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

2 responses to “Second Time’s A Charm

  1. Wow, performance art as it should be, reaching out to the public with unknown goals other than to connect on some level. That’s your beauty in the art form. That is your soul reaching out to others.

    I am also curious to know if you thought an evening performance here could have the same results? Do you think the audiences would come or is that sense of gathering particular to the culture you were working in? Just wondering. Love that you stimulate my thinking, even if I didn’t see this show!

  2. Hi Steve!
    Yes, I’ve thought often about how it might work here – but culturally we operate so differently. We have fewer areas and smaller communities of pure hang out. I’m sure there’s a way – and if not, why not just test it as is and see what happens? Holler if you have any ideas! Thanks for the feedback/questions – always appreciated.

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