The Tony Award winning War Horse gallops into Vancouver as the opener in the 2013/2014 Broadway Across Canada season. Gay New York based actor Jon Riddleberger helps bring the equine stars of the show to life.
Based on the Michael Morpurgo book, War Horse tells the story of Albert, a teen growing up on a farm in England just before World War I with his horse, Joey. A poor family, Albert’s father raises much needed cash by selling Joey to the cavalry and the horse is sent to France as the war begins in 1914. Too young to enlist at the time, Albert joins the army three years later, determined to find Joey and bring him home. Meanwhile, Joey finds itself on both sides of the war before being left on his own in no-man’s-land, surrounded by trenches and barbed wire.
On a virtually bare stage, the cast of 34 recreates scenes from the English countryside to the battlefields and forests of World War I France. But what sets War Horse apart from other war stories are the horse puppets created by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa which take three performers (“head, heart and hind”) to control.
Now into his second year as the “head” puppeteer for the two horses in the show, Jon Riddleberger first got into puppeteering in college, but says it is his background in physical theatre that is more applicable to his role in War Horse.
“We have multiple teams in the show and we rotate through several different tracks to preserve our muscles. There is definitely a risk that you can get hurt with overuse,” explains Riddleberger by phone from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the first stop on this leg of the show’s tour.
That risk of injury is so real that the company employs its own physical therapist that travels with the tour.
“It’s incredibly active when we’re in the horse,” says Riddleberger. “When we’re in Joey we’re on stage for two hours and we need to be constantly engaged and be present. As time has gone on it has become easier and more natural. My arms and back were screaming when I first started, but our bodies have learned to adjust.”
No doubt helping to alleviate some of the muscle fatigue is the improvisational nature of the role and while there is set choreography, Riddleberger says it is that “in-the-moment” creative aspect that really helps to bring the horses to life.
“Within the structure is a lot of improvisation and, much like a human actor who must work within the stage blocking, there is still a lot of time to live and respond to what is going on around us. The horse’s job is to be just as responsive.”
Helping Riddleberber is a personality he says that lends itself to being the “head”.
“It is my job to sell the idea that we are seeing things and having thought that gives us cause to act, whinny or rear up. I like to think of myself as the ‘sprinkles on top’, the final action. It is an interesting game, as the three of us are working to be in sync, but one of the gifts of working with teammates is they can do what they want and it is up to me to justify my part of the horse.”
And while Riddleberger admits that the spectacle of the horses is what may first draw an audience, it is the story that keeps them engaged.
“The horses get a lot of attention, but two and half hours of just the horses would be pretty boring,” he laughs. “The horses are exciting because of the circumstances. The show is a beautifully built piece of theatre and it really is the ensemble of 34 people on stage that makes it all come together.”
A remarkable tale of courage, loyalty and friendship. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, 24 – 29 September 2013. Visit http://vancouver.broadway.com for tickets and information.