A bit of “experimental” theater originally intended for young adults goes from a 50-show run at London’s National Theatre to stages around the world. Millions have now seen War Horse, and it’s a safe bet millions more will see it through various tours and sit-down productions.
As the international phenomenon rides into Nashville today for an eight-show stay that concludes Sunday, producer Chris Harper and his colleagues onstage and off marvel at the way this loving tale has engaged and enraptured audiences around the globe. But they are taking nothing for granted – plenty of hard work goes into making War Horse a grand theatrical experience wherever it plays.
“The dynamics to stages like (Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall) in the US tour are very different to ones we’ve played in London and New York,” he notes. “But we’re currently doing a UK tour based on what we’re doing with the US touring version because we’re so happy about it. It’s a production we’re really, really proud of.”
When plans were being made for the US tour “…we were nervous about it. We thought we needed to look at it anew,” Harper explains. “We reassembled all of the original creative team to see how we could make the show work in a large proscenium house…like the one you have here. They came back to London for a workshop period where we worked in a proscenium arch theater. Essentially we feel we give the same experience, but there were some modifications – it looks like and feels like the same show, but with some tweaks to adapt it to the kind of venues we’re playing in Nashville and elsewhere.
“We felt if the name of the National Theatre was going to go around the States we wanted to make sure it was a production we could be really proud of. Personally, it’s one of my favorite productions that we’ve ever done, and I’m really thrilled about what we’ve achieved for the US tour.”
With nine trucks hauling the puppets, sets, costumes and equipment as well as a cast of more than 30 the scale of the tour is large. But the themes that novelist Michael Morpurgo created for his 1982 book and Nick Stafford adapted for the stage in 2007 are the firm foundation of War Horse’s palpable connection with theatergoers.
“It’s theater on a grand scale, epic theater for sure, but I think the thing that really makes it connect is the themes it speaks to,” Harper says. “It’s about the things that matter in life. It’s about family, and friendship, and loyalty and courage. I think that’s why audiences have been so moved by it.”
In the book Joey, the horse at the center of the tale, provides narration as he is separated from his owner Albert and sent off to World War I, eventually serving humans on both sides of that conflict. That point-of-view wouldn’t have worked for the stage so Joey doesn’t speak in this version, but through the incredible skill and artistry of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company he comes to awe-inspiring life (with Olivier Award and Dora Award-winning “horse choreography” by Toby Sedgwick).
“I think Handspring Puppet Company’s artists are geniuses in allowing an audience to believe,” Harper says. “They invite the audience to join in their journey of imagination so that these puppets become living, breathing horses.
“One of the key things…is that Handspring believes the horses only really come alive when they have breath, so with each puppet the actors are trained to make the puppet look as if it’s actually breathing.”
One company member that knows about that seamless marriage between human performers and Handspring’s intricately crafted puppets is Ka-Ling Cheung. She plays a young French girl named Emilie but she also understudies Joey as a foal among other acting tasks. “This is one show where you definitely have to give it your all emotionally and physically, and for the puppeteers especially – they’re not just acting physically, but they’re emoting and working as a team to present this character that’s the focus of the play,” she notes.
This tour has a family flavor for Cheung – her husband Joe Osheroff is Veterinarian Officer Martin as well as understudying multiple roles, and the two got the news they were cast the week before they were married in May 2013 so this “is sort of our honeymoon with 34 other cast members! It was the best wedding present either of us could get,” she adds.
And though she’s been in the show for since last summer the incredible sights and sounds of War Horse are just as powerful to her as an audience member seeing it for the first time. “There are moments I still watch…like when Joey grows from being a baby (foal) into a full-grown Joey. That transformation is magical whether you see it from the audience or the wings,” the American Conservatory Theater MFA grad says.
She also understudies, and has gotten to play, the adult role of Annie, but she finds the youngster she regularly plays quite fascinating. “Playing a young girl is great because I get to experience everything in a new way, without any bias, and get to be a young person again…to experience the wonder and curiosity of someone that age I feel is very liberating and very refreshing,” Cheung explains.
“It’s such a strong ensemble,” she says. “And we get such great support from the folks at the National and from Handspring…so we can continue to tell the story as we’re supposed to, and even make it better as we go along.”
The tour is directed by Bijan Sheibani based on the original Tony® Award-winning direction by Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris. The Broadway production at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York’s Lincoln Center also won Best Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play (Rae Smith), Best Lighting Design of a Play (Paule Constable) and Best Sound Design of a Play (Christopher Shutt) as well as a Special Tony Award for Handspring Puppet Company in tribute to their unique contributions to War Horse. In addition to US, Ireland and UK tours it’s playing in London’s West End at the New London Theatre and Berlin, where it’s known as Gefahrten. Other past, present and future performance sites include such countries as Holland, Australia, South Africa, Canada and Japan. The show features an original instrumental score by Adrian Sutton and folk songs by John Tams.
“I think the thing about War Horse is that it owns its own genre perfectly,” Harper says. “It’s an ultimately theatrical experience like no other.”
“It’s storytelling at its best,” Cheung says.
Tennessee Performing Arts Center presents the multiple Tony Award-winning play “War Horse” as part of the HCA/TriStar Health Broadway at TPAC series today (June 3) though Sunday. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday in Jackson Hall at TPAC (505 Deaderick St.). The production is recommended for ages 10 and up. Tickets (starting at $20) are available online by clicking here or by calling (615) 782-4040. On Friday, June 6, TPAC will host “Heroes Night” in honor of the World War I subject matter of War Horse and the 70th anniversary of World War II’s D-Day Invasion of Europe. They will have a pre-show honor guard and specially priced tickets are available to military personnel, their families, veterans and organizations serving the military community. Click here for information about the Tennessee State Museum’s War Horse Pre-Show Military Museum Tours June 6 & 7. Info: www.warhorseonstage.com.
*Photos © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg and videos courtesy the National Theatre and TPAC.