Watch this fantastic video about Monty’s experience working on stage with the War Horse cast. Monty advises the puppet operators on how to move like a live horse at the National Theatre in London. The main equine character of War Horse, Joey, interacts with a live horse, American Pie, owned by Kelly Marks, and Pie seems to believe that Joey is alive!
From Monty: The request for me to assist the authors of War Horse, the play, came as a huge surprise while I was on tour in England. The message said that the authors had used my books as a road map to the stage production which chronicles the challenges horses faced in assisting English armies to fight World War I. It was an exciting message and one which opened a subject for me that I had never dreamed would come my way.
The request was to train the cast regarding how to operate the 1 ½ life size equine puppets created to play the roles of the War Horses. One should know that the cast was 100% city raised individuals most of which had never even touched a horse. I remember the first day so well and the feeling that this was an impossible task and that I never should have accepted this challenge because after one day I was convinced that it would end in failure.
After 3-4 days, while we achieved some progress, I strongly felt that the best outcome would be a short play run, completed without extreme embarrassment. I kept telling myself “We can get through this but it probably won’t be pretty.” In the second week of my work (another 3-4 days) I saw something happening. These young men were beginning to understand the language, Equus. I thought, maybe we’ve got a chance.
These were fit young men; three puppet operators per horse. What became obvious was that they came into my life as a clean slate. They didn’t have any preconceived notions about how horses moved or what motivated them to act in any particular way. They began to operate as a unit and as one actor put it, “Monty taught us the language and we began to move organically.” He was so right, as I watched them depart from the script.
In the third week I asked them to visualize in their minds a school of fish and how this cloud-like structure took on different shapes, silently and without great fanfare. These young men began to work without cues. One was on the head, one on the shoulders and four legs while the third operated the rear quarters. Imagine the challenges of putting that all together and making it look like a real horse. I saw it happen. I didn’t make it happen.
Later I was asked to do a platform performance with a live horse called American Pie owned by Kelly Marks. The theatre was sold out when Pie met Joey, the star puppet. It was incredible to watch Pie believe that Joey was a live horse. The ears moved, the legs moved, the neck got longer and shorter, lower and higher and Pie reacted exactly as if he was with a real horse in a field somewhere. I was blown away with the sense of reality the cast had created.
After the platform performance and I met theater goers in the lobby for a signing and to answer questions. They consistently said that 10 minutes into the play they discarded all ideas that these were puppets. They told me that they came to believe they were real horses on a real battlefield. Please put yourself in my place and try to imagine how gratifying this journey was becoming. Time would prove we had a runaway hit on our hands.
Subsequent to the opening, I have seen about five full performances with three separate casts involved. In every instance I saw people crying big tears down their faces. I recall saying to one lady “They’re just puppets.” She told me to be quiet and leave her alone with her thoughts about this wonderful species called Equus. I gave her a hug and followed her advice. She was giving me the greatest gift I could imagine. I was quick to apologize.
While I was not involved for one moment with the movie, it is my hope that Mr. Spielberg will experience the same level of gratification that I did with his production. Before my experience, I would have easily said that it would be far more challenging to do on a stage with puppets than to do with real horses on open fields. I am not so sure about that statement at this point in time. With that in mind I plan to see it as soon as possible.
- Monty Roberts