Michael Wyatt Cox has always felt comfortable around horses, and that includes Joey, his co-star in the five-time Tony Award winner “War Horse,” coming to Proctors in Schenectady for eight shows in five days beginning Wednesday.
“I grew up around horses and I love them,” said Cox, who hails from the West Palm Beach area of southern Florida. “Obviously, he’s not a real horse, but it’s about as close as you’re going to get on stage. Joey does some amazing stuff.”
“War Horse,” based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 novel, premiered in London in 2007, played in the West End in 2009 to great reviews, and then had its American debut on Broadway in the spring of 2011.
It won Tonys for Best Play, Best Director, Best Scenic Design Best Lighting and Best Sound, and also earned rave reviews for the Handspring Puppet Company, which so cleverly brought Joey to life and as a result earned its own special Tony.
WHERE: Proctors, 432 State St., Schenectady
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $95-$20
MORE INFO: 346-6204,
Teams of actors
There are four teams of three actors apiece who take turns positioning themselves inside the life-sized puppet of Joey. A puppeteer at the head controls the ears and head, one in the heart controls breathing and front legs, and a third controls the tail and back legs. Joey weighs about 120 pounds and is 10 feet long and 8 feet high.
“Every night seems like a new night,” said Cox. “I’m always interacting with Joey, and he seems alive and fresh to me for every performance. We have four teams of three guys who do a performance, so because it seems like there’s a new team every night, it is fresh.”
It was Nick Stafford who adapted Morpurgo’s novel for the stage. In the play Cox’s character of Albert ages throughout the course of World War I. Albert is an English farm boy who becomes the caretaker of Joey until the horse is sold to the British cavalry at the beginning of the war.
Albert spends much of the conflict looking for the horse, and both the young man and Joey endure many hardships before they are eventually reunited.
“I had seen a stage version and the movie before I auditioned for the show,” said Cox, referring to Steven Spielberg’s 2011 Hollywood film, which earned six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
“There was so much buzz about it by the time it came to Broadway you couldn’t help hearing about it. But the book, the movie and the stage play all have their own little differences.”
Beginning to act
The casting process for the national tour of “War Horse” was a challenging one, according to Cox.
“It was very long and involved,” he said, “and, from what I’ve heard, everyone had a similar experience. I did my original audition and then had five separate call-backs. That’s six, total, and that’s a lot.”
He began performing in the eighth grade after his mother had tried a few different things “to get me out of the house,” he said. “Fortunately I happened to love it and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
After graduating from the University of Central Florida with an acting degree in 2005, Cox headed to Kentucky, where he interned at the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville.
“You kind of get the chance to do everything you can there,” he said. “You learn a lot about the business and get the opportunity to do all kinds of things. It was an amazing time.”
Living in ‘actoria’
After almost two years in Kentucky, Cox headed to New York City. He immediately found some stage work in regional productions, but feels as if “War Horse” is his first big break.
“New York was a struggle for a while,” he said. “I was there for about a year and a half, and I’ve done a lot of different stuff, like catering, front desk stuff, baby-sitting, anything to help pay the bills. Then I got this show and that’s almost above and beyond what I dreamed of. I can’t believe I’ve been this successful.”
He initially landed the role of Billy, Albert’s cousin, in the touring production before moving up to the lead character about 12 weeks ago. Now 26, Cox lives in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, which he likes to call “Actoria,” “because so many actors are living here now.” He realizes his time as Albert will come to an end soon.
“I think I age from about 14 to 20 during the course of the show,” he said, “and once this run ends I’ll probably be ready to move on to something else. But I do love playing this role, and while I’m doing it I will enjoy it. I want it to keep on going as long as it can.”
The touring production of “War Horse” is directed by Bijan Sheibani, who has closely followed the work of Broadway directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris, who shared a Tony for their efforts.
“War Horse” has been seen by more than 4 million people around the world and is still playing in London’s West End. During the fall of 2013, a German production opened in Berlin.
“I did get in to see the show on Broadway, and I would love to see the British version and the one in Berlin,” said Cox.
“It seems like somebody is doing this show everywhere right now. It’s amazing how successful it is, and I’m very happy to be a part of it.”