Originally published in the Lincoln Center Theater Review, the following is excerpted from a Q&A with Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company and the creators of the breathtaking puppets at the center of War Horse.
LCT Review Editor: Why did you name your company Handspring?
Adrian Kohler: We admired a Russian puppeteer, Sergey Obraztsov, who studied with Stanislavski, and came to puppet theater having worked with the classic Russian glove puppet Patrushka. Obraztsov believed that the soul of the puppet lives in the palm of the hand. Literally, when you are talking about a glove puppet the puppet itself is nothing without the hand inside. And he believed that the further you got away from the hand, as with string controls, the further the manipulation energy got from the actual puppet the less it was able to perform well. He believed that the palm is the soul of the puppet. When we started our company, we hoped that lots of good things would spring from the palm of the hand.
ED: Is there a tradition of puppetry in Africa?
Basil Jones: There are a number of minor traditions, but the Bamana tradition is big, because Mali was the center of the Malian Empire, which was based on gold and existed for a number of centuries. Many of the so-called minor arts were very well subsidized, and puppetry was pretty central to the culture. All their rights of transition are mediated through puppets, for instance.
ED: Does that tradition still exist?
AK: Yes, at the annual festivals, which start when the rains fall in the middle of the year.
BJ: But although there are other puppetry traditions in Africa, none are as strong as the Malian tradition.
ED: Does every culture around the world have a puppetry tradition?
AK: More or less, yes.
ED: Do you think that as religion recedes there is something in the puppet tradition that speaks to us?
BJ: I think that deep in all of us we have a belief in the life of objects and the life of things around us. We suspect that objects may have life, and that dead people might have an afterlife. So when we go into a theater and the lights go down, and we once again are shown objects—i.e., puppets—that are brought to life, I think it ignites a smoldering coal of ancient belief in us—that there is life in stones, in rivers, in objects, in wood. I feel it’s almost part of our DNA that we all left Africa believing in the life of things, as animists. That was the first form of religion, and animism is still underneath all of the religions that grew on top of the ancient religions. A little bit like the fact that in front of our reptilian brain is our forebrain, which is the more evolved brain. But the ancient brain is still part of our daily lives. As puppeteers, I think we are trying to access that ancient brain, that nonverbal brain. There are languages that we use that we don’t know we use—like the language of pheromones, for instance. Languages of movement and gesture, which are known in the theater but are not as highly regarded or understood because of the preeminence of words.
Now, with War Horse we’ve got a situation where we have a main character who never speaks and the only way that we can communicate with that character, who has to take the audience through two hours of theater, is through other forms of language. Languages of gesture, of sound.
AK: Of touch, of smell.
ED: How is your work with animal puppets different from depictions of animals in, say, Aesop’s Fables?
AK: I suppose the thing about Aesop’s Fables, or Mickey Mouse, is that they’re really people. They’re not really animals; they simply use the shape of the animal to add some kind of texture to what is basically a human argument. Whereas working with the horses in War Horse has meant that we’ve got to learn how horses think, how horses are different from humans.
BJ: As a puppeteer, if you study a horse in that way your respect for animals changes profoundly. When kids come to this play, I hope that they start to think like an animal, in a way.
ED: Why do you direct your puppeteers not to make eye contact with the audience?
AK: It’s been our rule—and not every puppeteer follows it, but we feel that when there is a visible manipulator on the stage the audience initially thinks they’re in the way. Particularly while there are two people in a horse, and a person standing outside the head. And, by not making eye contact with the audience, that performer on the stage disappears. They’re simply working the horse. It’s the horse that’s engaging with the other characters and the audience.
ED: You’ve said that, in a way, puppet manipulators are slaves. That must have come from a certain place in your past. (Laughter)
BJ: No, it comes from a certain place in my body. One of the things we’ve always said to new puppeteers is that you’ll find that, in order to make the puppet look natural, you’ll have to be unnatural.
AK: If you try to be comfortable, the puppet will die.
BJ: You’re always serving the puppet, and when serving the puppet is painful you can easily start thinking of it as an enslavement. I’ve just come from an operating theater where I had surgery, because the last play I did was so painful that I did some damage to the tendons in my arm.
AK: You don’t have to mention it, otherwise kids will never want to be puppeteers. (Laughter)
BJ: But we talk about it as a sadomasochistic relationship, because there is real love, but there is pain, too, like there is with many art forms.
ED:. Could you each tell me one thing you always say to the puppeteers performing in War Horse?
AK: That they have to communicate through breathing, particularly on a figure that’s operated by more than one person, where they can’t speak to one another because they are miked. Learning the discipline of the breathing, and learning how to make it technically visible. And, of course, the figure has to always be looking where it’s intending to look. The eyeline of the figure is vital.
BJ: I say “Please don’t think of this as a Broadway production, or a successful production, or a hit show. What we’re engaged in here is a time where we can explore new theater languages, where we have some respite from the word, and where we can look at languages of touch and languages of space.” I’m going to be asking them to think of the play in not quite such an ocularcentric way. Certainly, much of what happens onstage comes to us through the eye, but what we have now is a period to really explore the silent languages between the three puppeteers. It is unusual for people to learn to work with such intense silent communication. The whole night’s performance is going to be dependent on the silent—the vibe, the communication, the pheromones that happen between the three puppeteers onstage. That’s a unique opportunity. It’s something new. And I think that what we want to communicate clearly to everyone is that we’re in an experimental place, and that it’s really a privilege for us to have this opportunity to break this kind of ground in the theater.