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Backstage: Emily Cooper, puppeteer

Published April 26, 2010

After seeing the show three times when it first opened, puppeteer Emily Cooper has finally joined the cast of War Horse. She tells Caroline Bishop about staring at geese, discovering muscles she didn’t know she had and wearing the back end of a horse.

Emily Cooper, 27, Puppeteer

I’m part of a team, we’re called the triple team. We do three shows a week as a horse, either Joey or Topthorn. There’s other puppets that we’ll do too; we’ll do crows and I do the goose, and then other roles as an ensemble.

I’m one of the hinds in the triple team. Each part in the horse is very specific, so you learn very specific movements and very specific ways of working in the horse. To research, we went to some stables; we stayed over in St John’s Wood at the King’s Troop and helped them out. YouTube is the best thing. You just type in horse rearing or horse fight and it’s a free wealth of knowledge.

I look at the whole horse but I do specifically look at what the back legs are doing. During the rehearsal process you have to really tap into what a horse would do: think like a horse, react like a horse, and then the actors around you will have to react to the horse. Sometimes we can’t completely be a horse because it would be very off-putting, we would steal the focus all the time.

Because there’s three of us in the team you really have to trust [each other]. I can’t always see what the head puppeteer is doing and he can’t see what I’m doing and the person in front of me doesn’t know what I’m doing sometimes, so you really have to respond to each other.

There are three different Joey teams and three different Topthorn teams. Although it’s the same choreography and puppetry, everyone has got their own personalities. So one Joey might be slightly more frighty and one might be a little more bolshy.

There are set moves like the horse fight, and a lot of the riding – we have the actors on us – that has to be pretty set in stone. But there’s a lot that we can play with which is really nice because it keeps it really alive and real.

Getting physical

The puppets are as light as they can be. When you first start I was like, ‘oh dear this is going to be a bit tricky’. They are heavy enough, but after a while you don’t really notice. When you put it on it’s like wearing a heavy backpack but they are very well made so that everything is spread all over. Obviously when you get actors jumping up, it’s a bit heavier.

There are four different actors who ride the different horses. It’s such a hard job for them because they have to make it look outwardly to the audience like they are riding a proper horse, which they do, it’s brilliant. But even if they tip slightly, like a centimetre or less, we can fall over because it’s such a sensitive thing. It’s really cool because I don’t know of any or many other [puppets] that you have someone on your back charging around the stage.

We have an awesome puppet team that keep everything going. They do all their checks in the day, they are fixing and mending. And then during the show they are doing all their cues and all their calls but they are right there. Topthorn’s leg broke on the second night and they were in there like a shot, fixed it, done, back on Topthorn, didn’t even notice.
A really good puppet team is more important than anything else I think.

Once a week we have Pilates. Then the horse team will get a massage. There’s 15 of us. The muscles that I’ve got now I didn’t even know existed. All the hinds, we’ve got weird muscles that do things that we need. When we started, in the first week I couldn’t even lift the [horse’s] foot past a certain point, but now with lots of routine and warm-ups and push-ups and various Pilates things, you find that it gets a lot easier. But each heart, hind and head have completely different muscle structures now and it’s really interesting to see.

The amount I have to eat, it’s ridiculous. Cram it in; no, still hungry!

The ultimate job

This was my fourth round of auditions for it. I just love it, I think it’s one of the best shows that’s come out of any theatre for a long time. For me, being a puppeteer, it’s the ultimate thing. It’s on such a scale, it’s amazing. I saw it at the National about three times and then decided that I should probably stop seeing it so much. I just thought, I have to do this.

The first audition that I went to was really weird because there’s so many people in the room. You get in the horse and do all the different positions. For any puppet audition that I’ve been to, if you’ve kind of got a natural ability or an empathy with whatever puppet you’ve got then they can spot that. I couldn’t use my arms for two days afterwards because it was such a different thing to do.

We had eight weeks [to rehearse]. We had a two week puppet workshop where they started to gently introduce us to set pieces within the show but also just getting [used to] walking, trotting, galloping, having someone on your back. All those really intricate things.

For me, because I am a pure puppeteer – I have acted in the past but it’s not my main thing – it was funny to see the learning and the joy of actors going ‘oh, this can be quite fun’.

I’ve not had an acting training. I’m one of the rare people in the show – I think there’s two of us – who are just puppeteers, that’s where we came from. Everyone else is either an actor or has come from slightly wider performance background. Just the way that the show works it just makes your confidence go through the roof whatever you’re doing, if you’re an actor going into the puppetry or you’re doing something slightly different. This show is mad, because everyone is doing things that they would never have thought that they would do. One minute you’re a goose, the next minute you’re dying in the trench.

Discovering puppetry

I’m a twin, and my sister was always slightly more outgoing than me. So I kind of went down the arty route a bit and she went definitely down the singing, dancing, acting route. My mum is a drama teacher. I did lots of school plays and then I branched out and did the set design and construction and things like that. My sister went to drama school and then I went, ‘oh I like theatre so I’m going to apply to do scenic art or construction or something along those lines’. I went to Central [School of Speech and Drama] and had my interview and they said ‘have you seen the puppetry course?’

Puppetry definitely strikes a chord with me. I can see things that maybe other people may not be able to see in an object and find it hilarious. You do become very aware of things around you, which is really nice I think. Like at the moment, for the goose, I’m walking through St James Park and watching the geese. You just sort of stare at them. I’m sure everyone thinks I’m mad, but it’s the only way to get it in your head of what you have to do.

I worked on a farm for over 10 years from the age of 13 onwards. I think horses are one of the loveliest animals in the world. Obviously you can get some nasty characters but they are so forgiving. They’ll do anything for you if you are clear with them. I love the different characters in this show, with Joey being the farm horse – he’s has a lovely upbringing – and then Topthorn who is completely the opposite. He is military and this is how he is. I love animals anyway but horses are definitely a favourite of mine, which is really lucky!

An evolving world

A lot of people still don’t know so much about puppetry. They might have seen a really awful Punch And Judy when they were smaller. I think puppetry has evolved so much in recent years with certain shows that they should have an open mind. It’s a very playful thing and if you let it in you can have an amazing experience with puppets. But if you go [to the show] saying ‘well I saw some rubbish puppets 10 years ago’… It’s not all the same, there’s a massive span of puppetry that people don’t even know about. There’s some that I don’t know about and I studied it for years.

CB

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