Visiting groups have played a part in the development of a European-influenced puppet theatre that developed in South Africa, particularly in the Colonial community. Cross pollination between European, African and Eastern forms of puppetry have contributed however to much more complex interdisciplinary performance styles that define South African puppetry in the 21st century.
Throughout the 19th century the Cape Colony was visited periodically by travelling groups of puppeteers from Europe, starting with a shadow play from France in 1805. Local forms of these Western puppet theatre traditions began to develop in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the pioneers was Estelle van der Merwe who, working in Parys in the Orange Free State from 1931, developed a series of plays for her wooden puppets based on the stories of Honiball, the Afrikaans writer. In the 1940s the art form received a significant boost when sculptors, like Frieda Ollemans, and set designers, like John Dronafield, became involved with a group of puppeteers based in Cape Town.
The personality who drew these artists together was John Wright. He was a leading set designer who in 1941 began mounting marionette productions, some based on African stories, which played in Cape Town theatres and eventually toured around southern Africa as far north as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe/Zambia). In 1946, he moved to London where he set up the Little Angel Marionette Company. His artistry, professionalism and theatricality were a huge inspiration to those who followed him and a significant number of young puppeteers visited him or studied with him in London.
In Johannesburg, the Canadian puppeteer, Marion Beach, established the Canames Marionettes in 1941. From 1944 to 1952 they performed under the umbrella of Children’s Theatre Incorporated, with a repertoire of European children’s stories. The career of Gawie de Wet, South Africa’s first post-colonial professional black puppeteer, began in the 1950s. He grew up on a farm in the Karoo. At an early age, his parents taught him to manipulate traditional figures between his toes. He became one of the first teachers to use puppets as an educational medium. Study in Germany strengthened his technique and confidence, and very gradually he won the support of the educational authorities. When ill health forced him to retire as a teacher in 1982, he became a full-time puppeteer, travelling extensively in the Cape Town region. Also in Cape Town, Keith Anderson began a long association with puppet theatre in 1951 with the establishment of the Pelham Puppets.