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South African puppeteers win Tony

- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 3, 2011

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - The South Africans who put horses on a New York stage have received special Tony recognition.

Cape Town's 30-year-old Handspring Puppet Company, which created the life-size and lifelike cane-and-plywood horse puppets for "War Horse," was named a special Tony award winner Tuesday. "War Horse" also received a best play nomination.

Basil Jones, a co-founder of Handspring, spoke to The Associated Press soon after learning _ and passing on _ the news.

"It was wonderful to be able to announce it on the factory floor 10 minutes ago," he said in a telephone interview.

Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo, the play about horses sent to the battlefields during World War I opened in 2007 at London's National Theatre. It opened in New York last month, and AP critic Mark Kennedy called it "astonishing."

Handspring has worked with leading South African artists, including painter, filmmaker and director William Kentridge. One of their earliest collaborations, 1992's "Woyzeck on the Highveld," based on German playwright's Georg Buchner unfinished 19th century masterpiece, is currently on tour.

Audiences see the puppeteers at work in pieces like `War Horse," but "you can't stop yourself believing the reality of those horses," Kentridge said. "It's kind of magical."

"I think it's fantastic that their years of work and their extraordinary skill gets this recognition," Kentridge said of the Tony. He noted that another South African, playwright Athol Fugard, received a special lifetime Tony Tuesday, calling the two awards evidence of years of creative achievement in his homeland.

Handspring work has appeared on stages in South Africa, Europe and the United States.

Jones said the roots of "War Horse" were in a production called "Tall Horse" Handspring did with a Malian puppet company, and which a National Theatre creative team saw in South Africa. Jones said he had hoped the National would take "Tall Horse," which featured a giraffe, to London. Instead, the National came to Handspring with a proposal to do a work based on animals and war.

Handspring had to come up with a way to portray a cavalry charge and riders on horses. Those and other challenges, Jones said, were overcome during workshops in 2005 and 2006. He said the National was ready whenever they needed help, with everything from choreography to wig-making.

"They put every resource at our disposal to make sure it was going to work," he said. "In every category, we were given every chance to succeed."

Twelve Handspring craftsmen created durable puppets _ some have lasted 1,000 performances. The puppets do not need to be worked by professional puppeteers, though Handspring sent one of its own puppeteers to London for the first season.

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