Stomping, cantering and whinnying are stage actions that seem more likely to evoke laughter than pathos, but for the play “Equus,” six actors must not only play the parts of horses, they have to make their pantomime fit into a weighty, substantive drama. It’s a challenging task, so to give the actors in the recent production of “Equus” at Actor’s Express an edge, director David Crowe called in movement expert Anna Leo, associate professor of dance at Emory University, to help with the rehearsals.
British playwright Peter Shaffer’s classic 1973 work about a conflicted psychiatrist who tries to cure a teenage boy of his pathological, quasi-religious obsession with horses contains several scenes in which the lead actors interact with horses, played by other actors. The original movement for the play’s first production at London’s Old Vic was overseen by Claude Chagrin, choreography specialist at the National Theatre. Shaffer admired Chagrin’s contributions so much that he added many of them to the published version of the script.
The playwright explicitly specifies that the horse movement is to be kept abstract rather than representational. “Any literalism which could suggest the cozy familiarity of a domestic animal should be avoided,” he writes. “Animal effect must be created entirely mimetically so that the masking has an exact and ceremonial effect.” Abstract animals for a metaphorical play.
“What was so great was that David was so open to having me come on board,” Leo says. “I read the play and I loved it. He said, ‘If you’re up for trying it, let’s go for it.’ ”
Leo’s background is strictly in dance. Before becoming an instructor at Emory, she lived and worked as a dancer in New York for 13 years, where she danced with choreographers Sharon Kinney, Kenneth Rinker and Bebe Miller.
In directing “Equus,” Crowe felt that there were about a half-dozen scenes that needed the help of a movement specialist. Leo came to rehearsals and also accompanied the actors on a field trip to a horse farm in Douglas County, to observe and ride the animals. “We really spent some time with the horses,” she says. “We observed how the horses moved. Looking at the front legs of horses, where that bend is, the ‘horse prance’ became part of the choreography. We also looked at the movement of the heads.”
She and the actors worked with some basic movement phrases that she created, and although the observation of real horses played a part, it was ultimately the idea of abstraction that proved to best fit the task at hand. “In reading the play and looking at those original instructions, I really saw abstraction in that there are also these Greek underpinnings in the play,” Leo explains. “I had the idea of having the horses with an almost military look to them, sort of taking off from the idea of Greek warriors and depictions on Greek vases. That was my starting point.”
The movement also has more definite parameters in that actors in a production of “Equus” typically wear masks suggesting horse heads. (The stage directions specify that the costume heads should not obscure the actors’ own faces in any way.) For the Actor’s Express production, designers Isabel A. and Moriah Curley-Clay created leather-and-wire horses’ heads and hooves. “I was really trying to find that balance between naturalistic movement and abstraction so it didn’t just look like people onstage trying to imitate horses,” says Leo. “I was looking for that blend. I was also interested in working with sounds, and I incorporated some breath sounds.” The results were the spooky, ritualistic movements of the six actors that gave the Actor’s Express show its nightmarish edge.
The process of creating for the theater was a new and rewarding one for Leo. “It really tapped a real curiosity for me,” she says. “The actors were so open and willing to try anything. That helped the process move forward in a really great way. I feel I lucked out, because this was my first time doing this. I was so pleased when I saw it onstage opening night, and the process itself was just thrilling.”