TED2011

Handspring Puppet Co.: The genius puppetry behind War Horse

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"Puppets always have to try to be alive," says Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company, a gloriously ambitious troupe of human and wooden actors. Beginning with the tale of a hyena's subtle paw, puppeteers Kohler and Basil Jones build to the story of their latest astonishment: the wonderfully life-like Joey, the War Horse, who trots (and gallops) convincingly onto the TED stage.

- Puppeteers
Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, of Handspring Puppet Company, bring the emotional complexity of animals to the stage with their life-size puppets. Their latest triumph: "War Horse." Full bio

Adrian Kohler: Well, we're here today
00:15
to talk about the evolution of a puppet horse.
00:17
Basil Jones: But actually we're going to start this evolution
00:21
with a hyena.
00:24
AK: The ancestor of the horse.
00:26
Okay, we'll do something with it.
00:28
(Laughter)
01:01
Hahahaha.
01:05
The hyena is the ancestor of the horse
01:24
because it was part of a production
01:27
called "Faustus in Africa,"
01:29
a Handspring Production from 1995,
01:31
where it had to play draughts with Helen of Troy.
01:34
This production was directed
01:37
by South African artist and theater director,
01:39
William Kentridge.
01:41
So it needed a very articulate front paw.
01:43
But, like all puppets, it has other attributes.
01:51
BJ: One of them is breath,
01:54
and it kind of breathes.
01:57
AK: Haa haa haaa.
01:59
BJ: Breath is really important for us.
02:04
It's the kind of original movement
02:07
for any puppet for us onstage.
02:09
It's the thing that distinguishes the puppet --
02:12
AK: Oops.
02:15
BJ: From an actor.
02:17
Puppets always have to try to be alive.
02:19
It's their kind of ur-story onstage,
02:22
that desperation to live.
02:26
AK: Yeah, it's basically a dead object, as you can see,
02:28
and it only lives
02:31
because you make it.
02:33
An actor struggles to die onstage,
02:35
but a puppet has to struggle to live.
02:37
And in a way that's a metaphor for life.
02:39
BJ: So every moment it's on the stage, it's making the struggle.
02:41
So we call this
02:44
a piece of emotional engineering
02:47
that uses up-to-the-minute
02:51
17th century technology --
02:54
(Laughter)
02:56
to turn nouns
02:58
into verbs.
03:00
AK: Well actually I prefer to say
03:02
that it's an object
03:04
constructed out of wood and cloth
03:06
with movement built into it
03:08
to persuade you to believe that it has life.
03:10
BJ: Okay so.
03:13
AK: It has ears that move passively
03:15
when the head goes.
03:17
BJ: And it has these bulkheads
03:19
made out of plywood,
03:22
covered with fabric --
03:24
curiously similar, in fact,
03:26
to the plywood canoes
03:28
that Adrian's father used to make
03:30
when he was a boy in their workshop.
03:32
AK: In Port Elizabeth, the village outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa.
03:35
BJ: His mother was a puppeteer.
03:38
And when we met at art school
03:40
and fell in love
03:42
in 1971,
03:44
I hated puppets.
03:46
I really thought they were so beneath me.
03:48
I wanted to become an avant-garde artist --
03:51
and Punch and Judy was certainly not where I wanted to go.
03:54
And, in fact, it took about 10 years
03:57
to discover
03:59
the Bambara Bamana puppets of Mali in West Africa,
04:01
where there's a fabulous tradition of puppetry,
04:05
to learn a renewed, or a new, respect
04:09
for this art form.
04:13
AK: So in 1981, I persuaded Basil and some friends of mine
04:15
to form a puppet company.
04:18
And 20 years later, miraculously,
04:20
we collaborated with a company from Mali,
04:23
the Sogolon Marionette Troupe of Bamako,
04:25
where we made a piece about a tall giraffe.
04:28
It was just called "Tall Horse," which was a life-sized giraffe.
04:30
BJ: And here again, you see the same structure.
04:33
The bulkheads have now turned into hoops of cane,
04:35
but it's ultimately the same structure.
04:40
It's got two people inside it on stilts,
04:42
which give them the height,
04:44
and somebody in the front
04:46
who's using a kind of steering wheel to move that head.
04:48
AK: The person in the hind legs
04:51
is also controlling the tail, a bit like the hyena --
04:53
same mechanism, just a bit bigger.
04:56
And he's controlling the ear movement.
04:59
BJ: So this production
05:03
was seen by Tom Morris
05:05
of the National Theatre in London.
05:07
And just around that time,
05:09
his mother had said,
05:12
"Have you seen this book by Michael Morpurgo
05:14
called 'War Horse'?"
05:17
AK: It's about a boy who falls in love with a horse.
05:19
The horse is sold to the First World War,
05:21
and he joins up to find his horse.
05:23
BJ: So Tom gave us a call and said,
05:25
"Do you think you could make us a horse
05:27
for a show to happen at the National Theatre?"
05:30
AK: It seemed a lovely idea.
05:32
BJ: But it had to ride. It had to have a rider.
05:34
AK: It had to have a rider,
05:36
and it had to participate in cavalry charges.
05:38
(Laughter)
05:41
A play about early 20th century plowing technology
05:44
and cavalry charges
05:46
was a little bit of a challenge for the accounting department
05:48
at the National Theatre in London.
05:50
But they agreed to go along with it for a while.
05:52
So we began with a test.
05:54
BJ: This is Adrian and Thys Stander,
05:56
who went on to actually design the cane system for the horse,
05:59
and our next-door neighbor Katherine,
06:03
riding on a ladder.
06:05
The weight is really difficult when it's up above your head.
06:07
AK: And once we put Katherine
06:10
through that particular brand of hell,
06:12
we knew that we might be able to make a horse, which could be ridden.
06:14
So we made a model.
06:17
This is a cardboard model,
06:19
a little bit smaller than the hyena.
06:21
You'll notice that the legs are plywood legs
06:23
and the canoe structure is still there.
06:25
BJ: And the two manipulators are inside.
06:27
But we didn't realize at the time
06:29
that we actually needed a third manipulator,
06:31
because we couldn't manipulate the neck
06:34
from inside
06:36
and walk the horse at the same time.
06:38
AK: We started work on the prototype
06:41
after the model was approved,
06:43
and the prototype took a bit longer
06:45
than we anticipated.
06:47
We had to throw out the plywood legs and make new cane ones.
06:49
And we had a crate built for it.
06:52
It had to be shipped to London.
06:54
We were going to test-drive it on the street outside of our house in Cape Town,
06:56
and it got to midnight and we hadn't done that yet.
06:59
BJ: So we got a camera,
07:02
and we posed the puppet
07:04
in various galloping stances.
07:07
And we sent it off
07:12
to the National Theatre,
07:15
hoping that they believed
07:17
that we created something that worked.
07:19
(Laughter)
07:21
AK: A month later, we were there in London
07:23
with this big box and a studio full of people about to work with us.
07:25
BJ: About 40 people.
07:29
AK: We were terrified.
07:31
We opened the lid, we took the horse out,
07:33
and it did work; it walked and it was able to be ridden.
07:35
Here I have an 18-second clip
07:38
of the very first walk of the prototype.
07:40
This is in the National Theatre studio,
07:43
the place where they cook new ideas.
07:45
It had by no means got the green light yet.
07:47
The choreographer, Toby Sedgwick,
07:57
invented a beautiful sequence
07:59
where the baby horse,
08:01
which was made out of sticks and bits of twigs,
08:03
grew up into the big horse.
08:06
And Nick Starr, the director of the National Theatre,
08:08
saw that particular moment, he was standing next to me -- he nearly wet himself.
08:11
And so the show was given the green light.
08:14
And we went back to Cape Town and redesigned the horse completely.
08:17
Here is the plan.
08:20
(Laughter)
08:22
And here is our factory in Cape Town
08:26
where we make horses.
08:28
You can see quite a lot of skeletons in the background there.
08:31
The horses are completely handmade.
08:35
There is very little 20th century technology in them.
08:38
We used a bit of laser cutting on the plywood
08:41
and some of the aluminum pieces.
08:43
But because they have to be light and flexible,
08:45
and each one of them is different,
08:47
they can't be mass-produced, unfortunately.
08:50
So here are some half-finished horses
08:53
ready to be worked in London.
08:56
And now we would like to introduce you
08:59
to Joey.
09:01
Joey boy, you there?
09:04
Joey.
09:07
(Applause)
09:10
(Applause)
09:28
Joey.
09:51
Joey, come here.
09:53
No, no, I haven't got it.
10:10
He's got it; it's in his pocket.
10:12
BJ: Joey.
10:16
AK: Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey.
10:28
Come here. Stand here where people can see you.
10:33
Move around. Come on.
10:43
I'd just like to describe --
10:48
I won't talk too loud. He might get irritated.
10:50
Here, Craig is working the head.
10:55
He has bicycle brake cables
10:58
going down to the head control in his hand.
11:00
Each one of them
11:03
operates either an ear, separately,
11:05
or the head, up and down.
11:08
But he also controls the head directly
11:10
by using his hand.
11:13
The ears are obviously
11:15
a very important emotional indicator of the horse.
11:17
When they point right back,
11:20
the horse is fearful or angry,
11:24
depending upon what's going on in front of him, around him.
11:28
Or, when he's more relaxed, the head comes down
11:31
and the ears listen, either side.
11:33
Horses' hearing is very important.
11:38
It's almost more important than their eyesight.
11:40
Over here,
11:44
Tommy's got what you call the heart position.
11:46
He's working the leg.
11:49
You see the string tendon from the hyena,
11:51
the hyena's front leg,
11:54
automatically pulls the hoop up.
11:57
(Laughter)
12:00
Horses are so unpredictable.
12:05
(Laughter)
12:07
The way a hoof comes up with a horse
12:11
immediately gives you the feeling
12:14
that it's a convincing horse action.
12:16
The hind legs have got the same action.
12:18
BJ: And Mikey also has,
12:24
in his fingers,
12:26
the ability to move the tail
12:28
from left to right,
12:30
and up and down with the other hand.
12:32
And together, there's quite a complex possibility
12:34
of tail expression.
12:37
AK: You want to say something about the breathing?
12:39
BJ: We had a big challenge with breathing.
12:41
Adrian thought
12:44
that he was going to have to split the chest of the puppet in two
12:46
and make it breathe like that --
12:48
because that's how a horse would breathe, with an expanded chest.
12:50
But we realized
12:53
that, if that were to be happening,
12:55
you wouldn't, as an audience, see the breath.
12:57
So he made a channel in here,
12:59
and the chest moves up and down in that channel.
13:03
So it's anti-naturalistic really, the up and down movement,
13:06
but it feels like breath.
13:08
And it's very, very simple
13:10
because all that happens
13:12
is that the puppeteer breathes with his knees.
13:14
AK: Other emotional stuff.
13:20
If I were to touch the horse here
13:22
on his skin,
13:24
the heart puppeteer can shake the body from inside
13:27
and get the skin to quiver.
13:30
You'll notice, of course,
13:32
that the puppet is made out of cane lines.
13:34
And I would like you to believe that it was an aesthetic choice,
13:36
that I was making a three-dimensional drawing of a horse
13:39
that somehow moves in space.
13:41
But of course, it was the cane is light,
13:43
the cane is flexible, the cane is durable
13:45
and the cane is moldable.
13:47
And so it was a very practical reason why it was made of cane.
13:49
The skin itself
13:52
is made out of a see-through nylon mesh,
13:54
which, if the lighting designer
13:56
wants the horse to almost disappear,
13:58
she can light the background
14:00
and the horse becomes ghostlike.
14:02
You see the skeletal structure of it.
14:05
Or if you light it from above, it becomes more solid.
14:07
Again, that was a practical consideration.
14:10
The guys inside the horse have to be able to see out.
14:13
They have to be able to act
14:16
along with their fellow actors in the production.
14:18
And it's very much an in-the-moment activity that they're engaged in.
14:21
It's three heads making one character.
14:24
But now we would like you to put Joey through some paces.
14:27
And plant.
15:08
(Whinny)
15:13
Thank you.
15:25
And now just --
15:27
(Applause)
15:29
All the way from sunny California
15:37
we have Zem Joaquin
15:39
who's going to ride the horse for us.
15:41
(Applause)
15:43
(Applause)
16:38
(Music)
16:48
So we would like to stress
17:09
that the performance you see in the horse
17:11
is three guys
17:13
who have studied horse behavior incredibly thoroughly.
17:15
BJ: Not being able to talk to one another
17:18
while they're onstage
17:20
because they're mic'd.
17:22
The sound that that very large chest makes, of the horse --
17:24
the whinnying and the nickering and everything --
17:27
that starts usually with one performer,
17:30
carries on with a second person
17:33
and ends with a third.
17:35
AK: Mikey Brett from Leicestershire.
17:37
(Applause)
17:40
Mikey Brett, Craig, Leo,
17:47
Zem Joaquin and Basil and me.
17:50
(Applause)
17:53
Thank you. Thank you.
17:56
(Applause)
17:58

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About the Speaker:

Handspring Puppet Company - Puppeteers
Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, of Handspring Puppet Company, bring the emotional complexity of animals to the stage with their life-size puppets. Their latest triumph: "War Horse."

Why you should listen

Handspring Puppet Company was founded in 1981 by four graduates of the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town, South Africa. Two of the co-founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, continue to run the company. Originally they created shows for children and thereafter works for adult audiences. Arguably one of the greatest puppetry companies in the world, Handspring has since collaborated with a succession of innovative South Africa directors including Malcolm Purkey, Barney Simon and artist William Kentridge.

Apart from seasons throughout theatres across South Africa, Handspring has been presented at many international festivals including Edinburgh, the Avignon Festival, the Next Wave Festival at BAM in New York, The African Odyssey Festival at the Kennedy Centre in Washington, Theatre d' Automne in Paris, Theatre der Welt in Germany, as well as in Hong Kong, Singapore, Adelaide, Zurich and Bogota.

The company provides an artistic home and professional base for a core group of performers, designers, theatre artists and technicians who collaborate with them on a project basis. Based in South Africa they continue to explore the boundaries of adult puppet theatre within an African context.

"War Horse" is currently playing in London, at the New London Theatre, and opens in New York at Lincoln Center on April 14, 2011.