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.
"It's hard being strapped physically to another 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." The payoff, Acheson says, is in the performance, when Joey, and War Horse's many other puppets, are brought to life with a little help from the audience.
"For me the most exciting and powerful thing about watching puppets is that it engages a different part of the brain," he explains. "The first couple of minutes you're 'Yeah, that's made of wood or foam.' Then, all of a sudden, the puppeteers disappear, and the puppet is breathing and thinking its thoughts. The puppeteer is giving you these points of reference, but you, as the audience member, are doing all the work. You're actually feeling and thinking for the puppet. So, when there's a death scene, as there is in War Horse, it rips you apart. Because you've seen something that you've created die in front of you."
"War Horse" at the Orpheum March 25th-28th. $30-$125. orpheum-memphis.com