Joey, the 120-pound horse puppet at the heart of the play War Horse, has become a worldwide superstar. The many people who've climbed inside and brought him to life, however, remain largely anonymous.
Matt Acheson, the associate director of puppetry for the show's North American tour, says there's nothing more exciting about his job than introducing a newly hired group of puppeteers to the horse when it's just hanging lifeless in its storage rack. "You see the look on the faces of these people who know a little bit about what's ahead of them, and they are so in awe," he says. Acheson describes the grueling, sometimes exasperating work that follows as a labor of love.
Intermission Impossible: This British import has brought a lot of attention to the art of puppetry. And you grew up in a museum family, and always having access to puppets obviously. But can you maybe tell me a little bit about puppetry traditions in America?
Matt Acheson: It exists in pockets and communities and is made up mostly of people who stick to one style or another. But it’s always quietly there in the background, and every now and then it pops through and is thrown into the spotlight again. I think now is one of those times. It’s definitely being highlighted again. War Horse has a lot to do with that and the beautiful horses that have been created for that show are again raising the bar what puppetry can be, and how it can be used, especially in theater.
Intermission Impossible: Audiences don’t relate to puppets the same way they relate to human actors, do they?
Matt Acheson: For me the most exciting and powerful thing about puppets and witnessing s puppet show as an audience member, is that puppets are such a pure character. They don’t ever leave the theater really. They are always embedded in the show and are always that character you are seeing. It actually engages a different part of the brain when you are watching it than if you were watching a live actor. The first couple of minutes you’re, “yeah, that’s made of wood or foam. It’s not human, it’s not alive. Then you sit with it longer and all of a sudden the puppeteers disappear. It has its own skin. It’s breathing. It has its own thoughts. And that’s the audience member putting all of these ideas and emotions into the puppet. You become so connected to the puppet that you sympathize with it in a different way. Possibly even more deeply than you would for an actual human because you are doing so much work to make that thing come to life. The puppeteer is giving you these points of reference and familiarity that you are connecting with but the audience member is doing all the work. So, when there’s a death scene, as there is in War Horse, it rips you apart. Because you’re seeing something that you’ve created die in front of you. It’s pretty special in that respect I think.
Intermission Impossible: Theatrical choices always make a stronger impression than literal representation, don’t they?
Matt Acheson: Any production that asks the audience to come halfway. We all want to participate in the — I hate to say magic, but...
Intermission Impossible: What does an associate director of puppetry do all day?
Matt Acheson: I’ve been working on War Horse for almost four years now, since it arrived in the states. I audition puppeteers, hire puppeteers, train them, maintain the choreography, and help develop new ideas new choreography, organize the team structure. And then there’s a lot of team building and damage control. And keeping the team healthy and happy.
Because it’s hard to be, day after day, strapped physically to another person, and letting go of what you want a scene to do as a singular person, and trying to come up with a group consensus without talking to each other. It’s physically demanding, clearly. But it’s also emotionally demanding on the puppeteers. And they are a great group on the road. They have been amazingly resilient and strong.
Intermission Impossible: Where do your puppeteers come from?
Matt Acheson: A lot of people come from— I don’t want to say circus world. But we’ve found people working in physical theater like Blue Man Group-type folks. There are a lot of actors and dancers that end up there. But there are specific things we are looking for when we are auditioning. There are three positions in the horse. The positions have different personalities and needs to create the one singular personality of the horse. The person on the outside is usually a little more graceful with their body. They know how to disappear in plain sight. They’re more like a partner dancer, so they work with the object. The person on the inside up front in usually has a fiery personality and is very physical and quick, and has a lot of stamina. The person in the back is usually really grounded to the Earth and counters the personality of the front puppeteer. All of a sudden you have the personality of the horse. And each horse is different, which is fun to watch.
Intermission Impossible: Is the choreography entirely by the numbers or does each puppet’s team develop its own personality?
Matt Acheson: In certain scenes you have to go by the numbers. You have to count so many steps or somebody’s going to get hurt. But many scenes where we talk a lot about horse psychology and being a trained animal and what kind of energy and body language would be appropriate so we can keep the movement pure and authentic to a real horse.
War Horse at the Orpheum March 25th-28th. $30-$125.orpheum-memphis.com
Who doesn't love a good clown show?
Coming to GPAC, March 21.
Auditions happen this weekend. Deets below.
AUDITIONS for a series of original new one act plays from writer/directors: Morgan Jon Fox, Eileen Havant Townsend, Chad White, and Matt Bowsher
Sat March 22nd 1-4pm
Shady Grove Presbyterian Church
5530 Shady Grove Rd
The Corner of Yates & Shady Grove
Lead and Supporting Roles available for ALL AGES.
Auditions will be improv and workshop based.
If cast, availability needed on week nights & weekends in April — May
Show will run at Theatreworks - May2-17th
A new popular idiom is in order: "Does GCT love Agatha Christie?"
Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear do his business in the woods?
The predictable mystery is just one show though on a season that begins with Sondheim and ends in farce.
September 12-28, 2014
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: George Furth
Director: Teddy Eck
Stephen Sondheim explores the ins and outs of “Being Alive”.
GO BACK FOR MURDER
October 24 — November 9, 2014
Author: Agatha Christie
Somebody did it.
THE VELVETEEN RABBIT
December 5-21, 2014
Novel by: Margery Williams; Adapted by: Leigh Eck & Renee Davis Brame
A beloved classic about a toy that comes to life and delights children instead of terrifying them, which is what would probably happen in real life.
A funny, fuzzy comedy about nice clocks, wild hair, a red hand-me-down dress, beauty queens, and fireworks by Crimes of the Heart author Beth Henley.
ALL MY SONS
March 6-22, 2015
Author: Arthur Miller
Director: John Maness
Arthur Miller looks into the American backyard and finds the dark heart of post WWII prosperity.
YOU’RE A GOOD MAN, CHARLIE BROWN
April 9-26, 2015
Based on Charles M. Schultz’s comic strip Peanuts
Music & Lyrics: Clark Gesner; Book: John Gordon
Director: Justin Asher
An all adult cast and all children’s cast will perform this Tony Award winning musical in rep. Nifty.
THE FOX ON THE FAIRWAY
May 15-31, 2015
Author: Ken Ludwig
Director: Tony Isbell
Golf is funny.
The Addams Family
by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice and Andrew Lippa
August 22 — September 14, 2014
Creepy, kooky, mysterious... yadda, yadda, yadda.
by Ruth and Augustus Goetz
October 17 — November 2, 2014
The live action version of Washington Square: A plain-featured woman is played for her inheritance. Then she plays back.
A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
December 5 — 23, 2014
In case you might have missed the last 36 productions.
Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck
January 23 — February 8, 2015
George and Lennie look for opportunity during the Great Depression. Steinbeck at his best.
The Boy from Oz
by Marin Sherman and Nick Enright
March 6 — 29, 2015
A jukebox musical built around the music of "I Honestly Love You" songwriter Peter Allen.
The Philadelphia Story
by Phillip Barry
April 24 — May 10, 2015
A socialite's wedding plans take a turn toward trouble when her ex-husband and a hunky journalist pop in.
by Cole Porter, Guy Bolton, P.G, Woodhouse, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse
June 5 — 28, 2015
Romance gets complicated aboard the S.S. American, in this ever-popular musical featuring standards like "I Get a Kick out of You," and "De-Lovely," and, of course, the title track.
Shows on TM's Next Stage
The Member of the Wedding
by Carson McCullers
September 19 — October 5, 2014
The story of "Frankie Addams," an "unjoined person" who dreams of leaving her small southern town.
by Mary Kyte, Mel Marvin and Gary Pearle
November 7 — 22, 2014
January 8 — 18, 2015
A tuneful romp through the history of early 20th-Century America.
by Michael Frayn
February 13 — March 1, 2015
In 1941 two of the worlds greatest physicists visited with one another in spite of being on opposite sides of WWII. This is what might have happened when Niels Bohr dropped in on Werner Heisenberg although what actually happened is shrouded in uncertainty.
Rapture, Blister, Burn
by Gina Gionfriddo
April 3 — 19, 2014
Can you really have it all? A smart, funny look at American feminism in the 21st-Century.
The Hattiloo moves into its new Overton Square theater in July. Here's what we can look forward to .
ONCE ON THIS ISLAND
July 18 — August 3, 2014
Shakespeare with a Calypso heart. A peasant girl loves a wealthy boy. Trouble brews.
Written by Lydia R. Diamond
August 21 — September 14, 2014
An affluent African-American family spends a weekend at Martha's Vineyard in this play about race, class and family ties.
Written by Danai Gurira
October 2 — 26, 2014
In 1895 Zimbabwe, Jekesai escapes a forced marriage to the home of an African Roman Catholic. Christian faith finds itself at odds with tribal traditions.
IF SCROOGE WAS A BROTHER
Written by Ekundayo Bandele
November 28 — December 21, 2014
Eb Scroo, a successful African American businessman who doesn't like white people, black people, or Christmas. An old story with a new twist.
Written by Katori Hall
January 15 — February 15, 2015
A Blues Musical by Memphis-born playwright Katori Hall.
KING HEDLEY II
Written by August Wilson
March 19 — April 12, 2015
An ex-con sells stolen refrigerators so that he can one-day buy a video store.
Written by Ossie Davis
April 23 — May 24, 2015
A self-ordained minister, returns to rural Georgia to claim his inheritance and right some old wrongs.
Created by Robert Neblett and David Grapes
All music and vocal arrangements by Vince diMura
June 4 — 28, 2015
A review inspired by the life and legacy of Nina Simone.