War Horse: Creating the Play

A popular novel for young adults becomes a hit on stage thanks to innovative puppetry


Imagine telling the story of a young man and his beloved horse who fight in World War I—all on stage before a live audience. Sound impossible? That’s exactly what happens in the hit play War Horse.

War Horse began at the National Theatre of Great Britain, based in London, England. In 2004, the Theatre’s associate director, Tom Morris, saw the potential for the story to be a play. And he knew who could bring Joey to life: South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company, known for finely crafted and innovative puppets. And so the tale was on its way from page to stage. Read on to learn more about the play and the challenges the creative team faced in bringing this story to vivid life.

The Story

“The Great War”

World War I (1914–18) was the second deadliest conflict in Western history, killing more than 9 million soldiers and more than 6 million civilians. As the war progressed, it also marked the debut of modern warfare like tanks, machine guns, and barbed wire. That warfare proved brutal for horses that had been relied upon for combat and supplying forces. Between one and two million horses died in the conflict.

What Happens in the Play

In 1912 in England’s countryside, a farmer brings home a colt. His son, Albert, bonds with the young horse, names him Joey, and trains him to work the farm. When World War I breaks out, Albert’s father sells Joey to the cavalry, and the British forces take Joey to France to fight with the Allies against the Germans. Joey befriends another horse, Topthorn, and the two become a team. The horses are soon caught up in enemy fire. Joey goes on an extraordinary journey, serving on both sides before finding himself trapped in “no man’s land,” the gap between the Allied and German trenches. Meanwhile, Albert lies about his age so he can enlist in the army and search the battlefields for Joey.

A Play Based on a Book

War Horse (which has also been adapted into the 2011 film War Horse) started as a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo. To tell that story on stage, playwright Nick Stafford needed to make some changes. One was the point of view. In the book, the story is told through Joey’s thoughts. On stage, the creative team knew they didn’t want Joey to speak, so the playwright re-crafted the story to be told through action and the actors’ dialogue.


Joey and Topthorn Come Alive

The horses, particularly Joey, become the center of the drama on stage. So, making them capture the audience’s imagination is an essential task. Three puppeteers—two inside and one outside of each horse puppet—operate different parts of the horse. One person works the head and ears, one works the legs, and one works the tail. The puppeteers, who are visible to the audience, are dressed so that they blend in with the rest of the cast. The puppeteers work together so Joey and Topthorn can:

  • Move smoothly
  • Gallop
  • Carry the weight of an adult rider (while galloping!)
  • Breathe, flick their ears, and twitch their tails
  • Whinny and snort

See how Joey works in “Demonstration” and listen as the puppeteers describe their work in “Puppeteers,” both in the media player above.

A Puppet Primer: Many Sizes, Many Shapes

War Horse features a variety of puppets: Joey the colt, the full-grown horses Joey and Topthorn, soldiers, and birds. Puppets have been used for thousands of years in storytelling and come in many shapes and sizes:

  • Finger—the puppet body fits on one finger
  • Hand/glove/sock—one hand moves the puppet from inside
  • Rod—named for the rods and sticks used to move the puppet
  • String or marionette—held up and moved by strings
  • Body—life-sized or bigger, they’re often seen in parades or on stage
  • Shadow—a light shines on a cut-out shape and creates a large shadow on a screen

The Puppets in War Horse

The life-size horse puppets in War Horse are most like body puppets, but also feature rods and mechanisms that help the puppets move. The production team describes them as “contact puppets” because operating them is a very hands-on endeavor. The puppetry style closely resembles the Japanese style of Bunraku (boon-RAH-koo). Traditional Bunraku puppets are often operated by three people visible to the audience (like Joey and Topthorn) and stand about four feet tall (unlike the much taller Joey and Topthorn puppets).

The Production

Creating a Theatrical World

Creating the world of War Horse on stage takes a whole team—directors, actors, the playwright, puppeteers, and the people who design the sets, costumes, lighting, music, sound, special effects, and puppets. Here are just a few of the challenges the creative team faced:

  • Creating a small English village and the battlefields of France
  • Showing soldiers, horses, and equipment coming ashore
  • Enacting cavalry charges and battles
  • Bringing horses to life (without using real ones)

How would you address these challenges?

Welcome to England and France, Peace and War

Let’s take a closer look at how the team used set design, lighting, music, and sound effects to address the particular challenge of creating two very different worlds—the English village and the battlefields of France—on one stage.

  • Sets—The set designer created a minimal set that allows plenty of room for action. Hand-drawn landscape projections and props and moveable set pieces help evoke a sense of place. For example, cast members hold wooden poles to represent fences.
  • Lights—The lighting designer created contrasting lighting plans for the different locations. The light in the village is warm and resembles the sunlight of a safe, secure, and contented place. In contrast, the light in the battlefield is harsh and shadowy.
  • Music—The songwriter used traditional English folk songs to give greater dimension to the village community.
  • Sound Effects—The sound designer filled the air with singing birds to depict the peaceful setting of rural England. The war scenes feature gunshots and intense explosions.

Things to Think About

  • What must happen for an audience to think of a puppet as a character?
  • What makes a good puppeteer?
  • How might the puppeteers prepare for the physical demands of their work, which includes operating the puppet for hours at a time and sometimes carrying the full weight of adult human riders?
  • If you could adapt a book or story for the stage, what would you choose? What would be the biggest challenge, and how would you address it?

Learn More

To learn even more about War Horse, which received the Tony Award for best play in 2011, see warhorseonstage.com.


Editors & Producers

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

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