Actress Kristi Hughes and her colleagues in the Berlin production of War Horse were meeting people from the audience after a performance, and a woman asked who had been operating the head of the foal puppet.
"That night, I happened to be on the head, and she said, 'Wow, she must have had a lot of experience with horses growing up," Hughes recalls.
Hughes was born and raised in the heart of Kentucky horse country, in Nicholasville, "surrounded by horse farms," she says, and attended Centre College in Danville, from which she graduated in 1998.
But she had to go all the way to Germany and get cast in a major theatrical production to truly learn about the animals most associated with her home state.
Hughes is one of the puppeteers on the foal, the smaller of the two intricate horse puppets that are centerpieces of the stage show based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel about an English boy and his horse as they bond and then separately endure World War I.
Nick Stafford adapted the 1982 book for the stage with the National Theatre of Great Britain and South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company; the play debuted in London in 2007.
It has gone on to be a smash hit, on London's West End, on Broadway (where it won six Tony Awards, including best play) and in Australia. Steven Spielberg took it to movie screens in 2011, and the play is on a national tour that will stop in Louisville from Tuesday through Nov. 24. (It played Cincinnati last spring.)
The German show, War Horse's first foreign-language production, opened in October and will play through at least next year at Stage Theater des Westens in Berlin.
That's where Hughes' theatrical and lifestyle ambitions came together.
Ever since she was a student at Centre College, Hughes has had her eyes on Europe and on a stage career that would include physical theater, such as clowning and mime.
A French major, her original plan was to go to a school in Paris that specialized in clown and mime training, but after paying for four years of college, her parents weren't ready to fund further education overseas.
Hughes went to San Francisco for a few years, where she interned with a mime troupe while working with an advertising agency. But her theater ambitions remained, and she eventually made it to Paris with the full support of her parents, Bob and Lela Hughes of Nicholasville. While in Paris, a number of colleagues talked to Hughes about Berlin, and she fell in love with the German capital.
"Berlin is a city where it is still possible to be a poor artist and live well," Hughes says during a recent Skype interview from her Berlin apartment. "It's a liberal city; it's very open-minded. I can take my bike everywhere and I don't need a car.
"I have a life here where I can create my own work. I can find a rehearsal room for no more than 5 euros an hour, which I think in any other major city is unheard of. I don't have to make a lot of money to survive here and live a happy life here."
Her move to Berlin was delayed for a time by a gig with Cirque du Soleil, with which she toured on a cruise ship for six months. Once she got off the boat in Germany, she headed straight for Berlin, where she has lived since 2005.
She started establishing her career, including working with an English-speaking theater troupe and becoming a company member at a mask theater company, where she performs and works behind the scenes.
When the Berlin production of War Horse was announced, Hughes was not aware of the show, but friends advised her to audition. She wanted to work with the foal, the less physically taxing of the horse puppets. But due to misreading the German audition announcement, she ended up in workshops for the main horse, Joey.
Eventually she got to work with the foal, "though it was a great opportunity to work with the big horse," Hughes says.
The Berlin production — named Gefährten, meaning "comrades" — marks the first time that World War I, in which Germany was one of the defeated nations, has been addressed on the country's stages. Hughes says the war is just not talked about in Germany, and there are no remembrance days or celebration days for soldiers like there are in the United States and elsewhere.
That's been the focus of the sociological story of War Horse in Germany, but Hughes has been intent on learning to operate the horse — and losing her American accent for the short speaking role of Nurse Annie Gilbert, fulfilling her ambition to "play a role in German on a major German stage."
She talks excitedly about what she has learned, including what the position of a horse's ears means and the differences in the animal's monocular and binocular vision. Gaining all that horse sense reminds her of home.
"I have regretted so many times during this process that I had no experience with horses," Hughes says, laughing. "Unfortunately, I was not interested in horses.
"Now, I can say I have this new love of horses," she says, adding that she wants to take riding lessons soon. "It is nice that this show takes me back to my roots, and this connection is now there."
IF YOU GO
What: Touring production of the National Theatre play
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19-21; 8 p.m. Nov. 22; 2 and 8 p.m. Nov. 23; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Nov. 24.
Where: Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts, 501 W. Main St., Louisville.
Tickets: $25-$93. Available at 1-800-294-1849 or Louisville.broadway.com.
In Berlin: At Stage Theater des Westens, Kantstrasse 12, Berlin. Stage-entertainment.de.
Learn more: Warhorseonstage.com.