What horse puppets have to teach us about prototyping…

Over Thanksgiving weekend I had the opportunity to see the play Warhorse. It was nothing less than transcendent. No disrespect to Steven Spielberg who has the movie version coming out in the next few weeks but the challenge of creating an emotional resonant character who is a horse on a stage is infinitesimally more difficult than creating that character on film. And when I found myself poised at the edge of my seat, seconds from bawling my eyes out, at the conclusion of a play that couldn't follow a more traditional narrative arc if it tried, I took this as a sign that there were lessons to be learned in this moment.

If you aren't familiar with the horse puppets in Warhorse, now may be a good time to check out the TED Talk that the Handspring Puppet Co did earlier this year.

Now that you're back (amazing, right?!?!)....here are a few thoughts that came to my mind after I saw the play. In some ways, a play is not dissimilar to a prototype.  It is a way of allowing an audience to experience an idea. The goal may be different - new delivery models vs entertainment - but the intent is the same. So if that's true, then what can we learn from a horse puppet.

1. Don't set the goal of creating a version that looks real, aim for a version that evokes the right feelings - regardless of the medium.

2. Asking the audience to do more work can be a good thing. The horses in Warhorse had visible human operators around then throughout the entire play. There was never an attempt to pretend that the puppets weren't puppets. I think because we were asked to play an active role in suspending our disbelief, the result of that suspension was our reward as much at the performers.

3. Every challenge really is an opportunity. As difficult as prototyping many new health care concepts are, I'm not sure they are more difficult than figuring out how to design a stage play around a horse.

4. Perhaps the new metric for prototyping should be that the prototype wins awards and is more amazing and powerful than the final concept. Like I said, I'm sure Spielberg's Warhorse film will be great - but I can guarantee it won't be as amazing as the play. Ahem, I mean, the Tony Award winning play.