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Bringing a War Horse to Life Onstage

Part 1 of a Q&A with Handspring Puppet Company's Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler


Bringing a War Horse to Life Onstage

(L to R) Jude Sandy and Prentice Onayemi in a scene from the original National Theatre Production of War Horse. Each horse puppet requires the expertise of three puppeteer performers.

© 2011 Paul Kolnik
Updated June 12, 2011

A baby horse steps delicately towards the human. The animal is nervous, breathing shallowly, and visibly trembling with fear. Its ears twitch, its tail swishes back and forth with indecision, its hooves paw the ground. Its head tilts slightly as the little creature looks over the human before him and tries to judge whether he’s a friend or foe.

It’s a lovely and affecting moment – one of many in the play War Horse. And even more remarkable is the fact that it’s being acted out – not by an animal, but by a puppet. Or rather, a puppet and its three talented performers, the puppeteers who animate Joey, the character whose adventures are depicted on Broadway and in London in the stage play War Horse.

War Horse is the story of a horse named Joey who is caught in the chaos of World War I, and is based on the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo, who created the story as a reminder of the little-known suffering of horses during World War I (out of a million British horses sent to France from 1914 to 1918, some estimate that as few as 62,000 horses returned alive). The stage production was adapted by Nick Stafford, with Handspring Puppet Company, and directed by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.

War Horse premiered at the National Theatre in November 2007, then moved to London’s West End in March 2009, where it continues its run at the New London Theatre today. The show premiered on Broadway on April 14, 2011 at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, and reunited the production’s acclaimed London design team, with scenic design by Rae Smith, lighting by Paule Constable, direction of movement and horse choreography by Toby Sedgwick, and sound design by Christopher Shutt.

War Horse’s pivotal puppet design, fabrication and direction was accomplished by Adrian Kohler with Basil Jones for the Handspring Puppet Company, who met the challenge of creating nine massive horse puppets (as well as several other animals and birds) so perfectly that they were awarded a Special Tony Award for Artistic Achievement this year. The show has also been nominated for five other Tony Awards, including Best Play.

War Horse took more than two years to reach the London stage, and its New York staging this season has been the toast of Broadway.

I had the opportunity to speak with both Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company about their journey in creating War Horse, and they shared some fascinating insights about the creative process for the show as well as for its extraordinary puppets. Following is part one of my two-part interview with the two.

Angela Mitchell: Hi Adrian and Basil, thank you for taking the time to speak with me about War Horse. It’s a stunning achievement.

Basil Jones: You’re quite welcome.

Adrian Kohler: We love talking about the show.

Angela Mitchell: First off, congratulations on all of the acclaim War Horse is receiving, and on your Special Tony Award – as well as your many other awards and nominations! That’s got to feel pretty gratifying.

Basil Jones: Yeah, really a sideswipe. We’re reeling still. But it’s absolutely wonderful for us.

Adrian Kohler: In Cape Town, you can’t walk anywhere without somebody congratulating you, it’s fantastic.

Angela Mitchell: That's terrific! So, how many years went into the creative process to bring War Horse to life originally in London for you?

Adrian Kohler: It was an eighteen-month development time. We’d begun talking about it about six months before that. So it’s over two years, then. And there were four different workshops held, for the combination of the scriptwriting and the puppets -- and all of those workshops were incredibly valuable. Without that kind of investment I don’t think it would have been the show that War Horse is now.

Angela Mitchell: How did the show’s creation come about?

Basil Jones: We had performed a show at the Battersea Arts Center where Tom Morris was the Artistic Director and he saw our work there for the first time.

Adrian Kohler: It was a piece we did called Faustus in Africa

Angela Mitchell: Right. I read about that.

Basil Jones: Yeah, Faustus, and Tom kind of really wanted to play with us, and do something interesting together and he -- I think he’d been kind of watching what we were doing and he heard we were doing a piece with a life-sized giraffe in Cape Town –

Angela Mitchell: That was Tall Horse, right?

Adrian Kohler: Yes.

Basil Jones: So he and Nick Starr, the Executive Director at the National Theatre, came out to Cape Town to see the show and – we were rather hoping that they would invite the show to London. And a little disappointed when they didn’t. But in fact, Tom had then just joined the National Theatre as an Associate Director and part of the job of the associate director is to do interesting new projects and to bring interesting young blood into the theatre…

Adrian Kohler: At the same time the National Theatre was developing a series of projects to try to attract a younger audience into their slightly aging audience population. So they had developed the Philip Pullman work His Dark Materials into a two-part production, and then that was followed by Coram Boy.

Basil Jones: They were both quite dark pieces. Really not dumbing down children’s theatre at all. Doing things that children would be interested in but working kind of at the top of the game and not pulling any punches.

Adrian Kohler: Not stinting on production value either. They were all in the Olivier Theatre!

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