Pulling the strings: the creators of War Horse

Cape Town’s Handspring Puppet Company are the now legendary creators behind War Horse. Director Janni Younge tells Clare Wiley about inspiring a generation of South African puppet makers, using the art form to bring divided communities together – and why they’ll never go digital

In 2007, Handspring Puppet Company created full-scale breathing, galloping horses, built from steel, leather and aircraft cables. The startlingly life-like puppets were constructed for the National Theatre’s War Horse, a pioneering production that has been seen by more than five million people around the world, winning a host of awards including a 2008 Laurence Olivier Award for best set design. Founded in 1981 by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, Handspring has carved a reputation for beautifully delicate, realistic puppet theatre, handmade in the team’s Cape Town workshop.

The company’s 1997 work Ubu and the Truth Commission, directed by William Kentridge, is based on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, featuring poignant testimonies given by characters played by Handspring puppets.

Dawid Minnaar in Ubu and the Truth Commission
Dawid Minnaar in Ubu and the Truth Commission

Tell us about the revival of the production at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Ubu is being revived 17 years after its original creation to coincide with 20 years of democracy in South Africa. The revival was prompted by the EIF team, who came to us and said they would like to see the production again. It is a very important work in our repertoire, both for ourselves and our country, so we’re immensely pleased that it’s up and running again.

After the huge success of War Horse, in what direction have you been taking Handspring? How has the company been evolving?

The ongoing project of War Horse [which currently has simultaneous productions around the world] took up most of our time until last year. We had a team of 22 full-time employees, most of whom were in our workshop building the War Horse puppets. Each time there’s a new production, we need to build a new set of puppets; that takes nine months in itself. So the factory – the stud farm – has been a massive project.

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This has defined our direction quite a lot over the last five years. In addition, we’ve looked for key creative projects which could expand our creative vision as artists, things that are interesting and stimulating. One of Adrian’s impulses over the past few years has been to revive projects. The revival of Ubu was part of that process. The original collaboration with William Kentridge was extremely well received, but it didn’t necessarily get the following that we all felt it could; it’s a key piece in terms of South African history.

Handspring’s puppets are completely handmade. Have you considered using new technology, such as 3D printing, or would that adversely affect the uniqueness of the creations?

That’s an interesting question, and the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, there are many highly refined mechanised aspects to our puppetry work – mechanical, not electronic. The levers and pulleys all need to glide smoothly. So in that respect we’ve found that digitising design has been helpful, especially when we need to mass produce things that need to be strong, need to last, and need to keep flowing in their movements over long periods of time.

Design for War Horse by Adrian Kohler
Design for War Horse by Adrian Kohler

But in terms of the look and feel of the puppets that we create, we tend to stay away from highly digitised things. Our interest is in investing in the hand built object. We believe that audiences sitting in a theatre watching an object that has had that kind of investment in it… can feel that. You’re more willing to give yourself to that object and to follow its life span within the production. It’s not that we’re against digital, we just love the quality that making an object by hand brings.

How has Handspring influenced the tradition of puppetry in South Africa?

Handspring has been really important to contemporary puppetry in South Africa, and it’s a leading example to other puppeteers and the theatre-going public. Handspring used to be the name that came to mind when people thought of South African puppetry, and that’s still true today – but the fact there are other names now is largely down to the inspiration the company provided to other artists to take it seriously as an art form as opposed to a hobby or non-professional children’s entertainment.

Take me for example. I originally saw Ubu and the Truth Commission when I was studying fine art. I already had an interest in puppet theatre, but at that point I realised that by bringing sculptural and animated forms into the theatre space, you could create story and relationships around those objects, giving them so much more meaning. I was totally inspired to pursue puppetry as a professional career.

Over the last 15 years we’ve really seen an incredible increase in the number of theatre companies both for adults and children working professionally with puppet theatre, and have seen a huge increase in audiences interested in the work.

Joey © Simon Annand
Joey from War Horse © Simon Annand

What are some of the challenges Handspring faces?

Over the course of its history, Handspring has created productions in South Africa that have relatively short runs in this country. The majority of the performance work is done overseas. It’s really difficult to raise the funds for producing theatre work here, so it works out better financially to tour work. Puppet theatre is really at the top end of that because you don’t just have to train the actors, you have to build them. It’s literally years of work ahead of starting rehearsals. Another theatre might have a concept, get the budget, get the people together and start rehearsing. We don’t do that. We spend a year planning and conceptualising, developing characters and sculpting them, and then go into rehearsals. So it’s a slow process, and it’s very expensive.

Tell me about the Handspring team. How diverse is their skill set?

Before the end of the production of the War Horse puppets, the workshop was full of 15 people, working away everyday. They were specialists in building the War Horse puppets. The majority of staff had some background in craft work, handwork, carpentry, artistry – but we have had people from other backgrounds, like fishermen. There was a lot of on-the-job training. They would build components for the horses, cane work, bending cane, binding it. There was a diversity of skills in the workshop. As team as a whole, puppetry requires you to have a huge span.

Handspring has worked with a broad range of artists, writers and directors. What is your approach to collaboration?

It is quite a big range. But when we look at what characterises our work overall, there’s an investment in honesty of communication, and an exploration of what it means to be human in our world, either in relation to our social circumstances or the animals that we share our world with. That’s a thread that runs through all the work we produce.

War Horse © Simon Annand
War Horse © Simon Annand

I do think as an artistic company we’re quite open to collaboration, but one of the key features in the way we collaborate is that we always collaborate from the beginning to the end. For example if someone asked us to make a puppet to do a particular thing in their show, we would never say yes to that. We would work, from the ground up, on what the role of an object is in relation to this performance piece, develop the concept for the object, then develop the object and work with it in rehearsals, and see the piece to its completion. It’s really a holistic approach to the theatre product, not sporadically throwing in a thing here or there.

What is the aim of the Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts?

There are several aims within the trust. One is using puppetry as a tool for social development, which as I’m sure you can imagine in South Africa is in plentiful need. The trust has chosen to focus that aspect of its work in a nearby village, where the historical town is divided into white people and people of colour. Every year ahead of the day of reconciliation, the trust does workshops with children and adults to prepare a parade which takes place throughout the town and brings people of all different cultural and racial backgrounds together.

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There are also two Handspring employees who run their own community theatre puppet company in a township very close to our factory. The trust supports that group by helping to bring mentors to help direct, and gives them funds to build puppets. So the trust wants to develop community-based arts groups, reaching those who don’t have access to university level education.

Another aim of the trust is to develop the thinking around puppet theatre. To that end, we’re working on a conference for next year, bringing some of the interesting thinkers from around the world, who have things to say about objects in and out of performance. That is a collaboration with the University of Western Cape.