After meeting Lu Hai on the Western outskirts of Beijing, the next day I met with the Beijing Shadow Play Troupe in the heart of the city. Subway transfer after subway transfer, to walking, to cabbing, and finally I find myself a half a mile south of the Forbidden City in front of the Tian Qiao Acrobatics Theatre, in which the troupe is homesteaded.
It sits shyly back from the main road behind a very new movie theatre.
The troupe occupies a small room off the right of the entrance of the theatre. Inside is a bright shadow puppet light that’s been moved from behind the rehearsal screen to illuminate the room. There, around a large rectangular worktable, we sit and talk for hours.
Li Hong and her husband, Lu Bao Gong, are the opposite of Lu Hai. Boisterous, emphatic and animated. They introduce themselves in the typical fashion; starting with what generation shadow puppeteers they are and what international venues they’ve performed in. Lu Lao Shi (teacher) is a fifth generation Beijing shadow puppeteer and has performed in Japan, a few European countries, Los Angeles and “the place where the Marlboro Man lives” – which as far as I know is anywhere there are cows to be roped.
The two of them are an interesting pair. In tandem, they question me for the majority of our meeting. Why shadow puppetry? Why China? How did I find out about them? Do I like Buicks? They speak little about their work or lack thereof and instead engage me in a very detailed conversation about what I’d like to learn. This piques my interest. Everyone else who has offered to take me on as a student seems to do so with a shrug.
As an initiation, I’m asked to demonstrate how I use chopsticks. I pick up a pen and a few other objects and they declare me capable. Lu Lao Shi says, “if you can use chopsticks, you can learn to puppeteer.” Take note, people.
They are willing to let me learn the entire process: how to make a Beijing style cutting board, how to fashion my blades, design and cut puppets, paint hide, and perform. They even suggest I learn a little singing while I’m at it. We’ll see how far we get in the next couple of weeks.
As Li Hong walks me out to the bus stop, she asks me who else I’m studying with. I mention a few people I’ve met and that I’m going to GuangDong to meet with Lu Hai and the troupe of Little People.
“Are you all friends?” I ask naively, “you know – shadow puppeteers?
With an enigmatic look she replies “not exactly.” I can’t exactly make out her phrase that followed, but it was something like “we’re all in the same game”. She’s honest. I like that.
I’ll be studying with them in the coming weeks while I’m in Beijing and resume again in the summer months. Of course, I’ll let you know if chopstick agility really does translate into puppeteering prowess.
Thanks for reading~