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  • Adrian Kohler: Well, we're here today

  • to talk about the evolution of a puppet horse.

  • Basil Jones: But actually we're going to start this evolution

  • with a hyena.

  • AK: The ancestor of the horse.

  • Okay, we'll do something with it.

  • (Laughter)

  • Hahahaha.

  • The hyena is the ancestor of the horse

  • because it was part of a production

  • called "Faustus in Africa,"

  • a Handspring Production from 1995,

  • where it had to play draughts with Helen of Troy.

  • This production was directed

  • by South African artist and theater director,

  • William Kentridge.

  • So it needed a very articulate front paw.

  • But, like all puppets, it has other attributes.

  • BJ: One of them is breath,

  • and it kind of breathes.

  • AK: Haa haa haaa.

  • BJ: Breath is really important for us.

  • It's the kind of original movement

  • for any puppet for us onstage.

  • It's the thing that distinguishes the puppet --

  • AK: Oops.

  • BJ: From an actor.

  • Puppets always have to try to be alive.

  • It's their kind of ur-story onstage,

  • that desperation to live.

  • AK: Yeah, it's basically a dead object, as you can see,

  • and it only lives

  • because you make it.

  • An actor struggles to die onstage,

  • but a puppet has to struggle to live.

  • And in a way that's a metaphor for life.

  • BJ: So every moment it's on the stage, it's making the struggle.

  • So we call this

  • a piece of emotional engineering

  • that uses up-to-the-minute

  • 17th century technology --

  • (Laughter)

  • to turn nouns

  • into verbs.

  • AK: Well actually I prefer to say

  • that it's an object

  • constructed out of wood and cloth

  • with movement built into it

  • to persuade you to believe that it has life.

  • BJ: Okay so.

  • AK: It has ears that move passively

  • when the head goes.

  • BJ: And it has these bulkheads

  • made out of plywood,

  • covered with fabric --

  • curiously similar, in fact,

  • to the plywood canoes

  • that Adrian's father used to make

  • when he was a boy in their workshop.

  • AK: In Port Elizabeth, the village outside Port Elizabeth in South Africa.

  • BJ: His mother was a puppeteer.

  • And when we met at art school

  • and fell in love

  • in 1971,

  • I hated puppets.

  • I really thought they were so beneath me.

  • I wanted to become an avant-garde artist --

  • and Punch and Judy was certainly not where I wanted to go.

  • And, in fact, it took about 10 years

  • to discover

  • the Bambara Bamana puppets of Mali in West Africa,

  • where there's a fabulous tradition of puppetry,

  • to learn a renewed, or a new, respect

  • for this art form.

  • AK: So in 1981, I persuaded Basil and some friends of mine

  • to form a puppet company.

  • And 20 years later, miraculously,

  • we collaborated with a company from Mali,

  • the Sogolon Marionette Troupe of Bamako,

  • where we made a piece about a tall giraffe.

  • It was just called "Tall Horse," which was a life-sized giraffe.

  • BJ: And here again, you see the same structure.

  • The bulkheads have now turned into hoops of cane,

  • but it's ultimately the same structure.

  • It's got two people inside it on stilts,

  • which give them the height,

  • and somebody in the front

  • who's using a kind of steering wheel to move that head.

  • AK: The person in the hind legs

  • is also controlling the tail, a bit like the hyena --

  • same mechanism, just a bit bigger.

  • And he's controlling the ear movement.

  • BJ: So this production

  • was seen by Tom Morris

  • of the National Theatre in London.

  • And just around that time,

  • his mother had said,

  • "Have you seen this book by Michael Morpurgo

  • called 'War Horse'?"

  • AK: It's about a boy who falls in love with a horse.

  • The horse is sold to the First World War,

  • and he joins up to find his horse.

  • BJ: So Tom gave us a call and said,

  • "Do you think you could make us a horse

  • for a show to happen at the National Theatre?"

  • AK: It seemed a lovely idea.

  • BJ: But it had to ride. It had to have a rider.

  • AK: It had to have a rider,

  • and it had to participate in cavalry charges.

  • (Laughter)

  • A play about early 20th century plowing technology

  • and cavalry charges

  • was a little bit of a challenge for the accounting department

  • at the National Theatre in London.

  • But they agreed to go along with it for a while.

  • So we began with a test.

  • BJ: This is Adrian and Thys Stander,

  • who went on to actually design the cane system for the horse,

  • and our next-door neighbor Katherine,

  • riding on a ladder.

  • The weight is really difficult when it's up above your head.

  • AK: And once we put Katherine

  • through that particular brand of hell,

  • we knew that we might be able to make a horse, which could be ridden.

  • So we made a model.

  • This is a cardboard model,

  • a little bit smaller than the hyena.

  • You'll notice that the legs are plywood legs

  • and the canoe structure is still there.

  • BJ: And the two manipulators are inside.

  • But we didn't realize at the time

  • that we actually needed a third manipulator,

  • because we couldn't manipulate the neck

  • from inside

  • and walk the horse at the same time.

  • AK: We started work on the prototype

  • after the model was approved,

  • and the prototype took a bit longer

  • than we anticipated.

  • We had to throw out the plywood legs and make new cane ones.

  • And we had a crate built for it.

  • It had to be shipped to London.

  • We were going to test-drive it on the street outside of our house in Cape Town,

  • and it got to midnight and we hadn't done that yet.

  • BJ: So we got a camera,

  • and we posed the puppet

  • in various galloping stances.

  • And we sent it off

  • to the National Theatre,

  • hoping that they believed

  • that we created something that worked.

  • (Laughter)

  • AK: A month later, we were there in London

  • with this big box and a studio full of people about to work with us.

  • BJ: About 40 people.

  • AK: We were terrified.

  • We opened the lid, we took the horse out,

  • and it did work; it walked and it was able to be ridden.

  • Here I have an 18-second clip

  • of the very first walk of the prototype.

  • This is in the National Theatre studio,

  • the place where they cook new ideas.

  • It had by no means got the green light yet.

  • The choreographer, Toby Sedgwick,

  • invented a beautiful sequence

  • where the baby horse,

  • which was made out of sticks and bits of twigs,

  • grew up into the big horse.

  • And Nick Starr, the director of the National Theatre,

  • saw that particular moment, he was standing next to me -- he nearly wet himself.

  • And so the show was given the green light.

  • And we went back to Cape Town and redesigned the horse completely.

  • Here is the plan.

  • (Laughter)

  • And here is our factory in Cape Town

  • where we make horses.

  • You can see quite a lot of skeletons in the background there.

  • The horses are completely handmade.

  • There is very little 20th century technology in them.

  • We used a bit of laser cutting on the plywood

  • and some of the aluminum pieces.

  • But because they have to be light and flexible,

  • and each one of them is different,

  • they can't be mass-produced, unfortunately.

  • So here are some half-finished horses

  • ready to be worked in London.

  • And now we would like to introduce you

  • to Joey.

  • Joey boy, you there?

  • Joey.

  • (Applause)

  • (Applause)

  • Joey.

  • Joey, come here.

  • No, no, I haven't got it.

  • He's got it; it's in his pocket.

  • BJ: Joey.

  • AK: Joey, Joey, Joey, Joey.

  • Come here. Stand here where people can see you.

  • Move around. Come on.

  • I'd just like to describe --

  • I won't talk too loud. He might get irritated.

  • Here, Craig is working the head.

  • He has bicycle brake cables

  • going down to the head control in his hand.

  • Each one of them

  • operates either an ear, separately,

  • or the head, up and down.

  • But he also controls the head directly

  • by using his hand.

  • The ears are obviously

  • a very important emotional indicator of the horse.

  • When they point right back,

  • the horse is fearful or angry,

  • depending upon what's going on in front of him, around him.

  • Or, when he's more relaxed, the head comes down

  • and the ears listen, either side.

  • Horses' hearing is very important.

  • It's almost more important than their eyesight.

  • Over here,

  • Tommy's got what you call the heart position.

  • He's working the leg.

  • You see the string tendon from the hyena,

  • the hyena's front leg,

  • automatically pulls the hoop up.

  • (Laughter)

  • Horses are so unpredictable.

  • (Laughter)

  • The way a hoof comes up with a horse

  • immediately gives you the feeling

  • that it's a convincing horse action.

  • The hind legs have got the same action.

  • BJ: And Mikey also has,

  • in his fingers,

  • the ability to move the tail

  • from left to right,

  • and up and down with the other hand.

  • And together, there's quite a complex possibility

  • of tail expression.

  • AK: You want to say something about the breathing?

  • BJ: We had a big challenge with breathing.

  • Adrian thought

  • that he was going to have to split the chest of the puppet in two

  • and make it breathe like that --

  • because that's how a horse would breathe, with an expanded chest.

  • But we realized

  • that, if that were to be happening,

  • you wouldn't, as an audience, see the breath.

  • So he made a channel in here,

  • and the chest moves up and down in that channel.

  • So it's anti-naturalistic really, the up and down movement,

  • but it feels like breath.

  • And it's very, very simple

  • because all that happens

  • is that the puppeteer breathes with his knees.

  • AK: Other emotional stuff.

  • If I were to touch the horse here

  • on his skin,

  • the heart puppeteer can shake the body from inside

  • and get the skin to quiver.

  • You'll notice, of course,

  • that the puppet is made out of cane lines.