Actors find their way as horses in B'way's 'Equus' - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Actors find their way as horses in B'way's 'Equus'

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Posted: Monday, December 29, 2008 11:08 pm | Updated: 9:37 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

NEW YORK - Even horses need to rehearse. Especially those played by humans.

It's 30 minutes before the audience begins filing into the Broadhurst Theatre for a Tuesday evening performance of "Equus." Actors in street clothes pace and leap across the stage. In the center of all the activity stands Daniel Radcliffe, wearing jeans and a number 10 Eli Manning New York Giants jersey. He, too, is in constant motion.

The performers' movements are under the watchful eye of Spencer Liff, dance captain for the Broadway revival of Peter Shaffer's play about a young man (portrayed by Radcliffe) who blinds six horses and a psychiatrist (Richard Griffiths) who wants to find out why.

It's a group warm-up after a day off for Radcliffe and the young men who portray the horses and who, during the show, wear masks made of tubular aluminum and high, platform hoofs.

Liff will not be going on tonight as one of the steeds. Instead, he will be observing the performance along with the paying customers. Understudy Kevin Boseman will take Liff's place. And the 23-year-old Liff will be giving notes on the movement, just as if "Equus" were a musical and he was critiquing the dancing.

"But you can't really call it choreography because without music it's hard to have choreography," Liff says during an interview in a dressing room several days later.

The performer should know. He's a Broadway dance baby, touring in "The Will Rogers Follies" at age 6 and making his Broadway debut at 9 in "Big." He has also danced in such recent musicals as "The Wedding Singer" and "Cry-Baby" as well as in the films "Across the Universe" and "Hairspray."

"I definitely think that what we do on stage is not dancing," Liff continues. "But I still hold the job as dance captain, which is normal for a musical to have, because we do have six guys on stage. We need to be together. We need to stay tight. And we need rehearsals, just as dancers do.

"We've developed a different way of staying together," he adds, explaining that in musicals "you normally you have 'counts' to a song. In this, we use lines and certain word cues and visuals (for the counts). We listen to each other to make sure that we're all stamping at the same time and moving at the same time."

The movement was devised by Fin Walker who also worked on the London production of the show, which also starred Radcliffe and Griffiths. But the rest of the cast, many with modern dance backgrounds, is new, hired for New York.

The one nondancer is Lorenzo Pisoni, who plays a horseman in "Equus" as well as the lead horse, Nugget, the animal that gets most of the young man's attention.

"I've never danced in a musical," says the 31-year-old Pisoni, a one-time circus performer (his parents founded the Pickle Family Circus with actor-clown Bill Irwin) who now has made the transition to full-time acting. "I think Fin was very good at making each of the horses our own. (Their movements) came from each individual. Because of his persona and dance background, Spencer's movement manifests itself in a different type of movement than mine."

But not many dancers have to wear heavy masks or those high shoes, which weight six pounds each, that serve as hoofs. When rehearsals started last August, a lot of time was spent getting used to the shoes.

"We put them on the very first day and we were all kind of like Bambi learning to walk," Liff recalls.

"We would break the straps," Pisoni adds. "The heads are the same ones used in the London production. So they had already gone through a full run and a tour and then were shipped over here."

The six horse performers wear skull caps, almost like wrestling helmets, inside the horse heads, which weigh three pounds. The caps strap down in front of their mouths and the bottom side of their chins.

"It's pretty close to what a horse bit would be, other than going into your mouth," Liff says.

"It really does give you a sense of being a horse because you can't see a lot in front of you and what you can see is through steel bars. Horses see out of the sides of their heads. And that's a lot of what our vision is. You have to look to the side."

And that range of vision is more than a bit bizarre, according to Pisoni. "It's all the side lights. So from inside the mask, what you see as the horse is the inside of the mask lit up. Because the light is all coming from the side. It's hard at times to see beyond the mask because that's the brightest thing in front of your eyes."

For the 31-year-old Pisoni, "Equus" is the most physical show he has ever done and he's performed a lot of demanding circus work, particularly with his parents, Larry Pisoni and Peggy Snider.

"Lorenzo's circus time was like hours in the cockpit — he got lots of solo flying hours that many young performers don't get," recalled Irwin (who is his godfather) in an e-mail. "He worked with his father regularly and with his mother in different ways. ... Lorenzo also spent lots of time inside various gorilla costumes, his father having a penchant for them. As a mask maker, apes were Larry's specialty for a while."

The "Equus" horses went to Greenwich, Conn., for a day to visit a horse farm owned by one of the show's producers. The actors watched professionals groom the animals and then took turns grooming the horses themselves.

Liff, who is from Arizona, has ridden before; Pisoni had been on horseback only once while growing up, although he did go riding with his 6-year-old niece after he got the "Equus" job. Now both men are more aware of the animals they occasionally see on the streets of Manhattan, particularly those ridden by police officers in the theater district.

"I can't help but stop and just take any glimpse I can as they go by, they just kind of refresh what we are suppose to be doing at night," Liff says. "You just stop, look and say, 'That is what I play every night.' It's a constant reminder. There is a fascination now and I know that all of us pay attention."

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