How many of you have been completely captivated by way star Joey and other puppets move gracefully to mimic real animals in the stage play ‘War Horse”? From the skittish and timid gestures of the young colt to the beautiful transition to the adult horse as the story moves from the peaceful English countryside to the horrors of the WW1 battlefield and back, these subtle movements engage and transfix you. The breath, sound and delicate nuances the puppet masters employ convey emotion that carries the plausibility to unexpected levels. Add clever staging, dramatic lighting effects, smooth dynamic acting and emotive music to a simple story based on fact and you have a truly memorable theatrical experience. Even though I knew I would shed a tear, I shared the experience with my family and friends so they could appreciate this great drama
It was already such an honor to hang a solo exhibit at The Bushnell as a companion installation to this powerful play but the unexpected thrill was the invitation to see behind the scenes for the private pre-meeting between real horses and the life-like puppet. It was truly special to see how the puppeteers come out quietly to let the horses sniff and sense them before returning in the guise of “War Horse”. Watching the puppet horse step forward quietly, pausing, turning the head, twitching the ears, swishing the tail and steadily moving in a natural gait to finally engage in a nose to nose encounter was magical. As a first time observer of this private moment the touring company always schedules, it was fascinating to see how everyone held their breath as the moment of contact came closer. Would the real horse startle? I know the horses from the Hartford Police Department are extremely well trained but they are not normally inside an enclosed building so there was an element of the unknown. A collective sigh and smiles ensued once the horses sniffed, nuzzled and explored each other with gentle curiosity.
Once “dress rehearsal with a difference” passed smoothly, it was time for formal introductions at the Media Briefing. CEO of The Greater Hartford Arts Council and CT’s First Lady, Cathy Malloy, welcomed everybody while Scott Galbraith, VP of Programing for The Bushnell, said my photographs of the First Company Governor’s Horse Guard were “spectacular”. As much as I appreciate his unexpectedly generous praise, I knew everyone in that grand marble foyer (including me) were anticipating the arrival of Joey. As he came through the double doors everyone sat forward to engage with sheer unbridled excitement. People’s faces changed as the horse “reared” and then came forward to nuzzle them in an intimate encounter. Of course the moment everyone wanted was to see the interaction between the real and created horses. The unique “nose to nose encounter of the equine kind” did not disappoint.
Once out of their heavy costume the puppeteers explained the history of the play’s development by the National Theater of Great Britain and the role of Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa in creating an original production. The process to construct each frame of cane, aluminum, carbon fiberglass, tyvek and leather is fascinating. I was intrigued by the way the 3 central puppet masters communicate with each other to coordinate their moves seamlessly. Because they are “micced” to make the audible house sounds that resonate through the chambers of the horse’s body, they can’t actually talk so the manner they move fluidly together is quite a skill. They talked about the physical strain of carrying the 120lb frame in a crouching position and how they brace for carrying a rider. It’s not surprise they tour with a chiropractor and receive acupuncture to compensate for the strain. I learnt so much from this brief encounter so I am happy to share some photos of this rare experience since I had front row access.
Although I wasn’t born in the “Year of the Horse”, I do think these personal projects herald an auspicious year. Key qualities of this vital fire sign include travel (I definitely like that notion), fast action, decisiveness and also the value of patience. Considering first say the play at The Lincoln Center in 2011 and then started the project last Fall with no expectation besides following a hunch for a good visual story and a desire to help raise the profile of the GHG, I could not have anticipated holding a solo exhibition at a high profile event viewed by 25,000 people with just 10 days notice
So after a thrilling week the touring production of “War Horse” has galloped out of town and the Horse Guards’ display of historical photos with saddles and original artifacts has been returned to its home in Avon. My images will stay up at The Bushnell theater until Feb 25 when they move to a new location for March and an encore showing is already booked for Fall due to the strong interest in CT’s own “War Horse” Troopers. The current recruits are nearing the end of their training and will graduate soon but the story of the Horse Guards will continue, adding to their impressive 235 year history.