Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company present GIPCA’s first Great Texts/Big Questions lecture for 2012. With reference to Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation, these award-winning puppeteers will divulge details of the influences on their work, and the influence that they have had in turn.
Grandin is a high-functioning autistic who has written with great insight into the way animals and autistic people think. She explains how the mal-functioning fore-brain present in animals and autistics can in fact be an advantage, leading to a kind of ‘extreme perception’. Kohler and Jones will talk about the influence Grandin’s book has had on their work, explaining why they enrol their audiences as ‘autistics’ and what the implications of this way of regarding an audience are for their philosophy of the theatre.
Preceded by a short performance, “I love you when you are breathing”, Kohler and Jones will share their ideas on micro-movement and how central breath is to the life of the object. The presentation will culminate with a visual presentation and an interrogation of their production with the National Theatre of Great Britain, War Horse, and the significance of animal characters in a theatrical context.
Touring Southern Africa with a truck
Kohler and Jones met as students at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in 1971. Kohler was already interested in puppetry and followed the art form at the revolutionary Space Theatre, and later as director of a popular theatre program in Botswana, where Jones and Kohler were based in the late ’70s. In 1981 they returned to Cape Town and started the Handspring Puppet Company with two friends, and the four toured Southern Africa with a converted truck, visiting schools, playing for children and staying caravan parks, until the 1985 State of Emergency forced them out of schools.
Kohler and Jones relocated to Johannesburg where they worked in children’s television and, in
time, met and worked with many theatre directors including Barney Simon, Mark Fleishman, Malcolm Purkey and William Kentridge. A decade-long association with Kentridge saw the production of a number of iconic plays, including Woyzeck on the Highveld.
Their return to Cape Town in the late 1990s saw the focus of their work shift towards a portrayal of animals, such as chimpanzees, a giraffe and most recently horses. War Horse, which premièred in 2007, has become the most successful play that the National Theatre of Great Britain has produced, and has recently been made into a film by Steven Spielberg.
Working with the youth
Most recently, Jones and Kohler have formed the Handspring Trust, a non-profit NGO with premises in the Vrygrond informal settlement. The Trust works with youth in Barrydale/Smitsville and, as funding increases, will be collaborating with projects in Masiphumelele and Vrygrond.
Kohler and Jones with Handspring Puppet Company are the recipients of a number of awards including an Olivier Award in London and a Tony Award in New York.