Monday, 14 January 2013

WAR HORSE (UK Tour) Birmingham Hippodrome Press Launch and Interview with Toby Olié

Today tickets for the National Theatre's acclaimed production of War Horse went on sale for the show's run at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 16th October - 9th November 2013.

Chris Harper with Joey outside the Birmingham Hippodrome

Introducing War Horse was National Theatre producer Chris Harper. "As someone who was born in Stourbridge and started my career at the Birmingham Hippodrome, I am particularly excited to bring War Horse home."

War Horse is the powerful story of a young boy called Albert and his beloved horse Joey who has been requisitioned to fight for the English at war. Joey finds himself serving on both sides during the war and ends up in No-Man's Land. Albert, not old enough to enlist, embarks on a treacherous mission to find his horse and bring him home. The production which premiered at the Royal National Theatre in 2007 transferred to the New London Theatre in 2009 and has since played to audiences on Broadway, in Toronto and Melbourne and is now set to tour the UK whilst continuing to play to packed houses in London.

Toby Olié explaining the workings of horse Joey

Introducing us to the horse Joey was Associate Puppetry Director Toby Olié. A self confessed puppet enthusiast, Toby has been keen since the age of six, inspired by Sesame Street and a love for both drama and art. Toby trained in puppetry at London's Central School of Speech and Drama in which he was the only student in his year to study the discipline. Toby joined the original cast of War Horse as Joey's hind legs before operating Joey's head in the subsequent West End transfer of the production. He became an Associate Puppetry Director for the show in 2011. 

The puppets were designed and made in South Africa by the Handspring Puppet Company. Toby explained that the main body of the horse is cane that has been soaked giving it the flexibility to be shaped. The aim of the puppet is to be completely naturalistic yet suggestive of something more deconstructed. These are puppets and War Horse makes no attempt to hide that, but what they do ensure is that you see a completely believable representation of a horse. You can see just how realistically Joey moves in the video below. 

Speaking to Toby, he was able to give a fascinating insight from someone who has been with the production since the beginning. I was particularly interested to find out more about the puppets themselves, and the processes actors have to go through in order to bring the horses to life. 

"To warm up we find that Pilates and yoga based exercises are much more effective than simply working-out in a gym. For the operators it's much better to be relaxed than pumped and aching, otherwise the energy just isn't there. Before I first started with the company I didn't for one minute think I'd get the job because I was skinny and not a muscular guy. It's a lot more about concentration though, and being able to channel a horse's instincts. We tell the puppeteers not to focus too much on the script but to think as a horse and react to what's happening around them. We work closely with real horses and at a riding school in Epsom to ensure that we are extremely familiar with the horse's movement and behaviour."

Last year I was the puppeteer for a production of Little Shop of Horrors and after a two-hour show inside a giant plant I was completely exhausted. I was keen to know whether I'm just unfit, or if War Horse puppeteers felt the same. 

"It is completely exhausting.  As a puppeteer, not only are you operating the horse but making all of the noises too! We are trotting, running and neighing for the entire show and aside from the interval we only have two five minute breaks offstage. The operating is all encompassing and at times we have actors sitting on top of the horse riding it. None of the weight is ever put onto the legs of the puppet and at all times pressure is taken through the bodies of the puppeteers."

"The puppets are a Westernised inspiration of Japanese Bunraku puppetry and are always evolving and as great as they are, there are always things to improve. I lost a hoof in the middle of a scene once - they're a lot more secure now! The first prototype puppets lasted for just one week of workshops. They were much bulkier and needed a lot of improving, although the look has remained pretty similar. It takes us about ten months to make a completely new set of puppets and repairs are made as and when necessary."

The original designs for Joey

After taking part in a puppet workshop for Avenue Q last year I learnt that old and part-worn puppets that are no longer practical in the production are recycled for use during the rehearsal process and are not wasted. I wanted to know if this was the same for the horses.

"The puppeteers get used to working with the same puppets and so we tend to repair.  We like to use a new set of puppets for each company and those puppets stay with them. The London production are still using puppets from 2007, we've built an entirely new set for the upcoming tour, so come along and see them in action."

Tickets for War Horse at the Birmingham Hippodrome are now on sale via the website:

You can also visit the official website for the production here:

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