After discovering the machine made shadow puppets for sale at the Muslim Quarters on Wednesday, I decided to forgo another tourist heavy performance at the ‘tea house’ located there and instead set off to find the Shaanxi Provincial Folk Arts Theatre. I had spoken briefly with the artistic director earlier that morning. Liang Jun gave me a bus number and a bus stop, but no other directions. I had a feeling a hunt was in store.
The prescribed bus was nowhere to be found. As the time ticked on, I finally caved and got in a three-wheel taxi. My driver knew the name of the bus stop I was after and we headed off. But of course, LiJiaCun is not just a bus stop, it’s an area. The three of us became entangled in a 10-minute farce driving around in circles until we ended up in front of a row of nondescript computer shops and food stalls. Huh?
Liang Jun was out front to greet me. He ushered me under their camouflaged sign, through a parking lot, into an unmarked doorway and up to his office. There we talked the afternoon away.
The company is a collection of a few smaller troupes; rod puppetry, shadow puppetry, dance and music. I was confused at first by the fact that they don’t perform in Xi’an, but just about everywhere else. I think it’s best to think of them like cultural ambassadors from Shaanxi province. The shadow puppetry troupe is scheduled to travel to Germany in a month and the dance and music troupes are heading to Seattle in May for a residency and performance. The lack of pomp and circumstance on the street makes more sense now.
They seem to be healthily funded. As of last year they had about 125 members working full time. Liang Jun told me that 63 people retired at once last year and now they’ve got about that remaining.
Liang Jun is their fearless leader.
He is the kind of guy that can excite an audience. He’s youthful, energetic and passionate about everything. In the span of three hours, we covered the company’s doings, his training in everything from kung fu to shadow puppetry, his self-taught English, his travels around the world with the company and his son’s recent marriage. In keeping with his personality, he’s entirely welcomed me to sit in any and all rehearsals, study when I can, and visit the puppet maker’s workshops.
Shaanxi style rod-puppet Head, made by the theatre staff:
On Thursday I did just that. I got to the theatre around 9 am to spend the day with the shadow puppeteers. It’s amazing how much you can learn just by watching other people work. During this rehearsal they were teaching a couple of new shows to some newer puppeteers. The teaching methodology and pace here is similar. Laid back, full of smoke breaks, bursts of frustration and laughter.
Short video clip of rehearsal. (Quality is a bit low since the estimated to time to upload the HD version was around 2 days…)
I’m a person who prefers, as tiring as it is, to learn from mistakes rather than doing it perfectly the first time. If I do it right the first time, it’s likely I won’t be able to replicate it. I usually have to work through all the wrong ways to fully understand my final success. To watch other new puppeteers struggling with the same things I do is second best to going through all of it myself. Although I was content to watch for the day, I was encouraged to practice ‘walking the woman’ when the company was breaking.
If you remember my difficulty learning the hand positions for ‘walking the woman’ in Beijing, then you’ll understand my delight (sarcasm, folks) in seeing that these puppeteers have entirely different hand positions. My fingers are already complaining.
After our day at the theatre, the Liang’s took me to a dinner around the corner. A plate piled high with liang cai cold dishes, some lamb kabobs and two plates overloaded with jiao zi dumplings. As we ate through the dishes and washed them down with some weak Chinese beer, Liang Jun and his wife insisted that I consider myself ‘just like their daughter’. I’m to call them Aiyi (Aunt) and ShuShu (Uncle).
It was a much more comforting end to the day than my morning at the Muslim Quarter. I’ll be working with the puppeteers and designers here for much of my time in Xi’an. I’ll be dining with Auntie and Uncle Liang when I’m not pounding the pavement for puppets.
Thanks for reading~