(Published - 20 March 2020)
“Humanity has always been in a particular relationship with technology – the bow and arrow, cultivated seeds, fire, voice mail, food-blenders. In some ways, human beings can even be said to be part technology - and as we rely more and more on artificial intelligence, pace-makers, artificial limbs - as we transform even further - we need some way of understanding what we are becoming.”
For Professor Jane Taylor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), that way is simple: puppetry.
“The relationship between the organic and the technical - what we might think of as puppetry - has been with our species for millennia,” she says.
As the Andrew W Mellon Chair of Aesthetic Theory and Material Performance at UWC’s Centre for Humanities Research (CHR), and a celebrated scholar and creative puppeteer in her own right, Prof Taylor knows what she’s talking about.
She explains that work in puppetry arts has, for many years, helped mankind to understand the complex psychology, philosophy and artistry of new ways in which we live.
“It is one thing to tell a class of students that there is something uncanny and irresistible about a wooden ape who is engaged in activity in the corner of the room, but it is another thing for the students to watch a performance in which a wooden ape attempts to play the piano. The history of tool use in primates is an abstract idea, but it is an unforgettable event to watch a wooden chimp learning how to catch termites with a stick.”
Puppetry arts have made significant advances in the past 20 years, in large part because of the global impact of the artistry of Cape Town’s own Handspring Puppet Company.
uKwanda worked with the Handspring Puppet Company and were responsible for helping to build the War Horse puppets and award-winning performances, giving rise to a powerfully moving and imaginative drama that was seen by over nine million people worldwide. When that came to an end, they built their own company, and CHR fostered a dynamic partnership with the Handspring Puppet Company to build the next generation of Handspring puppets.
Puppetry: Helping Youth Dream Big In Barrydale
In 2011 the CHR established a partnership with colleagues in the arts as well as with the Handspring Puppet Company to give support to the Little Karoo town of Barrydale through a rural arts initiative.
“Like so many Karoo towns, the place had been split during the apartheid years, and the families of allegedly mixed descent were displaced from what was to become a white town,” Prof Taylor explains. “The displaced members of the community were relocated to Smitsville, a township on the outskirts of the whitened village. It became our purpose to work with puppets that could parade between the two fragments of the broken community, and to work toward the integration of a historically shattered group of people.”
The Barrydale Performance, a partnership between Net vir Pret and the CHR, is a highlight on the South African creative calendar, and brings community performers together with leading local and international artists.
“The community co-creates the parade and performance, using puppetry as a metaphoric and mythic tool to explore their own complex legacies of identity, cultural heritage, ecology and community,” notes Aja Marneweck, CHR-based Puppetry and Theatre Fellow in the Laboratory of Kinetic Objects (LoKO), and director of the annual parade since 2014.
In June puppeteers from Net vir Pret and CHR will be working with Marneweck and award-winning visual and live artist Marcus Neustetter on a large performance project at the Vrystaat Arts Festival (https://www.vrystaatkunstefees.co.za/en/home/), working with puppets designed and made by Ukwanda Puppet Company, in site-specific performances across the city of Bloemfontein.
“The process offers the community an artistic engagement, not only with making and creating original puppets, but also with magical realist thinking and experiences. It facilitates a creative exploration of the possibility for self and communal renewal in this complex landscape.”