The War Horse community (and with an enterprise this vast I think the word "community" is fully justified) has a wealth of teaching experience. Actors, assistant directors, props people - virtually everyone who has put the show's name on his or her resume - seems to have stood up at some time before a room of students.
Over the past week, this instruction has been going on at Lincoln Center Theater itself. In the basement-level rehearsal rooms, summer master's students in theater education from the University of Houston, many of them high-school theater teachers, have been undergoing an intensive workshop based on War Horse.
According to Kati Koerner, LCT's Director of Education, the workshop was a long time in the making. "A couple of years ago, some of the Houston people came here, saw South Pacific, and did a two-hour session with Christopher Gattelli" - the production's choreographer. "They expressed interest in doing something bigger, so here we are."
There were 15 hours of instruction, culminating with watching a Tuesday-night performance of War Horse. The workshops forming the heart of the matter were conducted by Tom Lee, a member of the Topthorn puppet team in War Horse and an experienced instructor at such places as Sarah Lawrence College; Adrienne Kapstein, War Horse Movement Associate with an expertise in the Lecoq method of physical theater; and Matthew Acheson, the production's Puppetry Associate. The students were divided into three groups, and throughout the four-day program each team did a session with each instructor.
After one of the sessions, I spoke with Acheson, who grew up in Detroit and attended art school before moving into things more strictly theatrical. "I've been doing puppetry of various kinds in New York for the past 13 years," he said. "I've worked with college teachers and elementary school teachers, but not really with high-school teachers, like the Houston group." He continued: "High-school students are a tricky bunch. They want to be thought of as cool, and don't want to be caught playing with a doll, which for many of them is what a puppet is."
Because high-school students can be averse to puppetry, it came as no surprise to Acheson that the workshop attendees were inexperienced in his field. "I don't think any of them had touched a puppet before," he said. Inspired by Bunraku methods, Acheson showed the Houstonians how to make a puppet out of paper and tape. "It is definitely a fun job," commented Acheson, who in his more usual War Horse gig is tasked with making sure high standards of puppetry are upheld among the cast.
"One of the things I do with the War Horse puppeteers involves body efficiency. I try to show them ways to expend a minimum amount of physical effort to achieve a maximum emotional effect." He added: "One of the techniques useful in achieving that goal is stillness. How can a puppeteer - how can a performer - use stillness to evoke a feeling in the audience? Stillness has also been one of the themes in the Houston workshop." Finally: "Judging from how well the participants have been paying attention, I think we've succeeded in making this point - as well as others."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.
UPDATE: University of Houston graduate student Todd Welbes (who participated in the workshop) writes about the experience HERE.