Gay actor Jon Riddleberger is the head of ‘War Horse’ … literally


ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

It’s not uncommon for stage actors to play multiple characters during the run of a show (or even a performance). But every night, Jon Riddleberger shares the same role with two other people.

And that role is a horse.


WARRIORS | Jon Riddleberger, above, puppeteers The Head of both Joey and Topthorn in the national tour of ‘War Horse.’


Riddleberger plays The Head (there’s also The Heart and The Hind) in the national touring production of War Horse, manipulating both the lead horse, Joey, and, at alternating performances, Joey’s friend Topthorn. And while his primary function may be as a puppeteer, Riddleberger says playing one-third of a life-sized horse eight times a week is an intense exercise in acting. At least, for him.

“Puppetry is really strange: I know lots of very great actors who would never make a good puppeteer, and lots of great puppeteers who could never be good actors,” says Riddleberger, who studied experimental theater in college and trained at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. “When acting, you are understanding a character’s emotions, but you’re putting it all out there yourself; in puppeteering, there’s a medium you’re doing that through. How I feel doesn’t matter; it’s what the puppet is feeling that matters.”

What that effectively means is that Riddleberger approaches his characters with the same thoughtfulness as an actor, but finding a different way to express it.

“We’ve made lots of character choices — we’ve mapped Joey’s emotional journey,” he says. “But if we’re going through the emotions, the puppet probably isn’t.”

The “we” still sounds strange when talking about a single character, but both Joey and Topthorn are collective efforts.

“When I was being thrown into the auditions, it very quickly became apparent Head was the position that made the most sense to me,” Riddleberger recounts from San Francisco, where War Horse is currently being performed. “In rehearsals with my team, it was apparent why we were each position we were. There are personality traits to each role — the Head tends to be a little more cerebral — I’m keeping the story of the horse clear and present. The Heart is very impulsive — that is a passionate part of the horse, very reactionary. He’s responsible for the breathing, so a lot of that emotional energy comes from him, and then the guy that plays my Heart is very good. I was telling my mom recently, ‘I’m working on breathing more with my Heart more and getting coordinated,’ and it took her a while to realize I was talking about another person,” he says.

Then there’s The Hind, and Riddleberger’s teammate is the only female adult puppeteer in the entire War Horse family. Just don’t make any “horse’s ass” jokes.

“She’s a powerhouse,” he says. “She’s all about pushing the horse forward.”

All of which means playing a huge puppet takes tons of communication. (Teams always work together; they don’t mix-and-match.)

“One of the puppet directors called it ‘the woo-woo effect:’ That’s when we start being able to predict each others’ actions,” he says. “I sometimes feel like I’m reading my teammates’ minds. I understand their breath patterns, their thought processes about what kind of horse Joey is and how he reacts to the world. We have figured out how to be responsive as one horse. It’s sort of a big improv game. If my Hind decides it’s time to move, it’s my job to move. My teammates will do things I wouldn’t do.

Risking, not knowing where it’s going. I trust my teammates enormously.”

Riddleberger and his teammates swap out characters every few days because the physical demands of the horses can prove taxing and it allows certain muscles to relax. But it always means they are switching up characters as well.

“They are two different horses … well, two different puppets,” he says. “Joey is a hunter horse — half Thoroughbred and half draught horse; Topthorn is a full Thoroughbred, and he has to be so much longer, so I get on my tiptoes a lot.” Still, he enjoys the challenges that come with playing two different animals.

“Joey makes more sense to me as a character just in relation to my own personality, but I enjoy playing Topthorn and being this big, strong military horse,” as if he’s able to play against type, says Riddleberger.

A horse isn’t just a horse, of course, of course.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 7, 2012.