This past year has been an incredible mash-up of personal and professional adventures. I’ve been able to return to China twice (a record for me) and also appreciate home more than ever. And even though my stays at home leave me longing for the shadow puppet trail, I’ve also been able to do a different kind of searching here in America.
As part of my continued research stateside, I’ve come into contact with a surprising number of amazing scholars, students, enthusiasts and cheerleaders for the work – egging me on and keeping me going.
A few days after I landed back on US soil in December 2011, I was gifted a present in my inbox. One Grant Hayter-Menzies, a biographer living in the west of Canada, had found me through my blog and asked if we could chat as he was in the midst of finishing a biography about Pauline Benton. Pauline Benton, hmmm. My mind ticked back through my dusty Rolodex of names – and – oh Yes. I knew about her Chinese shadow puppet collection – now housed with the Chinese Theatre Works company in New York – and a few tidbits about her life, but the details were fuzzy.
We started a correspondence, Grant and I, and after an interview, chats via phone and email, I was given the opportunity to read his manuscript before it’s officially published through McGill-Queens University Press. I can’t tell you what a dream it was to read, both for content and also for its writing.
Pauline Benton was an American Woman from Kansas, born just before the turn of last century. She fell in love with puppetry in 1923 when she encountered her first shadow puppet performance in the courtyard of her Aunt Emma, who was then teaching in Beijing. From there, she dedicated her life to become its lone steward in the states – the first female puppet master in the west and a collector, collaborator and creator of shadow puppet shows in her own right. Her company, The Red Gate Shadow Players, were ambassadors for both the Chinese people and their incredible folk artistry during an ever-changing relationship to the states.
What Grant does so well with all his beautifully researched facts is make it, her and shadow puppetry, come to life. He places her amazing story within such a rich context that you can’t help but be transported. He takes you to Beijing in the 1920s, with all its chaos and tumult. You also get to travel to New York in the early part of the century and around the country as a fledgling Chinese shadow puppet troupe tries to make a name for themselves despite the obvious obstacles. Between performances at the White House for the Roosevelts and the seedy streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown, you can feel the determination and dedication of Pauline and her troupe mates.
Of all the historical books I’ve read on shadow puppetry, this is the one I will reread over and over again – if not for pleasure, then for encouragement. To know of a woman doing much the same work nearly 80 years earlier makes me feel comforted, supported. I’ve got company on the puppet trail. Somehow, without even knowing much about her, I seemed to have traced much the same path and even drawn many of the same conclusions on my own. We seem to be kindred spirits, only separated by time. Now, I simply have to live up to the rest of the trail she blazed for a Shadow Woman.
The story is echoing a theme in my recent musings of the past years of fieldwork, driving home the fact and fear of knowing that the stories we carry die with us if we don’t share them. Whose responsibility is it to share these? The teller or the listener? As I finished the Epilogue, I had a moment of panic followed quickly by gratitude. I can already tell this story, this work, will continue to impact me for many years to come – and to think it could have so easily remained buried and eventually lost forever but for another story hunter who saw its quiet potential.
This is a book for anyone who recognizes the inherent curse and blessing in a passion you can’t ignore.
I will certainly post the book’s release on the blog!
Thanks for reading~
Shadow Woman, The Extraodinary Career of Pauline Benton by Grant Hayter-Menzies. Due out in Fall 2013 from McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal. Press release below.
Visit Grant’s other works here at: http://redroom.com/member/grant-hayter-menzies
Information on the Pauline Benton collection at Chinese Theatre Works: http://www.chinesetheatreworks.org/w/education/images/