It was through the need for a formal public platform in which to develop the work of professional puppeteers and innovation in the art form in South Africa, that South Africa’s first puppetry festival came into being in 2005. Instigated by Janni Younge, the Out the Box Festival developed under the leadership of Aja Marneweck and Younge into the largest international puppetry festival on the African continent. Out the Box began as a highly experimental one-day event of performances and workshops at the Little Theatre in Cape Town that grew exponentially within two years into the largest, and only, puppetry festival in Southern Africa. What made the festival unique was that it was run and created by puppeteers. The festival holds a large focus on experimentation, multidisciplinary crossovers and artistic development in fringe venues. Many international companies have performed on the festival including: Theatertjie Magische (The Netherlands); Théâtre des Alberts (Reunion); Neville Tranter; La Ribot (Switzerland); Beth MacMahon (Australia); The Kenyan Institute of Puppet Theatre; Les Grandes Personnes (France); and Drew Colby (UK) amongst others. In the initial period of its development, it also separated itself into two components – the adult festival and the children’s festival. This differentiation was designed to deliberately highlight the legitimacy of puppetry as an art form relevant to adult audiences.
Several new artistic voices are being heard in the arena of puppetry. The Space Behind the Couch under the direction of Beren Belknap creates puppet theatre and multimedia shows for adults and teens. Isibane, an Active Puppets graduate group, now performs in theaters and tours professionally. Jane Taylor, an established playwright and director has begun working as an independent puppet theatre director. FTH:K this firmly established visual performance group works with a cross-section of masks and puppets and is characterized by their strong physical performance. Jori Snell creates tightly choreographed visual performance works featuring object manipulation, projected imagery and puppet-like costumes. Illka Lowe, an established designer, has begun creating puppets and directing puppet theatre sometimes in partnership with Hilette Stapelberg. Stapelberg is a longstanding puppet builder who has recently become involved in creating puppets for large-scale productions and writing her own puppet theatre work. Ubom! creates physical object-based visual performance and puppet theatre for young audiences and adults. Cosmos Productions, directed by Jacqueline Van Meygaarden creates puppetry and physical performance theatre that centers on themes of environmental awareness.
Through a formalization of visual performance in the South African public sphere, a new market has emerged from the traditional public platforming categories. In offering puppetry and visual performance as a platform of its own, the 21st century South African puppetry scene has seen a decided growth in the number of puppetry artists, plasticians, companies and organizations dedicated to visual performance. The further introduction of the Handspring Awards for Puppetry in 2010 has further consolidated puppetry and visual performance as a genre of its own standing in South African arts and culture.