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BWW Interview: Bringing Award-Winning Novel to Life Through Puppetry in LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K

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Ambitious co-production to combine puppets, performance, film and music at Baxter in June

BWW Interview: Bringing Award-Winning Novel to Life Through Puppetry in LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K

Adapted for stage by Lara Foot and in collaboration with Handspring Puppet Company, Nobel Prize-winning author JM Coetzee's LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K opens for a special preview season next month at Baxter Theatre Centre. Letting us in on their process of working with puppetry over the past four decades, Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of Handspring chat with BroadwayWorld.

BWW: To begin with, how did you both get started in puppetry?

Basil: I was 9. I found a toy theatre printed in a magazine where you cut out the various pieces of the stage, stuck them onto cardboard, and made your own theatre; including cut-out characters. I found it fascinating and an ideal form of expression for a rather shy kid.

Adrian: My mother was a puppeteer and art teacher in my home village of Redhouse (outside Gqeberha) There were always puppets around. I discovered they had power early on.

BWW: How did you come to found Handspring Puppet Company?

Basil: We were happily living in Botswana where Adrian was running a popular theatre programme in remote rural areas. He taught puppetry but was frustrated at not being able to perform himself. He began suggesting that we start our own puppet company and this BWW Interview: Bringing Award-Winning Novel to Life Through Puppetry in LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K happened to coincide with the fact that the National Museum and Art Gallery - where I worked - had just acquired a number of puppets from Mali in West Africa. They were like colourful moving sculptures - much more interesting than conventional puppets. I saw a potential direction for us to go in and agreed to start a company.

BWW: As a director, what is the biggest challenge of working with puppetry?

Adrian: The challenge for the director is understanding that the limitations of the puppet are its biggest advantage. It's a bundle of wood and joints that strives as hard as it can to represent life. Under the hands of master puppet actors, it can achieve this fleeting life. It flatters the life we daily take for granted.

BWW: Puppetry seems like an artform that has endless possibilities to it! How do ensure your ideas work on stage?

Basil: Whenever a story is proposed to us, the most important question to ask is: Why puppets for this story? With our plays for animals, the answer is easy: Because only a puppet can represent a horse in a two hour-long play. Michael K has a severe hare lip, so it's easier to make a puppet with a hare lip than make a prosthetic hare lip for an actor. But that's not the real reason why we're doing Michael K as a puppet play; it's something more than that. The puppet is a prosthesis of the self - like an artificial limb. I think we feel that only a prosthesis can truly represent an individual as dignified, otherworldly, and complex as the character of Michael K that Coetzee has invented.

BWW: How did Handspring get involved with LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K?

Adrian: Handspring and Lara Foot have for many years been talking about working together. Then the German biennial festival, Theater der Welt, approached Lara about a collaboration with the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus theatre, to be based on an adaptation of a South African novel. Lara approached us to collaborate. She said the choice is between Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm, or J.M. Coetzee's novel. We BWW Interview: Bringing Award-Winning Novel to Life Through Puppetry in LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K went for Coetzee. Not the easier choice but the one which felt more resonant of the times and challenges we face, both globally and in our own country.

BWW: What has been your favourite part of working with the cast and creative team of this production?

Basil: There is so much talent in both the cast and the creative team that I think of them as two strings of incredibly beautiful diamonds. It's not often that one has the opportunity to work with such talent.

Adrian: The willingness of a talented group of professionals, both veteran and younger newcomers, to embrace an epic South African story with puppets and actors, with such open hearts. The design works magnificently, and the music expands moments constantly, assisted with the sounds of city and country and war. It is such a willing team because the director absorbs ideas and energy from all around her and filters them into her vision; her way of filling in the human moments behind the words of the novel.

BWW: What can audiences look forward to the most with LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K?

Basil: Audiences must come to see a grand master of puppetry at work. Craig Leo is one of the world's best puppeteers. He spent two years in the West End as head of Joey in War Horse, but he's also got decades of experience as one of Handspring Puppet Company's lead performers. He will also be the lead manipulators and stilt walker in The Walk, which will see the giant of a little refugee girl was the length of Europe, starting in July this year. And the puppets have been designed and made by Adrian Kohler are superb. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest puppet designers with work in the Victoria and Albert Museum. This will be absolutely world-class puppet theatre, telling a much-loved story by South Africa's Nobel Prize-winning author.

BWW Interview: Bringing Award-Winning Novel to Life Through Puppetry in LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHAEL K

BWW: To end, 2021 marks the 40-year anniversary since Handspring Puppet Company was founded. Any special performances planned to mark this?

Adrian: LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHEAL K is about as special as you can get. Apart from the fact that it is actually going ahead in these difficult times - a tribute to the dogged determination of everyone involved - to be finding out that after 40 years in the business we are still discovering new aspects of our theatre craft is cause enough for a 40-year celebration.

Photo credit: Supplied


LIFE AND TIMES OF MICHEAL K, a Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus (Germany) and Baxter Theatre co-production, world premiere, opening the Theater der Welt Festival and livestreamed from The Baxter on 17 and 18 June 2021, to Düsseldorf and the world. Previews at the Baxter Theatre from 7 to 16 June 2021 at 7pm nightly. Booking for the Baxter special preview season is through Webtickets on 086 111 0005, online at www.webtickets.co.za or at any Pick n Pay store.


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