The former graduate of Birmingham School of Acting, Lewis Howard, was spellbound by War Horse as a member of the audience 10 years ago. Now he is bringing the latest National Theatre production to life
When Lewis Howard went to the theatre to see War Horse as a teenager 10 years ago he says he was “blown away” by the sheer majesty, drama and emotion of it all. Little could he have imagined that one day he would become part of the award-winning story of horses living and dying on the front line with the British cavalry in the First World War.
The former student of the University of Birmingham plays the role of the Heart of Joey, a horse from Devon who was sold to the cavalry and shipped to France. Along with Tom Quinn, originally from Redditch, and a third actor, Lewis brings Joey – one of the awesome ground-breaking puppets that snort, gallop and charge – to life on stage in the National Theatre’s hit production which is touring the UK.
EXCITED AND HUMBLED
Lewis, who graduated from Birmingham’s School of Acting, part of UCB in 2012 with a BA honours degree, said: “It’s my first job for the National Theatre so I am very excited and humbled to be part of this production which coincides with the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War.”
Since leaving university, Birmingham-born Lewis has performed as Callum in Swivelhead at Pleasance Courtyard during last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe and has featured as Jesse alongside Adeel Akhtar in the 2016 film The Big Return of Ray Lamere, as well as playing roles in various Shakespeare productions.
Anyone who has seen War Horse will know just how amazing the full-size horse puppets look on stage. Their actions are so life-like that it is easy to forget that they aren’t real flesh and blood. The movements which bring so much drama and emotion to audiences are down to the incredible skills of Lewis and his fellow puppeteers. Indeed, describing Lewis as a puppeteer considerably underplays his role because while largely masked by the horse’s frame, he is still acting in the truest sense of the word.
Lewis recalls the arduous audition process which he had to go through to land the part. “My manager put me forward to the National and initially I, along with many other actors, were assessed on our physicality to do the job with a three-hour crash course on puppetry. I then had to go through two more workshop auditions, each last three or four hours. These were to judge our acting ability.”
A final call-back assessed Lewis’s ability to work with and get on with others as part of a team. “It’s vital to be able to work as a unit when there are three of you in the horse,” Lewis explained. “You have to really get along and know each other’s moves and ways because the three of us cannot talk to each other as we are performing. We have to be three actors working as one in complete unison”
For any theatre virgins out there, don’t think for one minute that acting is reduced to a minor role in playing Joey. It is the actors who make Joey live and breathe and feel. “When you first start rehearsing, you have to think about and practice just making the horse walk,” explained Lewis. “It’s 90 per cent trying to make the puppet work and 10 per cent acting. Eventually it becomes the other way round and it is all about the acting and conveying the character and feelings of Joey. The mechanical part of moving the puppet becomes natural, just second nature.”
Lewis comes from a creative family – his father is an artist and printmaker, while his mother works at incorporating art for wellbeing organisations. Speaking of his time at Birmingham University, Lewis said: “I had a brilliant three years at Birmingham School of Acting, honing skills on how to better my performances but also, and more crucially, how to work with many different people and enjoy teamwork – something vital on a show like War Horse.”
And for Lewis there is nothing greater than the feedback he gets as an actor from his audiences. “War Horse is an amazing play and the moment when the last act is over and the curtain goes down and when you hear and feel the adulation of the audience… it’s just so moving and so amazing. There is nothing to compare to it.”