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Interview with Gareth Aled: From the Cast of War Horse

Gareth AledAt the time of the interview Gareth Aled was performing in the cast of War Horse as one of the puppeteers, operating Joey/Topthorn’s head. Earlier this week Gareth answered some questions about himself and War Horse. Enjoy reading about Gareth’s career and finding out about his fascinating role!

You chose acting as a career. Did you ever think of doing anything else?
I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just focused on things that I enjoyed and that challenged me, both in and outside of school.  Acting and performance became a passion quite early on. My brother is a session guitarist and I played the drums to accompany him growing up, so actually, maybe I could have been a drummer? That would have been pretty cool.

You trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama. What were two of your favorite roles while at the college?
I was in a play called “Realism” by Anthony Nealson, directed by Jamie Garven. I played “Father” & “Simon”. This play allowed me to really be brave and take risks. A dark comedy raising issues that required treading a fine line.  It’s always good to take a risk.
In hindsight “Torvald” in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” was the most challenging and rewarding role I played. The complexities of his character and relationships, coupled with the large responsibility of the storytelling, was demanding and daunting to me as a drama student. It’s difficult I think to balance doubt/nerves and confidence as an actor.

In 2010 you performed on BBC Radio 4 in Boom Boom and True To My Land. Can you tell us about that?
These were my first two professional jobs.  RWCMD has a fantastic Radio Drama tutor & mentor Marilyn Le Conte. She taught me so much about radio technique and vocal tone, but perhaps more importantly, what it is to be professional. Simple things like punctuality, positive attitude, and striving to do really good work, go a long way.
I remember arriving at the BBC in the morning for a read-through of the script and being so excited that I was in a room full of professional, creative people and I was part of it, ready to soak it up & learn. I could begin to put into practice what I had learnt at RWCMD in a professional setting. I now realise, three years on, that this practice and endeavor is a constant development and journey. I am always trying to figure it out.

You have performed in several productions at the Royal Opera House. What has been the highlight for you?
The first time I witnessed and heard the orchestra tune up and begin work on the score during a stage rehearsal. Incredible.

What can you tell us about your time with the international production company Elan Frantoio?
Elan Frantoio is a company based in rural Tuscany, Italy, under the direction of Firenza Guidi.
I met Firenza at RWCMD in 2008. It’s a community of creatives working site-specifically. Performers from all backgrounds collaborating, learning and creating, in all languages. The work is filmic, physical, generous and honest. The Frantoio taught me a physicality and a new way of storytelling, and it reaffirmed the strength of a true hard working ensemble, with individual egos left at the door. I owe so much to Firenza and the Élan Frantoio family. www.elanfrantoio.org

You are one of the puppeteers operating Joey/Topthorn’s head. Can you describe the process? How hard and exhausting is it for the puppeteers to work together ‘as one’?
Breath is key. In the case of the horses, the three individuals creating the one character (Head, Heart & Hind) have to breathe together – giving the illusion of one set of lungs. We each have technical tasks of maintaining eye line, movement of the ears & tail, giving realistic weight, the curling of the hooves, and maintaining the horse’s gait. All of this combined are the beginnings of imbuing life into the puppet. Three individuals creating one character – it is our job to disappear. Alongside the technical task, is the acting & storytelling. Being specific, generous, clear, and really listening are all principals, which are no different to that of a non-puppeteering actor, that I hold on to whilst telling the story. What does Joey want in this scene? Comfort? Praise? Or just water and oats?
Remembering that horses don’t understand English, French or German, they respond to tone and behaviour. The up and down movement of the head after a line “you think that too, don’t you?” certainly takes us out of the world of realistic horse behavior and takes us perhaps to the land of Disney – I try to avoid this.

Were you familiar with horses and how they communicate with each other prior to appearing in War Horse? If not, (how) did you prepare yourself?
I hadn’t really spent too much time around horses myself nor had I puppeteered before, so these were, and still are, massive areas of research and development. We studied intensively horse behavior, horse sounds, horse anatomy, horses in history etc etc. always trying to be detailed, clear and curious when working with the puppets. Does this move feel realistic? Is it horse-like? Is this clear? Is it specific? Even as I’m responding to this question, I also have a youtube tab open looking at draft horses ploughing – is this normal? A little geeky maybe…

As a horseperson of many years myself, when I watched War Horse, sitting in the audience, I completely forget about the fact that the horses aren’t real – quite amazing really. As a puppeteer, while on stage, do you perceive Joey/Topthorn as more than puppets, too? More like (four-legged) fellow actors?
When the three puppeteers are all really listening to each other, you stumble across some amazing moments. The spontaneous swish of a tail and the stamping of a hoof, just as the ears twitch back to notice something, strongly persuades you the audience that these animals are real, and in these moments as a puppeteer, you do get a strong sense of personality and spirit. When standing alongside these horses, puppeteering the head, I never lose sight or focus from my technical and emotional task.

How would you describe Joey and Topthorn as individuals and how do you try to bring their personalities across?
Topthorn is a thoroughbred – strong, hot-blooded, proud. Joey is half thoroughbred, half draft – spirited, playful, and curious. Their journeys are different, their experiences, their temperaments are unique. I vocally try to find different sounds or registers and physically find mannerisms which are individual to the character. Technically too, Topthorn is a taller and heavier puppet – this changes things.

Why do you think War Horse is as popular and successful as it is? Why should everyone come along to see War Horse the play?
It’s an incredible story set in The First World War of hope and courage, told by an ensemble with huge heart, centered around a puppet horse, that is breathing, living, feeling, and imbued with life.

Away from the stage what do you like to do to chill out?
Run, read, spend time with friends and loved ones, and sit in at Monmouth Coffee for a Flat White.

Any message to those that are following your career?
Hi Mum, hi Dad. How’s Wales?

Many thanks Gareth and best wishes for War Horse.
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  • Neil Cheesman

    First becoming involved in an online theatre business in 2005 and launching londontheatre1.com in September 2013. Neil writes reviews and news articles, and has interviewed over 150 actors and actresses from the West End, Broadway, film, television, and theatre. Follow Neil on Twitter @LondonTheatre1

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