Monthly Archives: November 2012

Chinese Shadow Puppet-con

Never before have I thought about how wonderful it would be to go to something like Comic-con: a bunch of people, passionate about the same thing, there for the sole purpose of sharing and geeking-out.  Of course I had never considered the awesomeness of a thing like that because I never thought it possible that I would ever get to experience my own Chinese Shadow Puppet-con.

But I did, everyone!  It occurred and I was there!

The Ballard Institute of Puppetry and the University of Connecticut Puppetry program hosted a number of scholars, puppeteers and artmakers and enthusiasts to join in the conversation at the first ever North American Chinese Shadow Puppet Symposium, run in tandem with their Pauline Benton Chinese Shadow Figures exhibition running until December 16th. (PS: I’ll be blogging more on the awesomeness of Pauline Benton soon!)

I expected to be inspired by the talks that were given and inspired to give one myself on my recent fieldwork, but I was surprised by just how invigorating it was to be in the same room with these people.  Usually, we research, read and synthesize in isolation.  To bring these thoughts, feelings and concerns forth to a knowledgeable and equally passionate public was nothing less than finally feeling seen and heard.  No, you’re not crazy for dedicating so much time and energy to this, and Yes, it’s as fascinating and never-ending as you’ve been suspecting.

John Bell was such a warm host along with the rest of the BIMP staff; Fan Pen Chen gave us an amazing run-down of her current research of snake cults and the legend of Lady White Snake and its evolution as a common shadow puppet story; Mary E Hirsch mesmerized us with her incredibly astute work in correcting mis-identified Chinese shadow puppets in American collections; Stephen Kaplin and Kuang-Yu Fong gave us both a great tour of their co-curated exhibition and a sneak peak at their first attempt at a one man digital shadow puppet show (which was wholly engaging); Bradford Clark told us about his recent trips to China to experience puppetry; and many other short presentations rounded out the event.

I laughed, I cried, it was much better than Cats.

Next time, I hope you will join us.

Thanks for reading~

Pauline Benton holding up one of her figures.

Stephen Kaplin giving us a personalized tour of the exhibition

Some of Red Gate Players’ beautiful show programs

Pauline commissioned some ‘newer’ puppets that would reflect the Beijing she saw at the time, in the 1930s, which included cars!

The whole crew at Chinese Shadow Puppet-con!

There’s Nothing To Tell (没有什么可说)

There’s Nothing To Tell (没有什么可说)

My first full-length shadow play based on my Fulbright fieldwork, premiered at In The Heart of the Beast Theatre, June 2012

So what does one do with all this research?  Over a year of fieldwork and what do I have to show for it?  When I returned to the states in late 2011 and began explaining my absence, most people’s initial question was ‘where can I read more about your work?’  This question of writing about the work is entirely gracious – how nice is everyone to want to know more about Chinese shadow puppetry? – but it is also a default that I’m learning to resist.

Our Western academic approach to non-western traditional performance research often leaves practice-led researchers (researching by way of the practice, not – say – with literary review) in the lurch. The written practice has long been used to validate non-verbal creative forms to varying degrees of success.  For those of us who’s practice is actually about the non-verbal aspects of craft and cultural transmission, doubly difficult.  To write about a living, breathing, tradition such as Chinese shadow puppetry and its craft is like, well, like trying to sum up the whole of your parts in an online profile, perhaps.  It is wholly, embarrassingly inadequate.

So, what does a practitioner-researcher show for all that work?  Those months of learning to scrape cowhide, sharpen knives, study design aesthetics and symbolism, cutting and painting leather, gathering oral history accounts, encountering a traditional form older than I can fathom and meeting masters on the other side of the world – where does this ten months of fieldwork go?  If not in a paper, then where?

Practice-led researchers have explained that one of the key elements distinguishing them from other more traditionally accepted research methodologies (quantitative, qualitative) is that the output resemble the form in which you research.  It is assumed that less is lost in translation and the output is poised to reach a greater audience.  As practice-led research is a relatively new field, some are skeptical.  I am not.

Before I left, I had the prescience to apply for funding – knowing that if I waited until I got back and had to start from scratch on a new project, my experience would be too distant to utilize in a creative process (not to mention my momentum stalled).  The grants came through towards the beginning of my Fulbright year, so I carried this question with me throughout: where does the work go?

Early on in the year, after meeting just a few of the last remaining practitioners, I knew it would be a story about them.  The passion, the tenacity, the obstacles, the stories – each of their biographies full of twists and turns about why they started and how they made it – were inspirational, to say the least.  I combined elements of all their biographies into one fictional account of a grandfather’s journey as a shadow puppeteer in 1930s China and into the modern era.  These stories felt like better insight into the incredible legacy Chinese shadow puppetry has garnered along the way than a straight adaptation of a shadow play would have been.

So, with notes overflowing, thoughts in a tangle and heart-achey from leaving one of the best adventures of my life, I returned home and began working on a new full-length piece for the shadow theatre.

In short, the process was painful, rewarding, revelatory and cathartic.  I absolutely would not have made it without such brilliant, patient and hilarious collaborators who indeed knew when it was time to stop banging our heads against a wall and have a dance break.  The learning was heavy and fast and has already cycled back around to inform my research again.

The research and this process resulted in a show I’ve never been more proud or more emotionally attached to in all my 20 years of theatre making (I’m older than I look).  And now I can confidentially say, this is what I do with my research.

We are in plans to put it up for a full run in March of this coming year in the Twin Cities area.  We hope you will join us!

Thanks for reading~

Collaborators: Stephanie Watson, Dan Dukich, Rebekah Rentzel, Shawny Sena, Derek Lee Miller

Here are some pictures of the show to give you a better sense of the show’s welcoming, beauty and scope.

The incredible In The Heart of the Beast Theatre.  Go Minneapolis puppet theatre!

The initial seating.  The show is presented in traditional Chinese style – in that – you can move around as you please and the show is a show from any angle.  Choose-your-own-shadow-puppet-adventure.

Main screen with permanent headers.

Full view of main screens and smaller present-day Grandpa on the smaller side screen.  You’ll notice the difference in shadow worlds: scale, color, style.

Come on!  There has to be a scene at Chinese Spring Festival!  Notice the Tanghulu snacks on the bottom left of the screen?

Grandpa meets his match as a young man apprenticing a shadow master.

The pair are able to talk more candidly when they talk through their puppets.

A view of my handcut leather puppets from backstage.

View from backstage through to the audience.  

My favorite part: the gathering after the show.  Audience members are encouraged to stay, talk, keep sampling Chinese teas, play with the puppets and ask their questions.