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Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse
All photos by Mauricio Rocha

It's not often that a performer lands a star role, yet no one recognizes that performer's face -- or, more accurately, three faces. But that's the case with Joey, the title character of War Horse, now playing at the Buell. Joey is a life-sized puppet created by the Handspring Puppet Company, which brings a breathing, galloping, charging horse to life on the stage for this production. Continue reading to learn about the three puppeteers in charge of Joey the War Horse, how they handle their unusual role, and why they find it so rewarding. See also: -The bombastic War Horse is classic Spielberg -War Horse @ Temple Buell Theatre -Germinal Stage is leaving its theater building, but the memories play on

Joey's handlers (left to right): Jessica Krueger, Patrick Osteen and Jon Riddleberger.
Joey's handlers (left to right): Jessica Krueger, Patrick Osteen and Jon Riddleberger.

Fourteen people worked to create the puppet, which weighs 120 pounds, is eight feet tall and just under ten feet long, and has about twenty major joints. It's based on a frame of cane and aluminum along the spine, so that it's strong enough to be ridden. This case is lined with leather for the comfort of the three performers inside who act as Joey's head, heart and hind. A puppeteer at the front controls the ears and head; one in the middle controls breathing and front legs, and a third in the back controls the tail and back legs.

Vertical levers curl the knees and lift the hooves.The tail and ears -- rather than the lips or eyelids -- are moveable because that's how horses usually express themselves. Two levers connected with bicycle brake cables control the leather ears. The eyes are black behind clear resin so that light refracts through them. The hair in the mane and tail is made of Tyvek, a plastic-like paper.

Jon Riddleberger plays the head of Joey, Patrick Osteen is responsible for the heart, and Jessica Krueger operates the hind legs. A harness connects Osteen and Krueger's spines, so their movements become the breathing of the horse.

Riddleberger's past experience with puppetry has helped him with this role, he says, while Osteen and Krueger relied on their backgrounds in gymnastics, fighting and choreography to prepare physically. "This is not a role any of us could have imagined playing. All of our past disciplines have helped us in the show," says Krueger.

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

"We get to dance, vocalize and act, it's all thrown into the pot," adds Osteen. "That's what keeps it exciting. We get to do a little bit of everything."

Osteen and Krueger are in the cage of Joey's body together, and they sweat it out during the show. "Jessica and I wear sweatbands to keep it out of our eyes," says Osteen. "We are soaked by the end of the show and it gives you some sense of accomplishment; that's how you know you did good."

But the three puppeteers aren't in this alone. "We are three people portraying the puppet. The fourth puppeteer is the audience," says Riddleberger. "The whole process of imagination is what makes the picture complete.The other cast members who treat us as a horse also work to complete that picture."

"If we leave the stage and people tell us, 'Wow, that really felt like a horse,' then you know we did a good job," adds Krueger.  

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

As for creating Joey's voice, Osteen explains: "We get better and better about making our voices horse-like and we are getting better as a unit. A horse's lungs are three times the size of a human's. We make the sound more complex by the way we layer the sounds. In-breath and out-breath sounds are very effective."

The riders placed on top of Joey add extra weight and another element for the puppeteers to juggle. "At the beginning, it felt so heavy. Jessica and I had to figure out how to balance and distribute the weight evenly," Osteen says. "We figured out that if Jessica pushed forward and the rider sits lower, I can be agile. We do move and jump and gallop with a rider and it's all an evolution at getting better at that."

On stage, Krueger and Osteen must communicate physically instead of verbally. "When we are miked, I can't speak English because if I did it would be terrible for the audience, so we have to communicate physically. That can be a matter of throwing a hip out, or shrugging," says Krueger.

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

"We started two months before production and we absorbed each other's thinking patterns," Riddleberger says. "We have developed a strange sixth sense, and can sense when one of us is about to move. What the Denver audience is seeing now is very different from what the audiences saw when we opened in Los Angeles. We've changed our vocabulary, we've added stuff, and we've removed stuff. We simplify some movements, and complicate others. The process is growing. We have been encouraged by our director, and others to continue to evolve."

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

Krueger adds: "Being able to grow is one of the most rewarding parts of this role for me; being able to switch things up. To have that freedom to grow and to work with two other people who also want to do that is one of my favorite parts about working with this show."

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

While the wonders of Joey are incentive enough to see the show, there's the added attraction of two cast members who are Colorado natives. Playing Rose, the mother of Albert, is actress Angela Reed, who attended Ponderosa High before graduating from University of Colorado Boulder. "It's great to come back to Colorado, and rewarding to perform in the Buell," she says. "It feels comfortable and familiar and special. I have family and friends here, so I am excited."

Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

Mat Hostetler plays Veterinary Officer Martin; he went to Glenwood Springs High. "Getting to move to different cities reinvigorates the show every night with a different audience, so we never get bored," he says. "The National Theatre in London thought it would be far too complex to move across the country, but here we are doing it. The show never played to a house bigger than 800 people and now we are able to bring it to audiences over 3,000 people. It feels great."

The two locals will be on tour with this production until June, and then will have to decide if they want to continue for another run. In the meantime, Reed urges, "Come see the show and don't miss this opportunity, because if it ever comes back to Denver, it will be years from now."

War Horse is playing at the Temple Buell Theatre until January 20,2013. Tickets range from $25 to $100 dollars. Click here to purchase tickets.


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Temple Buell Theatre

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