LOS ANGELES — Michael Morpurgo is refreshingly frank about his initial reaction to having puppets — granted, gargantuan, galloping puppets — play the horses in the stage version of his children’s novel “War Horse.”
“Frankly, I thought it was ridiculous,” he said. “I didn’t say so, but I didn’t see how you could make a First World War story of this sort with puppets. I thought it would turn into nothing.”
What soon sold Morpurgo, who grew up in the English town of Devon, where “War Horse” is set, was watching another show staged by the South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company — and realizing that the giraffe puppet starring in it “was better than a giraffe. It moved you like a real giraffe didn’t.”
That giraffe, like the equine stars of “War Horse,” is not the slightest bit anthropomorphic or exaggerated or cartoon-animated. Instead, the horses, which take the stage at the Boston Opera House Wednesday through Oct. 21, flick their tails, stamp their hooves, and rear up so realistically that the costumed groomsmen manipulating their heads fade into the background. The Tony Awards and Queen Elizabeth II are fans. Adapted by playwright Nick Stafford, the show won five Tonys last year, including best play, and the monarch has had one horse puppet over to Windsor Castle, where she had it — and the people working it — trot around the riding arena.
Handspring cofounders and longtime collaborators Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones still laugh over the incongruity of the stern-faced queen falling in love with Joey, the play’s main non-human character. But they’re used to their puppets surprising people. They say they aren’t interested in caricatures but in creating characters that mimic details of real life.
“It was very important for us to discover how a horse thinks and [comprehends] its environment,” Jones said during an interview at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles the day before the national touring company of “War Horse” opened to mixed reviews here. “We had a lot of work to do.”
Preparation after being approached by the National Theatre in London included researching horse behavior, horse senses, horse history, living horses, and the bone structure of stuffed museum horses. They watched horse movies and tons of YouTube, where, as Kohler noted, every sort of animal behavior is available for viewing. They set up a blog where the team could share discoveries such as the sound of a horse coughing from pneumonia and the count of a horse’s gait.
The results were huge frames that took half a year or more to build and come to life atop two puppeteers, who are assisted from the outside by a third to move the head. The puppeteers are a mix of gymnasts, actors, and physical-theater people, only some of whom have backgrounds in puppetry. Together they comprise what the creators call the “head, heart, and hind.”
The job of operating the puppets is so strenuous — the actors actually ride the horses — that there’s a full-time physical therapist on the payroll. Puppeteers also rotate teams, tasks, and time off in order to avoid serious strain on any particular muscle.
“We don’t get in the horse anymore ourselves, but we have, yes,” Kohler said at the Ahmanson. “There are harnesses inside the horses that are adjusted to each person’s physical shape and size.”
Together onstage and off for some 40 years, ever since they met in art school, Jones and Kohler have asked audiences to accept puppets in serious roles in plays with serious themes such as apartheid, gay rights, and aging with Alzheimer’s. “War Horse” is one of the few times the pair haven’t manipulated the puppets themselves, and they say staying offstage has been integral to getting the horses right.
“We were actually ready not to be in the puppets this time,” Kohler said. “It is such a big play that we needed a big overview of the play.” Besides, he noted, “the puppets are very strenuous and we are 60 now.”
Added Jones, “We knew we could ask the puppeteers to do things that other directors could not have asked. That was what really excited us. We could raise the bar in a way normal directors couldn’t do because we’ve been in the puppets. We also know what not to ask. We know when puppeteers are getting too tired and grumpy to go there.”
After so many decades of living and working together, Kohler and Jones do seem two similar halves of a whole, with their short haircuts and hip glasses. Both are performers. But there are differences besides the color of their khaki trousers (tan for Kohler, tobacco for Jones). The division of labor, for instance.
Kohler is the original puppeteer of the pair, having learned his skills from his mother, who entertained his friends from a garage theater. Although both Kohler and Jones studied sculpture, Kohler is the hands-on artist whom Jones credits with the creations that gallop down the aisles, leaving audiences breathless.
For his part, the detail-oriented Jones describes himself as an executive producer, philosophical and “very good” at micro-movement. He said: “Once the choreography is set, where the horses go in the room, what it does, I’ll come in with the fine movements, the ear flicks, the tail flicks, the portrayal of thought.”
That true sense of intelligence is something both men say the puppets bring to the play that the live horses in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 movie version could not. For the record, Morpurgo’s novel debuted first, to what he says was little attention in 1982. Then came “War Horse” the London stage play, followed by “War Horse” the film, in which the depiction of a teenager who follows his farm horse to war takes an especially violent turn.
“We are, I think, the first people to really stage animals in the theater,” Jones said. “The play does many things: It talks about war, it talks about friendship, it talks about not judging, but one of the central fundamental things that this play does that another play hasn’t done before it is offer to audiences the life of an animal, the life of a real living animal who passes through a series of traumatic events.”
Added Kohler, “You couldn’t train a horse to do two hours on the stage. . . . Even in a movie, you are not able to rehearse a horse in its scenes.”
The rehearsals for “War Horse” were in their own way difficult despite the nurturing cocoon of the National Theatre’s workshop program.
That’s where the idea of staging Morpurgo’s novel originated, in an effort to draw in younger audiences.
The author says he got a call “out of the blue” from director Tom Morris, “who absolutely adored [Handspring Puppet Company’s] work and was looking to find a project where the puppets could be center stage in a major theater and not hidden away somewhere. . . . His mother showed [my book] to him, and luckily he listened to his mother.” Morris and Marianne Elliott went on to win a Tony Award for directing “War Horse” on Broadway. The touring production is directed by Bijan Sheibani and based on their work.
Morpurgo, who talks to each “War Horse” cast about the war and what he was trying to convey in the novel, said, “ ‘War Horse’ has been a story of great good fortune after, how shall I say, a period of not so great fortune.”
Despite their faith in the puppets, Jones and Kohler weren’t sure “War Horse” would make it onstage, either, and they say they never considered that the play would make it big. It was barely two years from cardboard model to opening night, and at one point along the way, the play — which features singing but isn’t exactly a musical — was three and a half hours long. People were falling asleep in the first previews. An hour was ordered cut.
“During the later previews,” Kohler said, “some theater friends of ours came up to us, because of course we were sitting in the back row, waiting for things to break — so that’s where our focus was, on making the play work and function — and said, ‘We think you have a massive hit on your hands.’
“At that point you’re not even ready to hear that. We never thought we’d have this kind of audience,” he said. “The best we hoped for was a return-by-popular-demand season.”