Not Your Typical Horse Puppet

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by Paul Kolnik

It was a rainy Tuesday evening in mid April and inside the Gowanus offices of non-profit magazine, Cabinet, Jane Taylor was giving a talk on the Cape Town-based Handspring Puppet Company.

“One of the astonishing things of puppetry is that you’re working with prostheses,” she said. “So in a circumstance where one’s identity is so over determinately given, particularly in terms of race in South Africa, to have an intimate through which you can have an elective identity, that’s a pretty astonishing liberation for a performance to have.”

Handspring’s latest production is the New York leg of War Horse, which originally debuted at the National Theater in London in 2007. Based on a children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo and set against the conflicts of World War I, War Horse focuses on the enduring relationship of a boy (Albert) and his horse (Joey).

Handspring founders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones are responsible for the spectacle that is Joey—a life-size, living, breathing, horse puppet.

Below are snippets of the conversation by Basil Jones that ensued after Jane Taylor’s talk.

Of the London production of War Horse:That a city, where word is king, and word in theater is king, should be doing a production where the central character was on stage for two hours and never spoke, they didn’t know if they could pull that off, and we were always quite confident that we could, although of course we didn’t know either.

Of receiving credit as puppeteers:At the National Theater, the only person who receives royalties in a National Theater production is the writer. And we argued very strongly that we, as puppeteers, have an authorial contribution to productions. We argued very, very strongly that we deserve to share the royalty as writers. We lost that argument, partially because the National Theater said, well, if we have to acknowledge your authoriality here, we would have to acknowledge authoriality from choreographers in political theater pieces where there was minimal language in the cast. How do we deal with that?

Why puppets?Quite often puppeteers are asked why puppets, and one of the answers to that is because puppets, puppetry, can introduce into theatrical environment parts of our lives as human beings that no other form can introduce into theatrical environment; that is missing from theatrical environment. And the truth is that there are very few plays that have been written about animals and our lives with animals, even though animals are very important to us. They are essential to our humanity and to our whole ecology yet they are absent from our theater…We as puppeteers are able to enter these beings into our theater environment. I think that’s a really important offer that we make.

War Horse is currently at the Vivian Beaumont Theater of Lincoln Center. For more information: For more information on the Handspring Puppet Company: