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Take Five: Belleville native rides back into town in 'War Horse'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2013 - Brooks Brantly, a Belleville native who plays a veterinary officer in 'War Horse' at the Fox Theater, helps students from Grand Center Arts Academy meet Joey. 

As a Belleville East High School student, Brooks Brantly was into martial arts, not musicals. But as a freshman at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, he signed up for an acting course. It turned into a passion, the pursuit of an advanced degree, then a career.

Brantly completed a masters program in acting at the University of Connecticut, and agents who attended his MFA showcase in New York kept him busy performing after graduation. Two years later, and following a year-long, eight-audition casting process, Brantly began touring with the Tony Award-winning play “War Horse,” coming to St. Louis’ Fox Theatre March 13-24.

Adapted from the novel by Michael Morpurgo and directed for the screen by Steven Spielberg, “War Horse” is the World War II story of a young man, Albert, and his cherished horse, Joey. Realistic, life-sized puppets bring Joey and other horses to life.

For Brantly, 27, who plays a veterinary officer, the St. Louis stop will mark an important event: the first time many of his extended family and friends will see him on stage. His mom -- trained as an actor at Carnegie Mellon -- and dad, will also be in the audience, although they traveled to see him in every show during college and after.

Brantly talked with the Beacon about “War Horse,” a production with music that he labels “one of a kind.” “You can’t call it a musical, you can’t call it a play,” Brantly says. “It’s a theatrical event.”

St. Louis Beacon: What is it about “War Horse” that tugs at people’s hearts and makes it seem so real?

Brantly: In terms of the execution, it allows the audience to use their imaginations. So often in plays and movies, you’re told what to feel, and you’re kind of manipulated.

Although you see the human puppeteers on stage, after 10 minutes, they just seem to disappear, completely. It’s kind of amazing. It’s one of the biggest collaborative efforts I’ve had the pleasure of working with.

It’s a story of family: How far would  you go to preserve that bond? In this case, a 16-year-old boy is willing to go and fight to find his horse again. It kinds of redefines what friendship can be or what family is.

Do you relate to this theme on a personal level?

Brantly: It makes me ask myself the question, “What would I fight for? To what lengths would I go in order to preserve a bond or a connection to someone that I love?"

Throughout the story, as you follow Albert and Joey, you see characters come and go -- I don’t want to spoil it, I’ll just say come and go -- and there’s a lot of comedy; there are a lot of dramatic moments; but there are so many obstacles these characters go through, especially Albert. And yet they carry on, despite what’s thrown their way, because of their love.

You’ve also played swing (multiple roles) in most of the “War Horse” tour.

Brantly: This show has actors that play the horse roles and the actors who play the human roles. I’ve been a swing for the humans.

I’ve covered like 15 roles. I had to learn all the different British and German dialects that we do. But by the time I got to St. Louis, my contract had changed, and I'm playing Veterinary Officer Martin.

How has life on the road been for you?

Brantly: I’ve been able to go to places I thought I’d never be able to see. Our first stop was in Boise, Idaho. I never thought I’d be in Boise.

It’s interesting because you have these ideas about these places around the country And when you actually see them first-hand, it’s always great to see how completely wrong you were. In Boise, I ended up going whitewater rafting and doing all these other crazy, amazing things. Every place we go, we do our best to do the little touristy things.

We have all day because we don’t come to the theater until night. We’re with each other all the time but this has been such a friendly cast, it hasn’t been a problem. We’re a pretty close group here -- there are 35 of us in the cast and then there’s also the crew.

Will you be nervous or excited to have your family and friends in the audience?

Brantly: I’m excited more than anything. But I’m nervous every performance.

Everybody has their own process. I learned a long time ago that even if it's a show that I’ve done 300 times -- and literally, I think we’re over the 300 performance mark here -- I alway have that kind of performance ... not anxiety, but just nerves.

As soon as the curtain goes up, I’m very comfortable. I love it out there.

More on "War Horse" and Brooks Brantly

Watch scenes from the play "Warhorse" in this trailer

See Brooks Brantly in a short film "Radical Change"

Watch a TED talk about the puppetry of "War Horse"

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Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.