Cover Story

‘Between us’

Volume 15, Issue 2  | 
Published 18/11/2018

A puppetry performance on gender, race, identity and human rights

Puppetry is a form of theatre or performance that involves the manipulation of puppets – inanimate objects, often resembling some type of human or animal figure that are animated or manipulated by a human called a puppeteer. Such a performance is also known as a puppet play. The puppeteer uses movements of her hands, arms, or control devices such as rods or strings to move the body, head, limbs, and in some cases the mouth and eyes of the puppet. The puppeteer often speaks in the voice of the character of the puppet, and then synchronizes the movements of the puppet's mouth with this spoken part. The actions, gestures and spoken parts acted out by the puppets are typically used in storytelling.

This year, the SAMOSA Festival collaborated with the Kenya Institute of Puppetry (KIPT) to put together a puppetry show called ‘Between Us’ touching on SAMOSA’s theme ‘Beads of Hope’. The performance deftly navigated issues of discrimination and how one can go about their daily lives creating a more inclusive world. The first puppetry performance took place right after the Open Mic Night at the Alchemist to a rapturous audience. The puppeteers then went to Korogocho, to the Hope Raisers space in Bega Kwa Bega to hold a puppetry workshop for youth involved in theatre and performing arts. Using sock puppets to teach the tenants of puppetry, old and young got engaged and absorbed making their own puppets. They then put on a show for hundreds of children. SAMOSA would like to thank Hope Raisers for hosting the workshop and performance. Hope Raisers is a CBO that aims to empower youths and children through arts and sports to become agents for positive social change.

SAMOSA interviewed Tony Kasmall on puppetry and what it was like collaborating with the Festival.

Tony Kasmall is the Artistic Director of the Kenya Institute of Puppetry (KIPT), where he consults with and trains puppeteers; as well as conceptualizing and coordinating all the artistic projects at the Institute. He’s also a puppeteer and voice artist with the XYZ Show.

Why do you think puppetry is an important art form? Do you think it’s taken seriously in the Kenyan art scene?

Initially, like ten years ago puppetry was not considered a serious or important art form in the Kenyan art platform. However, through our efforts we have been able to solidly establish puppetry as a major art form in the Kenyan arts landscape.  This has been achieved through training of puppeteers across the country, designing of puppetry projects with other networks, organizing puppetry festivals and securing a place for puppetry in the Kenyan television industry.  Puppetry can and has been used to address serious issues like HIV/AIDS, corruption, governance, drug and substance abuse among others. Puppetry has the ability to speak about serious issues in a light manner thus breaking communication, ethnic, racial and cultural barriers.  It is this ability to break these barriers that makes puppetry such a unique art form.


What was the piece you did for SAMOSA, ‘Between Us’ about?

‘Between Us’ was a multimedia performance that used puppetry as its main discourse.  Exploring the issues of stigma and discrimination due to gender, race, orientation and other prejudices. This was presented through the use of day-to-day objects, large and miniature puppets, masks and music.

How long did it take you to prepare for ‘Between Us’?

The piece took 21 days from conceptualization to performance. 7 days were spent devising the piece and creating the concept. An additional 7 days were spent constructing the visual images including puppets, objects and masks. The final 7 days were spent in rehearsals and polishing the technical aspects of the show. ‘Between Us’ is still a work in progress and a lot more input will be added before we can finally say it is completely ready.

I love that you used Harry Belafonte’s music in the performance. Was there a reason behind that?

Yes Harry Belafonte was a great friend of Jim Henson, the creator of ‘the Muppets’ and a huge inspiration to me and one of the reasons I wanted to become a puppeteer in the first place. Harry Belafonte performed the ‘Earth Song’ we used in the performance, on the Muppet Show with puppets designed to look like African masks. He is also a great civil rights activist and social justice warrior.

Why is it important for you to talk about social justice issues through puppetry?

Puppetry presents a mirror to society to see itself, laugh at itself or cry at itself. Through this mirror individuals in society are able to see themselves as who they truly are.  It is in this bringing down the complex issues of social justice to the level where the communities are able to see and discuss them in a light manner and to contemplate a solution that makes puppetry an important art form. Puppetry can engage people of all ages, races, and backgrounds and still maintain its neutrality. Therein lies the uniqueness of puppetry. 


What was it like working with SAMOSA?

Working with Samosa was a process of creating relationships with festival organisers, cultural and historical activists, other creative groups, writers, filmmakers, young people and a lot of other key people in the artistic landscape. Working with SAMOSA gave us an opportunity to challenge our artistic abilities, to create networks with other players. SAMOSA opened our eyes to the Kenyan historical landscape from a different perspective. 

Why do you think KIPT and Samosa are a good fit?

KIPT and Samosa are a good fit as both are striving to create spaces where Kenyans can interact with different cultural and artistic genres and to present different performance techniques. 

What is the difference between performing at the Alchemist and Korogocho?

The Alchemist is a great conventional space that provided us with an opportunity to present our show with a degree of professionalism and great technical input.  The audience at the Alchemist was very responsive in applauding the performance and congratulating the performers, it was a great evening.  However performing in Korogocho was a whole different experience. Performing in an open air space with no raised platform brought the show to the level of the community provided a two-way interaction between the performance and the audience. Communities and most importantly young people in places like Korogocho need to know that they have the potential to achieve great things. It is through inspiration from performances like ours and other interactions that they can be able to challenge themselves in life.  Performing in such places inspires, challenges and offers opportunities for young people.

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