Monday, December 30, 2013

With a background in dance, theater and gymnastics, Jessica Krueger never imagined one of her biggest roles would be a horse.

But the Canton native’s turn as one of three puppeteers controlling Joey, the equine star of “War Horse” at the Fisher Theater through Jan. 5, turned out to be among her most gratifying.

“In addition to being demanding, I’d also say it’s one of the most incredibly rewarding roles I’ve ever had,” Krueger said.

The World War I epic tells the story of Joey, a horse that forms a bond with a young boy named Albert (Michael Wyatt Cox) but is taken to fight for the British cavalry in World War I France, “War Horse” premiered in 2007 in London.

A Broadway production that followed in 2011 won five Tony awards, including Best Play.

The South Africa-based Handspring Puppet Company, which designed all of the show’s animal puppets, won a special Tony for its work.

A big screen version helmed by Steven Spielberg came out in 2011.

When buzz began building about the West End show, Krueger’s ears perked up.

“I heard that it had these giant horse puppets and was supposed to be amazing,” she said. “I had done some puppetry for the Metropolitan Opera as well as some acrobatics, so when I heard it was coming to Broadway, I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

After a handful of grueling workshop auditions, she was cast to operate the hind end of the towering horse. A three-person team controls “the head, the heart and the hind” of the large horses.

Before the tour kicked off, puppeteers plunged into a two-week boot camp to learn the necessary skills that included visiting stables and listening to horse sounds.

“The biggest challenge … is that you are one of three, and it’s a lot of practice and hard work with your teammates in terms of developing a full personality of sorts for this animal,” Krueger said.

Krueger grew up in Canton and began dancing at age 4. She started competing in gymnastics at 12 and attended Indiana University, where she majored in anthropology and theater.

After college, she studied at Circle in the Square Theater School in New York. At STREB Lab for Action Mechanics, she trained and performed as an acrobat.

“I always wanted to be an actress since I was about 4 … and I’m happy to have this special skill,” she said.

When it comes to becoming Joey, Krueger said the other big challenge lies reacting and thinking like a horse, not a human.

“This is the first commercial production that revolves around an animal as the main character that doesn’t sing and dance,” she said. “There was a discussion with the team about how certain stimulus would make us react and how we feel about certain things happening on stage.

“We have to be a little more instinctual. We’re miked so we can’t tell our teammates to go right or left; we have to learn to read each other.”

Joey’s head and hind are conducted through the horse’s body with Krueger and her teammates in harness backpacks going over their shoulders. Chest and waist clips connect them to the cage’s aluminum frame.

“When I start to move forward, he can feel me and the same with him,” she said. “It’s very much like dancing. We can both make offers to maybe try this or go this way. You have to trust your teammates.”

While the puppeteers have a certain amount of choreography to follow, how to get from point A to point B is up to them.

“It’s a pretty physically demanding job,” Krueger said. “That’s why we have four teams rotating.”

The Joey puppet weighs about 120 pounds with the person at the hind and the heart carrying about 60 pounds apiece. Add to that the weight of the person riding the horse and the fact that the puppeteers are walking in a squatted position during all their time on stage.

“We have to take care of our bodies and treat ourselves like athletes to maintain the integrity of the show,” she said.

Technical aspects aside, Krueger said the show is filled with breathtaking moments.

“There’s a fantastic moment where baby Joey grows up into big Joey that’s my favorite moment in the show,” she said. “The big horse is so much bigger and so alive in a different way that it elicits huge applause.”

Krueger said the show does an incredible job of teaching the audience how to watch the unique puppets at the heart of the production.

“The first moment you see Joey, he’s a foal and the lights come up and all you see is a tiny puppet on a huge stage,” she said. “You see him breathing, then you see an ear twitch, then a tail flick and immediately the audience knows how to watch them. We call it micro-movement.”

Unlike some other shows, “War Horse” requires the cast to ditch any diva attitudes at the stage door.

“It’s a very ensemble show,” she said. “Actors are seldom asked to take away their ego, but this isn’t about the person; you have to give everything to the puppet.”

Being hidden under the puppet’s large metal frame makes for an anonymity that most shows don’t afford, Krueger added.

“I’m completely hidden on stage,” she said. “When I walk out the stage door, nobody knows who I am — it’s a completely egoless thing.”

Coming home to Detroit during the holidays is an added bonus, Krueger said.

“I’m super excited to be performing at the Fisher,” she said. “I’ve seen so many shows there. It’s such a childhood dream coming true.”

In addition to proudly showing her family her work in the show, Krueger also is anxious to show the city off to her cast mates.

“A lot of people have this specific perception of the city and I’m excited to prove them wrong,” she said.

“War Horse” saddles up through Jan. 5 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.

Tickets start at $30 and are on sale at Ticketmaster locations, the Fisher Theatre box office, and and by calling 1-800-982-2787.

This post was written by Andrea Blum for Digital First Media. Reprinted with permission.

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