Shadows in the Beijing Night

In a recent blog I posted about the prism effect; the amazing things that happen when you open yourself back up again, relinquish those tight walls of your tunnel vision and allow things in.  Beijing has continued to encourage and inspire me and so…

So, I’ve decided to make a small shadow puppet show.   (There I go again…)  Well, I’ve had the idea for awhile but it’s finally come out to play.

The purpose is three-fold.

First, I would like to give something back.  The Fulbright program is about cultural exchange, but for the most part the flow is coming my way.  Much of the generosity is from my shadow puppet colleagues, but a surprising chunk is simply from the larger Chinese community.  I can’t tell you how many countless times I’ve been helped, happy’d or welcomed by a neighbor, the random store keeper, garbage man or pedestrian on the street.  This may not seem like a big deal to those of you reading from home, but to a lone researcher living in the most populous country in the world – this can make or break the day, which ends up being the week, month and year.

Secondly, I cannot seem to keep my ideas at bay.  They’ve been stockpiling since March with no outlet.  My Evernote log is full of ‘this is an interesting concept’  or ‘I wonder if this would work in China’ entries.  This stockpile of ideas coupled with rusty performance muscles has propelled me into action.  I’d like to return home in better shape than when I left.

And most importantly, I hope to use this performance to inform some of the larger questions I’ve been developing while on the road in China.  Researching a dying art form, it’s easy to become occupied with the negative; what did go wrong, what is going wrong, what can’t we fix?  I find myself ranting to my friends ‘if they’d only try this’.  Instead of imploring others to do something, I thought I’d try something myself.

For my first go, I’m hoping to simply gauge the general Chinese public as a modern audience.  Who are they?  What do they want to watch and for how long?  Can they be challenged, how far will their curiosity take them?  Are they active or passive?  Do they care?

Other than the convenient fact that I’m here right now, Beijing does feel like the right place to start.  The broken down fabric of the countryside community is due to the massive migration to urban centers.  This fracture of rural community is, in my opinion, the last blow to traditional countryside shadow puppetry performance as we know it – not the introduction of digital entertainment.  As China’s capitol, Beijing’s population is bulging at close to 20 million people.  That’s right.  Twenty MILLION.  There’s got to be an audience in there somewhere…

Countryside performances are traditionally performed outside in the local community, for free to everyone but the host, watchable from all angles and interactive to the Nth.  The shadow puppetry I’ve seen in Beijing is presented in western format: a proscenium stage with seating on one side, curtains and a ticketing system.  These shows are aimed towards middle class families with children who have planned to come to this show in advance.  For most audience members, they live too far away to walk.

I want to present another option; I find my audience.  I find them with my bike, for free and at night on the streets of Beijing.  When I walk around this city after dinner, to catch some cool air for the first time in the day, I see performance and audience everywhere: karaoke groups, dancing groups, musicians, even old men playing board games becomes a spectator sport.  The Chinese are social and curious and, hopefully, kind enough to give a foreign puppeteer a bit of their time.

Perhaps in this new fabric of urban society there is a way to create the same level of relevance and interactivity in a performance.

But what am I going to perform, you ask?  I’m not sure.  It’s going to be simple and wordless.  Perhaps scored with sound bytes I’ve taken from my travels and a few songs, perhaps not.  Perhaps the puppets will resemble the puppets I’ve been looking at for 5 months, perhaps not.  Perhaps I’ll have a friend help, perhaps not.  I’ve done a lot of thinking about it and now have about a week to put it together.  I’ve promised myself not to make it too precious or labor intensive, something fun and something I like.

It makes sense to do it on my bike – the bike that is my savior and my lifeline in the overwhelming sprawl that is Beijing.  I want it small, easily carried and easily stored so I can pick it up again if and when I am so inspired.

Before my latest trip to Tangshan (in early August), I spent a good week trying to source a maker for my screen and other supplies.  At home, I could have made the entire thing with materials I had on hand in less than an hour.  But I am not at home.  It has been an adventure and a half to say the least; how do I translate miter cut or nylock nut let alone explain what the heck I’m doing.  I developed a group of supporters along the way who helped me regardless of monetary gain.  Most memorable is Wang and her husband, who I initially went to for copper wire, but ended up being my sort of ‘guide’ on the big hardware street at Xinjiekou and the window maker who ended up making my frame went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure I could fit the frame onto my bike rack.

Wang contemplates my drafting – which ended up being worth nothing.  I couldn’t find the word for ‘scaled drawing’ on my Pleco app.   I wonder what the Chinese translation for isometric is?

Wang’s husband leads me down the street to the window frame maker he knows.  

The frame is ready – we make sure the holes are placed correctly.  Is it a window, or a shadow screen?

Why do you want it cut that short?  I’m trying to secure a shadow puppet screen to the back of my…nevermind.  I buy shelf brackets that are cut down to make plates under the bike rack – the bolts fit perfectly!

This first step has, surprisingly, reminded me why I love live performance and why I do what I do.  It’s also reminded me that perhaps self-sufficiency and independence isn’t all it’s cracked up to be even in the building process.  When you ask for help your invite change, surprise and learning into the experience. It’s all a part of it.  We all become apart of it.  The process is usually just as rewarding as the thing itself and even though the performance only lives for a moment, it stays with you forever.

Thanks for reading~

A frame, waiting for it’s screen.


4 responses to “Shadows in the Beijing Night

  1. What a great opportunity you have grasped during your stay. The idea of paying back for all the help and discovery you have made along the way will reward you more than you expect. Not to mention that I look forward to performances you will create, as you ‘pay it forward.’ Your desire to create a performance makes perfect sense to me and I encourage you to leap forward into the mystery of performing in a different culture! Be sure to recall their way of making stage entrances and exits, as even that small choice can be significant for each culture. Oh my gosh, what fun you will have making new discoveries when you put your new found skills to practice! I envy your opportunity, truthfully.

  2. Pingback: Shadow Puppets in Beijing Streets « Meili Paper

  3. Wonderful idea. A couple months ago there was some sort of performance outside a housing complex in Wangjing. I have no idea what it was because everyone walking by had stopped to look. People were even standing on the fence to get a better view. All I could hear was the music. Other nights people go to the Central Academy parking lot to watch the old men who fly giant light up kites. It makes my day every time I see it. Taking your bike around with a shadow puppet show on it is a wonderful way to provide something fun for the community and engage with all the energy that there is already on the streets here. A friend of mine has been talking a lot about how to get every day people in her neighborhood (caochangdi) more engaged in the arts and to bring the community closer together. This sounds like a perfect way to do this. If I don’t make it to your show (sick today) I want to hear how it goes.

  4. I love this. I hope you’ll go back to hardware street to perform, so all these great people can see your invention in action. What a great idea.

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