with some sort of emotions. So often they will cast actors; I'm classically trained as an actor, I did Shakespeare and Chekhov which I think give me some ability to go through the emotional journey and play the impulses and the subtexts which are just as important in War Horse. In fact as you can see script is written down in a way that there are no lines for Joey but what they want and the places in the scene is written there for you.

KATHY: Do you have a specific choreography or do you have a chance to do a lot of improvisation as you go along?

LUTE: There's a great deal of specific chorography. There's pretty big set pieces for the show. There are these charges and battle sequences there are frequently 25 or 30 people on the stage at a time so it has to be choreographed to a degree and also to paint these beautiful pictures. It's a very wide lens kind of show. It's a very visual show. It's very much about the imagery and not about the words in the show. That being said, we have a tremendous amount of freedom within certain parameters and it's wonderful as a performer to be able to do that. And in a long running show it's nice to be able to do that and keep it fresh on a night to night basis. There's a lot of improvisation. There has to be to be able to play the horse as a horse. It wouldn't sell.

ISAAC: The more you do something over and over again and you do the exact same thing, the less and less actual tension it takes to do it. You fold your laundry; brush your teeth without even knowing that you did it. It's secondhand at that point. But the more that we can still kind of surprise each other the more that Lute does something new and then I become more alive as a performer. And if I'm more alive as a performer then the horse will be more alive as a horse onstage. It's important to continue to try new things, challenge new things.

OLIN: It goes back to that actor's saying that acting is more reacting than acting itself and that kind of adds a triple effect to what you guys do. It's not only Joey reacting but it's each one of you reacting within the character to then move out.

ISAAC: It's also the actors reacting so sometimes we would run up to somebody and the actor would just stand there. We're like, "Come on, this is a 2 ton horse running at you." Now, it's not believable.

CURTIS: They were fired, all of those actors.

OLIN: You mentioned earlier that you've done Shakespeare and Chekhov, you've each come at this from slightly different angles. How do you feel your past portrays into your current and future standings within the theater community?

ISAAC: It's a very physical show and I think that the people that were cast as the puppeteers, a lot of them were dancers or actors with a lot of physical training...

CURTIS: Movement specialists...

ISAAC: Movement specialists, more so that actual puppeteers. I know LUTE and I; all we did when we grew up were play sports, all the major sports and then I continued to study a lot of physical theater forms to help me with it.

JOAN: How do you physically prepare for a performance that obviously takes so much energy?

CURTIS: You can't really train your body before you start the job. The learning's on the job. You find the strength to do it. To do so many shows a week, for a long run, you want to try to prevent injury and you want to make sure you're giving the best performance to people who have paid so much money for a seat, but nevertheless, you can't shortcut them. You can't go to the gym and just spend days doing weights. It might well help but the puppets require certain amount of strength in places you didn't even know you needed. And everyone finds their own way. I had to go for a swim before every show and I knew that my body would be warmed up enough; my shoulders would be ready. I did a lot of yoga to make sure I didn't do long-term damage to my spine. It's also important to stay supple on a job like this because it's easy to get very tense because you're holding these things for a long time. When the puppet is at its most relaxed, the puppeteers are usually at their most tense. You want to make sure that you don't have any long-term issues from that. I did yoga and swimming.

LUTE: I remember someone said to me when I first started on the show, "It'll find your weak spot." Everyone knows where they have lacking physically and they're not flexible and weak on their left side; it finds it so you have to address those parts of your physique and build it up so it can withstand. It's grueling. It's the repetitive stress. Like Curtis said that really getting the tension out of our bodies and understanding how to use that constructively. I remember in the beginning for me, I have these handles that I have and I got carpel tunnel. I couldn't pick up a mug of coffee in the morning. It was really pathetic and I realized that it happened in the first month of rehearsal because I was squeezing so hard and I was just overworking that was totally unnecessary. Things like that you figure out hopefully before you do any permanent damage.

OLIN: You play the body, the bulk of the weight is on you and you have a rider on top of that at times.

ISAAC: They weigh about 90 pounds. The first horses were even heavier; over a hundred pounds. Each time the next generation they would be a little bit lighter. There is a medal cage inside with our two harnesses strapped to that and the cane goes around so it's shared plus 150-160 for the rider. That's when it really gets tough. It adds extra an extra element of difficulty technically.

OLIN: Vocally you don't have to work as hard at having to have the strained breathing sound. It kind of happens from all that weight on your shoulders.

CURTIS: The horse starts grunting with the rider on top.

LUTE: And sweating a lot.

KATHY: Do you have a good chiropractor on staff too?

CURTIS: We are looked after incredibly well. They understand that this is a very unique show that puts a great demand on its puppeteers which is why it's shared between 12 of us. In the first version of the National they had a different schedule; they had 2 teams; one always to Joey and one always to Topthorn. And as the show continued to evolve and they added more performances, they realized they had to have more puppeteers. There are also physiotherapists available, deep tissue release and massage to allow us to t0 do the external activity we want to do. They know what the demands of the show are and also it's very important to maintain that so the performances continue to do well.

ISAAC: There's no chiropractor but there's also acupuncture some massage therapy, physical therapy and acupuncture slots throughout the week. Some people use them all the time. I never hardly ever used it. When I got a massage I was like I was just pampering myself.

OLIN: I have one question that I always ask every interview and that is if you could speak to young theater artists what advice would you give them for making a long-term career?

LUTE: Start making theater with your friends about things that you care about and let it blossom. It's a community and I think people come at it at a mercenary angle just trying to break into it.

ISAAC: Or they take certain classes like this is the technique...

LUTE: Yes, it can be much more organic than that. I think if you get a group of people who love the theater and want to be involved in it begin to make work and those people will become your colleagues.

ISAAC: Never stop exercising your imagination because I think that's the greatest tool for an actor. And the other thing is never ever lose your spirit of playing because it's a play and that's what's engaging. Whether it's a game of tag or any board games or you're playing a character or you're playing a mask or pretending to be someone, it's always play. It's as if you were a kid. And there is no right I follow this A, B, C, D. There's only the act of doing it. Once I worked with a director and one of the people in the cast wanted to be a director and they said, "Can I assist you so I can learn how to direct?" And he said, "Why assist me? Go do a show that you want." This director started putting listings in backstage and started doing the work right here because everything was free. If you can do theater that doesn't cost anything, you can use your body as the instrument then you can add the other stuff; the costumes, the lights, the sets, but first and foremost you have to be able to understand how to play with your instrument.

CURTIS: I teach theater to young people while I'm in London and I often give them an opportunity to ask me what it's like to be an actor and I get asked depressing questions about how much I get paid, what's the best film I've done and what TV shows I've been in. I find that kind of bleak because I think young people, without sounding too old, because I'm not that old, have confused fame and celebrity with acting obviously because actors become very famous and they become celebrities, but I think of the ancient Greeks and how theater and actors back then were really respected in society not because they were famous or celebrities but because they were giving something back to society and all that holding up a mirror as an education thing. I think if you want to become a theater maker then you have to really want to enjoy the journey wherever you are along the way without trying to achieve all the time. You shouldn't be a thing about achievement. It should be about knowing who you are and that's what you do.

For a full listing of upcoming shows in Austin, you can go to the Texas Performing Arts website to purchase tickets. And don't miss War Horse when it comes to Austin next year.

Video of Joey's surprise appearance:

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