Category Archives: Photos

A Revolution in Shadows

Even though shadow puppetry was widely banned throughout the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), performances still took place. Most of these were pre-approved stories and dramas that towed the line for the New Republic of China, replacing stories of warlords and emperors and other eradicated roles in society.

Many troupes preferred to lay down their shadows all together, rather than take up this new directive. Some troupes weren’t given the choice. Since the 1980s, these shows have not been performed much, if at all. And, when asked about them, I usually get a muttered and incomprehensible answer. Probably, it’s a subject most would like to forget.

Still, I love what few Communist-era shadow puppets I have been able to glimpse. The aesthetic is so different, so modern and simplified – and still so striking. Politics do nothing to sway me here – the puppets are beautiful. Enjoy.

Thanks for reading and looking~

These puppets are all housed in the Luanzhou Shadow Puppet Museum in Hebei Province.

Note: The soldiers in green are Communist soldiers; soldiers in gold/yellow are Guomindang (Kuomintang) or the National Revolutionary’s Army soldiers.

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If you Build It, They Might Not Come

I last visited the small city of Luanzhou in 2012 (previously known as Luanxian). I was taken by Tianxiang Lu who graciously introduced me to Mrs. Guo, a longtime fan of his family’s shadow puppets, and a host of other incredible Luanzhou shadow puppet artists. It was a bonus at the time. I hadn’t done any of my own legwork to prepare for the trip – I just showed up and was given a beautifully curated tour of all that Luanzhou shadow puppetry had to offer along with a few formal meals. This kind of ceremony is usually only reserved for those who hold some official standing, public office, purse-strings of some kind, etc. My status as a freelance artist/novice fieldworker rarely gets any fanfare – which is usually to my benefit – but Luanzhou city clearly had an abundance of enthusiasm, resources and overt desire to push their local brand of shadow puppetry.

Like so many of the small fourth and fifth tiered cities in China, Luanzhou is constantly competing for government funding and recognition. They vie for the ‘if you build it, they will come’ money, raising new apartment complexes, ‘old’ towns, river walks and anything else they think can entice the next wave of rural immigrants. Much of the time, these small cities’ best bet to prove themselves distinct from the other hundreds of small cities is to brand themselves culturally. Much folk art is preserved this way. In my travels, the three best regions for shadow puppetry continuance in the country is in the three regions where a small town has chosen to place their shadow puppetry as the keystone in their cultural portfolio: Bazhong, Sichuan Province, Huanxian, Gansu Province and Luanzhou, Hebei Province.

Of course, this has downsides too. I’m sure the artists practicing the other art forms that weren’t chosen aren’t too happy about the singular focus. But, in the game of safeguarding and preservation triage, some things have to die so that something else can live.

Luanzhou has been aggressively expanding their city and utilizing shadow puppetry as a star player since about 2010. When we were there in 2012, the city had already built an out-of-scale mainstreet, which dwarfed the modest housing on either side. Their new river walk was approximately the width of Shanghai’s bund, but laid empty much of the time. The city had even just erected a monstrous new ‘old town’, which was aimed at attracting local tourism. And even though the ‘old town’ was then only populated by eager locals, capitalizing on the early promise of new commerce, there seemed an optimistic energy in the city’s future. For me, the most exciting news was the plan to create a shadow puppet museum. I would have to return in 2016.

I went back just a few weeks ago, again accompanied by Tianxiang, to check in on Luanzhou and their museum. We took the new high-speed train from Tangshan and were there in 17 minutes, instead of the usual hour. Mrs. Guo greeted us with a car and a banquet. Then, we went to the museum.

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It’s gorgeous. It’s huge and thorough and presented better than any other shadow puppet museum exhibit I’ve seen in China. There are rows and rows of beautiful pieces, videos with headphones that accompany many of the 2D dioramas and even a 3D diorama section that features a realistic wax-figured shadow puppeteer. At the end of the exhibit, you can even try the puppets for yourself!

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Only trouble is, no one is ever there. The museum is, ostensibly, closed. All the time. No funding to keep it staffed and probably no reason to. Luanzhou’s population hasn’t take off like the city thought it would. With a small local citizenry and no tourists, who would come to this beautiful museum more than once? Sure, if you have a good reason, you can call the people who know the right people and they’ll open it for you. But otherwise, the place remains a secret garden – a treasure unseen.

Rest assured, I snapped a picture of every single thing in that collection. No telling when the officials will get wind of this and turn it into something I’ll love a lot less.

Thanks for reading~

 

Some extra pictures of the two, 20-foot-long leather ‘shadow puppet style’ mural

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The Little Museum That Could

Along the one mile stretch of main street that anchors the small Northwestern town of Huanxian in Gansu province, you’ll find their cultural center. Painted a light peachy pink, the building stands out amongst the rest of the concrete. At the top floor of this modest building jutted along the west side of their central square is one of the nicest museum collections of shadow puppetry I’ve been able to take my time with.

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The three times I visited during my residency in Huanxian, the building was like a ghost town. I had to hunt down the ‘guy with the key’ twice, in order to access the exhibition. I suppose in a town this small, everyone has seen the exhibition already. Once the room was opened, it was just me in those three rooms. I could just sit and stare and take it all in for as long as I darn well pleased.

Sure, the fact that all the pieces are being held up by packaging tape? Absolutely grimace inducing. But, other than that – there are some unforgettably unique designs that are beautifully posed, well lit and exquisite in their artistry.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may notice that the Gansu shadow puppet style strongly resembles the Shaanxi aesthetic. This is most likely because, back in the day, shadow puppetry made its way Northwest from Shaanxi. Along the way, the singing method and cutting method shifted, but the aesthetic remained largely intact.

I wish I could post all the pictures for you. Or, better yet, teleport you there to witness them first hand. It’s hard to describe just how you feel when standing in front of a master cut piece worn from its life on the screen. How I wish I could have seen them in action.

Thanks for reading & looking ~

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IMG_7807A Water Monster (Crab) from the White Snake Story 

IMG_7812Another Water Monster  (Turtle) from the White Snake Story

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IMG_7858The sun!

Princeton’s Gest Collection of Chinese Shadow Puppet Figures now Online!

For any of you who are interested in a thorough catalogue of shadow puppet types, I’ve got some good news for you! Princeton has just made their online catalogue of Chinese Shadow Puppets public and ready for your viewing! The Gest collection is of the Luanzhou 灤州 or Leting 樂亭 style, particular to China’s northeast region.  Thanks to Mary Hirsch and her work cataloguing and identifying the collection in 2006, the photos are well labeled and easily searchable.

http://gest.princeton.edu/shadowfigures.php

This link will be permanently linked on the Links tab.

I can’t wait to dive in.

Thanks for reading~

Chineseshadowpuppetry.com!

Head Block

It’s been awhile since I started my initial search of all things Chinese shadow puppetry.  In 2008, I stumbled onto the subject and wanted to know more, much more.  And, like most people do when they want to know more, I went to the internet first.

After some intense google-ing, I found almost nothing, save some short introductory paragraphs and some low-resolution photos.  I momentarily assumed that this lack of information on the web was somehow a direct indication of the art form’s activity in China.  I couldn’t tell for sure, so I kept looking.

I finally found my first contact with an actual shadow puppet troupe in China through a string of connections (one of whom is now my fiancé) and even with my conversational Chinese abilities, it was another battle of logistics to get a hold of them, tell them what I wanted, raise the money to go there and actually find them in the countryside of China.

Throughout the interim five years and extended fieldwork, I have repeatedly found that this chasm between curiosity and concrete information stops most people from following through on that initial interest and I know from my fieldwork that Chinese shadow puppetry needs awareness and curiosity at this very moment more than ever.

Which brings me to my happy news:  after years as an idea, generous funding from The Walter and Mary Warpeha Family, The Chinese Heritage Foundation and the US-China Peoples Friendship Association of Minnesota and a good deal of time sitting in front a my computer – I bring you…

The first ever comprehensive Chinese shadow puppet website in English!

www.chineseshadowpuppetry.com

It is my great, if idealistic hope, that this website can be the conduit between all that curiosity and concrete information.  It is structured to grow and expand over the coming years and will evolve to fit the growing needs of those who use it.

Please, please, please share this website with reckless abandon.  Throw the Do-It-Yourself section to teachers and your children/cousins/nieces/nephews, use the handmade vs. machine made section when you go to China and want to buy shadow puppets, use the aesthetics section for all your visual inspirations, check in with the blog (which will be overlap with this one a bit, but be more directed towards events/happenings) and most of all, meet the artists that are working so tirelessly to keep the art form alive.  (If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve met them already!)

As always, I solicit your feedback in hopes of improving it wherever possible.

Thanks you, as always, for reading and may the shadows be with you!

It’s A Small World

I first met Joanne Oussoren and Frans Hakkemars of Droomtheater in Hong Kong, where we had gathered for Mingri Theatre Company’s Puppetry in Education conference.  There, even amongst a crowd of other puppeteers, we repeatedly found ourselves in conversations.  Perhaps it was because of their similar interests in puppetry as a vehicle for passing on cultural inheritance or our shared love of ancient forms of theatre.  Most likely, I suspect is was simply their open and inquisitive nature that drew me to them.

As community artists working often in their own neighborhoods in and around the burgeoning working-class metropolis of Rotterdam, Holland, they saw added complexity to the questions we were asking about traditions, inheritance and heritage as their immigrant population continues to swell.  We went our separate ways after just a few days, looking for future ways to put our questions into practice.

Fast-forward to November 2012 and I find myself across from Joanne and Frans at the breakfast table in Holland.  We’re still heavy in conversation, but this time over toast with chocolate sprinkles and an impressive array of cheeses.  Our dream of a collaboration was made real with generous funding from both private and public Netherlands entities and we’re anxious to get started.

Joanne and Frans have envisioned a program to fully involve the children of Feijnoord (a small township in the city of Rotterdam) in a cultural story important to Holland: Sinterklaas and his carnival of animals.   I’m here to guide the creation of this story within a simplified Chinese shadow style, accessible for ages 5-14.   The children begin with shadow puppet design and creation, then rehearsal and finally a performance for the community.  By letting the children become apart of every step of the process, we believe that this will deepen the embodiment of the story and enrich the learning experience.

Of all the iterations of our workshops, the most exciting was working in Feijnoord’s private afterschool program with children ages 6-12.  The township of Feijnoord is a historically popular place for new immigrants with its low rent and convenient proximity to the city center.  Currently, 80% of the township’s population is non-Dutch, with most of the immigrants coming in from Turkey and Morocco.

The afterschool program is a rare hold over from decades past – their building awkwardly stuck right in between rows of traditional Dutch apartments.

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As the clock strikes three, dozens of kids speaking a myriad of languages stream into the waiting activities of the able-bodied volunteers.  This time, we’ve got shadow puppets for them.

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And while these puppets may not look anything like the puppets I’ve been researching for 4 years, they are inherently Chinese in design and engineering.  We’ve developed a simplified method of using permanent markers on clear plastic so that kids don’t have to spend five years mastering leather cutting before they can make a great shadow puppet.  The control rods and joint methods are all faithfully Chinese.  I wonder if all this newness will derail their energy – it doesn’t.  They don’t even hesitate – there is an appetite here.  They dive in, mistakes and all and create some of the most alive puppets I’ve seen yet.

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I’ve often been ‘warned’ about the ‘chaotic nature’ of such groups but I never find it to be thus.  Yes, they’re awfully loud and yes, it’s hard to keep them on track sometimes, yes.  But, truly, it’s only kids being kids in the best way possible – fully.  I’m much more disconcerted when I see children so well behaved that they’re afraid to color outside of the lines.   This paralytic fear of wrongness and failure are a much more serious problem.

I could go on and on here about the necessity of arts in a child’s development and how tests and data prove that the arts help children excel in all other fields but I won’t.  I’m just going to say that at its most fundamental level, the arts erase the right/wrong binary and encourage the infinite possibilities of everything.  I strongly believe that in the near future we’re going to need more creative and empathic thinkers than good chart readers.

After just an hour and a half of managing the chaos, the kids funnel out as fast as they funneled in and for a moment we are left in the loud silence.  I am exhausted but smiling.  It’s clear that these kids, with their unflinching ability to move forward – mistakes and all – are ready for anything.   And now, they have shadow puppetry in their arsenal.

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Joanne and Frans and I pack up, talk to the volunteers and smush into the van once more.  We head home for a supper of fresh Marrakech sausages from the nearby Moroccan butcher and some typical Dutch mashed potatoes and greens.  Over the fading daylight, we crowd closer and closer to the warm table lamps – preparing the next workshop’s materials and jotting down our thoughts.

They’ll continue rehearsing after I’m gone and prepare for a final performance by the kids, for the community.  The project comes full circle this way.  The shadow puppet revolution is closer than ever.

After a week or so of this routine, we catch ourselves – it seems as though I’ve been here all along, we’ve been friends all along, we’ve been doing this all along.  Weirder still is that this is a reoccurring feeling I get when connecting with fellow puppeteers around the globe.  As the web gets larger, the feeling gets more intimate.   I can’t wait to get back.

Thanks for reading~

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Party

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.