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Building Character: Seth Numrich How the star of Broadway's "War Horse" learned to act with puppets

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

 

Welcome to Building Character, TDF Stages' ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

 

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How's this for a paradox? The puppets in War Horse ground Seth Numrich in reality.

 

Numrich stars in this Broadway fable, now at Lincoln Center, as Albert Narracott, a young British boy whose life changes when his beloved horse Joey is sold as an officer's mount in World War I. Albert joins the army to look for his animal friend, and we see both of them maneuver the horror of French battlefields.

 

The play, which is based on a young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, can't work unless Joey and several other animals feel like flesh-and-blood characters. To bring them to life, the creative team has devised remarkable, life-size puppets. Operated by small teams of puppeteers, the creatures seem strikingly real. They don't just walk around: They breathe and sigh and occasionally shake their heads, just like actual horses.

 

Numrich loves those tiny gestures. "For us human actors in the play, breathing is not a conscious activity; it just happens," he says. "But if you're aware of your breathing, it can bring you into the present moment, which is what we're always striving to do. And because [the puppeteers] always have to be thinking about breathing and physically making that animal breathe, there's a presence they attain in their performance that's awe-inspiring.

 

"There are times in the play when I see Joey breathing and I remember that <i>I'm</i> breathing, and it brings me right back into the moment. I thought it would take a lot of imagination to pretend these puppets are horses, and in fact, it takes none at all."

 

Instead, Numrich's biggest acting challenge is totally human. Over the course of the show, Albert ages from his early teens to his early twenties, and it takes delicate work to crystallize the phases of his adolescence.

 

For instance, Numrich doesn't want young Albert to seem like a child, and that's not always easy. "Once we started performing in front of an audience, I started to get self-conscious as a 24 year-old actor that people weren't going to buy that I was 14 years old at the beginning of the play," he recalls. "I started playing him too young, actually, and my directors got on me and said, 'He's not 10. He's not eight. He's an early teenager.' So I had to keep that in mind."

He continues, "I have to remember that I'm playing the actions. I have to connect to what Albert wants and what he needs as a young man, rather than playing the age. It should be about playing intentions---I need to save Joey, I need to confront my father---instead of playing a caricature of a young teenager."

 

Albert changes, of course, when he runs away to fight and discovers the hellish reality of trenches, tanks, and machine guns.

 

"We worked a lot on the sense of walking in mud because that was the reality of their lives throughout the war," Numrich says. "The fields of France that were once green and full of flowers were just ripped apart, and walking in that landscape is different than walking down the streets of New York City."

 

He notes, too, that when Albert goes to war, many of his scenes are "lower to the ground," meaning he has to crouch or lie down so he can have a conversation without getting shot. "That affected the physicality as we moved through that part of the play."

 

Albert changes emotionally, too. "He is forced to grow up fast and figure out how to deal with life and death situations and hold onto hope," Numrich says. "I try to give it a cumulative effect throughout the play to show how Albert grows up."

 

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor

Photo by Paul Kolnick