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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 8, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 6
The heart of War Horse - An interview with Derek Stratton, the man inside the beast
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The heart of War Horse - An interview with Derek Stratton, the man inside the beast

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

WAR HORSE PARAMOUNT THEATRE February 13 - 24, 2013

Derek Stratton is a man of many talents. He gave up medical school for the love of the stage and has a list of extensive credits. Currently, he is one of the three men to manipulate 'Joey,' the horse puppet from the hit play War Horse, which opens in Seattle on Wednesday. Bringing a puppet to life on stage isn't the easiest thing to do, but with the help of two others, Derek gives you its heart.

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Derek Stratton: Actually it was my brother. He dragged me onto the stage in a high school production of West Side Story. He was playing Tony, and we're only 13 months apart [in age], so he wanted to perform with me before leaving school. Begrudgingly, I agreed and fell in love with the stage.

Andrews-Katz: At what point did you decide to trade medical school for a dance academy?

Stratton: It was in my third year of my undergraduate program. I was accepted to medical school - a very wonderful program - but I'd been doing stuff on the stage with a local dance studio. I'd had minor training in dancing and acting, but never had taken a technique class. When I was on stage, I felt that everything was OK. I didn't want to be 40 years old and wish that I had gone on to be a dancer. I signed out of my program, took my first acting and dancing classes, and went on to get a college degree in dance.

Andrews-Katz: What was your involvement like with the new workshop musical James and the Giant Peach?

Stratton: That was an amazing project! I was lucky to be chosen for it. It was a wonderful mix of Broadway performers and modern dancers in creating the storyline. It was fun, interesting, and bizarre because of the two worlds of modern dance and musical theater coming together.

Andrews-Katz: How did you come to be involved with War Horse?

Stratton: My agent told me I should do the audition. Then in doing research, I saw the show at Lincoln Center, and was completely amazed by it. I was amazed by the puppeteers and what they were doing to make it as realistic as possible. I found myself very excited about the audition.

Andrews-Katz: How did you receive your training in handling the puppets for War Horse?

Stratton: We had a two-week boot camp before the rest of the actors showed up. We started working with Handspring Puppets to learn how to walk, trot, and breathe as a horse - all the basic things a horse does. Then we worked up into galloping, rearing, and cutting [directional moving]. It was wonderful because no one in our group had done anything like this, and the atmosphere was so comfortable. We were able to try anything. It helped the process be sped up a lot.

Andrews-Katz: Does being a trained ballet dancer help you in the work you do for War Horse?

Stratton: It does. Being a trained dancer in general helps with having good muscle and coordination control over your body. Because this puppet is made of tin and wood and non-pliable materials, we need to be more manipulative. It's helpful because of the improvisation and the creation of movement. The three of us [horse puppeteers] create the horse physically, emotionally, and vocally, so it is a collaborative experience.

Andrews-Katz: Since you can't communicate with words, how do you talk to the other two men working the puppet with you?

Stratton: At this point we are so sensitive to our habits and changes with each other that communication is done by a push, a pull or a breathing change. It's active listening. We do breathing for the horse and communicate through that, but most of the time it's a physical impulse.

Andrews-Katz: Have you ever had something go wrong with the puppet during a performance?

Stratton: Yeah, actually. I'm the only lucky puppeteer being the heart and torso of Joey. Once the front leg came off and I had to hold onto it until we got off stage some time later. It's challenging because of the way the legs are attached to the horse. So when the leg is detached, you don't have the same leverage to lift the frame and it just has to be done a different way manually.

Andrews-Katz: What's the most challenging part about working the 'heart' of Joey?

Stratton: The biggest challenge for me would be all the cues coming from the head and the hind part. I am the in-between person, so I have to be able to follow their leads. We make the horse breathe by lifting the legs and the torso, so when the horse is out of breath, we have to be careful not to overdo. We want the audience to believe the horse is alive. Doing all of that in conjunction is difficult.

Andrews-Katz: For people who are only familiar with the movie War Horse, what can you say to prepare them for the stage production?

Stratton: The movie is difficult to watch because they use real horses, and there are some brutal scenes. It's also hard to see it in the play, but they are puppets. The power is that the audience believes that the horse is real. They get to be part of the disbelief with the stage production so it can become a real live animal. Going to see a live stage performance gives a punch you don't get from the movie.

Andrews-Katz: With the advanced puppetry of War Horse, what other shows would you like to see come alive on stage?

Stratton: I really feel that it opens the door for anything. Any story that has living people playing real animals is incredible - the ability to bring an animal realistically to life on stage. An animal that is alive on stage [no matter how it's done] is exciting to see.

Andrews-Katz: Regardless of gender or limitations, what roles would you like to play in the future?

Stratton: No limitations? That would be awesome! I would love to play Captain America because that's my nickname on this show. I have clean cut, boy-next-door features so it became my nickname. I'd like to play any superhero on stage. I'm just an all-American guy.

Derek Stratton is one of three men working the puppet of 'Joey' from War Horse in its first national tour. Partnering with Seattle Repertory Theatre for this presentation, the STG brings War Horse to life on the Paramount Theatre's stage. Winner of five Tony Awards including Best Play, War Horse is not to be missed.

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