“The puppet triggers an empathy because it is struggling to be alive, yet it is inherently dead,” say Adrian Kohler, co-founder and artistic director of Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa. “I think within that we see a kind of metaphor about our own existence. Puppetry is experiencing a renaissance, there is a nostalgia, a recognition of this fundamental thing.”
Adrian is a leading authority on the artform having founded Handspring with partner and executive producer, Basil Jones, in Cape Town, in 1981. The company serves as an “artistic home and professional base for a core of group performers, designer, theatre artists and technicians”. Their creations have graced the stages of dozens of countries all over the world, bagging them everything from Tony Awards to Olivier Awards to honorary doctorates. They also founded the Handspring Trust, a non-profit organisation to inspire and mentor the next generation of puppeteers.
“When we first started the company, it was a struggle to get people to join us,” admits Adrian. “But that changed thanks to shows like The Lion King and Avenue Q.”
Adrian says that there has been much public misconception about what puppetry is—or can be—put off by watered-down, infantilised and poorly performed productions like Punch and Judy. Even when the world-conquering play, War Horse—that Handspring made the puppets for—initially opened at the National Theatre in 2007, Adrian reveals that the producers were “so worried about the P-word that not a single photograph containing puppets was released to the press”.
But, they needn’t have worried. The internationally-acclaimed show, based on the eponymous novel, continues to drop the jaws of global audiences, lauded by The Times in London as “the theatrical event of the decade” and seen by more than eight million souls. And of course, Handspring’s aren’t your typical run of the mill puppets, rather life-sized creations—or sometimes even bigger—that must be operated and manipulated by extremely fit actors, often from inside.
“It can be a very strenuous job,” says Adrian. “Even though the designs are relatively lightweight, the actors must not only move like a horse, but at times support a human rider! They have to warm up beforehand and at the end of each performance, plunge their arms into buckets of ice water.”
How do you go about designing such puppets?
“First of all I need the story, I need an idea of the character. Before I begin carving, I look at a lot of photographs and do a lot of drawings. It’s important to know where you are going, otherwise all of the puppets start to look the same.”
Adrian says that it’s vital audiences can easily recognise each individual character, that there are strong visual clues. He talks of the rich puppetry heritage scattered throughout the African continent, the skills and the superstitions. Puppet shows are often produced at important times of the year, especially during harvests. Sometimes even master carvers must wait years before they are allowed to create their own puppets. The Bambara tradition is specific to Mali, whose “forms of puppetry don’t exist anywhere else in the world”.Adrian believes that in this “world full of atrocities” such ancient artforms can encourage a “contemporary spirituality” that is too often ignored.
“The first world war was a time when a lot of innocent people were swept up and War Horse is about the lives that are irrevocably altered,” he says. “It’s very important because it talks about not only the young people who are destroyed, but the animals, and gives them an equal status. In this digital age it’s so easy to lose sight of the creatures that we rely on but that we don’t know we do, like the bees and the birds and the sharks and the elephants. And then there are the trees! They all make up our world, and the play ultimately talks about that. How integrated we all are.”
Historically, the most popular puppet types were: glove or hand puppets; marionettes, which are operated by strings or rods; and shadow puppets.
There is no global consensus about who first invented puppetry, but the artform is without doubt an ancient one. Clay and ivory offerings have been found in Egyptian tombs, while the Chinese are believed to have been the first to master shadow puppetry using translucent coloured animal skins. Light would be shone though the hides to project shapes on to a screen in front of an audience. The puppets were controlled with poles.
Some ancient Hindu philosophers even compared puppeteers to a god controlling the universe. The first mention of the craft in that part of the world was in the two-thousand-year-old epic Tamil poem, Silappadikaaram.
Vietnam’s iconic folk water puppetry—now a popular tourist attraction performed in theatres—was born in the communal ponds of villages of the Red River Delta in the country’s north in the 11th century. This specialised puppetry sees the figures controlled by poles and strings hidden beneath the water, giving the impression they are either wading through, or gliding across, it.
The centuries-old Indonesian tradition of shadow puppetry, known as wayang kulit, is famed for its intricately carved forms, and performed predominantly on the islands of Bali and Java. Modern interpretations incorporate mask-wearing actors.
Banraku is traditional Japanese puppetry, with shows usually performed by a narrator, a string instrument musician and three puppeteers. The puppets are noted for their attention to detail, especially the heads whose eyes can be moved in all directions while the eyebrows can be raised.
In Europe, puppetry was mentioned in the writings of Ancient Greece, and later, the Romans adopted the craft. During the 13th century, French minstrels performed such shows, while the actual word ‘puppet’ became common in England a century later (Chaucer used it twice, and they were also noted by Shakespeare).
Among the best known puppets is Punch (and later his long-suffering wife, Judy, the pair gaining massive popularity during the Industrial Revolution), who is thought to have made his first appearance in London in 1662, performed by Pietro Gimonde, from Bologna. Though now usually a glove puppet, Punch began as a marionette.
The rise of popular entertainment, most notably cinema, during the early 20th century saw a sharp decline in the popularity of puppetry. However, film and television was later used to great effect to revive the fortunes of this ancient art thanks to productions such as Bill and Ben, the Thunderbirds, Sesame Street and The Muppets.