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The Hind combines dance skills with puppetry in War Horse

Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui as Joey.
Christopher Mai, Derek Stratton, and Rob Laqui as Joey. © Brinkhoff/Mögenburg, courtesy of STG
War Horse gallops, literally, onto the Paramount’s stage this week in Seattle. The play tells the story of Joey, a beloved horse taken to the trenches of France in World War I. In a piece of award-winning and stunning stagecraft, three puppeteers perform the role of one horse as the Head, Heart, and Hind of Joey in puppets created for the show by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company.

The sheer physicality of the role requires a dancer’s agility, as Rob Lacqui, the Hind, reveals here.

How you did you come to be playing the Hind?
When I first auditioned, I did both the Heart position and the Hind, mostly hind. I felt I did best in the hind position and casting must have thought so too!

What part of your theatrical background do you think helped you take on this role?
I have a degree in musical theater. When I moved to New York, I started getting more physical work which eventually lead me into dance, and I have been dancing for the last ten years or so.

Had you worked with puppets of this size before?
This is the biggest puppet I have operated. I danced with MOMIX for the last six years and they use Michael Curry puppets, some of them being full body. I also worked with a dance puppet company called Loco 7, which also utilizes some full body puppetry.

Do the other puppeteers have similar backgrounds?
My team, Christopher Mai (Head) and Derek Stratton (Heart), all come from dance backgrounds (Mai danced with Alvin Ailey and Stratton with Pilobolus). I think that has really helped in communicating non-verbally. I feel incredibly honored to work with these guys because we get along so well inside and outside of Joey.

What's the trickiest moment for all three of you?
At large, the most challenging thing is being completely open to non-visual impulses. Don't get me wrong, you have to use your vision as much as possible, but there are moments where I feel I could just close my eyes and feel what Joey is supposed to do. It takes so much trust and openness. Ideally, you want to be present and alive while still maintaining the integrity of the staging and choreography. It is an ongoing never-ending process of finding that balance. I don't think anyone can say they have perfected this very unique technique. But we try every show!

What's the easiest part of this maneuver?
I'd say the easiest thing isn't technical. It's getting into Joey and knowing I can trust my team. It's kinda zen.

Does the puppet require a certain size of the puppeteer?
I'm 5 foot 6 inches. There is a height minimum (which I'm at!) and maximum for each part of the horse. We have individual harnesses that are different lengths that can be switched out of the horses to maintain the proper alignment.

It looks like you are bent down throughout much of the show. How does that lack of vision impact you?
For the most part, the Hind is in a semi-lunge, bent-over position. (Thank God for our physical therapist, Shannon Narasimhan!) For me, the position actually helps in being able to check on the hoof placement while still being able to see out of the flanks on the horse. I actually think the Hind has the most visual range of the three positions because we can look out the sides whereas the Head has to use his or her peripheral vision and the Heart position has less side range and is mostly blocked in front by the head. The stage itself is textured with unique markings and patterns which aid in our spatial orientation. We also have spike marks that we use to gauge our stage position.

Part of your job is to express emotion with the tail. Are there ways that horses use their tails that are translated into this play?
We use the tails very similarly to what real horses do. They indicate levels of tension and stress and also are used practically for swatting or warning those too close to the hindquarters. A very high raised tail indicates a high level of tension or stress while a completely relaxed tail swish can show contentment. We are given some leeway as to how and when to use the tail to keep the moment real and present for us as puppeteers and the human actors on stage.

What is great about the puppet tail and mane is because of their material they make a nice sound when shaken out so that adds another theatrical element for the audience.

Do you ever switch positions in Joey?
The puppeteers do not usually switch positions. If cast as a Hind, you will usually stay a Hind. We do have a puppet swing that covers all the head and heart positions and, within the company, the other Hinds are able to cover Joey and Topthorn if need be.

What's the most misunderstood part of playing the Hind?
That we are just along for the ride, I suppose. That any part of the horse 'leads' more than another.
Being in horse, ideally, is a three-way partnership. All three positions have the opportunity to lead the horse directionally and emotionally but without truly listening to each other the illusion of a single being wouldn't be as convincing.

That is what we strive for every time, complete unity. Like I said before, it's kinda zen.