Handspring Puppet Company

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The Handspring Puppet Company [1] is a South African puppetry performance and design company with locations in South Africa, England and the USA.


Founded in 1981 by Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Jill Faubet and Jon Weinberg. The modest sized company is today run by Adrian Kohler and his partner, Basil Jones. It is based in Kalk Bay, near Cape Town, where the company office and workshop are part of their house there. The company provides an artistic home and professional base for a core group of performers, designers, theatre artists and technicians who collaborate with them on a project basis. The company got its name from a quotation by the famous Russian puppeteer Sergei Obratzov: “The soul of the puppet springs from the palm of the hand.” Their activities include performances for both children and adults, involvement in health care and development, lecturing at tertiary institutions and mounting exhibitions.

Handspring is now in its 30th year. A celebratory exhibition of their puppets, Episodes opened at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in 2002 and went on a nationwide tour.

Work with puppets and children

The company's original focus was the creation of new South African plays for children and for the first five years they toured educational shows to primary schools throughout Southern Africa. In 1986 they moved to Johannesburg and began work in children's educational television. Between 1990 and 1995 they produced Spider's Place, a multi-media science education programme with teacher development outreach.

Adults and puppets

However, Handspring had always felt the challenge of developing an adult audience for the theatre of puppets and therefore began at night to workshop plays with Junction Avenue Theatre Company for adults. The first step in this unmarked territory was for a Episodes of an Easter Rising in 1985, performed in Cape Town, Grahamstown and Johannesburg. They were astonished and delighted by the strong support the production received from adult audiences and the press. This set the arc for all their future theatre work. Exposure to international theatre for puppets at the 7th international Festival of Puppet Theatre in Charleville-Mezzieres in 1985 increased their resolve to work for adults.


In 1988 they did the first of a series of collaborative projects, with other directors and live actors. A Midsummer Night's Dream was directed by Esther van Ryswyk and Fred Abrahamse, combining actors and puppets and performed in Stellenbosch's Oude Libertas Theatre, then moved to The Baxter Theatre and the Market Theatre in 1989. The rich theatre life that existed in Johannesburg in the late eighties and nineties gave Handspring many further opportunities to work with top South African directors. Their first international success came in 1991 with Starbrites directed by Barney Simon, which toured to Europe and had a London season.

William Kentridge and HSPC

In 1992 they began work with the film-maker, artist, William Kentridge, who had abeen afounder-member of Junction Avenue Theatre. Their first collaboration, Woyzeck on the Highveld won many awards in South Africa and was highly acclaimed at festivals around the world. Since then, the company has collaborated with Kentridge and others on several other multi-media productions.

Then followed Faustus in Africa (1995), Ubu and the Truth Commission (1997), the operas Il Ritorno d’Ulisse (“The Return of Ullyses”), which premiéred at the celebrated Kusten Festival des Artes in Brussels in 1998, and The Confessions of Zeno (Documenta XI, Kassel; Spier, 2002). In these multi-media shows, directed by Kentridge, the company combined live actors, puppet and film footage.

Other Handspring productions

The Chimp Project (20**),Tall Horse (directed by Marthinus Basson (200*), War Horse (

The puppets and materials

The work with top South African directors provoked new and unexpected developments in the way they made and worked with puppets. However, some of the changes stemmed from the performers' interaction with the materials and the demands of the performance. For rod manipulators like Handspring, the weight of the puppet was an important criterion.

During the period of the children's plays this problem was solved largely through the use of polystyrene covered in layers of paper. However, Adrian (the master puppeteer and puppet maker) always found this to be an unsympathetic material. With the Kentridge collaboration, carved wood, the medium he'd grown up with as a teenage puppeteer, appeared to be the most appropriate once again, but this time roughly carved to fit the look of the charcoal drawings that were the backbone of the animated films.

Since then a central design concern has been how to make this weighty material light enough for the puppeteers to hold aloft for the duration of their 90 minute performances. Solid wooden heads are therefore carved to be split in half, and hollowed out, leaving a cranium-like wall about 4mm thick. The bodies themselves are made of lightweight ply. In Tooth and Nail Adrian allowed some of this skeletal structure to be seen by the audience and since then has further developed this style. In The Chimp Project all the puppets, both animal and human had whole-bodied skeletal structures covered with gauze. This resulted in puppets which were fully three-dimensional, lightweight, but whose transparency evoked a lantern-like ghostliness which somehow seemed right for the play.

The puppets used for Faustus in Africa (designed by Kentridge and made by Kohler) have since been housed in the *** museum in Berlin.


Tucker, 1997.


For more information

See the Handspring Puppet Company's website at http://www.handspringpuppet.co.za/

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