When I entered LCT's large rehearsal room the other day, with remnants of a fresh snowfall still settling into my hair, I encountered a group of around 18 performers engaged in vocal exercises. They were undergoing the first of two weeks of preliminary rehearsals for War Horse, a National Theatre of Great Britain production that has been re-cast for its New York bow on the Vivian Beaumont stage.
Although the vocal exercises, which eventually included neighing and many other equine-associated sounds, were themselves riveting, I found my attention immediately drawn to the four life-size horse puppets on the other side of the rehearsal room. Visitors to this blog - and viewers of the video we soon will be offering here - will be reading a lot about these animals in the next several weeks. I will surely devote an entry to their design and fabrication.
Let me immediately, however, enumerate the materials of which these magnificent creatures are made - a list courtesy of Paul Smithyman, LCT's associate production manager. To wit: bamboo, twine, steel, exotic African woods, aircraft cables, black elastic, leather, mesh, cane, steel rod.
The creatures were not to remain inanimate for long. Once the vocal class had concluded, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company, whose work is at the heart of this War Horse, began a rehearsal with the performers and the puppets. Kohler and Jones are in New York for the first two weeks of this month, to get things underway before the kick-off of even fuller rehearsals, with even more actors, and under the watchful eyes of the production's co-directors, Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris.
Joey is the name of the horse central to the show's story, and as the Joey performers - Jeslyn Kelly, Prentice Onayemi, and Jonathan David Martin - moved around the rehearsal room, I kept one eye on them and one eye on a colorful volume called "Handspring Puppet Company," in which Jane Taylor, a writer associated with the company, observes: "In War Horse, the cane-and-wood creatures, designed and made for performance, are neither wholly performers nor simply part of the set. Nor are they really costumes. Herein lies the difficulty of categories, particularly in the realm of theater."
I suspect I shall be exploring such philosophical issues as Category in this blog, but I shall also try to explore, with the help of the dozens of people associated with the production, the emotional impact of the horses. My first experience of the intense feelings they arouse came as I glanced up from the Handspring book and noticed that Joey had crossed the rehearsal room halfway in my direction. His head was down, near an imaginary patch of grass. His posture suggested humility, grace, near-abasement. I felt something wet on my cheek and wondered if a residual snowflake had not melted in my hair and made its way down my face. No: it was a tear. The first of many, I suspect.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.