Meet Joey, the star of War Horse

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All photos by Mauricio Rocha
It's not often that a performer lands a star role, yet no one recognizes that performer's face -- or, more accurately, three faces. But that's the case with Joey, the title character of War Horse, now playing at the Buell. Joey is a life-sized puppet created by the Handspring Puppet Company, which brings a breathing, galloping, charging horse to life on the stage for this production. Continue reading to learn about the three puppeteers in charge of Joey the War Horse, how they handle their unusual role, and why they find it so rewarding.

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Joey's handlers (left to right): Jessica Krueger, Patrick Osteen and Jon Riddleberger.
Fourteen people worked to create the puppet, which weighs 120 pounds, is eight feet tall and just under ten feet long, and has about twenty major joints. It's based on a frame of cane and aluminum along the spine, so that it's strong enough to be ridden. This case is lined with leather for the comfort of the three performers inside who act as Joey's head, heart and hind. A puppeteer at the front controls the ears and head; one in the middle controls breathing and front legs, and a third in the back controls the tail and back legs.

Vertical levers curl the knees and lift the hooves.The tail and ears -- rather than the lips or eyelids -- are moveable because that's how horses usually express themselves. Two levers connected with bicycle brake cables control the leather ears. The eyes are black behind clear resin so that light refracts through them. The hair in the mane and tail is made of Tyvek, a plastic-like paper.

Jon Riddleberger plays the head of Joey, Patrick Osteen is responsible for the heart, and Jessica Krueger operates the hind legs. A harness connects Osteen and Krueger's spines, so their movements become the breathing of the horse.

Riddleberger's past experience with puppetry has helped him with this role, he says, while Osteen and Krueger relied on their backgrounds in gymnastics, fighting and choreography to prepare physically. "This is not a role any of us could have imagined playing. All of our past disciplines have helped us in the show," says Krueger.

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"We get to dance, vocalize and act, it's all thrown into the pot," adds Osteen. "That's what keeps it exciting. We get to do a little bit of everything."

Osteen and Krueger are in the cage of Joey's body together, and they sweat it out during the show. "Jessica and I wear sweatbands to keep it out of our eyes," says Osteen. "We are soaked by the end of the show and it gives you some sense of accomplishment; that's how you know you did good."

But the three puppeteers aren't in this alone. "We are three people portraying the puppet. The fourth puppeteer is the audience," says Riddleberger. "The whole process of imagination is what makes the picture complete.The other cast members who treat us as a horse also work to complete that picture."

"If we leave the stage and people tell us, 'Wow, that really felt like a horse,' then you know we did a good job," adds Krueger.


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