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Conversation: Bringing Joey to Life in ‘War Horse’

The play “War Horse,” currently at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is the story of friendship, war, love and one remarkable steed named Joey. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel of the same name, the play begins in pre-WWI Britain. A young man named Albert becomes Joey’s caretaker after his father impulsively buys the horse at an auction. Against the backdrop of the English countryside, Joey and Albert learn to work together, just as the war begins to intrude on both their lives.

To make Joey come to life, a seven-foot, 120-pound puppet was created by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company based in Cape Town, South Africa. At each performance, Joey is manned by three puppeteers: two inside Joey as the “heart” and the “hind,” and one beside the horse as the “head.”

To get an idea of what it’s like to control Joey from his expressive ears to his hooves, Jeffrey Brown sat down with “War Horse” actor Danny Yoerges, who handles the head of Joey.

A transcript is after the jump. “War Horse” continues its year-long national tour heading next to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. “War Horse” was a major hit on Broadway, was turned into a film, and now it is touring the country in a national production. The star of the theater production is a horse named Joey — not a real horse but a seven-foot creation, a puppet that does some astounding and mesmerizing things on stage. It’s the creation of the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. The play is now at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts here in Washington, D.C., and we have with us Danny Yoerges — Yoerges like gorgeous — an actor who serves as the head of the horse on stage. Now I want to start there, what does that mean? Explain to us what that means.

DANNY YOERGES: The horse is operated by three puppeteers: One we call the head puppeteer and one the heart and one the hind. In tandem we work to make the horse both move and also we sort of breath emotional life into it. Without speaking to each other, because we’re all miked and we make the horse noises throughout the show, we’re able to direct this puppet around the stage and tell a pretty compelling story, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw the New York production, so I did see it, and what was interesting was seeing people inside and then not seeing them. Are we supposed to see you or not supposed to see you?

DANNY YOERGES: That’s a very good question. When they first started conceptualizing the show, they thought, “Maybe we should hide the puppeteers.” Basil [Jones] and Adrian [Kohler] of the Handspring Puppet Company had been involved with puppetry, like Bunraku puppetry, which is puppetry where the puppeteers are completely visible the whole time. That’s what they wanted to do, because they recognized that if they tried to hide the puppeteers, people would just be looking for them the whole time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah like, “What’s going on?”

DANNY YOERGES: Like, I see them! But when they’re right out in the open then people can accept that within five minutes and then they just sort of fade away and suddenly it’s a horse.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you yourself did not have experience with puppetry.

DANNY YOERGES: No, yeah, I’m an actor by trade. Many people are actors and dancers. There are a few puppeteers, but when this all started it was new to basically everybody in the room. We had the Handspring guys there with us holding our hands the whole way, and now we have this new skill set on our resumes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what did they tell you? What’s the key to making it work?

DANNY YOERGES: It’s complicated. I think the key has to do with listening to each other and breathing with each other in the puppet and really treating the puppet, the horse, like it’s a real live being so that even though you have choreography, which they give us, the horse has to be listening to its surroundings. So if something happens that’s new one night, a new sound or an actor is louder or something, the horse has to react to that. And when that happens the audience sees those little things.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is just like acting on stage normally. How is it different for you, because normally you are acting as a human being on stage right?

DANNY YOERGES: I think a really positive way that it’s different is that when you’re part of a team creating a character and when the character doesn’t say any words, it’s hard to let your ego get in the way, because no one is looking at you when you are up there — actors are notorious for having big egos — so when you go up there and you just give your whole body over to a horse, to being a horse, it’s a nice release.

JEFFREY BROWN: It looks physically demanding.

DANNY YOERGES: It is. We have a physical therapist with us all the time every show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you are carrying some weight and then somebody gets on the horse.

DANNY YOERGES: Exactly. The two guys on the inside are sort of shrugged up all the time like this, and they have the weight of the 120-pound horse and the 170-pound human on top of them. And I’m up there holding the horse’s head above my head. I’ve got these crazy forearm muscles now — these little tiny things that I never thought existed.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw an interview with one of the Handspring Puppet Company people, and he said they wanted to originally, when they were conceiving this, discover how a horse thinks. So that’s part of it too.

DANNY YOERGES: Absolutely, and we watched a lot of footage of actual horses.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you did?

DANNY YOERGES: Yeah, we did. We went to stables in Brooklyn and in the Bronx and watched these attitudey New York horses fighting each other and it was really fun. You know, we are still learning how horses think. Mostly it has to do with the fact that horses are prey animals, so if something happens that could endanger their lives, they’re going to respond to it in a sort of fight or flight way. But at the same time, they befriend people, just like Joey becomes Albert’s best friend throughout this show.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now I’m curious. Is there an interaction between the horse, the horses, because there is more than one, and the actors? Normally you would be making eye contact and you would have some relationship to them. Here you are having a different kind of relationship.

DANNY YOERGES: From my perspective, what I do as I stare into the eyes of this horse the whole time and the horse’s eyes are looking at its surroundings and whenever it interacts with a person, I have to basically put myself inside the head of the horse. So I get close to something that I want to be affectionate to or I shy away from something that I don’t want to be. The people — it’s amazing how the actors completely give over to that reality. They start to look at the horse like it’s a real horse and they’ll touch it and they’ll pull it like it’s real horse. Sometimes we have to remind them, Hey, we’re actors here, we’re not that strong.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why do you think that this has touched so many people, this play?

DANNY YOERGES: I think it’s touched so many people because the horse that is the central character of the show is inherently unbiased in a world around it that is extremely chaotic. It takes place during World War I, and the fact that a horse can love a person from either side of the war and that it has compassion for everything around, it’s a window that the audience can really look at the world through and really feel at peace with it, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what about you? You’ve got another year or so in this production, but then do you want to go back to playing a human?

DANNY YOERGES: I’m not sure actually. You know, I really like this puppetry thing, but maybe “Lion King” after this, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “War Horse” is at the Kennedy Center in Washington now and will continue its trek around the country. Danny Yoerges, thanks so much for joining us.

DANNY YOERGES: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thanks again for joining us on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.

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