Chimps get closer to humans on Basel stage

Chimpanzee Ai arranges cutouts of Japanese characters. Researchers have explored the minds of the animals to discover their potential Keystone

One of the more unusual plays at this year's Theatre Festival Basel was the "Chimp Project" by the South African Handspring Puppet Company. The play was based on language experiments with chimpanzees, and ended the festival on Sunday.

This content was published on September 7, 2000 - 07:51

The play was about a chimpanzee called Lisa, who grew up in an urban apartment with her minder, Sonia, and was part of a language experiment in which she was taught sign language.

As Lisa grows into an adult chimp, she becomes more difficult to handle and is eventually sent to a camp in the Congo to be reintroduced into the wild.

When war breaks out, the camp is destroyed, and the minders and chimps get separated. Five years later, Sonia comes back to the area and tries to find Lisa.

"We were interested in exploring the similarities between chimps and humans", says actor, Basil Jones of the Handspring Puppet Company.

Jones and puppet creator, Adrian Kohler, researched "signage" - the exchange of language and knowledge across the species line. They also spent time with chimps on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1998.

"We have been true to reality, and tried to avoid introducing fantastical elements into the plot", says Jones.

Their research revealed that chimps trained to use sign language have mastered up to 2,000 words. They also learned that trained chimps have been observed "teaching" sign language to their siblings.

These discoveries have led some primatologists to call for chimps to be classified as a different species to the rest of the great apes. This view is supported by the fact that chimps are our closest animal relatives, sharing more than 98 per cent of our genes.

"Chimps teaching sign language to their little ones was for me the most interesting aspect", says Kohler. "It begs the question: can linguistic knowledge be introduced into a species like a virus, and then perpetuate itself?"

Christoph Stratenwerth, the director of the Theatre Festival Basel, was so intrigued by the project that he decided to commission the play without having seen it, along with the "Theaterformen" festival at this year's Hannover World Exhibition.

"I've read up on the whole debate, which is really about where nature ends and culture begins", Stratenwerth says. "Besides, a lot of research in the behaviour of animals has been done here in Basel, so I expect a certain popular interest."

The Handspring Puppet Company depends on such commissions from overseas. Although it considers itself privileged to still draw a small government grant in South Africa - where subsidies for the Arts have largely dried up in recent years - the group could not survive if it had to depend solely on audiences at home.

"Theatre in South Africa is in a bit of a crisis", says Kohler. "It is hard to compete against sports and television, especially since downtown venues like the Market Theatre in Johannesburg have become deserted at night. The white middle classes stay away."

Apart from plots, audiences have always been fascinated with the puppets Adrian Kohler has created since he and Jones founded the group 20 years ago. Kohler studied dozens of chimpanzee skeletons for the "Chimp Project".

"The amazing thing is that if you copy the details of their body - arm lengths and the size of their pelvis in relation to the limbs - the puppets begin to move almost naturally like chimps", he says.

Kohler borrowed puppet techniques used in Japan for the complicated finger movements of his puppets, which are manipulated on stage by two to three puppeteers. But he invented new puppet mechanics for the facial, leg and hip movements.

by Markus Haefliger

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