During my conversation backstage with performer Stephen James Anthony, now Billy in the show, this past Saturday, I compiled a brief mental list of what "War Horse" actors do between shows on a matinee day:
1) They eat. This seems so obvious (or, as one of my teenage family members texts it, "obvi") as to require no mention. But I can assure you that what "War Horse" members ingest before, during, and after shows is a complex topic that will one day warrant its own blog entry. For the purposes of this one, suffice it to say that when I met up with Anthony he was sitting in the backstage mini-canteen and eating something that looked, to my eyes, like salad of some sort. "I sometimes bring my own food," Anthony told me. "It saves time."
2) They check scores. I did not catch Anthony in this activity, but it was apparent from the stadium blanket draped over his dressing-room sofa just whose score he most regularly craves: the London-based soccer team Arsenal, whose fortunes he followed long before he spent his junior year off from his theatre course at Syracuse University studying at that Shakespearean mecca in London known as the Globe. Anthony confessed that he preferred soccer to basketball, which is just as well since the day of our meeting his alma mater, the Orange, lost their first game of hoops, which cost them their nationwide No. 1 ranking. Of preferring soccer to hoops, Anthony asked, "Does that make me a bad alumnus?"
3) They read. Literary material of all kinds adorns the dressing rooms of the "War Horse" cast. But one thing you will find just as surely as a Gideon Bible in a Midwest motel room is a volume from George R. R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. And so it was with Anthony. "The series has become 'War Horse's unofficial reading club," he said. "I'm not sure who started it. Maybe Bhavesh [Patel]." Sounds like another blog entry to me.
4) They play games. I'm not just talking about ballie, the longtime "War Horse" group activity that has someone in the middle of a circle trying desperately not to be eliminated. I'm talking about board games. "We play various versions of Risk," Anthony told me. I pointed to a game on his dressing-room shelf called Trivial Pursuit: The Lord of the Rings edition. "I haven't played that yet," he admitted.
5) They mull over the performance they have just completed, and consider the one about to come. In most long-run shows, this activity may become less frequent. In "War Horse," however, actors are required to be so versatile that it behooves them to think about the track - in layperson's terms, the specific assignment - they are about to undertake. "In 2011," Anthony said, "I did Baby Joey and the Boy Ensemble track. But I also understudied the roles of David, Billy, and Albert. I went on as David and Billy, but not as Albert." It's lucky Anthony had a chance to play Billy, for a week in November, because that role is, as I mentioned above, the one he assumed full-time earlier this month when the production turned over almost half its cast - becoming what's informally known as "War Horse: 2.0".
Anthony said that Baby Joey was a more muscular workout than Billy: "The Joey horse looks light but it requires a lot of skill to contract the hand movements. At first, I would wake up at night with my hands clawing. Billy is more of a cardio workout." Anthony continued: "It's easy to write off the character of Billy as a bully and a coward. He's full of insecurities and weaknesses, but he's trying to do right. He was thrust into the army but once he's there he tries to be a good soldier. His nerves are frayed by the horrors of trench warfare."
I don't think Billy would last long in "Game of Thrones."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.