The Republic of South Africa (RSA), located in the southern-most region of [Africa], is a multi-ethnic society encompassing a wide variety of cultures, religions and languages, with eleven official languages, including two languages of European origin: Afrikaans (developed from Dutch and initially spoken by Afrikaners, the predominantly Dutch settlers who had dominated South Africa’s politics and agriculture) and English (reflecting the legacy of British colonialism). About 80 percent of South Africans are of black Sub-Saharan ancestry from a variety of ethnic groups speaking different Bantu languages, while the remaining approximately 20 percent are of European (white), Asian (Indian) and multiracial (coloured) ancestry. During the 20th century, the black majority sought to recover its rights from the dominant white minority; this struggle played a large role in the country’s recent history and politics. With the victory of the African National Congress (ANC) at the polls in 1994, the segregationist apartheid ideology was ended, and today all ethnic and linguistic groups have had political representation in the country’s multi-racial democracy.

South Africa has a long and rich puppetry history. Puppetry was present in traditional cultures but introduced as a form of entertainment, mainly for children, during the colonial era. It is now a thriving contemporary art form. Puppetry is widely used to entertain and educate children and adults. It is used in theatre and television, in artistic work, in therapy and in commercial production. South Africa is host to the largest international puppetry and visual performance festival on the continent, Out The Box.

Puppetry in Africa

Masks and figurines have been used throughout the African continent in many diverse contexts. Masquerade, festival, ritual and community interaction in traditional cultural contexts have lead to a widespread use of objects in performative contexts. In their animistic religious function some figurines are guardians of ancestral bones while others are powerful partners to the diviner in maintaining law and order. Figurines are often covered with sacrificial libations when fulfilling their ritual function, the original carving becoming encrusted and therefore more powerful over time.

In African puppetry, the iconic object holds specific meaning and supernatural power in performance. The icon has a traditional significance in its ability to convey meaning or messages within the context of local traditions, the community and its religious and spiritual milieu. Indeed, there are many masking and figurine traditions that have evolved to meet the particular needs of various sectors within South African societies and transformed into contemporary modes of expression. The global economy has also shifted much of the contemporary workmanship of traditional artists into more Western paradigms, to suit the requirements of trade and tourism.

There is evidence of a tradition of South African puppetry that predates colonial influences. This exists in museums in the form of a variety of articulated figures collected in the 19th and 20th centuries. (These figures were probably found in countries north of South Africa.) There are surreal human figures with animated heads, finely carved with jointed limbs and manipulated with a rod in the small of the back. There are [jigging puppets] (French: marionnettes à la planchette) manipulated by a sitting puppeteer with legs outstretched and the puppets strung between the big toes (see also [Toe/Foot Puppet]). And there are rainmaking figures with arms attached to a narrow plank, which they climb in performance.

The original religious and spiritual context of the African fetish object is often displaced and appropriated in contemporary performance and cultural representations in South African performance and theatre. This evolution of the iconic ritual object into a new system of cultural signification as a medium of representation has great potential for social transformation and action.

Today in South Africa, the term “puppetry” is often loosely incorporated into the broader genre of “visual performance”. The genre offers a multidisciplinary entry point to contemporary performance and its many branches such as performance art, movement, theatre, multimedia, mask, video, puppetry, stage design and visual art, amongst others. This entry point allows the positioning of these genres in relation to each other, as well as a multidisciplinary visuality, as the central concern of the artistic work of puppetry.

Puppetry in South Africa c.1800s-1969

Visiting groups have played a part in the development of a European-influenced puppet theatre that developed in South Africa, particularly in the Colonial community. Cross pollination between European, African and Eastern forms of puppetry have contributed, however, to much more complex interdisciplinary performance styles that define South African puppetry in the 21st century.

Throughout the 19th century, the Cape Colony was visited periodically by travelling groups of puppeteers from Europe, starting with a [shadow] play from France in 1805. Local forms of these Western puppet theatre traditions began to develop in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the pioneers was Estelle van der Merwe who, working in Parys in the Orange Free State from 1931, developed a series of plays for her wooden puppets based on the stories of Honiball, the Afrikaans writer. In the 1940s, the art form received a significant boost when sculptors, like Frieda Ollemans, and set designers, like John Dronafield, became involved with a group of puppeteers based in Cape Town.

The personality who drew these artists together was John Wright. He was a leading set designer who, in 1941, began mounting marionette ([string puppet]) productions, some based on African stories, which played in Cape Town theatres and eventually toured around southern Africa as far north as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe/Zambia). In 1946, he moved to London where he set up the Little Angel Marionette Company (out of which, in 1961, Wright established the [Little Angel Theatre]). His artistry, professionalism and theatricality were a huge inspiration to those who followed him and a significant number of young puppeteers visited him or studied with him in London.

In Johannesburg the Canadian puppeteer, Marion Beach, established the Canames Marionettes in 1941. From 1944 to 1952, they performed under the umbrella of Children’s Theatre Incorporated, with a repertoire of European children’s stories.

The career of Gawie de Wet, South Africa’s first post-colonial professional black puppeteer, began in the 1950s. He grew up on a farm in the Karoo. At an early age, his parents taught him to manipulate traditional figures between his toes. He became one of the first teachers to use puppets as an educational medium. Study in Germany strengthened his technique and confidence, and very gradually he won the support of the educational authorities. When ill health forced him to retire as a teacher in 1982, he became a full-time puppeteer, travelling extensively in the Cape Town region.

Also in Cape Town, Keith Anderson began a long association with puppet theatre in 1951 with the establishment of the [Pelham Puppets].

Foreign Visitors 1950s-1970s

From the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s, a series of visits by companies from abroad left a lasting impact. There was the [Hogarth Puppets] (1954), John Wright’s Little Angel Marionette Company (1955 and 1957), Joseph and Louis Contrijn (1960), the [Salzburger Marionettentheater] ([Salzburg Marionette Theatre], 1968, 1970, 1973), and [Philippe Genty] (1975). These companies did not necessarily represent the cutting edge of the puppet theatre of their time, but in a country far removed from central developments or development of any kind, they showed amateur puppeteers that puppet theatre – when well designed, directed, organized and with excellent [manipulation] – could become a profession rather than a hobby. This repeated demonstration that puppet theatre is a viable art form was their common and most lasting legacy.

During the 1960s, a number of amateur and semi-professional groups emerged, among them Francesca Bantock in Kroonstad and Graham Firth from Durban, as well as groups from the Cape, Natal and the Free State that were government-funded by the performing arts councils.  

In 1968, South Africa gained its first full-time professional marionette company. Housed in the Johannesburg Civic Theatre and founded by Michal Grobbelaar, it provided a platform for the talents of [Alida von Maltitz] (aka Alida van Deventer) who had studied under John Wright as well as Ann Bailes, a costumier with experience in theatres like Glyndebourne, later followed by people like Jean Watson and Irene Martin. For almost twenty years, until their closure in 1986, they built up a wide repertoire of plays for children and created casts of beautifully carved figures. Levels of professionalism were advanced by employing experienced directors and recording the voices of well-known actors. In the process, they provided a training ground for many of Johannesburg’s puppet manipulators.

Puppetry in South Africa 1969-2012

In 1969, Lily Herzberg established the first South African links with [UNIMA]. She travelled abroad and returned to South Africa with news of the innovative [rod puppet] work being done in Eastern Europe, thus opening up a whole new area of direct-controlled puppets. She herself was a leading exponent of shadow and [glove puppetry] techniques. In 1972, she established the Puppet Space within Cape Town’s Space Theatre – the theatre that broke the apartheid era ban on non-racial performance. She continued the development of puppet plays with local themes and was a much-produced scriptwriter during her lifetime. 

Jill and Tony Fletcher mounted periodic marionette productions at the Nico Malan Theatre in Cape Town, centred on their loveable character, Mrs Em, in the early 1970s. In 1975, Keith Anderson teamed up with Toby van Eck for a countrywide tour of a new marionette production of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid. A year later, also in Cape Town, [Gary Friedman] founded The Royal Puppet Company, beginning a long and dynamic career.

The 1980s and 1990s

This period has seen the emergence of many individuals and groups. The cultural boycott that the country faced in the 1980s meant that influences from outside were drastically reduced. Local puppeteers learnt from each other via the two UNIMA branches, one in Johannesburg, the other in the Cape, and from personal contact. The period has also seen a surge in work with a local content.

As a developing art form, South African puppetry has come to the fore in the global visual performance scene largely due to the groundbreaking interdisciplinary work of the [Handspring Puppet Company] in collaboration with physical theatre director and fine artist William Kentridge since the early 1990s. In 1981, a group of former art students formed the Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town. After touring South Africa with a series of original plays for children, the company moved to Johannesburg in 1986 and worked in [television] and with theatre directors. Their work in collaboration with artist William Kentridge, such as Woyzek on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa, and Ubu and the Truth Commission, has been touring internationally since 1991. 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. Their contribution to South African puppetry since the 1980s has been not only to develop an indigenous form of iconic South African multimedia performance rooted in a skilled puppetry design and performance but also to put adult puppetry on the local map. Their experimentations in crossover multi-disciplinarity with William Kentridge have set the standard for contemporary puppetry performance both locally and abroad. In the vaguely documented and defined puppetry traditions of South Africa, their work has stood as the guiding canon of contemporary South African puppetry for adult audiences for the past twenty years.   

A puppeteer to hold presence in the South African puppetry scene over the past two decades is actress and performer Busi Zokufa. Zokufa has played leading female roles in the Handspring Puppet Company’s repertoire, including their seminal productions of Woyzeck on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa, The Chimp Project, Ubu and the Truth Commission, Il Ritorno d’Ulisse, Zeno at 4 a.m., and Confessions. During Handspring’s formative productions in the 1990s, Busi Zokufa would emerge as one of South Africa’s leading black female puppeteers.

In 1983, Gary Friedman’s the Royal Puppet Company produced Puns and Doedie (Puppets Against Apartheid). There was a street theatre production in several cities in South Africa and abroad. Friedman moved his base to Johannesburg in 1986 and formed AREPP (African Research and Education Puppetry Programme), a puppetry-in-education project that initially centred on the importance of HIV/AIDS education.

Performances and workshops have been held throughout Southern and Central Africa and further afield in Canada, Germany and France. Subsequently the project broadened its field into areas of abuse, domestic violence, voter education and work in prisons.

Margaret Auerbach began performing in 1971 and formed her company, Spellbound Puppets, in 1976. In the 1980s and 1990s, she was a constant performer locally and internationally with projects ranging from adult feminist themes to educational work for preschoolers. She also collaborated regularly with other puppet, stage and television producers.

The Puppet People, formed by Jacqueline Domisse and Cathy Dodders in 1991 in Cape Town, are well known for their original African stories using rod and string puppets and masks and their highly theatrical adaptations of Native American, Aboriginal Australian and other world stories.

Puppetry in Television

The advent of television in 1976 in South Africa gave an immediate boost to puppetry. Suddenly puppeteers were performing for millions of viewers and this encouraged the production of more technologically developed puppetry techniques as well as relatively well-paid and continuous employment for a number of talented puppet makers and manipulators. Television also lifted the profile of the puppetry arts. Below, a small selection of puppetry programmes produced since 1976 are outlined.

Les Subcleve was one of the earliest television producers with Adoons-hulle (Afrikaans), Radio Buza (Zulu) and Marimba (Zulu). By far the biggest pioneer in this field was Louise Smit, who started producing puppet programmes within the national broadcaster and then become an independent producer. Her company, Louise Smit Production Trust, produced well over 3,000 episodes of programmes for children in Afrikaans, English as well as African languages. The most important productions include Haas Das se Nuuskas, Mina Moo and Professor Fossie. This production house took over from the Civic Theatre as a regular employer of puppeteers and puppet makers including Alida von Maltitz, Dawn Leggat, Hansie and Thea Visagie, Adrian Kohler, and Basil Jones.

There have been several other initiatives both in-house SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) productions and from independent producers. In 1994, a voter education television production, Puppet Election ’94, was produced to help inform the electorate about their right to vote. Puppets for Democracy was initiated in the run-up to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. The entire country came together for the first time on 27 April 1994 to vote for a new democratic government. Gary Friedman’s African Puppet Television was approached to create short voting education programmes for daily broadcast on South African television. The puppets guided the viewers through the voting process and dealt with issues such as fairness, secrecy, intimidation, democracy and choice. By using puppets and minimal language, the programmes were produced without having to battle with the barriers of eleven official languages. One of the characters, a bespectacled green TV interviewer, Clarence Keyter, was seen throughout the election interviewing leading South African and international politicians, including Nelson Mandela.

Spider’s Place, a multimedia science education series produced by Handspring Trust for Puppetry in Education, represented a departure in the way TV programmes were funded and developed. Funded by international donor agencies, the producers were able to conduct exhaustive research, consulting widely with a variety of stakeholders, develop parallel programmes for radio and comic book publication, together with an ongoing teacher development programme to assist teachers with new teaching strategies.

Za News, a political satire based on the French Les Guignols de l’Info (News Puppets) and the British Spitting Image, uses caricature puppets designed by Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), South Africa’s leading political cartoonist. Produced by Both Worlds Productions, it is seen online and was the recipient of the Handspring Puppetry Award for Best Puppet Design category in 2010.

Puppetry in Education and Development

Beginning in the 1940s, various educational institutions, both formal and informal, saw the value of including puppet theatre in their curricula. Art centres for young people and teacher training colleges were the first to explore the creative potential of this combination of the plastic and theatrical arts. Some university drama schools followed in the 1960s – notably Stellenbosch University under the influence of the Contrijns of Belgium.

Puppetry in schools falls into three categories: art as a teaching method; as a subject of study; and as periodic performances by key visiting groups and individuals. It is possible today in South Africa to take puppetry as a school-leaving subject if there is a teacher qualified to teach it, although puppetry is currently situated within the fine arts curriculum and requires little more than a determined effort to make a puppet. In many primary schools across the country children have their first experience of live puppet theatre. Several companies and solo performers established reputations in this area including: Brenda Shafir, working with shadow theatre; Margaret Auerbach and Machfeld von Nieuwkerk with glove puppets; the “Puppet People”, with all kinds of figures; Jenny Kirsch with mixed media; Jenny Marchand with a multimedia production; and Joan Rankin with tiny shadow figures and an overhead projector. Many teachers have enriched their lessons with puppets and developed the confidence of interested children through puppet performance.

In the area of development, the African Research and Education Puppetry Programme (AREPP) was established by Gary Friedman in 1987. Puppets Against AIDS was their first large project, which began performing and conducting peer-group community educational workshops in 1988 to promote HIV/AIDS awareness in the townships and in the workplace throughout South Africa, working with puppeteers who perform in local languages. This programme and its techniques have been presented in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Réunion, as well as in Canada, Australia, France and Germany. Also mentioned above, Friedman has also used puppets in a voter education campaign for TV during South Africa’s first democratic election and in a programme encouraging imprisoned youth to express experiences of violence and abuse through puppets. AREPP is now run by Gordon Bilbrough with artistic director Brigid Shutz. They continue to be an important force in South African puppetry and education.

Jungle Theatre creates puppetry and physical theatre based on educational themes of environmental awareness. Jungle Theatre also has a training programme where they develop performance and puppetry skills amongst young performers.

Puppetry South Africa (UNIMA SA) runs year-round puppetry education and development programmes. Active Puppets (under the leadership of Cindy Mkaza and Zandile Bekwa) and Creative Hands (as the programmes are called) teach puppetry skills to historically disadvantaged children and young adults. The resulting productions are of professional standard and are often focused on raising awareness about social questions relevant to the communities of origin of the participants.

The Handspring Trust was re-established in 2010 to build skills in puppetry amongst impoverished children and youth as well as amongst young, emerging and professional artists.  

The Living Landscape Project (developed by University of Cape Town [UCT] and Magnet Theatre) based in Clanwilliam holds an annual spring lantern parade. For this event, children from the community of Clanwilliam build puppets and lanterns based on San/Bushman iconic figures. 

Puppetry Performers and Puppet Makers

South Africa has an increasingly large pool of performers specialized in puppetry and visual artists and craftspeople who construct puppets.  

The expanding demand for professional puppeteers can be partially attributed to the success of the festival, Out The Box, as well as the increasing international interest in the art form. Puppet [manipulation] for various television series involving puppets has also created interest in and demand for skilled puppeteers. Busi Zokufa has been performing for Handspring since the early 1990s, as has Craig Leo. Jason Potgieter, Marty Kintu, Tali Cervati, Chuma Sopotela, Gabriel Marchand and Cindy Mkaza are a few of the many very talented individual performers working in puppet theatre and television today.

As both the demand for commercial and theatrical puppets has increased in South Africa we have seen more artists and craftspeople specializing in the construction of puppets. Amongst these, Rodger Titley, Hansie Versagie, Hilette Stapelberg and Craig Leo are a few to mention.

Roger Titley, for example, began building puppets with Gary Friedman for their company, Suspended Animation, based in Johannesburg in 1985. He soon became involved with puppet-related creatures and effects for film. Much of this work needed to be hyper-realistic and Titley made use of silicone, urethane and other advanced materials to achieve the required results. Some of the work he produced includes elephants hatching from eggs for IBM, a crocodile that loses its teeth for Toyota Hilux, props and creatures for the BBC’s Walking with Cavemen, a flying ostrich for Microsoft, and a bungee jumping baby for Vodacom. In 2009, he moved to more low-tech puppetry, designing creatures in white polyethylene and is now mostly involved with live performance events and workshops internationally. These puppets are designed for easy assembly to allow people who have had no previous involvement in the arts to experience hands-on building and performance. Although the shapes and finishes are stylized, he still focuses on achieving reality and fluidity in the movement of these creatures. Roger Titley has been involved in public workshops in Austria, Turkey, Spain and Finland where thousands of people have built the creatures and performed in parades. His puppets have also been utilized in professional productions in South Africa, Switzerland, Turkmenistan and Dubai. In 2010, he was commissioned to create an oversized beetle and thirteen life-sized elephants for the opening and closing ceremonies of the FIFA Soccer World Cup.

Giant, Outdoor and Parade Puppets

Since the soccer World Cup came to South Africa in 2010 there have been several groups who build and parade [giant puppets] around South Africa. 

The Giant Match Association, a group from the township Orange Farm who were trained by Les Grandes Personnes (based in Aubervilliers, France), now tour the country performing regularly at parade events. Rodger Titley’s Creatures have paraded in their hundreds at various national and international events and include the giant elephants and dung beetle featured at the closing ceremony of the 2010 World Cup. Puppetry South Africa’s Active Puppets programme also produced a series of giant puppets, which were widely featured at events surrounding the World Cup. The African giants continue to provide entertainment at public and corporate events around the country and the project provides employment for young community-based artists.

Daniel Poppers first developed his super-giant Pop Puppets for the Africa Burns event. His puppets, which often exceed 4 metres in height, are also regularly fitted with lighting mechanisms, allowing them to glow in night parades.

Puppetry in South African Theatre 2000-2012

Past and recent works of South African artists who fall within the large category of visual performance attest to a growing body of multidisciplinary, visually oriented material that touches on traditional and experimental puppet modes. Often puppetry is adapted into one-off performances or used to enhance visual aspects of productions. The potential of puppetry in contemporary visual performance practice relates to its multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to meaning and representation in both its semiotic and phenomenological potential and significance. Yet, despite the success and proliferation of visual performance, there remains only a tiny network of puppetry artists (either formally or informally trained) working professionally in contemporary adult puppetry in South Africa.  

An influential South African puppeteer, Jill Joubert, was first introduced to puppetry through her BA Art lecturer, Stephen de Villagers, during her art teachers’ training course at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, in 1975. Joubert became a founder member of Handspring Puppet Company with Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and John Weinberg from 1981 to 1983. She made two adult puppet stories in 1993 and 1994 that she performed from time to time for intimate audiences. Joubert became the principal of the Frank Joubert Art Centre in 1997 where she developed refined techniques of teacher training in puppetry. Joubert’s theoretical research into African mask and figurine traditions heavily informed her practice of puppetry. Focusing on African archetypes, mythology and a unique found-object aesthetic, Joubert has created evocative productions, including Creation Stories form the Richtersveld (2007).

A leader in puppetry, who became Associate Director of the Handspring Puppet Company in 2011, is Janni Younge. Younge began her career as a sculptor studying for an honours degree in Fine Art and majoring in sculpture. She then went on to complete a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) in Charleville-Mézières, France from the [École Nationale Supérieure des Arts de la Marionnette] (ESNAM, National School for Higher Education in Puppetry Arts), where she studied from 1999 to 2002, and then completed an MA (Masters) in Theatre at the University of Cape Town (2007). In 2003, she became the chairperson of UNIMA SA (the South African association of puppetry and visual performance; since 2012 renamed Puppetry South Africa (UNIMA SA)). Younge’s first theatre company, Sogo Visual Theatre, produced several original works, which have been performed widely in South Africa and abroad. All of her major works combine multiple puppetry styles including shadow theatre, marionettes, [bunraku]-style puppets, and live video with live performance.

She was co-founder in 2005 of the annual Out The Box International Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance. Younge was named the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre as the first puppeteer to receive this great distinction. In 2011, she was appointed Associate Director of the Handspring Puppet Company. In her capacity as director, she has been involved with managing the team of craftspeople who produce the War Horse puppets, has assisted in the creation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and directed the re-rehearsal of William Kentridge’s Woyzeck on the Highveld. Janni Younge has designed and directed Handspring’s most recent South African production, Ouroboros.

Capetonian puppetry artist and former chairperson of Puppetry South Africa (UNIMA SA), Jaqueline Dommisse, trained in drama in Johannesburg in the 1980s. Together with Catherine Dodders, Dommisse created a puppetry-based company in the 1990s called the Puppet People, which created the seminal puppetry production Sadako for the Grahamstown National Arts Festival Fringe. In 2011, it was recreated and performed on the main festival programme of both the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the Out The Box Festival where it won the Handspring Puppetry Award for best production.

Puppeteer, visual performance artist and academic, Aja Marneweck established The Paper Body Collective in 2004 in Cape Town. After obtaining an honours degree in video dance and theatre directing in Johannesburg in the 1990s, Marneweck began her puppetry career with Gary Friedman in Cape Town in 2001, collaborating on the site-specific puppetry production, Looking For a Monster. After completing a Masters degree in Puppetry at the University of Cape Town in 2004, she went on to create several multimedia puppetry productions that toured to over seven countries between 2005 and 2011. She completed the inaugural PhD in Practice as Research in Puppetry and Visual Performance in the Drama and African Gender Studies departments at the University of Cape Town in 2011. Marneweck’s puppetry performance techniques, termed Magic Um’lingo, have developed over a period of ten years of performance research. Her experimental approach to puppetry combines multiple puppetry techniques (including full body latex puppetry, giant paper puppetry, shadow puppetry and mask) in a multicultural environment of bodies, site, sound and multimedia. Marneweck’s puppetry production on gender and migrancy, In Medea Res, performed at the Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Mézières, France. Marneweck also collaborated on various interdisciplinary projects with performance and dance artists, including Jane Taylor (writer/collaborator on the Handspring Puppet Company production of Ubu and the Truth Commission directed by William Kentridge) and Jay Pather (Chairman of the National Arts Festival Grahamstown, CEO of GIPCA Institute of Performing and Creative Arts), amongst others. Aja Marneweck currently serves on the board of Puppetry South Africa (UNIMA SA) as its chairperson and is one of the founding co-directors of Out The Box International Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance.

South Africa’s best-known ventriloquist, Conrad Coch has performed his shows across the country and abroad. His hilarious Puppet Asylum ran in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2011 to packed and appreciative audiences. Using an assortment of human, animal and beastly puppets, Conrad makes social and lightly political commentary. 

The Impact of Out The Box Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance

It was through the need for a formal public platform in which to develop the work of professional puppeteers and innovation in the art form in South Africa that South Africa’s first puppetry festival came into being in 2005. Instigated by Janni Younge, the Out The Box Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance developed under the leadership of Aja Marneweck and Janni Younge into the largest international puppetry festival on the African continent. 

Out The Box began as a highly experimental one-day event of performances and workshops at the Little Theatre in Cape Town that grew exponentially within two years into the largest, and only, puppetry festival in Southern Africa. What makes the festival unique is that it is run and created by puppeteers. The festival holds a large focus on experimentation, multidisciplinary crossovers and artistic development in fringe venues. Many international companies have performed on the festival including: Theatertjie Magische (the Netherlands); Théâtre des Alberts (Réunion); [Neville Tranter] (the Netherlands); La Ribot (Switzerland); Beth MacMahon (Australia); the [Kenya Institute of Puppet Theatre] (KIPT, Kenya); Les Grandes Personnes (France); and Drew Colby (Great Britain), amongst others. In the initial period of its development, it also separated itself into two components – the adult festival and the children’s festival. This differentiation was designed to deliberately highlight the legitimacy of puppetry as an art form relevant to adult audiences.  

Several new artistic voices are being heard in the arena of puppetry. The Space Behind the Couch, under the direction of Beren Belknap, creates puppet theatre and multimedia shows for adults and teens. Isibane, an Active Puppets graduate group, now performs in theatres and tours professionally. Jane Taylor, an established playwright and director, has begun working as an independent puppet theatre director. The firmly established visual performance group, FTH:K, works with a cross-section of masks and puppets and is characterized by their strong physical performance. Jori Snell creates tightly choreographed visual performance works featuring object manipulation, projected imagery and puppet-like costumes. Illka Lowe, an established designer, has begun creating puppets and directing puppet theatre sometimes in partnership with Hilette Stapleberg. Stapleberg is a longstanding puppet builder who has recently become involved in creating puppets for large-scale productions and writing her own puppet theatre work. Ubom! creates physical object-based visual performance and puppet theatre for young audiences and adults. Cosmos Productions, directed by Jacqueline Van Meygaarden, creates puppetry and physical performance theatre that centres on themes of environmental awareness. Rainbow Puppet Theatre, a Steiner-based puppetry group, performs for children on a weekly basis.

Through a formalization of visual performance in the South African public sphere, a new market has emerged from the traditional public platforming categories. In offering puppetry and visual performance as a platform of its own, the 21st century South African puppetry scene has seen a decided growth in the number of puppetry artists, plasticians, companies and organizations dedicated to visual performance. The introduction of the Handspring Puppetry Awards in 2010 has further consolidated puppetry and visual performance as a genre of its own standing in South African arts and culture.


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