Playing the Ponies

Handspring Puppet Company’s War Horse

This spring Americans will have the exciting opportunity to experience the innovative craft of the internationally renowned Handspring Puppet Company in the production of War Horse at Lincoln Center in New York City. Their artistry resulted in the creation of the life-size horses that are the central focus of this unusual production. 

War Horse had two sold out seasons at the National Theatre in London, which commissioned its production, and where it received rave reviews and won Olivier, Evening Standard, and Critics' Circle Awards before transferring to the West End, where it broke all box office records for a play in London.  The Times of London described it as "so exhilarating that it makes you rejoice to be alive....Its sheer skill and invention are simply awe-inspiring."   The Sunday Express called it "an extraordinary piece of theater that is at once both epic and intimate...." a show for all ages and all time."  The show opens at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center on April 14th and previews start mid-March for a limited run.

Based on a celebrated children's book by Michael Morpurgo, the story is about Albert, a farm boy in England whose beloved horse Joey is sent to serve in the cavalry in France in WW I.  It follows the horse's harrowing experience on both sides of the war, and concludes with his previous owner's mission to find him and bring him home. In the book the story is narrated by Joey, but in the play he does not talk, so it was important to make him and the other horses in the play, the focal point of the story, believable. Their motions had to be realistic.

Created from bamboo, twine, exotic African woods, aircraft cables, black elastic, leather, mesh, cane and steel rods, each horse puppet is slightly larger than life and is operated by three puppeteers, who are responsible for what they refer to as the head, heart and hind.  Two puppeteers stand encased within the body of the horse--the heart and the hind--and a third is positioned outside the body, manipulating the head and the neck with an attached rod.  Subtle and very lifelike motions convey each horse's emotions and thoughts, such as the forward movement of pricked ears indicating interest, backward movement indicating fear or alarm, as well as the swish of a tail or the pawing of a hoof.

The creators carefully studied horse anatomy and bone structure so they could replicate as much as possible the animals' natural movements. A specialist aluminum welder who normally builds boats was enlisted to help construct the spine. The fabrication of the horses' legs posed problems relating to issues of weight, stress and rigidity, but after various trials an original solution was found. The cavalry horses had to be flexible but on the other hand also sturdy enough to support adult male riders--there is even a cavalry charge on stage--so these and various other  needs of the story presented engineering and construction challenges not found with smaller, more traditional puppets.  The solutions, some groundbreaking in the field of puppet-making, evolved over a period of trial and error in Capetown and London. More slightly technical details maybe be found in the article “A Statement of Practice: Handspring Puppet Company” in The Journal of Modern Craft, Vol.2-Issue3, November 2009.  The end results are “at once highly realistic and completely theatrical” concluded Jeff Lunden of NPR.

Handspring Puppet Company, two of whose co-founders, Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones, continue to run it, was founded in Capetown, South Africa in 1981.  Mr. Kohler's mother was a puppeteer and his father a shipwright, so he incorporates the techniques and tools of shipbuilding to create his puppets. The two men began working on productions for children and since have concentrated on works for adult audiences; Note: War Horse is appropriate for children but Lincoln Center restricts tickets to ages 10 and over. Continuing to be based in Capetown, the company has worked with celebrated South African directors, including artist William Kentridge, and their work has been presented at many international festivals, including Edinburgh, the Next Wave Festival at BAM in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Hong Kong, Singapore, Zurich and Bogota. There will be a future production of War Horse in Toronto and discussions are underway for other venues.  A new production for the Out of the Box Festival in Capetown is being worked on, and their "Woyzeck on the Highveld" will be shown in April at the Carolina Performing Arts Festival at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Mr. Kohler and Mr. Jones also just concluded a presentation at the prestigious TED Conference 2011 in California.

For more information on Handspring Puppet Company please visit  A handsome and informative book, Handspring Puppet Company, published in South Africa, explores their work in adult puppet theater, providing insights into their philosophy of puppetry and their technical innovations.  It is available at and will be sold at the souvenir booth at Lincoln Center, along with the DVD Making of Warhorse that provides an inside look of the actual making of the production. The DVD may be ordered from Clips may be found on, featuring the designers explaining the fabrication of the horse puppets and showing their actual movement. Photos of some of the puppets from the National Theater production may also be seen on the Lincoln Center Theater website

Alice Dana Spencer worked in production and fund-raising in public television (Channel 13, NYC), and later in museum education at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., arranging lectures, seminars and special events.  She has had a life-long interest in design, crafts, and the arts--museums in particular---and has been an avid supporter of Aid to Artisans.



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