Saturday, March 3, 2012

Interview: Patrick Kwok-Choon of War Horse

click photo to enlarge: The cast of War Horse (Patrick Kwok-Choon kneeling centre)
(photo credit: Brinkhoff / Mögenberg)

Riding the Horse to History
One of the puppeteers/actors in the country's biggest hit tells how
by Dave Ross

CHARPO: First, I’d like to say that I was at opening night this past Tuesday, and what an amazing show. I was blown away by the power of the performance, and it’s probably the best piece of theatre I’ve ever seen.
KWOK-CHOON: (Laughter) Well, thank you very much, that’s always wonderful to hear.
CHARPO: My first question for you is, what is it like to portray both a human and an animal character in this play? Is it particularly challenging or different in any way?
KWOK-CHOON: It’s amazing to be able to do both. I signed on to this production to work with the puppets. As you know, I help play baby Joey, but I also work with the muster horses during the cavalry charge. Creating an animal character is really not that different from portraying a range of human characters in a given performance. The difference is in the level of focus and detail. When working with baby Joey, there are three of us. You know the choreography and the steps, but you have to be constantly aware of the other puppeteers and of the space you’re in. The puppets take on a life of their own, but the most important thing is learning to work together as a team with the other puppeteers, breathing together and working to bring that life into the puppets. The puppeteers also rotate—sometimes I’ll play baby Joey’s head, sometimes the front legs, and sometimes the hind. 
We started by playing with pieces of wood and twigs, just brought in from outside.

CHARPO: What was the rehearsal process like? How long was it, and did you have to learn anything new during that time. I understand that the puppeteers are encouraged to remain in character as much as possible. Did you experience an “ah-ha” moment where a lightbulb came on for you?
KWOK-CHOON: We’ve been in rehearsals for two months. Even before the introductory period, the puppeteers were called in for a 2-week puppetry workshop. We started by playing with pieces of wood and twigs, just brought in from outside. The Puppetry Associate showed us how to breathe life into these inanimate objects. From there, we moved onto a life-size human puppet made of cardboard rolls. We worked in teams of three, learning how to make the puppet walk, do cartwheels, and jumping jacks. From there, we moved onto baby Joey. We learned how to walk, trot, and gallop, before moving into improvised choreography. How would baby Joey react if suddenly startled? It was an amazing process, and each step was a building block. (cont'd)
Albert Narracott (Alex Furber) and Joey as a foal (Patrick Kwok-Choon, Rahnuma Panthaky, Mairi Babb). Photo by Brinkhoff / Mögenburg

CHARPO: Is your animal role strenuous? We all know the horror stories of the cast from the Lion King needing to see chiropractors constantly.
KWOK-CHOON: Yes, the role is strenuous, but we’ve learned to cope and deal with strains. Mirvish provides us with on-site massage and physiotherapy, which is wonderful. When I play baby Joey’s front legs, I spend 25 minutes essentially stooped over this puppet due to my height. We learned new positions for moments of rest to help with some of the strain. Hand cramping is common among all the puppeteers. But stretching and warming up is important. It’s not the easiest show to perform, but all of us are in the best physical shape of our lives (Laughter).
I’ve done martial arts for about nine years, and people think I have a dancer’s physique and dancer’s qualities.

CHARPO: Do you have much physical theatre experience or training, or was this type of performance new to you?
KWOK-CHOON: I’ve done martial arts for about nine years, and people think I have a dancer’s physique and dancer’s qualities. I recently had the role of Gollum in a production of The Hobbit at The Grand Theatre in London, Ontario. That role was very physical—jumping from stairs onto the stage, etc. This role is just as physical, and I wanted to do it.
CHARPO: Were you familiar with the novel before the play?
KWOK-CHOON: I actually had no knowledge of the novel before the show. Michael Morpurgo actually came to visit us during rehearsal, and told us how the book barely sold when first published. I have read the book as part of my research for the role, but I haven’t seen the film, because I didn’t want its influence on my performance. The horse's.///////;0 viewpoint in the book was informative, as was learning about life in the Devon countryside. Reading the book was a step in the rehearsal process, and it definitely contributed to my understanding.
CHARPO: That’s good to hear, because I remember reading the book and thinking “How is this going to be adapted into a play?” because I knew the horses didn’t talk.
KWOK-CHOON: Which is really the amazing thing. Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler from the Handspring Puppet Company came to see us in previews and on opening night. They spoke about how this play is so unique in that the central figure is an inanimate object. The cast is responsible for breathing life into these magnificent creations. 

Basil and Adrian actually have a really good TED Talk. You should track it down and watch it. They start with a hyena puppet, and then the horses come out and you learn about how they were created and how they work.
Having the puppets to tell the story keeps the story alive, and highlights the duality of the destruction of humans in the war as well as the beasts of war.

CHARPO: What is it about this relatively simple story that makes it so compelling that it’s running in the three largest theatre centres in the world?
KWOK-CHOON: I’d like to say it has to do with the puppets, but that is only part of it. The First World War is an unknown war, but an important one. Having the puppets to tell the story keeps the story alive, and highlights the duality of the destruction of humans in the war as well as the beasts of war. There is a line in the play about how there are widows crying at home because men couldn’t talk “like we have tonight.” [This exchange takes place after an English and German soldier work together to free Joey from barbed wire.] In our Wednesday matinee, our older audience actually applauded at that line, and the cast nearly lost it. Those kinds of reactions from the people who remember losing people in the war are important. The story rekindles a lost history that is important to people, but also important to Canada. And obviously, the puppets are fantastic (laughter). 
I remember watching “Being John Malkovich” years ago, and there is that character who wants to be a puppeteer, and he’s on stage with this life size puppet and I remember thinking “this will never happen.” Here we are years later, with audiences willing to suspend their disbelief, watching the cast form this animal connection through these incredible puppets.
CHARPO: Both Mirvish Productions and the National Theatre have educational programmes set up to complement this production. Is there actor participation in these workshops?
KWOK-CHOON: Honestly, I’m not sure yet. We’ve been so busy preparing the production itself with rehearsals and previews that things are just starting to settle down. Even now, we are about to start understudy rehearsals. Actors have other commitments as well. I’m working on getting some theatre outreach from Mirvish into my community. I know though that if the opportunity or request came up, that the entire cast—we have a huge cast—would be willing to volunteer their time to something like that. 
CHARPO: Thank you Patrick for speaking with me today. The play is amazing, and I’m telling everyone to go see it. We wish you the best for the run.
KWOK-CHOON: Cheers, thank you very much.

War Horse has been extended to September 30

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