Puppet Masters: South Africa's Handspring

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Photograph by Pieter Hugo for TIME

Springtime Jones, left, and Kohler have helped make puppetry popular again

In a warehouse on an industrial estate in southern Cape Town, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are trying to breathe life into a giraffe that is hanging listlessly from the ceiling. This is not easy. The giraffe is enormous, perhaps 7 m tall. Also, it's made of wood and canvas. Kohler and Jones, co-founders of the Handspring Puppet Company, concede that, working only with pulleys threaded through the animal and attached to the roof, their task is a difficult one. The way a puppet has to "strive to be alive," says Jones, is after all its big disadvantage versus, say, an actor, who is "easily alive." But strive it must. "That fight to breathe, the battle to put one foot in front of the other, must be real and present in every movement," he says. "That's when you get that strange metaphorical connection between a puppet and a person — because as human beings, we also struggle to live as ourselves sometimes." The giraffe is being readied to appear — live and onstage — in Macau as part of a new $250 million stage show, The House of Dancing Water, by the former Cirque du Soleil director Franco Dragone. With a few tweaks and adjustments, Kohler and Jones are confident they will succeed, and say there will be no mistaking it when they do. "It's an Alice in Wonderland moment," says Jones. "It's a serious piece of magic."

Puppeteers, as you might expect, can be a highly strung lot. Mention Punch and Judy and you'll likely get a lecture on puppetry's proud lineage, stretching back through Chinese shadow puppets, Japan's Bunraku theater and European marionettes, maybe even ancient Rome and Greece, all the way to India circa 2500 B.C. But most will also admit that sometime in the 20th century, puppetry lost its way. Audiences began to see puppets as toys, all right for kids' stuff like Thunderbirds or Yoda in Star Wars, but not for sophisticated adults. "With my father, I got to see some extraordinary puppet theater [in the 1970s and '80s]," says Cheryl Henson, daughter of puppetry god Jim Henson. "But it was always hard to find, tucked away in little tiny theaters that did not get reviews." While the Jim Henson Foundation, started in 1982, promotes serious puppetry and even runs a puppet festival in New York City, Jim Henson earned his fame — and his living — from Big Bird and Kermit the Frog.

Then came War Horse. Opening to spectacular reviews in London in October 2007, Kohler and Jones' astonishing show is still — after nearly three years — a smash. After two seasons at London's National Theatre, War Horse moved in 2009 to the New London Theatre in the West End, where the sell-out show is still running. From there, it will go to the Lincoln Center on Broadway in March 2011. The draw isn't so much the story, about a boy and his horse during World War I. It's the horses themselves: supersized puppets made of wood and fabric whose astoundingly realistic movements capture the animals' essence so completely that the puppeteers, who number three to an animal and work in plain sight, seem to disappear. Steven Spielberg loves the show so much, he's bought the movie rights.

With War Horse, Kohler and Jones have not just created a hit show — they have also helped revive an entire art form. For Handspring, that has meant the commission from Dragone; a second play that opened Sept. 28 at the National in London — Or You Could Kiss Me, the story of a gay love affair in apartheid South Africa — and a flood of interest from film studios and the media, including engineering magazines wanting to know what it takes to make wood and fabric dance. But serious puppetry is also suddenly everywhere, from the multimillion-dollar world tour of Peter Pan with its supporting cast of puppets (now showing in the U.S.) to the aliens in last year's hit sci-fi film District 9 to the world's most prestigious theater group, the Royal Shakespeare Company, which used puppets for a 2008-09 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and a 2009-10 staging of Arabian Nights. "War Horse has been good for us and great for puppets," says Kohler. Henson agrees: "There's a whole range of puppetry artists who are blossoming now," she says. "It's an art form people have come to embrace all over again."

So where did War Horse gallop in from? The tale starts with two art-school students ducking national service in 1970s apartheid South Africa and moving to neighboring Botswana. Kohler already knew puppets: his mother made them as a hobby. In Gaborone, Jones found himself curating an exhibition of puppets from Mali. The beauty and sophistication of the dolls gave the pair an idea, says Jones. "How about going back to South Africa to start a puppet show?"

They bought a truck, fitted it with a fold-down stage, carved a series of puppets and hired two helpers. Then for up to eight months a year, for five years, they toured the Highveld and remote desert towns of South Africa, playing to children. In 1985, the Handspring Puppet Company did its first show for adults, a short apartheid-era drama about two women, a political activist and the police, for which they scheduled a modest five evening performances. "It was huge," exclaims Jones. "People went crazy."

Rave reviews followed, as did tours of puppet festivals in Africa, Europe and the U.S. There was a science-education TV show in South Africa, several full-length plays, an original opera and a long-standing creative collaboration with South African artist and animator William Kentridge. But by 2004, Kohler and Jones found themselves in their mid-50s, on the wrong end of three decades of hard physical work and pursuing an art form that still did not pay. "We were supposed to stop," says Kohler. "That was the plan."

Then came a call from Tom Morris, a director at London's National Theatre. He'd seen Handspring perform, wanted to work with them and believed he'd found just the right story: a children's book called War Horse by Michael Morpurgo. After three years of model-building and experimenting with actors, designers and directors, War Horse premiered — and became the most successful puppet stage show ever.

Kohler and Jones are only too aware they are suddenly starring in their own rags-to-riches story. "We started in the Bangladesh of theater," says Jones. "Puppeteers were marginalized. They huddled together at puppet festivals which only other puppeteers go to. We did that for 30 years. Then suddenly ... we are accepted for a stage piece in which the central character is a puppet who never says a word. It's wonderful." Sounds like a fairy tale. But it's not, of course. It's a puppet story.