PE puppet master to be honoured

Handspring Puppet Company founders Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler
Picture: Supplied

Like many children, former Port Elizabeth theatre man and Tony Award winner Adrian Kohler loved puppets – but while embracing his creativity, his parents believed pursuing puppetry as a career would be a disaster.

Fortunately, they did not dissuade him too much as he went about making his creations in the family garage all those years ago.

Because that potentially disastrous job choice would result in untold acclaim for achievements in what Kohler says is sometimes regarded as a “minor art form”.

Kohler and partner Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company and War Horse fame, were back in the news this week when it was announced they would receive an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award next month.

Speaking to Weekend Post from his home in Cape Town, Kohler – who grew up in Redhouse – said he was absolutely delighted being acknowledged in this way “as we live and exist in a world that some regard as a minor form of arts”.

“The work of the puppet theatre is something that has been growing in stature for the last while and we’re very happy to be part of the growth locally and internationally because a lot more young artists are regarding it as something that has a lot more power on stage,” Kohler said.

Kohler, who is no stranger to awards, having won one of the most sought-after theatre awards in the world – his Tony – back in 2011, said being nominated for something or winning an award at home was wonderful.

“Our art form is small and we have to travel extensively to earn a living – and to be acknowledged at home feels really great,” he said.

The puppeteer said the Handspring Puppet Company was currently working on a project with Chinese and British actors which is yet to be announced.

“There’s not much I can say at this point as it’ll only be announced next year. We’ve got several other projects and one will be in Germany and the other in London.”

Kohler said his mother, Thelma, was an amateur puppeteer who, with his father as yacht builder and cabinetmaker, had given him a firm grounding in woodwork and the creation of moving figures.

“Working out of the garage at my home in Redhouse, I never thought my career would go where it has.

“Even though my parents had passions in the amateur puppet world, they thought it would be a disaster as a career.

“They encouraged me to continue making puppets from the garage but also wanted me to have a back-up, which was architecture,” he said.

Kohler’s Handspring Puppet Company – which he co-founded with Jones – produced and directed the famous life-sized horses created for War Horse, which is set during World War 1.

The play, featuring what are considered to be ground-breaking hand-crafted puppets, premiered in London in 2007 and went on to enjoy acclaim on the West End and on Broadway in New York until 2011.

When asked if he thought he would have been regarded as one of the world’s leading puppet-makers had he not been involved with War Horse, Kohler said his 30 years’ experience played a big role in him being prepared for the production.

“I couldn’t have done it unless I’d had 30 years’ experience.

“Of course, War Horse changed our lives and gave us an international platform on a huge scale. I’d say the 10 000 hours we spent on the horses helped a lot,” he said.

With the event taking place at the Maslow Hotel in Johannesburg on November 17, Kohler and Jones will receive awards in the visual arts category of what will be a 20-year awards celebration event.

“We have selected the theme of celebrating South African legends to honour not only this year’s selection of winners, but also the long legacy that comes with our awards,” ACT chief executive Marcus Desando said.

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