Joey, the 18-hand-high star puppet of "War Horse," towered over reporters Feb. 18 just before meeting two real horses from Diamond D Ranch on the morning of opening night before beginning a six-day performance at the Times-Union Center.
'Bama (as in Alabama) and the miniature horse, Honey, were unimpressed with the celebrity of the evening.
“Horses have a very strong sense of smell,” Jessica Krueger, a rear-leg puppeteer said. “Bama can tell she’s smelling three puppeteers, not a horse.”
Joey couldn’t win the mares’ hearts, but the puppet had its notebook-and-camera-toting audience following its every trot, rear and neigh. Journalists remarked that, though they could clearly see the three puppeteers manipulating Joey’s movements, the puppet felt very lifelike as it approached and interacted with them.
Krueger said months and months of preparation has gone into creating that effect. She said the production team and the puppeteers studied everything they could about the movements of horses and their behavior — every detail down to a skin flick to shake off a fly or foot stomp or nostril flare.
They studied real horses with a little help.
“Luckily, a lot of horse owners like to post videos of their horses on YouTube,” Krueger said. “So we’ve been able to do a lot of research from those.”
One of the biggest crowd-pleasers was the convincing neigh Joey’s puppeteers could belt out on demand. It’s a layered, three-person a cappella that could echo through the Times-Union Center lobby. Krueger said that horses have lungs about three times as large as that of humans, so it worked out conveniently that it takes three performers to maneuver the full size puppets.
“We really have to train our voices for that,” puppeteer Danny Yoerges said. “We had six weeks off one summer and our voices were so out of shape, we were coughing.”
It’s not all voice work. The front and back leg puppeteers must continually keep their bodies in shape to maneuver the 88-pound Joey through the story — add to that the rider on its back. The heaviest rider in the performance weighs 185 pounds.
Though the puppeteers have honed the behavior of a horse down to the last detail, they said the live performance contains a lot of improvisation.
“We still have to get from point A to point B in the performance, but how we get there is mostly up to us and it changes every night,” front-leg puppeteer Patrick Osteen said. “It’s about half and half between script and improvisation, and that adds to making Joey more believable.”
“It’s amazing how people can suspend their disbelief of the puppets,” Yoerges said. “Once you’re well into the story you find yourself so invested in these characters.”
"War Horse" runs Feb. 18–23 at the Times-Union Center’s Moran Theater. Tickets are available through artistseriesjax.org.