PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With War Horse's Seth Numrich

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With War Horse's Seth Numrich We saddle up for a chat with Seth Numrich, the young American actor who plays the English lad risking life and limb for his beloved War Horse on Broadway.

Seth Numrich
Seth Numrich Photo by Joseph Marzullo

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Seth Numrich is having the kind of year that most young actors dream of. A graduate of the Juilliard School of Drama, where he still holds the record as the youngest person to be accepted to the prestigious school, at the age of 16, Numrich made his Broadway debut this season as Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino.

While performing Merchant at night, Numrich was also in rehearsals for the American debut of the Olivier Award-winning production of War Horse, which opened on Broadway April 14 at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater. Numrich portrays a young English country boy named Albert, who forges a unique bond with his beloved horse, Joey. When Joey is sold to the military in the First World War, Albert follows. Numrich picked up Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Award nominations for his work in the imaginative drama that incorporates lifelike equestrian puppets.

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This has been a really busy season for you with two high-profile productions back to back.
Seth Numrich: I was really excited to work on The Merchant of Venice. It felt like a great way to enter the Broadway scene. American productions of Shakespeare don't happen on Broadway that often, so I felt incredibly lucky to be a part of that. And on top of it, the incredible cast. Everyone in that company was extraordinary. Al Pacino leading us all through that play was an amazing experience for me as a young actor, to be able to be around him. He would take time out to hang out with us young actors and talk to us about his life and his work. It was a dream come true. War Horse is, in some way, a homecoming for you, correct? You trained just yards away at Juilliard.
SN: It's amazing because while I was at Juilliard some of the first things I got to see in New York theatre were at Lincoln Center Theater and I was in awe of the productions that they've done there. So, now to be working there on the Beaumont stage is really exciting for me.

This production is steeped in history. What kind of research was involved? As an actor, how did you personally find your way in?
SN: We did a lot of it together as a company. We had a Yale professor come in and he gave us a detailed lecture of the world during the time of the play leading up to and during the First World War. We got an amazing history of the conflict and the wealth of knowledge he brought to the process. They also made available to us tons of source materials, books and films. We had books of photography from the war; wonderful photocopies of art from the era — some of the futurist movement that sort of started in the end and the aftermath of the First World War.

Seth Numrich in War Horse
photo by Paul Kolnik

Personally, I did a lot of reading and I really found my way in through the poetry that came out of the First World War. Some incredible poets like Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke were writing during the conflict and writing about their experiences. I found that incredibly helpful as an emotional entry point to what it must have felt like to be in those trenches. These poets were finding words to put to that emotion. It was really helpful to me.

Was Michael Morpurgo's original youth novel useful to you?
SN: It's interesting because the stage production is so broadly adapted from the book. When you read the book, Albert is not a terribly large character, because the novel is told from the point of view of the horse, Joey. So, when Joey and Albert get separated you sort of lose track of Albert for a long time in the book. But that also gave me a lot more insight into who Joey is. Joey and Albert form this really strong friendship and relationship and I think Albert knows everything there is to know about Joey just from all the time they've spent together and the way that they interact.

Part of the power of War Horse is that the audience forms a relationship with these incredibly lifelike puppets as much as your character Albert does. Is it work for you as an actor to believe in them, or do you become as swept up in it as we do?
SN: I thought it would take a lot of work to pretend that these big puppets were animals, and then from that first moment I got in the rehearsals room — [the puppeteers] had only been working with the puppets for about five days or so, and already the work was so detailed and so specific — I felt like I was interacting with an animal that had thoughts, emotions and feelings and desires. It's not that much different than working with an actor in any other context.

It's also really exciting because every night it's a different Joey. We have three different teams of puppeteers who play Joey and they all have a slightly different interpretation of the character. Some different moods and different experiences. It definitely keeps me on my toes, keeps me excited and keeps the play fresh for me because I'm working with a different character in a way. It's really, really cool.

Seth Numrich in War Horse.
photo by Paul Kolnik

Do you have a particular bond with animals, especially horses? Did you ever go riding as a kid?
SN: When I was a teenager I rode horses, not extensively, but a bit. I've always loved it. I've always had pets. It's hard in New York City, I'd love to have a dog, but I don't have the space or the time for it right now. But I get along really well with animals, so it's fun to get to do it on stage if I can't get to do it in my apartment in Brooklyn. But, [Lincoln Center Theater] took all of the puppeteers out to ride. There's a stable in Brooklyn, on the south side of Prospect Park. They took all of them to observe the horses and spend some time watching and getting the mannerisms and the characteristics. Then I went on my own and spent some time riding and remembering what that experience was like. Just being around them, being around the smell — the smell and the weight of these animals, the unpredictable nature. They're really spontaneous animals and dangerous, in a way, which I kind of forgot in rehearsals.

The puppeteers are in character, but they're also looking out for me and my safety and all that. But a horse is gonna do what it wants to do, and it's helpful for me to remember that playing Albert. He would be aware of that and he would know that when he interacts with these animals.

War Horse embraces the art of language, music and storytelling as part of our culture, but a majority of your relationship with Joey (and the puppeteers) seems less about text, and more about physicality.
SN: I've been inspired by a lot of the work that the puppeteers do. They function in a small three-person ensemble and they're working together to create a character, but they can't speak to one-another at all. They have to interact through their breathing and their physicality and make decisions as one unit, but three individuals making that happen.

It was amazing to watch them build that experience through rehearsals. I was able to start trying to do the same thing when I interact with Joey and remember that it's less about the actual words I'm saying, sometimes it's about the tone of voice, or the physicality. When Albert gets really excited or really afraid, then that's going to affect how Joey reacts. If I can be calm and breath a little bit more easily, then Joey's going to be calm. And we found all those physical relationships and that helps us tell the story because that's really what it's like when you're dealing with animals.

The production has been a huge success in London. One might assume there's a template in place for staging War Horse. Was it a challenge to take ownership and create something new?
SN: It's a testament to our directors [Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott] that it never once felt like we were recreating something that already existed. It felt like we were creating it and discovering it for the first time as an ensemble of American actors. There were very few times where they would say, "In London we did it like this," and if they ever did say that, it was about something purely technical or logistical so that we wouldn't get hurt doing our blocking. But in terms of creating our characters and finding the relationships, it felt like we were creating our version and I think the whole company bit into that. Now that we're open and running, I feel like it gives us even more ownership of the play, so that now we feel like, "This is ours. It's our creation and our production. And it lives on in London, but this is our version and we can be proud of it."

The Vivian Beaumont Theater is a pretty spectacular space, with the audience surrounding the stage. A play like War Horse really draws audiences in and I imagine you must forge a connection with them.
SN: There are a few times in the show where I can really be aware of the audience. The first time is when the play starts and we all come down stage as an ensemble, we can all see pretty much the entire audience. We can see how they're looking at and responding to Joey as a foal. It's amazing to see people in the front rows with their mouths just hanging open looking at this little creature that's coming to life in front of them.

Toward the end of the play, I'm sitting downstage and I'm blindfolded, and there's a moment where we're not sure if Joey's going to make it or not and, though I can't see them, I can hear the audience because I'm very close to them. Every night there are some very audible reactions from the audience. It's exciting. It's good to know that we're reaching people in that way and that people are involved in the story and are actively participating in what's going on on stage. It makes us feel like we're doing our jobs.

View video highlights from War Horse:

(Adam Hetrick is staff writer for Playbill.com. His work also appears in Playbill magazine. Write to him at ahetrick@playbill.com.)

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