For this blog post on War Horse actor and horse puppeteer Ariel Heller, I was all set to celebrate his teenage career in archery - to tell you that from the ages of 10 to 18 he won 10 national championships in that sport, and that, in 2000, at the age of 16, he won a gold medal at the outdoor world championships in France. But then he mentioned go-cart racing.
"I had gotten interested in archery at the age of 8," Heller told me the other evening, as we sat amidst the restful grove of trees, in front of LCT's plaza level, that I've always thought could serve as a setting for a roving-band production of Abridged Chekhov. "My father shot recreationally, and my brother Caleb and I started to take up the sport. That didn't last long, however, because go-carts came into our lives."
As I was conjuring up images of young lads in New Hampshire - Heller grew up near the town of Wilton - putt-putting down bucolic small-town streets behind the wheels of harmless soap-box specials, I asked Heller how fast the vehicles could travel. "Up to 45 miles per hour," he replied.
And what did Heller's mother - who, like his father, had grown up in New York City - think of her nine-year-old zooming around at near-freeway velocity? "It was all so dangerous that she couldn't take it," he replied. "After a year or two we sold the carts and went back to archery."
And so I, too, must return there. I asked Heller what he had taken away from all his time on the range. "Doing something every day teaches you a tremendous amount of discipline that you can apply to almost anything else in your life." The physical training - a kind of rigor roughly similar to what he and all the other hard-working horse teams in War Horse undergo eight times a week - is only the beginning, though.
"Once you get to the top level in any activity," Heller said, "there is a tremendous amount of pressure. Doing well becomes a matter of mental strength." To handle the pressure during his archery days, Heller and his father and brother devised a training program based on Lanny R. Bassham's book With Winning in Mind: The Mental Management System. They also consulted with outside coaches. One of them was in Connecticut, another in Illinois.
Even though I had already learned that Heller had been used to traveling far-flung distances to compete - this routine was one of the reasons he was home schooled during his middle-school and high-school years - I thought that his jumping on a plane frequently to consult with a coach seemed a stretch. "We didn't need to see a coach all the time," he explained. "It's like what happened to us recently with War Horse. After the show opened in April, the directors went away. In June, they came back and fine-tuned things. That's what we did with our archery coaches: from time to time, we got a fine-tuning."
In spite of all his success as an archer, at the age of 16 Heller was restless for another outlet. "I decided I wanted to be an actor," he said. He took class at the American Stage Festival in Nashua, New Hampshire. "I didn't sing at all. And I was pretty sure that if I did I did it badly." After landing his first role - Mr. Darling in Peter Pan - Heller started taking voice lessons in Nashua with Michele Henderson. "She changed my life," Heller said unequivocally. "She discovered my voice." There may also be a genetic predisposition, however. "One of my grandfathers was a cantor, with a beautiful baritone."
After receiving a BFA in musical theater from Emerson College, in Boston, in 2006, Heller began his life as a professional actor: Shakespeare, Sondheim,Urinetown. From 2007 to 2009, he appeared in New York, Chicago, and Orlando in Blue Man Group. Of that experience, which to describe adequately would require a separate blog entry, Heller said, "I grew up doingBlue Man Group. I got the skills I needed at Emerson, and I had lots of energy and drive. But as a performer I was very unrefined."
And how has War Horse polished Heller's skill set? "It has opened so many doors for me," he said, "and I'm so grateful for that. Among many other things, the show is helping me learn what it's like to cohabit with a large group of people, backstage, over a long period of time."
I could here point out that part of the process of cohabitation for Heller and certain other denizens of Room 8 - the large dressing room he shares with many other members of the War Horse horse teams - is a regular poker game. But, like Shakespeare and Chekhov and Blue Man Group, that subject is too boundless for a mere sentence or two. Another time!
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.