South African Puppetry


South Africa has a long and rich puppetry history. Puppetry was present in traditional cultures but introduced as a form of entertainment, mainly for children during the colonial era. It is now a thriving contemporary art form. Puppetry is widely used to entertain and educate children and adults. It is used in theatre and television, in artistic work, in therapy and in commercial production. South Africa is host to the largest international puppetry and visual performance festival on the continent, Out The Box.

Puppetry in Africa

Masks and figurines have been used throughout the African continent in as many diverse contexts. Masquerade, festival, ritual and community interaction in traditional cultural contexts have lead to a widespread use of objects in performative contexts. In their animistic religious function some figurines are guardians of ancestral bones while others are powerful partners to the diviner in maintaining law and order. Figurines are often covered with sacrificial libations when fulfilling their ritual function, the original carving becoming encrusted and therefore more powerful over time.

In African puppetry, the iconic object holds specific meaning and supernatural power in performance. The icon has a traditional significance in its ability to convey meaning or messages within the context of local traditions, the community and its religious and spiritual milieu. Indeed, there are many masking and figurine traditions that have evolved to meet the particular needs of various sectors within South African societies and transformed into contemporary modes of expression. The global economy has also shifted much of the contemporary workmanship of traditional artists into more western paradigms, to suit the requirements of trade and tourism.

There is evidence of a tradition of South African puppetry that predates colonial influences. This exists in museums in the form of a variety of articulated figures collected in the 19th and 20th centuries. (These figures were probably found in countries north of South Africa.) There are surreal human figures with animated heads, finely carved with jointed limbs and manipulated with a rod in the small of the back. There are jigging puppets manipulated by a sitting puppeteer with legs outstretched and the puppets strung between the big toes. And there are rainmaking figures with arms attached to a narrow plank, which they climb in performance.

The original religious and spiritual context of the African fetish object is often displaced and appropriated in contemporary performance and cultural representations in South African performance and theatre. This evolution of the iconic ritual object into a new system of cultural signification as a medium of representation has great potential for social transformation and action. Today in South Africa, the term ‘puppetry’ is often loosely incorporated into the broader genre of Visual Performance. The genre offers a multidisciplinary entry point to contemporary performance and its many branches such as performance art, movement, theatre, multimedia, mask, video, puppetry, stage design and visual art, amongst others. This entry point allows the positioning of these genres in relation to each other, as well as a multidisciplinary visuality, as the central concern of the artistic work of puppetry.

Puppetry in South Africa circa 1800s-1969

Visiting groups have played a part in the development of a European-influenced puppet theatre that developed in South Africa, particularly in the Colonial community. Cross pollination between European, African and Eastern forms of puppetry have contributed however to much more complex interdisciplinary performance styles that define South African puppetry in the 21st century.

Throughout the 19th century the Cape Colony was visited periodically by travelling groups of puppeteers from Europe, starting with a shadow play from France in 1805. Local forms of these Western puppet theatre traditions began to develop in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the pioneers was Estelle van der Merwe who, working in Parys in the Orange Free State from 1931, developed a series of plays for her wooden puppets based on the stories of Honiball, the Afrikaans writer. In the 1940s the art form received a significant boost when sculptors, like Frieda Ollemans, and set designers, like John Dronafield, became involved with a group of puppeteers based in Cape Town.

The personality who drew these artists together was John Wright. He was a leading set designer who in 1941 began mounting marionette productions, some based on African stories, which played in Cape Town theatres and eventually toured around southern Africa as far north as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe/Zambia). In 1946, he moved to London where he set up the Little Angel Marionette Company. His artistry, professionalism and theatricality were a huge inspiration to those who followed him and a significant number of young puppeteers visited him or studied with him in London.

In Johannesburg, the Canadian puppeteer, Marion Beach, established the Canames Marionettes in 1941. From 1944 to 1952 they performed under the umbrella of Children’s Theatre Incorporated, with a repertoire of European children’s stories. The career of Gawie de Wet, South Africa’s first post-colonial professional black puppeteer, began in the 1950s. He grew up on a farm in the Karoo. At an early age, his parents taught him to manipulate traditional figures between his toes. He became one of the first teachers to use puppets as an educational medium. Study in Germany strengthened his technique and confidence, and very gradually he won the support of the educational authorities. When ill health forced him to retire as a teacher in 1982, he became a full-time puppeteer, travelling extensively in the Cape Town region. Also in Cape Town, Keith Anderson began a long association with puppet theatre in 1951 with the establishment of the Pelham Puppets.

Foreign Visitors 1950-1970

From the mid 1950s to the mid 1970s a series of visits by companies from abroad left a lasting impact. There was The Hogarth Puppets (1954), John Wright’s Little Angel Marionettes (1955 and 1957), Joseph and Louis Contrijn (1960), The Salzburg Marionettes (1968, 1970, 1973) and Phillipe Genty (1975). These companies did not necessarily represent the cutting edge of the puppet theatre of their time, but in a country far removed from central developments or development of any kind, they showed amateur puppeteers that puppet theatre – when well designed, directed, organized and with excellent manipulation – could become a profession rather than a hobby. This repeated demonstration that puppet theatre is a viable art form was their common and most lasting legacy.

During the 1960s a number of amateur and semi-professional groups emerged. Francesca Bantock in Kroonstad and Graham Firth in Durban. Also the government-funded performing arts councils in the Cape, the Free State and Natal began selected groups.

In 1968 South Africa gained its first full-time professional marionette company. Housed in the Johannesburg Civic Theatre and founded by Michal Grobbelaar, it provided a platform for the talents of Alida von Maltitz who had studied under John Wright as well as Ann Bailes, a costumier with experience in theatres like Glyndebourne, later followed by people like Jean Watson and Irene Martin. For almost 20 years, till their closure in 1986, they built up a wide repertoire of plays for children and created casts of beautifully carved figures. Levels of professionalism were advanced by employing experienced directors and recording the voices of well-known actors; in the process, they provided a training ground for many of Johannesburg’s puppet manipulators.

Puppetry in South Africa 1969-2005

In 1969, Lily Herzberg established the first South African links with UNIMA. She travelled abroad and returned to South Africa with news of the innovative rod-puppet work being done in Eastern Europe, thus opening up a whole new area of direct-controlled puppets. She herself was a leading exponent of shadow and glove techniques. In 1972, she established the Puppet Space within Cape Town’s Space Theatre – the theatre that broke the apartheid era ban on non-racial performance. She continued the development of puppet plays with local themes and was a much-produced scriptwriter, during her lifetime.

Jill and Tony Fletcher mounted periodic marionette productions at the Nico Malan Theatre in Cape Town, centered on their loveable character, Mrs Em, in the early ‘70s, and in 1975 Keith Anderson teamed up with Toby van Eck for a countrywide tour of a new marionette production of Hans Anderson’s Little Mermaid. A year later, also in Cape Town, Gary Friedman founded The Royal Puppet Company, beginning a long and dynamic career.

The 1980s and 1990s

This period has seen the emergence of many individuals and groups. The cultural boycott that the country faced in the 1980s meant that influences from outside were drastically reduced. Local puppeteers learnt from each other via the two UNIMA branches and from personal contact. The period has also seen a surge in work with a local content.

As a developing art form, South African puppetry has come to the fore in the global visual performance scene largely due to the groundbreaking interdisciplinary work of The Handspring Puppet Company in collaboration with physical theatre director and fine artist William Kentridge since the early 1990s. In 1981 a group of former art students formed The Handspring Puppet Company in Cape Town. After touring South Africa with a series of original plays for children, the company moved to Johannesburg in 1986 and worked in television and with directors of ‘straight’ theatre. Their work in collaboration with artists William Kentridge, such as Woyzek on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa, and Ubu and the Truth Commission, has been touring internationally since 1991. Their contribution to South African puppetry since the 1980s has been not only to develop an indigenous form of iconic South African multimedia performance rooted in a skilled puppetry design and performance but also to put adult puppetry on the local map. Their experimentations in crossover multi-disciplinarity with William Kentridge have set the standard for contemporary puppetry performance both locally and abroad. In the vaguely documented and defined puppetry traditions of South Africa, their work has stood as the guiding canon of contemporary South African puppetry for adult audiences, for the past twenty years.

In 1983, Gary Friedman’s Royal Puppet Company produced Puns and Doedie (Puppet Against Apartheid). There was a street theatre production in several cities in South Africa and abroad. He moved his base to Johannesburg in 1986 and formed AREPP, a puppetry-in-education project that initially centered on the importance of HIV/AIDS education. Performances and workshops have been held throughout Southern and Central Africa and further afield in Canada, Germany and France. Subsequently the project broadened its field into abuse/domestic violence/voter education and work in prisons.

Margaret Auerbach began performing in 1971 and formed her company, Spellbound Puppets, in 1976. In the eighties and nineties, she was a constant performer locally and internationally with projects ranging from adult feminist themes to educational work for preschoolers. She also collaborated regularly with other puppet, stage and television producers. The Puppet People, formed by Jacqueline Domisse and Cathy Dodders in 1991 in Cape Town, are well known for their original African stories using rod and string puppets and masks and their highly theatrical adaptations of Native American, Aboriginal Australian and other world stories.

Puppetry in Television

The advent of television in 1976 gave an immediate boost to puppetry. Suddenly puppeteers were performing for millions of viewers and this encouraged the productions of more technologically developed puppetry techniques as well as relatively well-paid and continuous employment for a number of talented puppet makers and manipulators. Television also lifted the profile of the puppetry arts. Below, a small selection of puppetry programs produced since 1976 are outlined.

Les Subcleve was one of the earliest television producers with Adoons-hulle (Afrikaans), Radio Buza (Zulu) and Marimba (Zulu). By far the biggest pioneer in this field was Louise Smit, who started producing puppet programs within the national broadcaster and then become an independent producer. Her company, Louise Smit Production Trust, produced well over 3000 episodes of programs for children in Afrikaans, English as well as African languages. The most important productions include Haas Das se Nuuskas, Mina Moo and Professor Fossie. This production house took over from the Civic Theatre as a regular employer of puppeteers and puppet makers including Alida von Maltitz, Dawn Leggat, Hansie and Thea Visagie, Adrian Kohler, and Basil Jones.

There have been several other initiatives both in-house SABC productions and from independent producers. In 1994 a voter education television production, Puppet Election ’94, was produced to help inform the electorate about their right to vote. AREPP devised Puppet Election ‘94, a TV campaign with Muppet-style puppets, interviewing live politicians including Nelson Mandela. Spider’s Place, a multi media science education series produced by Handspring Trust for Puppetry in Education, represented a departure in the way TV programs were funded and developed. Funded by international donor agencies, the producers were able to conduct exhaustive research, consulting widely with a variety of stakeholders, develop parallel programs for radio and comic and conduct an ongoing teacher development program which assists teachers to adopt new teaching strategies.

ZA News, a political satire based on Guignol des Infos and Spitting Image, uses caricature puppets designed by Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro) South Africa’s leading political cartoonist. Produced by Both Worlds Productions, it is seen online and was the recipient of the Handspring Awards for Puppetry’s Best Puppet Design category 2010.

Puppetry in Education and Development

Beginning in the 1940s, various educational institutions, both formal and informal, saw the value of including puppet theatre in their curricula. Art Centres for young people and Teacher Training Colleges were the first to explore the creative potential of this combination of the plastic and theatrical arts. Some University Drama schools followed in the 1960s – notably Stellenbosch University under the influence of the Contrijns of Belgium.

Puppetry in Schools fa1l into three categories: art as a teaching method; as a subject of study; and as periodic performances by key visiting groups and individuals.
It is possible to take puppetry as a school-leaving subject if there is a teacher qualified to teach it, although puppetry is currently situated within the fine arts curriculum and requires little more than a strident effort to make a puppet. In many primary schools across the country children have their first experience of live puppet theatre. Several companies and solo performers established reputations in this area including: Brenda Shafir, working with shadow theatre; Margaret Auerbach and Machfeld von Nieuwkerk with glove puppets; the ‘Puppet People’ –with all kinds of figures; Jenny Kirsch with mixed media; Jenny Marchand with a multimedia production; and Joan Rankin with tiny shadow figures and an overhead projector.

Many teachers and have enriched their lessons with puppets and developed the confidence of interested children through puppet performance. The African Research and Education Puppetry Program (AREPP) was established by Gary Friedman in 1987. This project promotes Aids awareness in the townships and in the workplace throughout South Africa, working with puppeteers who perform in local languages. This program and its techniques have been presented in Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, Kenya, Reunion, as well as in Canada, Australia, France and Germany. Friedman has also used puppets in a voter education campaign for TV during South Africa’s first democratic election and in a program encouraging imprisoned youth to express experiences of violence and abuse through puppets. AREPP is now run buy Gordon Bilbrough with artistic director Brigid Shutz. They continue to be an important force in SA puppetry and education.

Jungle Theatre creates puppetry and physical theatre based on educational themes of environmental awareness. Jungle Theatre also has a training program where they develop performance and puppetry skills amongst young performers.

Puppetry South Africa (UNIMA SA) runs year-round puppetry education and development programs. Active Puppets and Creative Hands (as the programs are called) teach puppetry skills to historically disadvantages children and young adults. The resulting productions are of professional standard and are often focused on raising awareness about social questions relevant to the communities of origin of the participants.
The Handspring Trust was re-established in 2010 to build skills in puppetry amongst impoverished children and youth as well as amongst young, emerging and professional artists.

The Living Landscape Project (developed by UCT and Magnet Theatre) based in Clanwilliam holds and annual spring lantern parade. For this event, Children from the community of Clanwilliam build puppets and lanterns based on San/Bushman iconic figures.

Puppetry performers and Puppet Makers:

South Africa has a increasingly large pools of performers specialized in puppetry and visual artists and craftspeople who construct puppets.

The expanding demand for professional puppeteers can be partially attributed to the success of the festival Out The Box as well as the increasing international interest in the artform. Puppet manipulation for various television series involving puppets has also created interest in and demand for skilled puppeteers. Busi Zokufa has been performing for Handspring since the early ’90’s as has Craig Leo. Jason Potgieter, Marty Kintu, Tali Cervati, Chuma Sopotela, Gabriel Marchand and Cindy Mkaza are a few of the many extremely talented individual performers working in puppet theatre and television today.

As both the demand for commercial and theatrical puppets has increased in South Africa we have seen more artists and craftspeople specializing in the construction of puppets. Amongst these, Rodger Titley, Hansie Versagie, Hilette Stapelberg and Craig Leo are a few to mention.

Giant, Outdoor and Parade Puppets

Since the soccer World Cup came to South Africa in 2010 there have been several groups who build and parade giant puppets around South Africa.

The Giant Match Association: This group from the township Orange Farm who were trained by Les Grandes Personnes, now tour the country regularly performing regularly at parade events.
Rodger Titley, who was known for his refined work in building and manipulating puppets for commercials, has branched out into giant parade puppets. His Creatures have paraded in their hundreds at various national and international events and include the giant elephants and Dung Beatle featured at the closing ceremony of the 2010 world cup.

Puppetry South Africa’s Active Puppets program also produced a series of giant puppets, which were widely featured at events surrounding the world cup. The African giants continue to provide entertainment at public and corporate events around the country and the project provides employment for young community based artists.

Daniel Poppers first developed his super-giant Pop Puppets for the Africa Burns event. His puppets, which often exceed 4meters in height, are also regularly fitted with lighting mechanisms, allowing them to glow in night parades.

Puppetry in South African Theatre 2000-2012

Past and recent works of South African artists who fall within the large category of visual performance attest to a growing body of multidisciplinary, visually-oriented material that touches on traditional and experimental puppet modes. Often puppetry is adapted into once-off performances or used to enhance visual aspects of productions. The potential of puppetry in contemporary visual performance practice relates to its multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to meaning and representation in both its semiotic and phenomenological potential and significance. Yet, despite the success and proliferation of visual performance, there remains only a tiny network of puppetry artists (either formally or informally trained) working professionally in contemporary adult puppetry in South Africa.

An influential South African puppeteer, Jill Joubert, was first introduced to puppetry through her BA Art lecturer, Stephen de Villagers, during her art teachers’ training course at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT, in 1975. Jill became a founder member of Handspring Puppet Company with Adrian Kohler, Basil Jones and John Weinberg from 1981 to 1983. She made two adult puppet stories in 1993 and 1994 that she performed from time to time for intimate audiences. Jill became the principal of the Frank Joubert Art Centre in 1997 where she developed refined techniques of teacher training in puppetry. Joubert’s theoretical research into African mask and figurine traditions heavily informed her practice of puppetry. Focusing on African archetypes, mythology and a unique found-object aesthetic, Joubert has created evocative productions, including Creation Stories form the Richtersveld (2007).

A leader in puppetry, who became associate director of the Handspring Puppet Company in 2011, is Janni Younge. Younge began her career as a sculptor studying for an honours degree in Fine Art and majoring in sculpture. She then went on to complete a DMA from the French National School of Puppetry Arts (ESNAM), where she studied from 1999 to 2002, and then completed an MA (Masters) in Theatre (at the University of Cape Town, 2007). In 2003, she became the chairperson of UNIMA SA (the South African association of puppetry and visual performance). Younge’s first theatre company, Sogo Visual Theatre, produced several original works, which have been performed widely in South Africa and abroad. All of her major works combine multiple puppetry styles including shadow theatre, marionettes and live video with live performance. Younge was named the 2010 Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre as the first female puppeteer to receive this great distinction.

Capetonian puppetry artist and former chairperson of UNIMA SA, Jaqueline Dommisse, trained in drama in Johannesburg in the 1980s. Together with Catherine Dodders, Dommisse created a puppetry-based company in the ‘90s called the Puppet People, which created the seminal puppetry production Sadako for the Grahamstown national arts festival fringe. In 2011 it was recreated and performed on the Main festival of both the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the Out the Box festival where it won the Handspring Puppet Company Award for best production.

Puppeteer, visual performance artist and academic, Aja Marneweck, established The Paper Body Collective in 2004 in Cape Town. After obtaining an honours degree in video dance and theatre directing in Johannesburg in the ‘90s, Marneweck began her puppetry career with Gary Friedman in Cape Town in 2001, collaborating on the site- specific puppetry production, Looking For a Monster. After completing a Masters degree in Puppetry at the University of Cape Town in 2004, she went on to create several multimedia puppetry productions which toured to over seven countries between 2005 and 2011. Marneweck’s puppetry production on gender and migrancy, In Medea Res, performed on the prestigious main programme at the world famous Festival Mondial des Théâtres de Marionnettes in Charleville-Meziere, France. Marneweck also collaborated on various interdisciplinary projects with performance and dance artists, including Jane Taylor (writer/collaborator on the Handspring Puppet Company production of Ubu and the Truth Commission directed by William Kentridge) and Jay Pather (Chairman of the National Arts Festival Grahamstown, CEO of GIPCA Institute of Performing and Creative Arts), amongst others. Marneweck also completed the inaugural PhD in Practice as Research in Puppetry and Visual Performance, in the Drama and African Gender studies Departments at the University of Cape Town in 2011.
South Africa’s best-known ventriloquist, Conrad Coch has performed his shows across the country and abroad. His hilarious Puppet Asylum ran in Cape Town and Johannesburg in 2011 to packed and appreciative audiences. Using an assortment of human, animal and beastly puppets, Conrad makes social and lightly political commentary.

The Impact of Out The Box Festival of Puppetry and Visual Performance

It was through the need for a formal public platform in which to develop the work of professional puppeteers and innovation in the art form in South Africa, that South Africa’s first puppetry festival came into being in 2005. Instigated by Janni Younge, the Out the Box Festival developed under the leadership of Aja Marneweck and Younge into the largest international puppetry festival on the African continent. Out the Box began as a highly experimental one-day event of performances and workshops at the Little Theatre in Cape Town that grew exponentially within two years into the largest, and only, puppetry festival in Southern Africa. What made the festival unique was that it was run and created by puppeteers. The festival holds a large focus on experimentation, multidisciplinary crossovers and artistic development in fringe venues. Many international companies have performed on the festival including: Theatertjie Magische (The Netherlands); Théâtre des Alberts (Reunion); Neville Tranter; La Ribot (Switzerland); Beth MacMahon (Australia); The Kenyan Institute of Puppet Theatre; Les Grandes Personnes (France); and Drew Colby (UK) amongst others. In the initial period of its development, it also separated itself into two components – the adult festival and the children’s festival. This differentiation was designed to deliberately highlight the legitimacy of puppetry as an art form relevant to adult audiences.

Several new artistic voices are being heard in the arena of puppetry. The Space Behind the Couch under the direction of Beren Belknap creates puppet theatre and multimedia shows for adults and teens. Isibane, an Active Puppets graduate group, now performs in theaters and tours professionally. Jane Taylor, an established playwright and director has begun working as an independent puppet theatre director. FTH:K this firmly established visual performance group works with a cross-section of masks and puppets and is characterized by their strong physical performance. Jori Snell creates tightly choreographed visual performance works featuring object manipulation, projected imagery and puppet-like costumes. Illka Lowe, an established designer, has begun creating puppets and directing puppet theatre sometimes in partnership with Hilette Stapelberg. Stapelberg is a longstanding puppet builder who has recently become involved in creating puppets for large-scale productions and writing her own puppet theatre work. Ubom! creates physical object-based visual performance and puppet theatre for young audiences and adults. Cosmos Productions, directed by Jacqueline Van Meygaarden creates puppetry and physical performance theatre that centers on themes of environmental awareness.

Through a formalization of visual performance in the South African public sphere, a new market has emerged from the traditional public platforming categories. In offering puppetry and visual performance as a platform of its own, the 21st century South African puppetry scene has seen a decided growth in the number of puppetry artists, plasticians, companies and organizations dedicated to visual performance. The further introduction of the Handspring Awards for Puppetry in 2010 has further consolidated puppetry and visual performance as a genre of its own standing in South African arts and culture.

Article compiled by Alida van Deventer, Adrian Kohler, Aja Marneweck and Janni Younge