She studied ballet in Toronto and Quebec, then spent three years in London, England, preparing in dance and other performing arts. Back at an academy of performing arts in Toronto, she won its “triple threat award” for song, dance and acting.
That led Dayna Tietzen to such roles as Anita in West Side Story.
And now she’s the hind end of a horse. More formally, the Hind Puppeteer for Joey, the heroic title War Horse in the Tony award play at the Orpheum, April 8-13. It’s part of Omaha Performing Arts Broadway Series.
The triple in her stage career these days connects her with two other puppeteers. They combine as Head, Heart and Hind to bring to life Joey on some nights and the black stallion, Topthorn, on others.
If you’ve seen the movie that was inspired by this stage epic, you know the horse named Joey leaves Albert, the English farm boy who loves him, and goes off to fight World War I in France.
When the lad is old enough to enlist, he hopes to find his horse.
The star of this show, in other words, is Joey, so Dayna and teammates, Danny and Patrick, are jointly this equine lead, making him not only move, but breathe, twitch his ears and swish his tail. The magic that made this National Theatre of Great Britain creation a huge hit in England and then winner of five Tony awards on Broadway works its spell because the audience “really comes to believe it’s just a horse.
“It’s really cool,” Dayna adds, “incredibly rewarding.”
Sure, you can see that there are three humans inside that 120-pound framework of bent cane, but guess what happens when that great head turns your way with its amber eyes and twitching ears? You can’t resist reaching out and petting that noble nose.
That happened when a group of us touring from the Omaha Community Playhouse stood near one of the “puppets” in London. I put puppets in quotation marks. That may be the proper term, but as one who wept at the end of the novel and shed tears at the end of the movie, I can’t really think of that heroic horse as a puppet.
Dayna and her team simply think of themselves as Joey, emotionally open, becoming “incredibly good listeners to whatever the human characters give you.” And dealing at the same time with the physical demands of their role.
They were in Memphis, then heading to Kansas City, when we talked. They’ll finish with a month in Japan.
Those demands come from not just the weight of the horse but an occasional 170-pound rider. The show’s therapist helps tend to sore muscles, and the repetitive use of wrists, arms and knees. “Maybe the most demanding is when Joey is running through No-Man’s Land, between British and German trenches, trying to find an opening in the barbed wire. “When we stop,” she explains, “sweat just starts dripping.”
They rotate, two performances as Joey, two as Topthorn, etc. She’s also been a goose, the foal Baby Joey, and Coco, a two-person horse. Baby Joey “is one of my favorites, he’s so touching.” It’s harder, of course, for the puppeteers to “disappear” when outside the smaller creatures.
For Dayna, the magical moment that takes her breath away, night after night, is the scene where Joey makes the transition from foal to grown horse.
She enjoys the silent communication between the three team members. “Some parts have to be choreographed, but we have a lot of freedom getting from point A to point B.”
They breathe, stomp a hoof, or she uses a rod to swish Joey’s tail. “But we don’t have to be moving all the time. We’ve learned that stillness can be effective, too.” ,
War Horse continues at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St. in Omaha, through April 13, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets starting at $35 are available online at TicketOmaha.com; by phone at 402.345.0606 or at the Holland Performing Arts Center, 1200 Douglas St.