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'War Horse' creators' incredible life-size puppets

From Diane McCarthy, CNN
December 27, 2011 -- Updated 1120 GMT (1920 HKT)
Adrian Kohler (foreground) and Basil Jones (back) manipulate a rhino for the Handspring Puppet Company's "Woyzeck on the Highveld" show. Adrian Kohler (foreground) and Basil Jones (back) manipulate a rhino for the Handspring Puppet Company's "Woyzeck on the Highveld" show.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler are the co-founders of the Handspring Puppet Company
  • They've created the life-sized horse puppets for award-winning play 'War Horse'
  • The South African duo have created some of their country's most successful theater pieces

Editor's note: Every week CNN International's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera.

(CNN) -- With their magnificent puppets, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler have been pushing theatergoers' experiences to new heights, casting a spell on audiences across the world.

The South African duo are the co-founders of the Handspring Puppet Company, creators of the astounding life-sized horse puppets that take over the stage in the award-winning play "War Horse."

In June, the two artists, who are also partners in life, were the recipients of an honorary Tony Award in New York, a distinction marking the culmination of many years of beautiful, thought-provoking puppetry from the company they founded three decades ago.

"It's a wonderful thing to be happening as we hit 30 years of our company and 40 years of our relationship together and 60 years on the planet, (as) we turn 60," says Jones.

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It's been a long journey for the two creative men who met at a South African art school in the 1970s, a time when all young white males were compelled to serve for a year in the armed forces of the apartheid government.

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Jones and Kohler decided not to join the army and fled to Botswana's capital, Gaborone, where many of their compatriots had also found shelter.

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"It was an incredibly happening place for South Africans and two white gay guys from South Africa kind of plunging themselves into the heart of the cultural African National Congress," says Kohler.

"I think we sorted ourselves out then, and then came back to South Africa with intentions of trying to use theater as a means to educate kids of a possible different kind of future," he adds.

Having started their career with children's plays, Jones and Kohler moved later onto works for adult audiences.

They ended up creating some of their country's most successful theater pieces, often in collaboration with renowned South African artist William Kentridge.

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Having excited South African audiences for decades, the duo have recently exploded onto the international stage following the phenomenal success of "War Horse."

The play, based on the celebrated novel by Michael Morpurgo, centers around the immense love of a boy for his horse against the background of World War I.

Puppets celebrate and lyricize the everyday and the ordinary, they make our everyday lives epic, huge.
Basil Jones, HPC

The moving tale has become a major hit -- it is running in both New York and London, it's about open to open in Toronto and Melbourne and it's also slated to tour the United States within the year. It is also the newest film from blockbuster director Steven Spielberg.

"It's become a phenomenon. It's strange to understand why, but it's taken off everywhere; by the end of next year there will be six productions running," says Kohler.

On stage, Jones and Kohler's creations seem to occupy another space, creating a mesmerizing spectacle for their viewers.

"Puppets celebrate and lyricize the everyday and the ordinary, they make our everyday lives epic, huge," says Jones.

"We feel very lucky to be a part of this profession that is reinventing itself in the 21st century," adds Kohler. "In a time of CGI graphics, in movies where anything fantastical is possible, the puppets somehow are staking their claim for a handmade theatrical experience that can transport an audience in a different way."

Despite all the success garnered from War Horse, Jones and Kohler are determined not to rest on their laurels. They admit that they are currently floating in a "sea of possibilities" but have to be careful about their future choices.

"At the moment we're kind of saying no to big shows, let's rather do smaller local things, and that's giving us a tremendous amount of feedback and enjoyment," says Jones.

Jones and Kohler have also set up a non-profit organization focused on developmental work in rural communities in South Africa, seeking to explore the boundaries of new puppet theater forms.

"We think of Handspring more now as a platform for excellence in puppetry and we're inviting newcomers onto that platform as a place where we can present new ideas in our art form," says Jones.

"We're not going to be around forever -- there is a lot of talent coming up and if they're interested in puppets, we're thrilled," adds Kohler.

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

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