I went to an NT Platform at the New London Theatre about the spectacular puppetry of War Horse.
The talk was by NT Associate Puppetry Director Tommy Luther, who was a very engaging speaker.
First he explained the history of Handspring, the South African theatre company behind War Horse, showing how they came to work on the story. (You can find out lots more about that from this TED Talk they did.) Michael Morpurgo’s story was actually suggested by the mum of the NT’s Tom Morris, which as Tommy pointed out to the family audience, “Just goes to show that 99.9% of the time, mums are right, and you should listen to them because they have brilliant ideas.”
Next he brought a group of children on stage and gave them a brief puppetry workshop — exactly the same exercises as I’ve had to do on Little Angel courses, in fact — inviting them to find the character in a simple twig. (Examine your twig. Think about what makes it special. Is there anything you like about it? What personality does it have? What did it have for breakfast? Or do twigs not have breakfast? Of course not, that’s silly.)
Once they’d decided on its character, he got the kids to think about breath. (Your twig is asleep. Is it dreaming? Does your twig snore? Just let your twig lie quietly and snooze.)
From this starting point, the twigs were able to wake up, and start chatting to each other in twig language.
Then he explained that the actors would do exercises like this for several weeks, working up from twigs to animating household objects and clothes, before eventually tackling puppets made out of brown paper.
To demonstrate, on walked two brown paper men, operated by three puppeteers each in the bunraku style, and they interacted silently with Tommy while he spoke to them. Bunraku is a very difficult thing to do well, the puppeteers need to know each other, and their character, intimately so that they can communicate what they’re going to do without speaking.
Then it was time to think about animating the horses of War Horse. One quite unusual thing about this production is that the animal characters are meant to be animals — they’re not anthropomorphised in any way. They move like an animal, they think and react like an animal, and they can’t talk or understand language.
So first you have to think about the anatomy of the animal. For example, how do its legs move? The gaits of the horse are walking, trotting, cantering and galloping. The feet move in a different order for each one, and apparently in the first few weeks of rehearsal, actors could be found plodding round the rehearsal space muttering, “One, four, two, three, one, four, three, two– no, damn!”
And what noises does the animal make? The audience was encouraged to try making each one, thinking about how to imitate the long sonorous nose and throat of the horse. There’s whinnying, snorting, nickering, squealing — subtle or loud noises the horse makes to communicate. The last noise was screaming — not a noise the horse likes to make, but one it only makes when terrified. It sounds like–
There was a scream and a commotion off stage, and on galloped, at last, one of the horses from the show, black thoroughbred Topthorn. The audience all oohed and started taking photos. It’s magnificent to see how enchanted people are by the beautiful puppets, how they react to these structures of cane and crêpe like they’re in the presence of Hollywood royalty.
With Topthorn huffing and snorting next to him, Tommy continued to demonstrate how the anatomy of the horse affects its behaviour. Horses have eyes each side of their head and can’t see well from the front. (The puppeteers have to become more aware of their peripheral vision.) So they’re nervous if you approach them front-on and prefer you to back towards them.
This brings us on to another closely linked aspect — the psychology of the animal. How does the animal think? Horses are a prey animal, with a strong fight/flight instinct. Their ears are tremendously important for indicating their mood, showing us where their attention is directed. Ears are not only for hearing, but are also emotional indicators — you can see whether the horse is alert, calm or afraid. Horses are intelligent and can pick up on the tone of their handler’s voice, whether they’re being praised or scolded.
So anatomy and psychology work together to form the animal’s character. You can animate your puppet convincingly if you know what he’s thinking and how he reacts — if you can show, using his body, where his focus is. The animal needs to be alive and interested in the world all the time.
As you can probably tell, these characterisation exercises got my illustrator’s brain working. Whether you’re representing an animal in a drawing, an animation or a puppet — it’s all about observation, isn’t it?
Topthorn was joined by the chestnut star of the show, Joey, who got another round of applause. More children were invited onto the stage to meet both the horses. Joey, calmer in temperament than Topthorn, was used to demonstrate how it’s not just big movements that convince us the puppet is alive, but also subtle clues, such as the way he breathes, or the way he shivers when you touch him.
As they say at Handspring, “The first thing an actor does when he arrives on stage is begin to tell a story. The first thing a puppet must do on stage is convince us he’s alive.”
Lastly, we were shown in closer detail how the puppet is constructed and operated.
There are three puppeteers. ‘Head’ looks after the horse’s eyeline, so the audience can always tell what Joey is thinking about. He uses a device like bicycle brakes to move the ears 180 degrees. ‘Heart’ stands in Joey’s ribcage, moving Joey’s front legs and gently bobbing his own knees up and down to make the horse breathe, fast or slow. ‘Hind’ operates Joey’s hind legs, and with one hand he swishes the Tyvek tail up or down, with the other he swishes it from side to side. All the puppeteers have to create the weight and muscle of the animal in their movements, because the puppet is about five times lighter than a real horse. Thin georgette is stretched over a lightweight bamboo frame, and the complex skeleton is a delicate aluminium mechanism. When an actor rides the horse, the weight is distributed across Heart and Hind’s shoulders — the starting point for this design was two Handspring guys holding up a ladder and their neighbour precariously sitting between them on it.
During the talk, Tommy Luther showed us a video clip of the very first test of the prototype puppet, with him and another puppeteer inside the horse. He said that, wanting to make friends with his fellow puppeteer, he invited him to a gig he was playing that week. The other puppeteer brought along his best friend — Tommy and the friend got together, and the result was a baby daughter. “So I love that bit of footage because I think if it hadn’t been for that day in the NT Studio, Hazel wouldn’t exist in the world, and she’s the love of my life.” This earned an aww and applause from the whole audience.
This was all we had time for, but it was a fascinating introduction to these animal characters, puppets and the puppeteers who make them breathe. I’ve seen War Horse twice — the original 2007 run at the NT Olivier, and then again for the West End transfer, must’ve been 2009 — and this talk made me want to see it again!
And there was a bespectacled little girl next to me earnestly taking notes in her sketchbook, which was lovely. A puppeteer of the future!
PS. This is a heartwarming video about the Handspring puppet factory in South Africa.