The mind-blowingly evocative theatrical event that is War Horse comes to Melbourne in January on the first leg of its Australian tour. A complex blend of actors and puppeteers make up the 34 strong cast that it takes to bring this visceral tale to life. War Horse is a true feast of wonder accomplished by the puppetry mastery of individuals whose talents are capable of taking audiences on an unforgettable journey through a tale of friendship and love between a boy and his horse under the hellish sky of war.
Rianna Ash is one of those masters. In charge of Joey’s head, Ash underwent 8 weeks of rehearsals overall. The first two weeks were called ‘puppetry school’ wherein the puppeteers (including Ash) who didn’t come from a puppetry background learnt everything you could possibly need to know about puppetry from the three puppetry directors, Craig Leo, Matthew Forbes and Gareth Aled. There was also a lot of research done from reading books about horse psychology to going to watch horses at the Kings Troop Royal Horse Artillery and observing them at the stables.
“Working in unison is so important when bringing Joey or Topthorn to life”, says Ash. “Throughout the rehearsal process we spent a lot of time getting to know each other and bonding as a team. Ultimately, we had to get to a point where we breath and think as one.”
For Ash, and the other puppeteers, a day in early rehearsals would begin with a yoga warm up led by Craig Leo, followed by some exercises based around skills they would need for the show such as focus and using peripheral vision. “We’d then ‘get into horse’ as we call it and work on horse technique such as the different gaits and technical moments such as rearing and bucking,” says Ash. “During our lunch break we often played 9 square, a very competitive game that’s a lot of fun! After the first two weeks the actors joined us and we began work on the scenes. Rehearsals were physically challenging and you have to absorb so much in what feels like a short space of time but it was so rewarding and the whole company are so supportive of each other. It’s a great environment to be in.”
A gruelling and exhaustive process, Ash lists building stamina as one of the challenges required in manipulating the puppet. “I’m very active and into my sports and fitness but nothing prepares you for carrying weight on your arms for that length of time other than doing it,” she says.
And Ash is determined to keep doing it because it is within the doing that she is finding new and exciting stuff. She is thrilled to say that everyday is a new learning experience.
“We’re almost a year into the tour now and there’s still moments that I want to perfect and new things to try,” she says. “I don’t think as a puppeteer, or actor for that matter, you can ever settle. But that’s what keeps it alive.”
One of the things Ash loves about the way they are directed as the horses is that they don’t tend to have much set movements. “Yes, we have to get from A to B, but how we get there is entirely up to us and we are constantly changing it up and trying new things which keeps it so fresh and exciting,” she says. “No risk no reward is what I say!”
Ash’s training at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire included a wide variety of movement classes such as body conditioning, movement improvisation and contemporary dance, all of which, she says, helped her to understand her body as well as how to use her body to convey emotion. “There are also so many parallels in my acting training to that as a puppeteer – the main one being to actively listen,” she says.
For the intense and rich layers of truth created in the show, Ash, and the rest of the puppeteers, are trained to think like a horse. “The way in which horses think is so different to humans,” she explains. “It’s almost like taking it back to our caveman days where the main thought process is for survival. Horses don’t have the social influences that we have which may alter our actions. For example if there were two horses in a field that are hungry and one horse sees food, they’re going to go over to that food and eat it, where as humans (maybe not all) would question whether they should at least share the food. It’s like the last chocolate in a box of chocolates – no one wants to eat the last one out of politeness, but a horse wouldn’t even question it. Relating it back to the show, horses don’t understand spoken language. They respond to tone and body language so I have to make sure my reactions are authentic to that and I as a human am not listening to WHAT they say but the WAY they say it.”
The bonding and camaraderie begins early in the War Horse family, says Ash, who absolutely loved all of her auditions. “For many auditions as an actor you are in and out of the room within 10 minutes however all the auditions for War Horse were well over two hours long in a workshop scenario,” she explains. “We were in small groups, so the team really took time to get to know us and the audition involved team building exercises, basic puppetry techniques, a physical assessment and of course working on the wonderful horses.” Ash’s good news phone call came while she was performing in a local show and staying with relatives. Her uncle and cousin were with her when she got the news but Ash chose to keep her upcoming role a secret from the rest of her family for a few days as she wanted to tell them in person!
Ash began rehearsals last October and opened the show last January in Glasgow. A touring show means lots of travel – something that Ash is very grateful for. Her favourite venue so far has been Auckland. “I’ve never been to this side of the world before and it was an unforgettable experience,” she says of New Zealand’s biggest city. “The theatre was beautiful and the people so lovely. We were lucky enough to have some holiday weeks either side of performing in Auckland so a group of us travelled around the North and South Island in camper vans.”
Ash loves travelling with a show because things are always changing. But, she does acknowledge, that it’s not for everyone because you don’t really have time to properly settle somewhere but that’s exactly what she loves about it.
“It’s very exciting going to new venues and places,” she says. “We’ve faced challenges such as the differences in sizes of backstage where all the set, props and costumes are kept but we’ve got the most incredible crew who tour with us who are so adaptable. I wish people could see what happens behind the scenes because it takes so many of us to make this show so special, it isn’t just what happens on the stage.”
And as the puppeteer of Joey’s head, what does Ash cite as her favourite scene:
“Ok I’m going to cheat and have two favourite parts,” she says. “I love the scene where Joey meets Emilie for the first time. Joey is so inquisitive in that scene from trying to figure out where the lovely smell of chocolate is coming from to sussing out who Emilie is. We also make Joey quite cheeky in that scene which is a lot of fun to play. Natalie Kimmerling who plays Emilie is also delightful to work with, it’s actually quite an intimate scene between the characters and the horses and Natalie is so authentic in her responses to Joey. My other favourite part is the scene called joeys night where (without giving too much away) Joey gets caught up in the barbed wire, it’s exhausting but great to focus all your energy into selling the awful realities of war.”
But interestingly, for Ash, War Horse isn’t a story about war at all but rather it’s a story about peace, love, courage, loyalty and friendship. “This story resonates with people from all around the world as we can all relate to it,” she says. “As Michael Morpurgo (author of the novel on which the stage play is set) said ‘It’s an anthem for peace’ which is still so relevant in today’s climate.”
And, for Ash, what comes after War Horse.
“It’s very early days at the moment. I’m very lucky to still have a lot of time working on this epic show. Who knows what will happen next. I’d love to take all my skills I’ve learnt on War Horse into my next job and puppetry is definitely something I would love to continue to work on as well as acting in human form .I love all the work that Sally Cookson creates so hopefully in the near future I may get to work on a project she’s directing. One of my lifelong goals has been to play Helena in a Midsummer Night’s dream, so I’ve got to make that one happen, too! I live by my Dad’s motto that anything is possible with full ‘Effort, Commitment and Determination’”
Regent Theatre, Melbourne from 10 January 2020
Lyric Theatre, Sydney from 15 February 2020
Crown Theatre, Perth from 24 March 2020
Tickets on sale now at warhorseonstage.com.au
Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg