The special bond between a child and an animal has been the basis for many powerful stories. War Horse takes several variations on the boy-bonds-with-horse plot line. The currently touring production has made headlines for its gorgeous, innovative puppetry designed by Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa. But in addition to the breathtakingly realistic depictions of the horses, this story is unique because of it takes place during a time of war. Patrick Osteen, an ensemble member who rotates through roles as a puppeteer for two of the horses, as well as other roles, is most struck by the powerful messages about war told in the piece.
In War Horse, the audience watches a young boy (Albert) form a unique bond with a young horse (Joey) and watches as Joey is sold to the army with the hopes that he will return safely. “The audience is told this story through the eyes of Joey the horse who doesn’t take sides” says Osteen of the central message of the story. “We experience the conflict without ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’ We see people who are trying to do what they believe to be right. The antagonist is War.” Although war can be a deeply dividing issue, Osteen believes that ultimately the audience is left with brightness and hope. “Michael Morpurgo, the writer of War Horse, calls his work ‘an anthem for peace,’ “ says Osteen. “I think that says it quite nicely.”
The most infamous members of the production are the animal puppets (mostly horses) that are each manipulated by several performers to bring them to life. This requires intense training for the ensemble members that play each animal. “All the puppeteers were called in for rehearsals two weeks ahead of the rest of the cast,” says Osteen. “We worked with the horses as well as doing other exercises with anything from sticks to small paper men who were manipulated by a team of three.” This training was a rewarding challenge for Osteen. He says of this dedicated puppet rehearsal, “My background is very physical but this was a much different task than I had ever been asked to do. I have been challenged with learning a new way of physical communication that has pushed me to the limits of my mental focus and physical abilities. The task of fully listening and responding to what my two partners are doing as well as everything that is going on in the world of the play has been the most demanding and rewarding experience of my life.”
The other challenge is that the role Osteen plays changes almost every night. This allows him the opportunity to watch other cast members performing his pupeteering roles while he in onstage playing another character. “It has been a great privilege and blessing to be able to watch my cast mates work, as I am constantly stealing things I like from them,” he says. This fresh perspective allows for a constant evolution of the entire production. Osteen admits that his favorite moments in the show tends to change as time goes on. “We are constantly exploring new things and often some new moment will evolve and then we get to keep digging to find out what is there,” he says. “That keeps us focused and moving in a creative direction.”