The Cape Town-based company has already accepted the honour for the 2011 Tony Awards taking place later this year.
The award was an exclusive one, meaning that no other puppet-making companies were eligible for it.
Basil Jones, Handspring co-founder, said: “It was wonderful to be able to announce it on the factory floor.”
The award will be presented to the company on 12 June 2011 at the 65th Annual Tony Awards ceremony.
Another South African export, world-renowned playwright Athol Fugard, will be honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the ceremony.
Horses at war
The life-size cane and plywood horses used for the play, War Horse, have earned the puppet company kudos for its contribution to the creative industry. The play received five nominations – Best Play; Best direction of a play; Best scenic design of a play; Best lighting design of a play and Best sound design of a play.
The play, which premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2007 and started its Broadway run in April 2011, depicts the story of a boy’s horse taken by the British cavalry to participate in World War One. It is based on the 1982 novel of the same name, written by British poet, playwright and children’s author Michael Morpurgo.
Jones said: “The roots of War Horse were in a production called Tall Horse that Handspring did with a Malian puppet company and which a National Theatre creative team saw in South Africa.”
“We had hoped the National Theatre would take Tall Horse, which featured a giraffe, to London, but instead they came to Handspring with a proposal to do work based on animals and war,” added Jones.
The horses were made by a team of 12 craftsmen using durable material to make sure the wear and tear of the horses didn’t affect the play during its running.
The horses lasted for 1 000 performances and didn’t need professional puppeteers to work them, although Handspring sent a puppeteer to help during the first season of the play.
For its use of these magnificent creations, the London run of War Horse won an Olivier Award, an Evening Standard Theatre Award and the London Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for design.
The 30-year-old puppet company has collaborated with many innovative South Africans in the creative industry, including theatre directors Malcolm Purkey and Barney Simon and renowned painter, filmmaker and director William Kentridge.
Kentridge, who has worked closely with the company, said: “Audiences see the puppeteers at work in pieces like War Horse but you can’t stop yourself believing the reality of those horses, it’s kind of magical.
“I think it’s fantastic that their years of work and their extraordinary skill get this recognition.”
Kentridge and Handspring first collaborated in 1992 on a play based on German playwright Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck on the Highveld.
Awarding theatrical excellence
The Tony Awards were established in 1947 after the American Theatre Wing sought a way to award those who excelled in theatre.
The Tony Award is regarded in the arts industry as theatre’s most prestigious accolade.
The awards were named after Antoinette Perry, an actress, director, producer and philanthropist, who was the leader of the American Theatre Wing during World War Two and had recently passed.
Although the Tonys were established in 1947, for the first two years of the awards there was no medallion to go with the award.
The medallion was design by Herman Rosse in 1949, after the designers union, United Scenic Artists, sponsored a medallion design contest and has been used ever since.