The National Theatre’s War Horse – An Interview with John Leader at the Birmingham Hippodrome

Leader, JohnIn addition to our interview with War Horse author Michael Morpurgo, puppeteer John Leader was also kind enough to speak to us about his experience as the heart and lungs of Joey in War Horse performances at the Birmingham Hippodrome. What he said gave a fascinating insight into why the puppet horses have been so successful.

TF: How do you make the horse look so life-like?

JL: A lot of training I think is definitely a good place to start. I think it helps to be working together as three people – as a mini ensemble inside a horse. Mostly we are just listening because we don’t speak inside the horse, so I think learning a physical vocabulary shared between three of us so that we can listen and breathe together, that all goes into how we make it work.

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TF: So you respond to whatever is happening rather than having scripted sound?

JL: Yeah, I think that the great thing about what we’re taught here is how we’re taught to always be a horse. It sounds very weird to just ‘be the horse’, and there’s obviously set choreography because you have to have that, for safety reasons. You can’t have a big, huge horse just galloping wherever he wants to gallop, but then a lot of the time we do just get to be the horse. Like if someone drops a bucket on stage, we get to react to it. I think that’s the amazing side: no two shows are the same. Even though you’ve already watched it, when you watch this show tonight it will be completely different.

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HK: How long did it take you to get used to it all?

JL: Get used to it? I think we’re still getting used to it. [laughs] No, I mean we’re used to it now but we do two weeks rehearsal, just with puppeteers when we first start, and then we do another six weeks with the rest of the cast, so it’s eight weeks in rehearsals before we then take it on stage. I think a good eight weeks was a nice base to start from, but even when we open we don’t know everything about it – we get to learn while being on the job.

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TF: One of the things I find impressive is that even when you’re not moving around on stage, tiny movements are still always bringing the horse to life. How to do you get in all the minute details like the twitch of an ear or the flick of a tail?

So, what happens is all three of us each have an emotional indicator cord and they’re things you can use to pick up on things. So in the head, you have the ears, so whoever is controlling the ears so the ears can listen to what is going on at any given time. In the heart, I get to do the breathing, so if he’s angry, for example, I can convey a lot of that through breathing. In the back they have the tail which they can swish. I control the front legs, the head controls the head and the back controls the back two legs and we also have our emotional indicators, so when you bring all those things together I think that’s when you look at it and you really see a horse.

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HK: Did you have to watch real horses to learn about how they behave?

JL: Yes, we went to the National Horse Trust and we got to watch horses and I think I was never really a huge fan of horses but I can safely say that after having done this I want a horse! I don’t know how well it would go down having a horse in Birmingham, just in my back garden running around – I don’t think that would be too acceptable. But I think when I finish this I’d love to own a horse. I think I’ve fallen in love with them, they’ve converted me!

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