It’s easy to forget that the lead character in War Horse—the Tony-winning play based on a children’s book about a lovable steed on the frontlines of World War I trying to return home—is really no more than 120 pounds of plywood and plastic. In the most ambitious feat of puppetry since The Lion King, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, founders of Handspring Puppet Company, created a “living sculpture” that neighs, snorts, and gallops like a real horse. Last year, Joey cantered across Broadway to critical and commercial acclaim, and he’s set to do the same in Chicago. We quizzed Kohler and Jones—professional partners for 30 years and married for five—about the process of bringing Joey to life.
1. He better not break a leg. Joey’s joints contain both plastic and plywood, but most of his skeleton is Indonesian cane—and it’s rare. “We found out two weeks ago that the Indonesian government plans to ban the cane’s export,” says Kohler. “I’m nervous for when we run out.”
2. But if he does, it’s okay. Each horse (there are 54 total in productions around the world) has a set of replacement limbs on hand. “If anything goes wrong, we’re able to clip off the broken leg and snap a new one on,” says Jones. The skin is a lot more commonplace: nylon mesh, just like pantyhose.
3. He has some help. It takes three puppeteers—all experts in horse behavior—to manipulate Joey: A “heart” is responsible for the forelegs and the breathing movement, a “hind” manages the tail and the back legs, and a “head” stands beside Joey, moving the beast’s face. The end result is bigger than you’d expect. “He’s slightly larger than a real horse to accommodate two people inside,” says Kohler.
4. He breathes. “Until a puppet has breath, it’s dead,” says Kohler. “We realized that working on an opera—everything the singers did began with their breath. We tried to mimic that with our puppets. With Joey, we cheat—his chest moves up and down instead of in and out. We couldn’t mimic the ribs exactly and still bear a rider.”
5. Yes, he can bear a rider. But not just anyone can climb on. “The requirement to ride Joey is to be less than 11 stone [about 150 pounds],” says Kohler. “It’s distributed equally between the two puppeteers inside Joey.” Better start on those back exercises, fellas!
GO War Horse runs Dec. 18 to Jan. 5 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre; $30 to $105. For info, broadwayinchicago.com.