South African puppet theatre company founded in Cape Town in 1981. Over the past thirty years, Handpsring Puppet Company has grown under the leadership of Artistic Director Adrian Kohler and Executive Producer Basil Jones. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, the company provides an artistic home and professional base for a core group of performers, designers, theatre artists and technicians. Handspring’s work has been presented in more than thirty countries around the world.
Handspring Puppet Company was founded by Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Jill Joubert and Jon Weinberg with the original aim of creating original South African plays for children. In 1983, Kohler and Jones became the sole producers of the company. From that time on the company’s productions would embrace multiple aspects of the art of puppetry, but above all rod puppetry. The black actor Bill Curry directed a new play each year for the first five years. These productions toured to schools across southern Africa, including Botswana, Namibia and Swaziland. With the declaration of the State of Emergency in South Africa in 1985, Handspring found it difficult to enter schools and relocated to Johannesburg to work in television.
In 1985, Handspring produced David Lytton’s Episodes of an Easter Rising (an adaptation for puppets from a radio play directed by Esther van Ryswijk), the company’s first play for adults. The play dealt with the choices two white women have to make when a wounded black activist, hunted by the police, seeks refuge with them. It was performed in South African cities and at the 7th World Festival of Puppet Theatre – Festival Mondiale des Théâtres de Marionettes – in Charleville-Mézières, France. The success of the production led to collaborations with a string of talented South African directors including Esther van Ryswyk, Mark Fleishman, Malcolm Purkey, Barney Simon and William Kentridge. This production was followed by A Midsummer Night’s Dream (directed by Esther van Ryswijk, 1987), Carnival of the Bear (directed by Mark Fleishman, 1988), and Tooth and Nail (directed by Malcolm Purkey of Junction Avenue Theatre Company, 1989).
Theatre producers began to be interested in the possibilities offered by puppetry in their own productions. In 1991, Handspring collaborated with Barney Simon of Johannesburg’s Market Theatre on the production Starbrites, a story set at the time of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison that presaged the end of Apartheid. Handspring’s first international success came in 1991 when Starbrites was performed for six weeks in London. Starbrites received the National Theatre Award for Play of the Year of a New South African Play. The company won this award again in 1993 and 1996.
In 1991, the company formed the Handspring Trust for Puppetry in Education and produced Spider’s Place (1995), a multimedia project involving television, comics and radio to assist in moving the way science is taught in primary schools from a teacher-centred to a child-centred approach.
Members of Handspring Puppet Company’s various puppetry arts projects include many actors, such as Busi Zokufa and Louis Seboko, two of the company’s principal puppeteers. The company mixes actors, puppets, dance and video.
Handpring’s co-productions with the renowned artist, filmmaker and director, William Kentridge – Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992), Faustus in Africa (1994), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1998), Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (1998), and Confessions of Zeno –received acclaim at international theatre festivals. Woyzeck on The Highveld, Handspring’s first work with Kentridge, continues to tour the world twenty years after its creation. Handspring has also produced successful works with artists from other parts of the African continent. More recent productions include The Chimp Project (2000) and Tall Horse (directed by Marthinus Basson, 2004). Tall Horse, in collaboration with the Compagnie Sogolon (Sogolon Puppet Troupe) from Mali and the choreographer, Koffi Koko, from Benin, is considered one of the most innovative South African theatrical productions. The play premiered in South Africa and performed at festivals in Germany and the United States where it opened the BAM Next Wave Festival in New York City in October 2005.
As the company’s international profile has grown, works have been developed with directors and creative partners from Europe, Great Britain, and the United States including Tom Morris, Neil Bartlett and Khephra Burns. Handspring’s most recent production Ouroboros, directed by Janni Younge, was presented at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town in 2011.
Due to the great success of the production War Horse (for which Handspring created and directed the life-like equine puppets), as well as to the increase in popularity of puppetry both locally and internationally, Handspring is experiencing high levels of demand on the company. To meet this demand, and in planning for the long-term future, the company has expanded its reach and incorporated leading puppetry artists into the core creative team. Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and Janni Younge currently direct Handspring Puppet Company, which to date (2012) has a full time staff of over twenty people and, in addition, contracts numerous performing artists to specific productions.
The Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts, a non-profit organization, was established in 2010. The programmes of the Trust identify, mentor and champion the next generation of puppetry artists through workshops, academic engagements and the support of ongoing projects in rural areas and townships.
(See South Africa.)