The illusion of Joey

Hanging motionless backstage, the puppet star of "War Horse" looks vaguely equine, like framework on which someone plans to build an animal. But the preening, snorting, galloping Joey that bursts onstage is, without question, a horse. "I think part of what's special about puppets is that you're working with a thing that is dead, and you have to struggle every second on the stage to make it live," said Basil Jones, executive producer of Handspring Puppet Co., which created all the show's puppets. "You've got to be convinced in the beginning, and that's the hard part," said Adrian Kohler, Handspring's artistic director and Jones's partner of 41 years. Here is a look at Joey and the puppeteers who bring him to life. Read related article

  • Head
  • Heart
  • Hind
  • Characteristics
  • Evolution

The head puppeteer stands outside the horse and operates the ears, head and neck. The control handle flips easily to either side so that the puppeteer doesn't get stuck between the horse and the audience. One of the Head's main responsibilities is using a fixed handle behind the puppet's eyes to make sure the head is
oriented correctly, so the horse appears to be looking
where it's supposed to be looking.

The ears are a horse's key emotional indicator. If its ears face forward, a horse is relaxed, or maybe interested. Backward? It senses danger, and may run or fight. Kohler spent 25 years perfecting a cable-and-rubber band mechanism that would make leather ears twitch 180 degrees as effortlessly as a horse's do. With a flick of one finger, the Head puppeteer moves one or both ears.

The eyes are the most natural-looking element in the puppet, Kohler said. Clear resin is affixed over the painted iris and highly polished, so there is a wet look to it. "The way it catches light keeps it alive," he said. Puppet eyes are so important that Handspring has an entire eye department.

The mouth appears to nip and eat, as the ears appear to lay back and the eyes widen in terror. But none of those things actually happen. The eyes are fixed, the ears only rotate, the mouth has no moving parts. People come up to us and they say, 'How did you do that?' " said Jones. "And the answer is you did that! And that's what people find delightful, when they realize that they've actually been party to the creation."

The heart puppeteer operates the front legs and part of the neck, but his key responsibility is the horse's breathing. The puppet's torso rests in slots over the legs so it can easily slide up and down, making the horse appear to exhale as the Heart bends his knees and inhale as he straightens them. While an audience may not consciously notice, the fact that Joey breathes is what makes him seem to be alive. For that reason, the Heart is constantly in motion and is the strongest of the three puppeteers.

The tail telegraphs a horse's feelings and performs key tasks such as swatting flies, so a tail needs to be extremely flexible. Its "hair" is strips of Tyvek, a very strong but lightweight synthetic fiber. (An original foam tail was highly flammable -- not ideal on a stage
with gunfire and explosives.) Bicycle brake cables mounted
on the hind leg rods move the tail up, down and sideways.

The hind puppeteer operates the tail and back legs from angled rods that resemble ski poles. He often initiates movement because his view of the stage is often better than the Heart's, who is often blocked by the head and mane. Both the Heart and Hind stand upright inside the horse and must be of similar height, usually 5-foot-6 to 5-10.

Character development: Joey begins as a foal,
a cross between a thoroughbred and a draft horse. This puppet is less flexible than the adult version but still requires three puppeteers. No puppets in the show contain electronics or robotics (with the exception of a tank made by another company). Kohler prefers simple mechanisms operated by people, so that each performance is unique.

Realistic gait: From early in training, puppeteers concentrate on walking, trotting, galloping, and even pulling a plow and limping like a horse. Walking is a very specific four-count gait: Front right, back left; front left, back right. Trotting is two counts, as hooves move in pairs. Galloping is six counts: One-two, three-four, with five-six being air time. Within weeks, the pattern becomes automatic.

Lightweight construction: The puppet's body is made primarily of lightweight cane, which is easily shaped when wet but strong — yet not rigid — when dry. The puppets are wired together first, then each wire is replaced with waxed twine for ease of movement. The skin is a light, transparent fabric that appears to change color with the lighting. Joey is about eight feet tall and weighs about 85 pounds.

Strong spine: Joey's spine is made of aluminum strong enough to support a rider. The puppet's legs bear no weight; the Heart and Hind carry it all using custom-tailored, backpack-style harnesses that slide into the torso. Because of the weight and the instability of a rider balanced above two puppeteers' heads, scenes with riders are limited to less than seven minutes.

Joey is the culmination of years of experimentation in designing and refining puppets that move like animals.

1992: Joey's leg mechanism can be traced to the play "Woyzeck on the Highveld," in which a miniature rhinoceros needed to tap its front leg to pretend to count. The jointed leg was controlled from behind with a lever and pulleys.

1994: Two years later, a cynical, anthropomorphic hyena in "Faustus in Africa" had to be able to play checkers, so a more articulated paw was created in which two movements were controlled by a single cable. It was this puppet that future "War Horse" co-director Tom Morris saw and kept in mind.

2000: In 2000, the lead character in
"The Chimp Project" required flexible limbs and hands, because in the story, a domesticated chimp teaches sign language to wild chimps. It also needed to bare its teeth, so the control system became more complex.

2004: The 2004 production of
"Tall Horse" required a massive but lightweight giraffe with humans inside, so the Handspring craftsmen came up with the cane frame and transparent, barely-there mesh skin that they would again use for the first Joey in 2007.

SOURCES: Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of Handspring Puppet Co., The Lincoln Theater, The Kennedy Center, puppeteers Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton and Rob Laqui. GRAPHIC: Bonnie Berkowitz, Alberto Cuadra and Bill Webster - The Washington Post. Published Oct. 21, 2012.