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EPISODES (article first published : 2002-01-24)

From February 13, the Durban Art Gallery will host an installation of puppets from seven productions over 16 years by the Handspring Puppet Company. Anyone who has seen their productions at the Grahamstown festivals over the past years will be fascinated to see these “characters” up close.

The original focus of the Handspring Puppet Company, founded in 1981, was the creation of new South African theatre for children but in the back of their minds the company felt there was space to develop an adult audience for the theatre of puppets.

In 1985 the production Episodes of an Easter Rising delighted adult audiences and the press and exposure to international theatre for puppets at the 7th International Festival of Puppet Theatre in Charleville - Mézzierès increased resolve to work for adults. The rich theatre life of Johannesburg during the 80’s and 90’s provided opportunities for the company to work with top South African directors provoking new and challenging developments in the way Handspring Puppet Company made and worked with puppets.

Initially the puppets were made with polystyrene as the weight of the puppet is an important criterion. William Kentridge suggested a switch to wooden puppets and since then a central design concern has been how make the wooden puppets light enough for the puppeteers to hold aloft for the duration of the 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 are constructed from lightweight ply. Initially the bodies had a skeletal structure in Tooth and Nail to be seen by the audience but have since been further developed with a whole-bodied skeletal structure covered with gauze as in The Chimp Project.

Handspring Puppet Company is now in its 22nd year and run by Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones. The company is currently based in Kalk Bay and provides an artistic base for a core group of performers, designers, theatre artists and technicians who collaborate on a project basis.

Nearly all the figures on this exhibition (with the exception of the petticoats from Starbrites!), represent productions which have been seen at and sponsored by the Standard Bank National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown. The exhibition will be on show for the rest of February and into March.




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