Gregory Manley, a hometown Oakland boy who grew up playing ball and hanging out in theaters and music halls, is back in the Bay Area, but you might not recognize him.
Galloping across the stage as the hind puppeteer in SHN Curran Theatre's production of the Tony-award winning "War Horse," Manley is enmeshed in 10 feet of bent cane, leather, and Tyvek, the plasticlike paper that forms the animal's tail.
"I'm a hind," he announces happily, in an interview just minutes before a daily rehearsal. "The head puppeteers are cerebral, the heart puppeteers (who control the breathing and front legs) are sensitive and adaptable, and the hind puppeteers push everyone. We're the engine."
"Joey," the puppet Manley maneuvers in conjunction with his two teammates, is the beloved horse of the play's young Albert and has been enlisted to fight for the English in World War I. Based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo and adapted for the stage by Nick Stafford, it is the Handspring Puppet Company's life-size animals that carry the sweeping narrative to its climactic heights.
Manley credits Trina Oliver, his Bishop O'Dowd drama teacher, with the direction he has traveled since attending Park Day School and the East Bay School of the Arts.
"She had us working long hours after school on very different, traditional scenes. Even though I've gone more radical, having that tradition was important," he recalls.
With a father who loves sports and a
Sports and martial arts provided a physical outlet, but it was art and theater that nourished his soul, said his parents, Neela and William Manley.
"He played with stuffed animals, the ones you put your hand in," his mother recalls, "and he used his imagination." She speaks plainly about the influence of the Bay Area on his development as an artist.
"It opened the world to him, all the art and science. And just living in Oakland, with the mix of people, he never felt out of place. All of his friends had multicultural parents, or not, but they never saw color. They were very lucky."
Landing a position in the touring show was another piece of luck, but primarily, it was hard work.
"I've been puppeteering for five years with the Mettawee River Theater Company in New York," Manley said. "I auditioned two years ago, but I didn't get in. The second time, I guess I made a better impression."
He said the most important skill to operating Joey is listening.
"You have to listen through your body as well as your ears. And balance is the second thing: knowing how to share weight, accelerate, decelerate."
Coordinating the pushes and pulls with his puppeteering team is a delicate, instinctive operation. Subtle cues can be achieved with simple nudges, but triggering spins or a burst of trotting requires using breath as a signal.
"Ssss," he spurts airily, demonstrating the short blast that serves as a signal.
The puppets also speak, or, in this case, "whinny," which generates eerily realistic vocalizations and lip-rattling exhalations that cause him to apologize.
"It's multiphonic and has a deeper resonance when it's all three of us together," he promises, proceeding to screech and blow from the back of his throat.
Aside from the sound, the physical requirements are stringent. Manley does yoga and dance warm-ups to protect his knees, hips and neck.
For the horses and their puppeteers, there's physical therapy, which keeps both horses and humans in top form.
Manley values a particular instruction he received from the Handspring puppet makers. "They told us, 'No matter what choreography you are given, never forget, you are a wild animal.' "
Tickets for "War Horse" range from $31 to $100 and are on sale at shnsf.com or 888-746-1799. For more information visit www.shnsf.com/online/warhorse.
WHEN: through Sept. 9; 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
WHERE: SHN Curran Theatre: 445 Geary St., San Francisco (between Mason and Taylor)
ONLINE: www.facebook.com/shnbroadwayinsf; www.twitter.com/shnsf; www.youtube.com/user/SHNSanFrancisco