Next week, the much loved Tony-winning play, War Horse, closes at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre. UntappedNY spoke with War Horse cast member Isaac Woofter, an actor/puppeteer who, for the last year and a half, has played the “heart” of both of the equine puppets that star in the show. Several days a week, Isaac forms an integral part of Joey and Topthorn, the two horses (or, rather, life-sized horse puppets) that star alongside their human counterpart, Albert Narracott, the young Irish soldier and devoted owner of Joey, and the rest of the War Horse cast. That’s right, it takes three humans to animate each of the horses in the production.
Joey and Topthorn, along with all of the other beautifully made puppets in War Horse, were created by the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa with the goal of making the horses as realistic as possible. The New York Times has a great interview with the two founders of Handspring, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, about the process of making the puppets and their inspiration for the design.
Completely controlled by deft puppeteers like Isaac, the horses breathe, twitch, rear up, buck, prance, jump, walk, trot, and gallop all over the stage. The puppeteers even provide the noises that the horses make, using their combined vocal powers to form everything from the calm whuffs of young Joey to playful whinnies and nickers, to the terrified screams of the horses during war scenes. By the end of the first act, you have to continually remind yourself that you are watching human-operated puppets, not real horses.
I was so intrigued by the puppetry that I sought out Isaac afterward seeing War Horse, to ask about his personal experiences as horse and puppeteer, as a part of the War Horse cast. He agreed to meet me on a day that he only had one show to perform. First, he showed us around the theatre and stage, pointing out the Joey and Topthorn puppets, which hung from the fly system, utterly empty of the emotion and life that had fascinated me during the show. Which made perfect sense–Joey’s heart was no longer within the confines of his steel and nylon body, but standing right in front of us, in its human form as Isaac Woofter. (For your own backstage tour of the show, check out Broadway.com’s video).
Untapped: You have been working as a horse puppeteer in the War Horse cast for almost a year and a half now. What does a typical show day look like for you?
Woofter: Well, I guess I could start by saying that I don’t play the same part in every show. There are four different horse teams, and each horse team consists of three people, and there are two horses in the show””Joey and Topthorn. So, every other show, we do a horse, normally. Unless somebody is sick or something like that. But normally, every other show we do a horse, and we alternate between Joey and Topthorn. So, if there’s a two-show day, if I’m in a horse one show, I’m in a track the next show that’s not a horse [playing villages, soldiers, scenery or character parts]. So, I have different preparations for each show. If I do a horse show, I generally have more of a physical warm-up and I get here a little bit earlier, and we have to have a fight call and things like that. Lots of people have a really extensive cool down between shows, but I usually eat after a show.
It seems like a pretty rigorous, physical role, but you all move so gracefully on stage that I had no idea until I saw you cooling off backstage. Exactly how heavy are the horses?
The horses weigh between, depending on what report you read, 80-120 lbs. That’s split amongst the puppeteers. But as they keep making them, they keep finding ways to make them lighter. Generally, the head has a little bit less weight, but they only get to use their upper body, because they’re on the outside of the horse. The people on the inside, which they call the “heart” and the “hind,” they split it pretty evenly. And it can get heavy when the rider gets on top, and it’s really heavy when the rider is on top and we’re pretending to be moving. We’re not necessarily, actually in movement””it’s like when we’re suspended, but the legs are going.
What’s your favorite role to play, personally?
The story of Joey is just fascinating, because his character changes throughout. It’s a smaller horse, so it’s a little bit more cramped in there, a little bit more work on the legs, but you know, I’m here to tell a story, and you see the different changes in him. I love doing Topthorn as well. It’s easier””it’s more comfortable””to puppet, but he doesn’t have quite the arc of the character as Joey.
One thing I thought was really interesting when I saw the show was that you guys actually scream like the horses””it sounds so real. How do you do that, and how long did it take you to perfect that very characteristically equine noise?
We actually still work on that. We can’t make the sound a horse makes, in volume or in length or in power. So, we try to support each other. One person will offer up a sound, and the other will come in and support it. So the first person””because it’s not all scripted, some of it’s scripted in certain scenes””but the first person will offer up a sound and kind of leave it open ended, and another person will join in and either match that neigh sound or add another layer to the sound.
So, what you end up with is a multi-layered sound? It’s like harmonizing, but with horse sounds?
Yeah. And we have a girl on our team, so we know that she can hit really high whinnies and pitches, so you know, that we (the guys on the team) can’t. So if she does something, sometimes I’ll do like a low grumble, and our other person will do like a mid-range tone, so that the whole sound is something fuller and rounder, and louder. And longer! It’s scary to do at first, too, because we want it to not sound human, which we’re used to, and we’re trained to, so we’re making very crazy noises.
Ideally, where do you want to go from here, after the play closes?
Ideally, I would have a month off, and then I would do something where I speak English again. I don’t say things other than neigh or whinny. Ideally. Maybe a nice chunky part in a Shakespeare play, or something like that. Comedia del Arte is my favorite. I mean, in [Comedia del Arte] one of the biggest things is the spirit of play, and that really infuses that with the spirit of the improvisational play as well, and making really big and bold choices, physically and vocally. And when I say that they use masks, they actually use literal leather masks or painted masks, but I also mean that they are “masking” something, and they play that. Actually, I’ve always been interested in making leather masks, and I’m doing an apprenticeship with a mask maker here in New York, but it’s in the middle of January, so I haven’t started yet.
Isaac and the rest of the War Horse cast will be saying goodbye to the play for keeps this Sunday, January 6th. To stay updated on what projects Isaac Woofter will be working on in the future, please visit his personal website. For information about War Horse, or to buy tickets, please visit the Lincoln Center’s website.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell.