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Interview with puppeteer James Alexander Taylor

24 February 2015 Laura Stevens

London Calling spoke to puppeteer, James Alexander Taylor, who performs the heart of Joey in War Horse. Seen by six million people worldwide, Michael Morpurgo's story of a man's relationship with his horse through World War One has entranced audiences globally.

London Calling: How do you create Joey as a believable horse on stage?

James Alexander Taylor: It’s a system of three puppeteers. You have a head puppeteer who’s in control of the head, the ears and the eye line. Then you have a heart puppeteer who’s in control of the front legs and in charge of the breath of the horse. And then the hind puppeteer has the job of the hind legs and the tail.

And so each of you has an emotional and technical role to fulfil, and it’s when those three roles are fulfilled that Joey then comes to life.

The whole basis of it is a Handspring idea that the puppet is focused around breath.

LC: How are the noises created? 

JT: All three of us do it – luckily the horse’s lung capacity is the equivalent of three humans and lucky for us there’s three puppeteers.

When you first start learning it’s a very strange thing to do!

LC: How do you work together as a team of three? You are not able to communicate on stage!:

JT: It’s a very weird marriage you form with three people. It’s very strange.

Obviously you can’t say “right we’re going to rear now”, you just have to feel it through the breath.

LC: Do you feel affectionate towards Joey as the puppet?

JT: Absolutely.

It’s an incredible experience because there are no words spoken. You get out of horse at the end of the show and you haven’t said a word to each other for two hours, yet you’ve been running around on stage together telling this wonderful story.

And you’re part of it – it’s fantastic thing to go to work and do. You do feel very attached to the puppet absolutely.

LC: Do you have to be physically strong to do this job? How heavy are these puppets?

JT: They are quite heavy. Joey weighs about eight stone, Topthorne about 10 stone. But then you take riders as well so the weight does increase.

When you start learning your body is doing such unnatural things, and you’re using such small muscle groups you have to allow your body time to condition and adapt and strengthen.

LC: Are you all of the puppeteers the same build? Or do you have to be different sizes for the different puppets?

JT: If you were to have two six foot people in Joey as heart and hind, Joey’s legs would be floating on the floor. You do have to size people up.

You’ve got to think about the aesthetics of the puppet as well, and how the puppeteers can disappear easily.

LC: Are all the puppeteers male?  

JT: At the moment we have 11 guys and one girl.

LC: Are you familiar with horses?

JT: You can never fully understand the psychology of horses, you can get a pretty broad understanding of it but you never stop wanting to learn about it.

We have to make Joey and Topthorne as real as we possibly can. But if you think about horses they don’t really do much, they just stand around and eat. So we have to have a sense of artistic license within the theatre.

It does consume your life, like any job really if you enjoy that much, it’s great to do.

LC: What was it like doing War Horse during the centenary?

JT: I think it’s a good time to be in War Horse because everyday until the 11 November 2018 is a 100 years anniversary of something that happened in WW1. So everything is quite poignant.

LC: How do you care for the puppets?

JT: We have a fantastic group of puppet technicians here in London. For example in a show we literally do a formula one style pit stop – walk off stage, leg will come off and we’ll put another one on.

LC: What has been your most hairy moment on stage?

JT: There’s never a show doesn’t something doesn’t happen. There has been moments when we’ve had to stop the show due to maybe injury or a break.

I did this big kick to the side and when it landed the whole hoof and sides just snapped. Luckily we were in a technical rehearsal so the leg was just hanging on by these strings. We just thought we’re going to have to stop and replace the legs so luckily I now have that piece of wood as a memento.

So every time you do have a break the puppet technicians come and give you that bit of wood. There you go here’s a memento for you – don’t do it again!

LC: Have you met Michael Morpurgo?

JT: Absolutely. He’s the first person to stand up at the end of the show. You can always spot him because he’s got a salmon pink suit!

War Horse is booking until 13 February 2016 at New London Theatre, Drury Lane. To book tickets click here.

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