Handspring Puppet Company

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Handspring Puppet Company
TypePuppetry performance and scenic design
Founded5 February 1981
FounderAdrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Jon Weinberg and Jill Joubert[1]
HeadquartersCape Town,
Key people
Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones

The Handspring Puppet Company is a puppetry performance and design company established in 1981 by Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones, Jon Weinberg and Jill Joubert.[2] It is based in Cape Town, South Africa.

War Horse, a play seen by nearly eight million people, features horse puppets designed and created by Handspring Puppet Company and operated by three actors to each.


Jones and Kohler met at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town.[2] At first, they designed puppets for children-targeted productions, which Jones initially disliked. Kohler "introduced him [Jones] to the West African tradition of puppetry for adults,"[3] working with Malcolm Purkey and Barney Simon, among others.[4]


Some notable productions include:

Episodes of an Easter Rising[edit]

Esther van Ryswyk directed Episodes of an Easter Rising (1985), a play based on David Lytton's radio special of the same name.[5] It told the story of two white lesbian women who became part of South Africa's anti-apartheid struggle. It premiered at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and toured to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), WITS University Theatre in Johannesburg and to the 7th World Festival of Puppet Theatre in Charleville-Mézières, France.[4]

Ubu and the Truth Commission[edit]

In 1997, they worked with William Kentridge (director) and Jane Taylor (scriptwriter) on Ubu and the Truth Commission.[4] The play draws extensively on Alfred Jarry's absurdist production Ubu Roi (1896). It fuses the chaos of the Ubu legend with original testimony from witnesses at the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It highlights Kentridge's work in the evolution of truth through a combination of fictional narratives and facts.[6] The production premiered in Weimer, Germany on 17 June 1997. Over the next two years, it toured to 38 theatres in South Africa, Europe and the USA.[7]

Tall Horse[edit]

Tall Horse (directed by Marthinus Basson in 2004) was a collaboration between the Sogolon Puppet Troupe of Mali and Handspring Puppet Company. The production was based on historical events: in 1827 the Pasha of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, sent a giraffe as a gift to King Charles X of France. The play dramatised the giraffe's journey across the Mediterranean Sea and the politics underlying it. With initial funding from the John F. Kennedy Centre in Washington, D.C, Tall Horse was also supported by Anglo Gold Ashanti, a mining company with interests in both Mali and South Africa.[8]

War Horse[edit]

The maquette for the horse Joey from the National Theatre production. The puppets were made by the Handspring Puppet Company. This scale model was a gift to writer Sir Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse.

The Handspring Puppet Company achieved critical acclaim when War Horse featuring life-size puppets they had created, premiered at the Royal National Theatre in South Bank, London, on 17 October 2007.[9] Kohler and Jones worked with directors Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris and choreographer Toby Sedgwick[10] to design and construct life-sized horse puppets, each controlled by three actors. Two actors operate the legs and a third controls the head and neck, with all three actors providing a variety of sound effects.[11] The company won an Olivier Award, Evening Standard Theatre Award and London Critics' Circle Theatre Award.[12][13][14] The show transferred to the West End on 28 March 2009,[15] and on 15 March 2011, it premiered on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York City.[16] The play has been performed globally to nearly eight million people worldwide.[17]

Or You Could Kiss Me[edit]

The company collaborated with Neil Bartlett and Rae Smith on Or You Could Kiss Me, which opened at London's National Theatre on 5 October 2010, for a six-week season. The show has been described as "an intimate history of two very private lives, lived in extraordinary times". It was loosely based on the lives of Kohler and Jones, and speculated on their future circumstances when both men reach the age of 85.[18]


  • Unmasking the Puppet1987 This exhibition opened at the UNISA Gallery in Pretoria and toured to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the Durban Art Museum, the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, and the South African National Gallery in Cape Town.[1]
  • Episodes 2001–2003 Presented in various venues across South Africa, this installation included puppets from seven productions created over 16 years. Episodes represented a retrospective of Handspring's work. The exhibition was sponsored by the Goodman Gallery.[19]
  • Patrimony 2004–2005 An exhibition of Bamana Puppets from Mali, it featured puppets from the extensive family collection of Yaya Coulibali. It toured South Africa.
  • At Arms Length – The Art of African Puppetry – 2006 Produced by the Museum for African Art (now known as The Africa Center, New York), this exhibit presented nearly 100 animated puppets, marionettes and puppet sculptures used in traditional and contemporary theatrical performances from Handspring and the Sogolon Puppet Troupe from Mali.
  • The Puppet Show – 2008 Produced by the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, USA at the Pennsylvania State University and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. Here the kinetic work of leading contemporary artists was set off against a backdrop of more puppeteers from the world of professional theatre.[20]
  • KKNK National Art Festival – 2011 Selected as a featured visual artist for solo exhibition at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, held annually in Oudtshoorn, South Africa, Handspring Puppet Company exhibited puppets featured in performances in the preceding 2 years that were in line for further international touring.[19]
  • National Theatre Gallery London – 2012 This exhibition explained the puppet-making process for War Horse.
  • Circa Gallery, Johannesburg – 2016 An exhibition of Joey and Topthorn, characters from War Horse, together with portraits of puppets in the Handspring archives which Kohler had realised as editioned linocut prints.


Theatrical Awards[edit]

2007 Evening Standard Awards

Best Design (Rae Smith and the Handspring Puppet Company, winner)

2007 Critics' Circle Theatre Awards

Best Designer (Basil Jones, Adrian Kohler, Rae Smith and the Handspring Puppet Company, winner)

2008 Laurence Olivier Awards

Best Set Design (Rae Smith, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, winner)

2011 Tony Awards

Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones won the Special Tony Award for War Horse.

2011 Outer Critics Circle Awards

Outer Critics Circle Special Achievement Award for "Puppet Design, Fabrication and Direction for War Horse"[21][22]

Honorary Awards[edit]

2012 – Honorary Doctorate of Literature Kohler and Jones both received an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Cape Town, South Africa.[23]

2018 – John F. Kennedy Gold Medal Kohler and Jones received the John F. Kennedy Gold Medal in the Arts from the Kennedy Center International Committee on the Arts at a ceremony held at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa.[24]

Production Schedule[edit]

Schedule for productions featuring puppets created by Handspring Puppet Company
Title Year/s Country Cities
Episodes of an Easter Rising[4] 1985 South Africa Cape Town, Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), Johannesburg
France Charleville-Mézières
A Midsummer Night's Dream[4] 1988–1989 South Africa Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Makhanda, Johannesburg
Carnival of the Bear[4] 1988 South Africa Johannesburg
Tooth and Nail[4] 1989 South Africa Johannesburg
Starbrites![4] 1990–91 South Africa Johannesburg
United Kingdom Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham, Nottingham, London
Ireland Dublin
Denmark Copenhagen
Woyzeck on the Highveld[4] 1992–2009 South Africa Makhanda, Johannesburg, Cape Town
Germany Munich, Stuttgart, Hamburg, Bochum, Braunschweig, Berlin
Belgium Antwerp, Brussels
Switzerland Fribourg, Basel, Zurich
United Kingdom Leeds, Glasgow
Canada Toronto
Spain Granada, Girona
Sweden Göteborg
USA New York, Chicago
China Hong Kong
Australia Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane
New Zealand Wellington
Colombia Bogotá
Israel Jerusalem
France Avignon, Paris, Châlons
Norway Stavanger
Italy Rome
Poland Wroclaw
Faustus in Africa[4] 1995–1997 Germany Weimar, Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich, Hannover, Remscheid, Gütersloh, Erlangen, Bochum, Ellwangen, Hamburg, Strasbourg
South Africa Makhanda, Johannesburg
Switzerland Zurich, Basel
Czech Republic Prague
United Kingdom London
Portugal Lisbon
Australia Adelaide
Belgium Brussels
France Dijon, Avignon, Marseilles, Tarbes, Toulouse, Paris, Sochaux, Bourg—en-Bresse, Chambéry
Israel Jerusalem
Denmark Copenhagen
Austria St. Pölten
Italy Polverigi, Rome
Spain Seville
USA Washington, Chicago, Springfield, Northampton
Ubu and the Truth Commission[4] 1997–1999 Germany Weimar, Hannover, Ludwigsburg, Erlangen, Munich, Wiesbaden
South Africa Makhanda, Johannesburg, Stellenbosch
France Avignon, Rungis, Nantes, Dijon, Toulouse, Paris, Lannion, Saint-Brieuc, Vannes, Quimper, Amiens
Switzerland Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Neuchâtel
Norway Kristiansand
USA New York, Washington, Los Angeles
Belgium Antwerp
Sweden Stockholm, Göteborg
Denmark Copenhagen, Randers
Czech Republic Prague
Italy Rome, Reggio Emilia
Netherlands Rotterdam
Réunion Island Saint-Denis
United Kingdom London
Il Ritorno d'Ulisse[4] 1998–2009 Belgium Brussels
Austria Vienna
Germany Berlin
Netherlands Amsterdam
Switzerland Zurich
South Africa Makhanda, Pretoria
Portugal Lisbon
USA New York, Seattle, San Francisco
France Caen, Besançon, Nîmes, Toulouse
Luxembourg Luxembourg
Australia Melbourne
Italy Venice
Spain Girona
United Kingdom Edinburgh
The Chimp Project[4] 2000 Germany Hannover, Recklinghausen, Weimar, Munich, Nuremberg
South Africa Makhanda, Johannesburg, Cape Town
Switzerland Basel
France Paris
Réunion Island Saint-Denis
Zeno at 4 am[4] 2001 Belgium Brussels
France Paris, Angoulême, Toulouse, Amiens
USA Minneapolis, Chicago, New York
Confessions of Zeno[4] 2002–2003 Belgium Brussels
Germany Kassel, Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg
Croatia Zagreb
South Africa Makhanda, Stellenbosch
Italy Rome
Spain Salamanca
France Paris, Caen, Angoulême
Singapore Singapore
Canary Islands Las Palmas
Portugal Lisbon
Spain Vitoria
Tall Horse[4] 2007–2009 South Africa Cape Town, Pretoria, Johannesburg
Germany Stuttgart
USA Williamstown, New York, Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill, Washington DC
War Horse (play)[4][25] National Theatre Production 2009-2016 United Kingdom London
West End Production 2011–2013 United Kingdom London
Broadway Production 2012–2013 USA New York
Toronto Production 2012–2014 Canada Toronto
US National Tour 2012–2013 USA/ Japan Launched in Los Angeles, it toured 29 cities, ending in Tokyo, Japan
Australian Tour 2013–2014 Australia Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane
First UK National Tour 2013–2014 United Kingdom Plymouth, Birmingham, Salford Quays, Edinburgh, Southampton, Dublin, Sunderland, Cardiff
Berlin, Germany 2014–2015 Germany Berlin
Netherlands 2014–2015 Netherlands Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Breda, Groningen, Apeldoorn and Heerlen
South Africa 2015–16 South Africa Johannesburg, Cape Town
China 2017–present Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Heilongjiang Tianjin.
10th Anniversary Tour 2017–present China Canterbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Oxford, Brighton , Bradford, Nottingham, Edinburgh, Southampton, Salford, Cardiff , Woking, Plymouth, Milton Keynes, Birmingham , London, Glasgow, Sunderland , Stoke-on-Trent, Dublin, Liverpool, Leicester, London[26]
Or You Could Kiss Me 2010 United Kingdom London
Little Amal, The Walk 2021 Europe and United Kingdom 65 towns and cities in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and United Kingdom.[27]


  1. ^ a b Rubin, Don (1997). The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Africa. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780415059312. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
  2. ^ a b "About the Company". Handspring Puppet Company. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
  3. ^ Costa, Maddy (3 October 2010). "The gay puppet stars of Or You Could Kiss Me". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Taylor, Jane; Law-Viljoen, Bronwyn (2009). Handspring Puppet Company. David Krut Publishing. ISBN 978-0-9814328-3-0. Retrieved 21 October 2019.
  5. ^ "Puppeteer set to continue pulling strings". HeraldLIVE. Retrieved 14 October 2019.
  6. ^ The world premiere of Ubu and the Truth Commission followed on 17 June 1997, at the Kunsfest in Weimar.
  7. ^ McGrath, Sean (27 August 1998). "Footloose & Fugard to Highlight D.C.'s Kennedy Center 1998–99 Season". Playbill.
  8. ^ "Tall Horse" Archived 20 April 2010 at the Wayback Machine. Handsrping Puppet Company
  9. ^ "War Horse" Archived 24 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine ltdb.co.uk, accessed 20 January 2010.
  10. ^ Itzkoff, Dave (20 December 2010). "'War Horse' Corrals Its American Cast". The New York Times. Retrieved 14 March 2011.
  11. ^ TED Blog (30 March 2011). "The genius puppetry behind War Horse: Handspring Puppet Company". TED 2011. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
  12. ^ "Hairspray Wins Four 2008 Laurence Olivier Awards Including Best Musical" Archived 24 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine playbill.com
  13. ^ "Evening Standard nominations – 2007" holidayextras.co.uk
  14. ^ "Critics' Circle Award-Winners include 'Hairspray' & Patrick Stewart". Broadway World. 29 January 2008.
  15. ^ "'War Horse' Opens In The West End 3/28/09" broadwayworld.com, 8 December 2008
  16. ^ Hetrick, Adam (20 December 2010). "Seth Numrich to Lead 'War Horse' on Broadway; 35-Member Cast Announced". Playbill. Archived from the original on 23 February 2011. Retrieved 27 February 2011.
  17. ^ "Troubadour Theatres Limited". www.troubadourtheatres.com. Retrieved 15 October 2019.
  18. ^ Hetrick, Adam (5 October 2010). "Or You Could Kiss Me Opens at London's National Theatre 5 Oct". Playbill.com. Archived from the original on 20 October 2012. Retrieved 4 April 2011.
  19. ^ a b "Exhibitions". Handspring Puppet Company. 2 September 2019.
  20. ^ The Puppet Show ARTBOOK | D.A.P. 2008 Catalog Books Exhibition Catalogues 9780884541134.
  21. ^ Gans, Andrew."Outer Critics Circle Nominees Include 'Sister Act', 'Anything Goes', 'Book of Mormon' " Archived 29 April 2011 at the Wayback Machine playbill.com, 26 April 2011
  22. ^ Marks, Peter (13 June 2011). "Tony Awards 2011: 'Book of Mormon', 'War Horse' take top honors; Neil Patrick Harris impresses as host". Washington Post. Retrieved 4 September 2014.
  23. ^ "UCT honorary degrees 2012". University of Cape Town.
  24. ^ "Kennedy Center gold medals for six South African stars".
  25. ^ Law-Viljoen, Bronwyn (2009). Handspring Puppet Company. South Africa: David Krut Publishing cc. pp. 278–284. ISBN 978-0-9814328-5-4.
  26. ^ "War Horse on Stage: Official Site". War Horse. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  27. ^ Teague, Ellen; Sherriff, Scarlett (20 October 2021). "Little Amal migrant puppet welcomed to Westminster Cathedral". The Tablet. Retrieved 1 November 2021.


  • Kentridge, William. "Director's Note". In Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor, viii–xv. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
  • Jones, Basil, and Adrian Kohler. "Puppeteers' Note". In Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor, xvi–xvii. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 2007.

External links[edit]

Media related to Handspring Puppet Company at Wikimedia Commons