Brian Burns, Gregory Manley and Danny Yoerges are all cast in the title role in the touring production of War Horse.
None is an understudy, though. It takes three men to bring Joey, the name of the horse at the story's heart, to life. Despite limited experience with puppetry -- Manley is the only member of the team to have experience, and not on the scale employed in War Horse -- what they are capable of, via the physical structure of the horse and their combined acting backgrounds, is truly remarkable.
"There are times when (how life-like Joey appears) even surprises us," Yoerges said.
"There will be times when I'm watching one of the other teams and think, 'That really looks like a horse.'"
All told, there are four teams of three actors each to portray the two adult horses in the show. When a team isn't playing Joey, its members are in the chorus and operating some of the other puppet animal characters.
Bringing Joey to life is a combination of the physical manipulation of the design structure of the puppet and a team's shared acting skills. Although each is limited visually, among them they have a 360-degree view, not unlike how, combined, they make an entire horse.
"There is a lot of trust," Manley said.
Yoerges mans the front of the horse, including the head, which he called "the horse's emotional indicator." Through a combination of poles and levers, he can control a variety of Joey's motions, even the ears, which give indications of what the horse is attentive to and/or feeling at any given time. In the hindquarters, Manley controls the hind legs and tail while in a continual partial squat. Burns is at the center of the horse, where, among other controls, he can simulate the horse's breathing.
In fact, it is the teammates' own breathing that begins the process by which they work together to become one character out of three actors. Before taking their places in the chassis, the three synchronize their breathing, checking in with one another throughout the show in the same fashion.
"We really have to invest in the body of this animal, this character," Burns added, hinting also at the added challenge of three actors simultaneously playing one role.
"There is still a connection to the character and to the story, and we still have to be in that world," Burns said.
"No matter what, we have to be a live, wild animal," Yoerges explained.
"We have to react as a horse, listen and react to stimuli, much as any actor would."
"All the choices you would make as an actor, we have to share," Manley said.
Each shared the excitement of being such a unique part of a unique show.
"Every night you see kids all the way up through older generations who might have some connection to World War I, all being affected and reached by the size and scope of the story," Burns said.
"Through the puppets and in creating this world on stage, you're really engaging the imagination of the audience," Manley explained.
"A lot is required of the audience to bring the horses to life. It's like the fourth puppeteer."
"Any actor's ambitions include touching an audience in the same way we felt we were touched at some point that made us decide to go into the theater," Yoerges added.
"That's the thing I feel most privileged by. To bring that sense of amazement and elation."
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