Handspring Puppet Company has made puppet horses strong enough for men to ride, puppets that fight apartheid in South Africa and much more.
For Spoleto Festival USA, the company will exhibit its latest invention: puppets that recite Shakespeare. They will add a magical element to a fantastical production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the result of a collaboration between Handspring and the venerable Bristol Old Vic company.
“In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ everything from the floor goes up and sometimes comes alive,” Handspring Executive Producer Basil Jones said. “There is kind of magic in all the objects.”
Magic is central to the South African company’s artistic mission: Objects have the right to live.
“The struggle of the puppet is to live; otherwise, it is always death, and to give it life is the job of the puppeteer,” said Adrian Kohler, Handspring’s artistic director.
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the first collaboration between Handspring and Bristol Old Vic since their Tony Award-winning “War Horse.”
The Shakespeare play is a new challenge for a puppet company that has helped integrate puppetry into the theater mainstream.
In this adaptation, Handspring experimented with figures they hadn’t made before: more than 20 carefully carved puppets from small birds to enormous masks.
The company is fearless and imaginative, showing the influence of Western Africa in its work, according to Mervyn Millar, author of “The Horse’s Mouth: Staging Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse.’ ”
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is also funny, Kohler said.
“All our plays have been a little bit serious, from political plays to opera,” he said. “We are not great at being comedians, but in Shakespeare’s play, we have broken the mold. There are some wonderful clowns, and it is very funny.”
Jones and Kohler founded Handspring in 1981. They met 10 years before, when they were studying sculpture at the University of Capetown.
Kohler grew up in a house that had a little theater in the garage, he said. His mother was an art teacher who encouraged him to make and perform with puppets. Their influence was evident in his artwork.
Jones, instead, wasn’t very interested in puppets until he graduated and went to live with Kohler in Botswana. During one trip to South Africa, Kohler found some weird puppets. When Jones saw them, he fell in love with them. The mysterious objects had been made in Mali, a region of Africa with a rich puppetry tradition.
When Kohler suggested starting a puppet company, Jones saw the potential.
They began by developing a series of children’s plays but turned to adult audiences in 1985 with “Episodes of an Easter Rising,” a play about people joining the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.
“We wanted to be taken seriously in the theater,” Kohler said. Puppetry is a powerful medium and certainly not only for children, he said.
In 1986, they moved to Johannesburg and met artist William Kentridge, who became the director of their next six productions. Four years later, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and South Africa started to move toward democracy, it became possible for South African artists to perform overseas. With Kentridge, they performed in Germany, France, Czech Republic, U.S., England and Colombia.
Handspring still was characterized as a small company despite this growing success, but that changed in 2008, when it received a call from stage director Tom Morris, who then was working with the National Theater in London. He suggested creating puppets for a theater adaptation of a children’s novel about horses in World War I.
Kohler designed life-size puppet horses made with leather, aircraft and steel cables, and other material. It was the beginning of “War Horse,” a production that would win five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play, and enjoy successful runs around the world.
“When you are going into puppet theater, you aren’t expecting to have an international hit play in your hands,” Kohler said.
Now Handspring is in demand. Puppets are produced at a fast clip, and the staff has expanded from seven to 25. In 2010, Jones and Kohler created the nonprofit Handspring Trust for Puppetry Arts to identify and assist the next generation of puppet artists.
Millar said the company creates some of the most beautiful puppets in the world and has a quality of acting not easy to find.
“The level of subtlety that they give to a performance has changed what people expect from puppetry in theater,” Millar said. “They are always looking to make puppets do something people think puppets can’t do.”
Lucía Camargo Rojas is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.