One of the biggest stage successes in recent years since its 2007 London debut, War Horse has been captivating Broadway audiences since 2011 and is now flourishing with international productions planned for the UK, Australia and Germany. The winner of five Tony awards including Best Play, it became a household name last Christmas when Steven Spielberg’s hit film adaptation was released, earning six Academy Award nominations.
Andrew Durand (a veteran of another Tony winner, Spring Awakening) plays the lead human role of Albert Narracott, a Devon farm boy who becomes separated from his beloved horse Albert in the outbreak of World War I. Albert and the other animals are dazzlingly brought to life onstage by the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa with choreography by Toby Sedgwick of The 39 Steps.
In this exclusive interview, I caught up with Durand on his favorite bits of the show, the most interesting thing about working with the remarkable horse puppets, and how his involvement the show has changed his thoughts about war itself.
What made you want to become an actor, and when was the moment where you started to know that this was the path for you?
My little sister started first. She did a show at our community theater in Georgia where I grew up. She seemed to have fun, and got to miss school for it sometimes. So I wanted in. I immediately fell in love with the community of it all. The people I worked with became my family, and the theater became my home. It was constant fun. Just getting to goof around on stage with my best friends was great.
What did you know about horses prior to joining War Horse? What kinds of things have you learned about them since then?
I actually didn’t know much at all. During rehearsals, there was an extensive library provided on the subject of horses, and World War I. I read a lot of books about horses and their behavior. I also watched a lot of videos of horses and the way they interact with people and the world around them. Having done all that research, I then felt the need to put it to the back of my mind. Albert, the character I play, is
not an expert on horses. He is instinctual, but it wouldn’t make sense for him to know everything about horses. I think it makes things more exciting and interesting for Albert and Joey to learn about each other as the play progresses.
What do you think it is about it that’s made War Horse such a success on Broadway?
I think it is such a wonderful and simple story that anyone can connect with. It is war, love, loss, longing, reunions. The relationships between the characters, and the journeys they go through, are so moving. Also, the stage craft is unlike any other. This play accomplishes things on stage you would have never thought possible.
In the beginning, what was it like in rehearsals and behind the scenes to work with the horse puppets and their extraordinary choreography?
Most of the rehearsals were just spent with the puppeteers playing Joey out of puppet. We didn’t really get to work “in horse” till a week or two before we went on. I was so overwhelmed when I first got to meet Joey properly. It was so unbelievable, I just couldn’t stop laughing. The presence of that puppet when brought to life by the actors is something you just have to see to believe. It is really amazing to get to work with these puppets. It doesn’t even seem right to call them puppets. They really are in a category all their own.
The most interesting thing about working with the horses on stage is…
There are four different teams of three puppeteers that make the horse. They all alternate who is playing which horse throughout the week. One of the most fun and interesting things for me is to get to see and play with the differences between all the horse teams. They all really do have their own way of working which makes each of them unique. It keeps things interesting for me because I really have to stay in tune with the teams so I can react off of them and the personality they each give the horse.
Why do you think your character Albert has such a deep bond with Joey? As an actor, what kind of inspiration did you draw on to convey the yearning he has for his lost horse?
Albert lives a very isolated life within a not so nurturing environment for a young boy. He has never really had the opportunity to build a relationship with anyone or anything. I think we can all relate to that feeling of being alone until a relationship comes along that makes us feel like we have meaning in our lives.
Do you have a favorite part of each performance that you always find yourself looking forward to?
My favorite part of the show is the first half hour or so when I get to do the scenes “Trust” and “Growing Up” with baby Joey into the “Transformation” scene when big Joey appears. Playing with and getting to know that baby Joey every night is so spontaneous and wonderful.
The show’s strobe effects and especially the gunshots are intense—people in the theater literally jump out of their seats. Were there ever any moments when something unexpected happened from the audience?
Audiences get so wrapped up and invested in the story that there are often vocal and physical reactions to the things that happen on stage. There are even a few parts where people tend to forget themselves and call out. I don’t want to give any of that away, so you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
How has this show influenced your own thoughts on war?
I had never given much thought to war before this show. I know that it is happening all the time, but I find it to be sad and unproductive most of the time so I always tried to keep my mind off of it. It makes me think about how scared soldiers must be. It really makes me think about the fact that no one really comes home a hero. Even if they have accomplished something great during their service, I think the horrible things they have probably witnessed are some of the only things that stick. Sure they might make some friends, but they also might have to watch while their friends die. They come back to a world where none of their loved ones can really understand what they have been through. And it must be impossible to really explain what you went through.
Now that you’ve done War Horse and Spring Awakening, what kind of roles or shows on Broadway would you most like to try next?
I’d love to do lots of stuff! I just love the work and getting to meet new, inspiring people and creating with them.
War Horse is now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, 150 West 65th Street, in New York City. For more information, visit www.warhorseonbroadway.com.
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