Monthly Archives: August 2012

Second Time’s A Charm

Last year, restless from too much research and too little creation in the middle of my Fulbright year, I put together a small project to test a few theories I’d been churning over in my mind.  And of course, to have a little fun.

The Beijing Hutong Shadow Tour was born and in that small shadow screen I secured to my bike I discovered a world of possibility.  The common theory that shadow puppetry in China is dying on account of fragmented rural communities from increasing rates of urbanization could only be partially true…I figured that the audience hadn’t vanished, simply moved.  Urban China is in some ways more suited to outdoor performance and instantaneous gatherings than their rural counterparts.

Last year’s performance seemed to prove that theory correct: each performance of our little 5 minute show garnered dozens of curious onlookers from every walk of life.  Their enjoyment was palpable in the sticky summer air.

It was so enjoyable, I couldn’t leave it be.  And as I grow my own body of work, I’m beginning to realize just how great it is to do something again.  I love the second time.  Your pleasures doubled and your sorrows halved.  The testing, the mistakes, and the stress has been drained out of the process and what you’re left with is the joy of making within a familiar framework, letting you funnel your energy into other things – growing so much more in the process.

I was also in the middle of a tough spot with my big shadow show at home.  We were just about to put up the show, but it seemed something wasn’t quite right and no amount of stewing or head-banging could clarify it for me.  I had a hunch that revisiting this project would turn a light on for me.

For this year’s project, I engaged the help of my very good friend, French artist Julie Peters Desteract, who lives and works in Beijing and has been witness to my work all throughout last year.  She is a shadow artist who is also interested in the intersection of practionership and research – focusing on the Miao minority culture of Southern China and their work with textiles.   What a joy to combine forces with such a woman!  It was a dreamy week of waking up, playing with puppets, eating soft boiled eggs for breakfast, biking around in search of materials, testing shadows in the mosquito-y night and then making some more. We made all new puppets for a more in-depth ‘slice of life’ show:  illuminating Beijing hutong culture and its incredible architecture, cuisine, social fabric and nightlife.  She pushed me to think past my first instincts and use the word shadow to encompass more.

Come Monday night, we set up our little screen and puppet arsenal in front of the new Zajia performance space just east of the Bell Tower.  At sundown, it looked like a ghost town – just delivery boys and chefs hanging out for a smoke and the occasional ring of a bike bell passing by.  It seemed everyone had already gathered with their dancing group in the nearby squares, dim melodies of tango and Chinese pop mixed with the rest of the aural fabric.  As always, before the light clicks on – you wonder if anyone will stop, listen or care.

But of course, somehow they do.

This year, to my absolute joy, the audience that cared was rich and varied – the delivery boys and chefs came a little closer along with the passerbys on foot and on wheels.  Our Chinese and foreign friends, locals, educators, ex-pats, fellow artists, shop owners and so many more came to stand and wonder in the nighttime with us.  And best of all, they stayed.  When the last notes of our tune died down and so had the applause, curious faces of the adults crept around the screen – and they weren’t shy about picking up those sticks.  There were conversations erupting everywhere, and there were smiles.  We were congratulated by a number of locals, given kabobs as thanks and ‘cheers’ with water bottles.  All talked about memories, past, China’s wealth of culture and its present peril.

Most beautiful, was a young man I noticed lurking in the back of the crowd for all our shows the first night.  I beckoned him forth a few times as I could see, inside, he was dying to try them.  He scurried away at the attention and I shouted after him that we’d be there again on Wednesday night.  I thought about him for two days, wondering what he saw that attracted him so – how he seemed to be there inspite of himself.

On Wednesday night, I looked for him – in vain it seemed – until I saw him, again, lurking at the back of the crowd during our last show.  This time, before I could put him on the spot, he ran forward to drop fresh bottles of water for us and again, like a shadow, disappeared into the night with a contagious grin on his face.

The conversations, the memories, the community, and that rare light inside someone that’s triggered by a mere shadow – I let a held breath go in silence.  These were the reminders I needed, the clarity I sought.

So often, I’m consumed in my art making by the product itself, pushing myself to perfectionism in a form that demands everything but.  Instead, I must remember that the performance is merely a vehicle, a reminder, a trigger, a new memory of a thing we’ve forgotten and want to remember.  It begins the thing, it is not the thing.

And this has made all the difference

Thanks for reading and enjoy the pictures ~

*All photos by Dave Pei unless noted

Photo by Chelin Miller

You can’t do a shadow show about Beijing culture and not include some noodles.

Maomao helps Julie and I in the first scene, complete with Ambulance in the background.  They managed to drive around us…

Julie lends her beautiful artistry by developing side panels that can be painted upon in performance – the audience gets to watch the hutong architecture come to life right before their eyes.

Doggy down: our main dog character swirls in limbo from our bowl of noodles to the hutong alleyways.

L-R: Myself, Maomao, Julie, Serge

Because we had no program, I’d like to put my Thank You’s here:

  • Julie for her help, encouragement, artistry and participation.  And for always having a couch for me to crash on.
  • Maomao (of the Shadow Art Hotel)for stepping in just when we needed him
  • Dave Pei for his generous videography and photography
  • Thanks for playing with us, Serge Onnen
  • Chelin Miller for her cheerleading and photography
  • Sylvie for running with my idea the first time around
  • My parents, for everything
  • The Beijing Hutongs for being such a lovely place to call home for a second summer

A quick interview with Cold Mountain Collective

I took some time out this past week to interview with Cold Mountain Collective – who have a slew of interesting interviews and more on the way.

Click here to read.


Stage Fright

During my early summer trip to China, I made the necessary stop in Xi’an.  And, spent a day busing into the countryside to visit the small town of Hua Xian.  It’s where I first met traditional Chinese shadow puppetry in 2008 and it’s still the heart of my work.  I go to check in, to relax and to feel at home away from home.  This time was no different.

After two weeks out of my element in southern China and then at the overwhelming UNIMA festival in Chengdu, I was only to happy to land outside the small town of Hua Xian in the Shaanxi countryside with my friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Anna, in tow.

We found my cutting teacher, Wang Yan, at home – resting from a recent medical procedure (nothing serious, thank goodness) and hosting her new sister-in-law’s family for lunch.

We joined in the fun and after eating ourselves silly, took a stroll up the familiar path past the duck farm to the base of the mountain.  As we walked, both Anna and I got an education in Chinese farming, crops, planting and persimmon trees!

We then made our way back to the old school and met Wei and the troupe.  As luck would have it, they were just about to perform for a group of businessmen who had just arrived at the school’s museum.

I prepared to film and enlisted Anna on my point and shoot camera.  The businessmen arrived but instead of sitting down for the show, they wanted to know what two foreigners were doing in the countryside at a small Chinese shadow puppetry museum.  Well, I explained it as best I could with Master Wei pitching in every now and then and before I knew it I had been volunteered to perform a small ditty.

Throughout 2011, I learned from experience that there’s a point in fieldwork where you have to go with the flow, whatever terrifying direction it might be flowing because to go against it would create much more havoc than doing the unthinkable.  So, with instant armpit sweat and fire in my cheeks, I acquiesced and stepped behind the screen.

They shoved a familiar heroine puppet in my hands.

For five minutes, I embarrassingly ran through my short vocabulary of traditional shadow puppet moves: walking, turning, sitting, clapping, kneeling and crying (cause the heroines are always crying) to the troupe’s fantastic musical accompaniment.

And while I clumsily moved that puppet, still blushing, I was reminded that the best way to do anything is just that: to do it.  I’m always waiting to be great at something before attempting it, but that’s laughably impossible and a perfect recipe for failure. Instead, just as my cutting teachers had taught me last year, I took a deep breath, slowed down and did my best to fail with pride.

Happily, that failing is never as painful as we think it will be.

Click here to see a short video of my efforts.

Thanks for reading and watching ~