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Head, hind & heart

Curtis Jordan, the head puppeteer, operates Joey, the star of “War Horse.” The play will highlight Popejoy Hall’s 2013-14 season. (Greg Sorber/Journal)
Curtis Jordan, the head puppeteer, operates Joey, the star of “War Horse.” The play will highlight Popejoy Hall’s 2013-14 season. (Greg Sorber/Journal)
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Individually, Curtis Jordan, Isaac Woofter and Lute Breuer are accomplished actors. Yet, when the trio comes together, they create magic.

They are the puppeteers who bring Joey to life in the musical “War Horse.” The Tony Award-winning musical will be a highlight of Popejoy Hall’s 2013-14 season. It will run in the Duke City April 29 through May 4, 2014.

“War Horse” tells the story of young Albert and his beloved horse, Joey. It is based on the 1982 book of the same name by acclaimed children’s writer Michael Morpurgo, adapted for stage by Nick Stafford.

It is set in World War I as Joey is sold to the British calvary to fight in the war, breaking Albert’s heart. The rest of the story follows Joey’s journey through a war-torn area.

While the story is being told, Jordan, Woofter and Breuer create emotion and bring life to Joey.

“It’s a difficult task to undertake,” Jordan explains. “The three of us can’t really see each other, so we create some sort of language that we understand.”

Each of the three men have an important role. Jordan is the head puppeteer, Woofter is the heart puppeteer and Breuer is the hind puppeteer. The life-size horse puppets were created by the Handspring Puppet Company.

From left, puppeteers Curtis Jordan, Isaac Woofter and Lute Breuer bring the horse Joey to life on stage. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

From left, puppeteers Curtis Jordan, Isaac Woofter and Lute Breuer bring the horse Joey to life on stage. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

“It does take a lot of communication from the three of us,” Woofter explains. “But our communication comes without words. It’s something really special that each team of three develops.”

In “War Horse,” there two main horses — Joey and Topthorn.

Topthorn and Joey were the only horses who managed to get over the barbed wire in battle; all of the other horses were injured and died. Topthorn and Joey end up switching over from English to German steads when they are captured after they jump over the barbed wire. Their riders, including Trooper Warren, become prisoners of war.

Breuer says there are four teams of three in the touring production. He says two teams of three will play the two main horses while the other members will take on the “supporting” horses.

“You could see the show multiple times and the emotions would all be different,” he says. “That’s the genius behind the show. It allows us as actors and puppeteers to create something new every night.”

While one may think that the puppet would weigh a lot, Woofter says it is from 80-90 pounds. “Though some nights it can feel like a ton,” he laughs.

While it takes all three working as a cohesive unit, Jordan is the only one who can be seen.

“Issac and I are inside the puppet and there is really no visibility,” Brauer explains. “Since I’m the hind, I have to create a strong anchor for the three of us. Meanwhile Isaac will create the breathe and bring Joey to life. Curtis controls the head and ears and that’s important because you will know how Joey is feeling at any given time.”

Woofter says the longer the trio works together, the more they want to expand on what they do.

“There is a script that we have to follow, but we have some freedom to take the character in a different direction,” he says. “It took me two weeks to feel comfortable with the actual puppet and we have to feel comfortable with our cast-mates faster than that.”

Of the three men, Jordan has worked on “War Horse” the longest.

He was part of the cast while the show was running in England.

“I did more than 1,000 shows and was able to not get injured at all,” he says. “They take care of us on this show and allow us to step back and rest up.”

Since its inception in 2007, “War Horse” has earned critics’ and audiences’ praises.

The show premiered in October 2007 at the Royal National-Olivier Theatre in South Bank, London, and closed in March 2009. It then found a home to the West End’s New London Theatre that same month and opened in April 2009.

“War Horse” began preview performances at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City in March 2011 and then opened on Broadway in April 2011. The production was only scheduled to have a limited run, but soon became open-ended after strong critical reception and ticket sales. The production received five Tony Awards at the 2011 ceremony, including Best Play. It closed on Jan. 6 on Broadway, after 718 performances and 33 previews.

Director Steve Spielberg made Albert and Joey’s story into the film “War Horse” in 2011.

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