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edition 35: autumn 2011

The Handspring Experience

Isobel Smith is immersed in the working practice of the legendary Handspring Puppet Company

Today I am thrilled to be taking part in The Handspring Experience, a day-long workshop hosted by Puppet Centre to explore the practice of Handspring Puppet Company, giving participants a glimpse into the experience of the cast and crew of Woyzeck on the Highveld.

The workshop is designed to give each of us a taste of what it might be like to work on various aspects of a Handspring production, including training and performance practice, puppetry manipulation, technique, technical staging and performing the work.

What a fantastic opportunity! I'm not alone in thinking so: the Lower Hall at Battersea Arts Centre is heaving with Handspring enthusiasts, buzzing with anticipation.

Session 1: Voice and Movement with Mncedisi Shabangu and Hamilton Dlhamini

'“Mnc”, pronounced less like a click, more a baby kiss!' Teases Mncedisi Shabangu, who began life in a small town in South Africa which hadn't even a word for 'theatre'. His introduction to acting came via his political activist auntie and father. They would stage political plays, film them, and distribute them throughout South Africa.

Mncedisi's acting debut was in one such play, and his performance impressed the crew and the girls. Loving the attention and keen for more he began to teach himself English, starting with a Celine Dion LP – he studied song lyrics and learned them.

Mncedisi's interest in acting grew with his vocabulary and record collection, leading him first to Johannesburg, then to Paris to dance, and finally back to South Africa where he found his voice at last as an actor/director. He worked with Hamilton. Then things started to happen in a big way.

Hamilton Dlhamani taught himself English from books, magazines and cowboy movies. He realised he had to speak English to be employable in film and TV. In South Africa all films at the time were about crime, guns and violence. Hamilton wanted something different, to do his own thing and tell stories his own way. He hadn't thought about puppets at all, except sock puppets for children, but when he saw Handspring's The Chimp, Hamilton was wowed and dreamt of working for them.

Mncedisi had been working for Handspring and he recommended Hamilton to them as a puppeteer for Woyzeck on the Highveld. Hamilton was thrilled and began a two-week express course in puppetry before the show opened at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. No time to think, no turning back.

Now, they've have been working together on Woyzeck on the Highveld for three years.

With the fascinating introductions over it was time for the workshop to begin. Hamilton leads: 'We will share experiences of rhythm, feet and movement. Paint pictures in our imaginations. This is how we make a show.' And off we go, guided expertly by Hamilton and Mncedisi.

With eyes closed we imagine ourselves in detail, then describe what we see out loud and all together. Now we imagine we are standing in front of ourselves and describe out loud what we see, noticing the differences between our two selves. Next we send our imaginary self for a walk and follow them, copying them closely. Then we find a (real) partner and send them on a walk – follow and copy.

We all lie on the floor and relax 'into the ground', imagining ourselves as marionettes. The strings are pulled and we lift a leg, two legs, an arm, both legs, then we are rolling and stretching over and over again, faster and faster. Slowly we get to our feet and begin to march around the room. A natural rhythm emerges and we are encouraged to go with it, adding clapping and then chanting, chanting and replying, still marching, some workshop participants are asked to contribute an action, everyone copies and it builds into a complicated and exhilarating choreography. Everyone is totally engaged and it is hanging together, just!

'OK,' says Hamilton, 'we have a show.'

Now, with no guidance we are instructed to 'replay' everything we have done so far! Eyes closed – off we go. I wish I had concentrated harder but relaxing into the exercise I to begin rely on my body memory, just one action after another, and I listen for clues from the other participants. With a little guidance from Mncedisi we all make it to the end together!

Now Hamilton steps in with a little effective direction and we are standing in a rank in the centre of the room, and a pair from the earlier 'partner following' exercise are invited to re-enact their moves. They step out into the space as the rest of us quietly march on the spot, watching. The pair finish, Hamilton sets a cue, we all clap and turn 180 degrees and watch another pair perform. We clap and crouch down on cue leaving one volunteer standing to speak out-loud the details of his 'imagined other self'.

The End!

We have just performed for an exhilarating 40 minutes, expertly directed by Hamilton and Mncedisi. Hamilton is very keen for us to get together and make this into a show. 'People want stories, put in your own details, share them, add some music. Keep it simple and well executed and it will shape up into something wonderful.'

Thank you Handspring, Hamilton and Mncedisi, for generously sharing your fantastic process!

Session 2: Puppetry Manipulation with Handspring puppeteers Jason Potgieter and Nkosinathi Gaar

Busi (the longest serving member of Handspring) and Nkosinathi are tearing large squares of brown paper as Jason introduces us to Handspring's current definition of puppetry: 'Puppetry is simply when a person manipulates an object in front of an audience.'

He defines Handspring's Five Principals of Puppetry: Breath, Eyeline, Rhythm, Physics, Intention (BERPI).

1. Breath.

Sitting in a circle, we are asked to consider breath – that everything living breathes and breath connects us with spirit. Jason describes a breath cycle as: 'Inhalation – pregnant pause, exhalation – void pause.' We each take a piece of brown paper and there is a terrific sound as everyone scrunches them up. We are instructed to 'take the object to our self and then take our self to the object'. This 'bringing it back and taking it down' is a key principle in Handspring's puppetry technique.

Thinking about breath and emotion, Jason reminds us of the very specific language of breath, a language that transcends speech, encouraging us to begin breathing along with our paper 'puppet'; all around the circle the paper squares are coming to life, and as we try using the puppet's breathing to express different emotional states Nkosinathi asks us to pay particular attention to the transitions between states and the expressive potential of transitions.

Jason recommends that puppeteers write a 'Breath Story'. Like a musical score for a show, it marks the extreme emotions, periods of rest and excitement and the fast/slow, deep/shallow elements of breathing for each puppet.

2. Eyeline

Sticking a pair of gaffer-tape 'eyes' onto our paper puppets we are exploring eyeline. Quite simply, Jason demonstrates 'Eyes On' – when the puppet is looking at an object/person correctly and is alive, ON – and 'Eyes Off' – when the puppet's eyes are off the mark, and the puppet is dead, OFF.

We pair up and take turns to follow our partner's finger with our puppet's eyes, correcting each other if we are 'OFF'. Jason asks us to consider 'hard gaze', when the puppet is looking at a specific thing with great intent, versus 'soft gaze', when it is remembering or thinking.

3. Rhythm

Imagining three mixing-desk-style sliders we move around the room trying different combinations:

Fast – slow
Heavy – light
Small – big

4. Physics

We move into groups of three and with more brown paper give our puppet a body, arms and legs. Next we practice moving our puppet together to jump, sleep and get up. We try obeying and disobeying the laws of physics. Jason advises us to always explore the materiality and particular qualities of a puppet before performing with it.

5. Intention

The final principal that Jason and Nkosinathi share is to give the puppet clearly defined goals and objectives, tactics and an inner narrative to avoid 'visual noise'. 'Slow down and reduce movement, stillness is thought,' says Jason.

Finally, Jason recommends working with a trusted director or 'outside eye' who can give essential feedback about the puppet's movements.

Thank you Jason and Nkosinathi for showing us some of Handspring's puppetry techniques.

Session 3: Tech session: An illustrated talk and Q&A with Wesley France (tech and lights) and Bruce Koch (stage manager)

We gather round the projection screen, and as the slideshow runs Bruce and Wesley chat about how Woyzeck on the Highveld came to be and the challenges of taking it on the road.

They recall William Kentridge's desire to mix puppetry with animation to see what emotional qualities he could get. They were two and a half weeks into rehearsals before all the bits of scenes began to come together and Woyzeck on the Highveld started to take shape.

The touring was complex in the beginning, with VHS projectors and mirrors, surtitles to organise in many languages. It toured all over China, South America, UK and Europe for eighteen years. Now, after a six-year hiatus, it is a much simpler affair with new technology from projectors to wireless radio mikes.

Session 4: A Q&A with the cast of Woyzeck on the Highveld

An enthusiastic discussion ensues:

Q. Why does Woyzeck on the Highveld use this type of puppets?
A. Adrian Kohler (founder member of Handspring) makes all the puppets. He prefers rod puppets to marionettes and enjoys developing the controls to his own style. The name Handspring comes from the idea that the soul of the puppet is in the palm of your hand, the soul springs from the palm of your hand into the puppet.

Q. Would an articulated jaw give the puppets more reality?
A. Adrian prefers a fixed expression, like acting with a mask.

Q. What do you rehearse with before the puppets are ready?
A. Our hands only!

Q. Was the script pre-written or developed in progress?
A. The Woyzeck on the Highveld script is a bunch of fragments, it was never completed. We perform the fragments in William [Kentridge]'s order.

Q. Do you play, research and develop ideas and then make the puppets?
A. No, the puppets are started and finished in the process.

Thank you everyone who made this wonderful, useful and informative workshop possible. Goodbye fellow participants, at least until we begin rehearsals for our performance of The Handspring Experience!


Isobel Smith attended the Handspring workshop 27 September 2011 at Battersea Arts Centre, London as part of a UK-wide programme to tie in with the company's Woyzeck on the Highveld tour. It was organised by Puppet Centre in collaboration with UK Arts International.

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