I’ve been back home for over two months now. And while I feel a longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America. It’s calmed my anxiety about the trail running cold or me losing my steam. This time of processing and pondering is necessary to get to a more fulfilling continuation of the work.
Diving further into historical research while simultaneously building new work for the shadow theatre with my Chinese shadow training, has gotten me caught in some in some swirls of cyclical discovery and impossible intersections. Sometimes, there is no way to gracefully integrate the old with the new. Sometimes, it happens naturally.
My fascination with Chinese shadow puppetry has as much to do with what is presented as how it is presented.
The traditional countryside performances are the center of community celebrations and usually took place from sundown to sunup.
The crowd demographic changes throughout the night; the elderly were the last ones standing at 4am. The stage is carted in by donkey, usually a bundle of long bamboo sticks or skinny tree trunks that are strung together to create a surprisingly sturdy screen for 6 or 7 troupe members and can be viewed from 360 degrees.
When I saw my first performance, I greedily sat myself in front and center in what I thought was the best seat in the house.
Once the music started and the puppets were underway, it became clear that I was operating under a very Western understanding of ‘best seat in the house’. The areas where you could watch the puppet show from backstage were being vied for like Justin Bieber’s autograph. My moment of embarrassment was cut short by my desire to get back there.
To watch a shadow show from behind the screen! It was better than Noises Off. It was even better than finding out who that man behind the curtain was in Wizard of Oz.
This was the most important element I wanted to incorporate in my work when I returned to the states; the simple experience of destroying the fourth wall and presenting the entire process of performance as the show itself. Not a promenade show, not a show in-the-round, but a show in which all aspects of creating the performance are stage worthy and just as entertaining as what’s going on in the ‘front.’
While doing more historical reading this last month, I learned that in some regions, viewing traditional Chinese shadow puppet plays from the back wasn’t always encouraged. There was a time when the masters didn’t want their secrets exposed – to keep the magic intact. But recently, some had come to believe that the back had opened up to compete with other forms of entertainment. So funny – I had assumed without questions that the way I was viewing it now was the way it has always been viewed. I had forgotten all my other research about the evolutionary nature of a folk art – the change necessary for survival. But, it also reminded me that change isn’t always for the worse. At least, in my opinion.
Perhaps a hundred years ago, when the audience was lagging due to competing forms of entertainment, some masters came to believe the same things I do now – which is the beauty of live performance is making magic within the limitations: invisible budgets, bad acoustics, gravity, etc. And perhaps there is also magic inherent in the cogs that make that magic happen. To expose those cogs is to embrace and celebrate these limitations, making them precious and valued again.
Thanks for reading~