Having never been to a UNIMA International Puppet Festival before, I had no idea what to expect.
Having never been to any sort of puppet festival in China, I really had no idea what to expect.
China was hosting its first ever UNIMA World Puppet Festival in Chengdu. It was much of the reason I came back to China this summer. My expectations were high, but I was also hedging bets.
The ‘information’ provided beforehand didn’t help unravel the mystery. There was a schedule online that said things like: showtime: 10-4:30. Hmm. Was I to surmise that there would be a show or two sometime that day? Hard to plan your show watching schedule with 6 and a half hour showtime windows. There was also an ‘Indoor Theatre’ schedule and an ‘Outdoor Theatre’ schedule but nowhere was it listed that the outdoor schedule actually meant the Intangible Cultural Heritage Park which is about 15 miles west of the city. We had to find that out by going to the museum that was supposed to have ‘free tickets’ to the first 300 customers in the day, to find out that not only did they not have tickets, but they didn’t know what festival we were talking about. Maybe, they said, it’s the festival advertised on the poster on their ticket booth? And, if so, it looks like it was being held at the Intangible Cultural Heritage park 15 miles west of the city.
My friend and fellow puppet enthusiast, Julie and I arrived at the ‘Outdoor Theatre’ on a bus so crammed it couldn’t take passengers for the last 10 stops. That should have clued us in.
After I was sure I couldn’t take the claustrophobia anymore, we were expelled from the bus and onto the hot pavement by the wave of passengers behind us who also wanted off. This must be the place.
It took us a moment to get our bearings and in those few seconds, we were engulfed by a river of puppet-going Chinese nationals. Thousands – THOUSANDS of people were here to watch puppetry? Yes indeedy.
Julie and I stood in line for our 20 元 （about $3.25) tickets and then jumped into another river of people flowing into the park through a few small gates.
Inside was another mass of people gathering for shows at the numerous outdoor stages. The crowds dwarfed the puppeteers – one was lucky to catch a glimpse and even luckier to hear anything. The ‘map’ provided for tourists was no more correct or informative than our previous information, so I was forced to forage for the shadow puppet room myself. I reasoned that the shadow puppetry room was probably inside on a sunny day, so I headed into the main building and after asking a few doe-eyed security guards, found my way into a small carpeted theatre dedicated to shadow puppetry for the entirety of the festival.
There was chaos here, too, but the din was considerably less thronging. We were too far off the beaten path, as usual.
On the list of opening day performers, most were Chinese and half I’d met doing fieldwork. Meeting old friends on the other side of the world is something that never fails to surprise and delight me, even when I expect it.
Most of the performances, not surprisingly, were modern shadow play, geared towards a younger, more impatient crowd – but it didn’t matter. It was shadow puppetry and the audience was packed.
Qin Laoshi waits for his cue.
The Northern Sichuan Shadow Play Troupe was one of only two traditional shows at the festival. For most of their short 10-minute performance, the troupe seemed shy and embarrassed and the audience looked polite, but unengaged.Immediately after the last note was sung, they quickly announced that they were following up with a three-minute ‘disco!’. Modern puppets danced mindlessly to a blaring pop song. The crowd cheered and all was forgotten. They were a hit. I grimaced.
This feeling is one I’d have often throughout the festival. The positives were abundant: so many new puppet fans, some great puppet shows, a convergence of puppeteers from around the world, an opportunity for scholarship and rare comparison. But alongside those realities, the negatives were also overwhelming: the quality was glaringly inconsistent, the audience seemed more there for the festival than the puppets and the shows were presented in a zoo-like fashion (as one of my Swiss puppeteer friends put it) for browsing and passing by – not for the show itself, . The emphasis of the festival was on volume, spectacle and novelty and the performers knew it.
As a puppet lover, my inner argument was constant. Is any kind of publicity good publicity? I concluded it was and then would conclude it wasn’t, again. I’m not sure where I ended up.
The festival certainly happened while I was deciding. I saw three shows a day, sat in on a shadow puppet symposium and met friends new and old. All in all, a worthy week – in all its confused glory.
Thanks for reading~
A few more pics of shadow puppet shows:
Shadow puppet scene from Shaanxi Provincial Theatre’s show Cathay: Three Tales From China (which was originally a co-production with the Ping Chong company, Stephen Kaplin of Chinese Theatre Works and The Carter Family Puppet Theatre)