puppet show

Ingenious Puppet Show Combines Tradition

This article is off topic but still discussing a unique contribution to children’s entertainment and toys – the never forgotten puppet show.

Jones and Kohler combined aspects of ancient  traditions in the Handspring Puppet Company in Africa. From the Japanese Bunraku Puppet Theater came the style of visible, black-cloaked puppeteers operating the puppets on stage and the giant designs of puppets based on West African characters from the Bambara and Bozo societies (Kohler, 2009, 42-150).


Puppet Show
Puppet Show


Marie Katz writes: “There is conscious African influence in the play injected through costume and design. The fairies do not flitter around in tinsel and soft voile dresses. Instead, they are chamois clad creatures who could well originate from the dark African woods” (Katz, 1988).

The production Tooth and Nail in 1989 marked the beginning of a form of puppet construction and manipulation specifically used by the Handspring Puppet Company. The main character, Saul, had an open chest construction of plywood and head carved form jelutong wood while the puppet was attached to the manipulator behind him (Episodes, 2001). The puppets’ carved wooden heads and hands, showing the direct influence of Czechoslovak puppetry, are a prominent feature of this production.

This style of construction and manipulation of puppets became the trademark of the Handspring Puppet Company for years to come. In a production of Chimp Project in 2000,a whole puppet was constructed like a jigsaw puzzle made from plywood and covered in fabric scrim which allowed the transmission of light and gave the puppets a ghost like appearance (Badenhorst, 2005).

This same visual style of puppet construction was also used in their award-winning production of War Horse where the puppets are made from bamboo and covered with fabric scrim. The chimpanzee puppets heads and hands were carved from jelutong, a Malaysian hardwood, and the raw texture of the carved wood was left in its original state.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

Jones states: “The dramatic display of the carved markings becomes more than simply a question of aesthetics;rather it is integral to the object’s life under the theatrical light, providing character and facial expression to the inanimate object.” (Jones, 2009,253-259).

Pearman wrote the following in his article about this production: “Not only is the play a work of puppet mastery – as the perfection of the chimp and the human puppets’ movement is astoundingly realistic – it is also a story incredibly well told and holds the audience captivated with its theatricality and suspense” (Pearman, 2000, 1).

Wozzeck on the Highveld in 1991 was an adaptation of George Buchner’play Woyzeck . With this production, the company began an association with 74th artist and filmmaker William Kent ridge. Kent ridge’s simple draw-erase-draw technique, using charcoal on large sheets of white paper, became a moving background in front of which puppets could be manipulated.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

Fairly roughly carved, almost monochrome, wooden rod puppets and ink drawn acetate shadow puppets were made to complement the charcoal drawings of the film. The animated film was used to create the setting for various scenes, but more interestingly, also dealt with the thought and emotions of the puppets (Badenhorst, 2005).

During the professional marriage of puppeteer and artist which lasted for the next ten years they produced productions like Faustus in Africa, Ubu and the Truth Commission, and Zeno at 4 am, where the same Bunraku and Eastern Europe style of construction and manipulation styles are eminently visible. With Faustus in Africa, William Kent ridge and Handspring Puppet Company developed their second production, underwritten by the Art Bureau in Munich and Kunstfest in Weimar.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

The play was a free adaptation of Goethe’s Faust (parts I and II) and set in colonial Africa (Kohler, 2009, 42-150).In Faustus in Africa, the central puppet character sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited power to influence events on the African continent.

The Hyena, a minor devil, continued the idea of open structure puppets as seen in Tooth and Nail and in the Chimp Project (Badenhorst,2005). The character and movement of this puppet was so true to the real-life movement of a hyena that the audience sometimes were swept away from reality and did not even notice the open puppet constructions with torn scrim cloth and stockings.

This visual representation of the hyena and its aesthetics are so true to the actual animal that one cannot but sit back and totally believe in the character presented on stage.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

The leg movement control of this puppet was also re-used later in the designing of the horse puppet Joey, in the production of War Horse. Ubu and the Truth Commission was Handspring’s third play developed in partnership with William Kent ridge; it deals with South Africa’s Truth ans reconciliation Commission, marrying the issues of state terror to the themes of Alfred Jarry’Ubu Roi (Badenhorst, 2005). There were three leading puppet characters in this production.

The first was the vulture, who acted like a commentator on the actions and emotions of Ubu. The second was Niles the crocodile handbag, who could eat and swallow all the evidence thrown in his direction, while Ma Ubu will later sell these to the media. 75 The Dogs of War form an evil barbershop quartet with Ubu himself. Ubu uses them as hit-squad sidekicks during the play.

All these puppets were animals with very strong connections to the African continent and were constructed in the same reconstructive style as was used in previous productions. Puppets had an open wooden construction and roughly carved solid wooden heads and were finished with scrim cloth and stockings.

Combining the Bunraku style of manipulation and the intricate European construction of the heads and hands with African aesthetics, these puppets, although made of different materials, such as a travel bag that acts as a body for the three heads of the Dogs of War, were very convincing as an individual entity on stage. Already one could see the very specific and unique style of the Handspring Puppet Company’s productions.

This style of puppetry is uniquely South African. In the production oil Ritomo d’Ulisse, Kent ridge and Handspring continue their successful partnership. This was the company’s first attempt at working in the opera genre. The animist opera invites the audience to a new odyssey:“to film and music, to the human voice and puppets, to the twentieth century, Monteverdi’s Venice and mythical Greece” (Kent ridge, 2009, 176-211).“For those unfamiliar with the Kent ridge and Handspring style, one of the most striking factors is the way in which the puppeteers work with the puppets. It’s a fascinating interaction, as if the handler becomes the puppet’translator, caretaker and critic all rolled into one – watching and checking the reaction of their charges at all times” (Badenhorst, 2005).

This is one of the productions where Handspring clearly used Eastern European design and concepts and rod puppet manipulation combined with the African style of raw carved puppet heads very successfully. They also combined the Bunraku style of manipulation, where the manipulators are exposed, with the traditional Eastern Europe way of manipulating rod puppets, where the puppeteers manipulate the puppets from below, hidden behind the scenery. With the productions Zeno at 4am and Confessions of Zeno, Handspring again worked with Kent ridge as director.

Shadow puppets were used in both of those productions to represent the rest of the characters and Zeno’side as in his mind. This production was another combination of European-style theater with Kent ridge’s weird African-inspired abstract shadow puppets. On its production of the play Tall Horse, the Handspring Puppet Company worked with the Mali Puppeteer Yaya Coulibaly, from the Sogolan puppet troupe

“The exchange (for Choler and Coulibaly) was a way to mix the Handspring’s highly eclectic forms of puppetry borrowed from as far as Czechoslovakiaand Japan, with the Mali style.

I hope the idea of setting the piece in a West African museum would allow the many objects in the story, each with their own memories, to reside side by side, despite their differences”(Badenhorst, 2005). Coulibaly’s heritage is steeped in the ancient tradition of Bambara puppetry;the oldest and richest in Africa’s surviving puppet traditions.

The production employed a variety of techniques, including the interaction of actors, life-sized puppets and masquerade figures. The heads and masks were carved from wood and painted in a traditional West African style while costumes were made from African printed textiles in bright colors.

A giraffe puppet 5 meters high was designed and constructed by Kohler, the tallest and most technically intricate puppet that the Handspring Puppet Company had ever made. The puppet was constructed from a frame of carbon-fibre rods and it took two puppeteers on stilts to operate.

The puppet was fully mechanical– its head, ears and tail could be manipulated by the puppeteers through a complex system made of bicycle brakes and cables (Badenhorst, 2005).

This production, with its many sophisticated technical and design elements, was the direct forerunner of the Handspring’s most famous production, War Horse, which won the Laurence Olivier Award in London in 2008.

In 2006 Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones from the Handspring Puppet Company were commissioned by the National Theater in London to design and manufacture puppets for the play war Horse by Nick Stafford, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo.

The play would be staged in the Olivier Theater the National Theater complex. After a few workshops in London during2006, they went back to Cape Town to start designing the puppets. The idea was that the horse, Joey, must be lifelike in movement and an actor must be able on ride on its back (Kohler, 2009, 42-150).

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

To create the legs, Kohler started from the leg design of the Rhino in Woyzeckon the Highveld and the paw movement from the Hyena in Faustus in Africa.

Kohler also realized that the structure of the horse would have to be similar to the structure of the giraffe to make a tall horse, just more complicated; for example, ear and tail movements are indicators of the horse’s thoughts and emotions, and for the purposes of this specific production, it was important for the 77 audience to be able to read those reactions.

A horse can turn its ears 180 degrees and points them forward to indicate interest, backwards to indicate fear or alarm; moving them to the side means that the horse is listening(Kohler, 2009, 42-150).

For Kohler and Jones it was of the utmost importance to have their puppet capture these essential movements of a horse.

Theme chanics of these puppets, making use of bicycle brakes and cables, were masterpieces of engineering. In the British Theater Guide of 2009, Kevin Quarmby wrote the following about the construction of the puppets:

“War Horse is unique in that it draws on the collaborative genius of puppeteer, scenic artist, actor, musician and choreographer to conjure living breathing mountains of horseflesh out of carved wood and gauze and leather.

We are left in no doubt that they are structures, industrial skeletons part-machine par-sculpture, activated by the balletic precision of several trios of physical performers” (Quarry, 2009).

The microscopic realistic movement and emotions these horse puppets are able to produce play a very big role in the success story of this production.

Michael Billington noted in The Guardian of April 6, 2009: “The horses, as everyone knows, are brilliant.

The real genius of this stage version of Michael Mapurgo’s novel, first seen at the National in 2007, lies in the work of the Handspring Puppet Company’s Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler.

They have created, out of skeletal bamboo frames and internal hinges, the most plausible and expressive quadrupeds ever to have graced the London stage. At one point, Joey is magically transformed from a skittering foal into a bucking, rearing grown-up horse.

Later a tank menacingly rolls across the stage like an armour-plated behemoth. Mere humans like Kit Harington’s Albert, Colin Mace’s surly father and Patrick O’Kanes’s sympathetic German are dwarfed by the massive technical ingenuity on display.

”With this unique method of manipulation, the original Bunraku style of manipulation was still on display in their work, but Kohler and Jones morphed the puppet and puppeteer/manipulator together to become one entity. The puppeteers became the puppet’s handlers or confidants.

This was done with costumes, but instead of wearing black as in the traditional Bunraku style, puppeteers were dressed in costumes to become one with the puppet they are manipulating.

The puppeteer became an extension of the puppet and, as Jones writes in his essay: “The audience thus experience a strong feeling of empowerment. They feel themselves to be in a new interpretation territory concerning the meaning of animals within the context of a theatrical event.

In a very real sense the puppet are stealing the limelight and sometimes the audience does not even notice the puppeteers” (Jones, 2009, 253-269).Roma Torre noted in the New York Times of April 15, 2011:

“The true stars of this production are the animals, designed by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company. Life like without any attempt to conceal the artifice, the creatures are magnificent, a thrilling synthesis of art and imagination.

It was not until I stopped to think that I just cried over a horse that was actually made up of several props held together by visual handlers.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

This is the power and magic of great theater.”Conclusion In this theatrical work, War Horse, which won the Laurence Olivier Award in 2008 in London, Handspring combined widely disparate elements in the design, manufacture, and construction, and the manipulation, of these puppet masterpieces.

Design elements from most of their previous productions were incorporated into the War Horse production.

If one looks back on their past work, one can clearly see how Handspring have used original influences, from Eastern European rod puppets in the construction of their puppet heads, to the Bunraku style of manipulation from Asia and the strong African influence on the aesthetic of the puppets’ visual presentation.

The unique technique of raw carved wooden heads and hands, plywood body parts and puppets with gauze covered bodies with realistic animal and human movement, is but one of the elements which one can see throughout all their work.

A puppeteer who became an extension of the puppet, who acts as its caretaker or translator, is another prominent element that one can see in all of their productions.

These major elements have become the international trademarks of the Handspring Puppet Company.

The artistry of the Handspring Puppet Company consists of finding innovative ways of engineering puppet movement as demanded by each new theater production.

Their social commentary on South Africa and historical situations there made them one of the major players in the South African theater community.

Puppet Show
Puppet Show

They have successfully morphed together European, Asian and African puppet styles to come up with a unique puppet style and identity: this fusion of elements in their design and manipulation styles, their unmistakable 79 trademark.

True to their South African roots, the Handspring Puppet Company has become an international phenomenon in puppetry and theater circles with their unique “Euro-Afro-Asian” style. Other International Company reviews can be read on this website HERE.

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