THE BRITSH MUSEUM: SHADOW PUPPET THEATRE FROM INDONESIA, MALAYSIA AND THAILAND
INTERVIEW WITH DR ALEXANDRA GREEN
Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia
A new exhibition in room 91 of the British Museum displays its collection of Southeast Asian shadow puppets. Deborah Nash talks to the exhibition’s curator, Dr Alexandra Green.
What were you trying to demonstrate in this exhibition?
Dr Green: I had two main goals: one was to show we had a substantial shadow puppet collection here at the British Museum, most of which is not usually out on display, and the second was to demonstrate that in Southeast Asia puppetry is not for children, it is much more involved in the larger social fabric.
How is shadow puppetry used in these countries?
Dr Green: What you’re getting in places like Phetchaburi Province in central Thailand is that it’s part of religious ritual, so you have ritual scenes the puppeteer enacts before the start of the story, which might be a local folk tale or a tale from the Ramayana, the Indian epic that has been reinterpreted and re-used. Certain scenes of a performance are repetitive because they’re not really done for entertainment; they’re done for the ritual.
Sometimes there would only be me and my mother in the audience. The spirits are the audience; they’re the ones that count, because often the way it’s used in countries like Thailand is for funerals. For all three puppet shows I saw there would be a chair set up in front of the stage for the spirits with a piece of cloth and an umbrella over it indicating respect and superior status. There’s usually a glass of water set on the chair so it’s as if the spirits are sitting watching the performance.
In Malaysia, the puppet shows are now entertainment; ritual is viewed suspiciously by the Islamic authorities because the idea of spirits sits uneasily with Islamic tenets so shadow puppetry is less frequent there.
As we approach the Harvest Festival in the Christian calendar, can you describe how the harvest is marked in shadow shows in Southeast Asia?
Dr Green: It’s not that the harvest is specifically celebrated but more the harvest is celebrated by having a puppet show, which doesn’t necessarily relate to the harvest. That makes sense because everyone is busy planting and growing and often times the puppeteers have more than one job. The pay of a puppeteer is not sufficiently lucrative to sustain them, I mean, there are a few celebrities now who can, but most can’t.
What is the training for a puppeteer in Southeast Asia?
Dr Green: There are a whole variety of systems. In Malaysia, puppeteers can be self-taught but there are apprenticeships too. In terms of female puppeteers, there are a few but not many; I think there are more in Thailand than in Malaysia and Indonesia but they are very limited. It isn’t usual for women because of their role in society and what’s considered to be appropriate. As shadow theatre is associated with the spirit world men are considered the better medium to connect with them.
The exhibition is divided into vitrines displaying characters like ogres and ghosts and animals and figures from the Ramayana. You can compare the stylistic differences depending on the country they’re from. Do you have a favourite puppet or one with an interesting story you’d like to share?
Dr Green: That’s very hard to say. Well, I quite like the animals and in particular the composite from Malaysia is super. This puppet has an elephant’s trunk and bird’s wings and his nether quarters are more like a quadruped. I like him because he is a derivation of a symbol from one of the royal courts on the north coast of Java (image below). So the image is clearly something that transferred from Java to Malaysia. What’s interesting of course is that the representation probably originated in China as the qilin, which is also a composite animal, so this is a multiple appropriation of imagery.
Another is the mythical Javanese serpent, the Naga, which is one of the Raffles puppets that he collected when he was UK governor of Java 1811 – 1815 and the reason why I’m so excited about him is that we borrowed the Serat Selarasa manuscript (1804) that is painted in the style of Javanese shadow puppets (even though the story is not part of the shadow puppet repertoire). On the page we have open in the first room it has an illustration that replicates this Naga puppet. (image below)
Who was Raffles and how did the British Museum come by the collection?
Dr Green: Sir Stamford Raffles was a British Colonial Official who went out to SE Asia and became Lieutenant-Governor of Java. The whole time he was there he was passionate about the culture. In Java he collected masks, three dimensional puppets and shadow puppets and we have musical instruments like the gamelan he brought back too. In 1817 he wrote a book on the history of Java but he was equally assiduous wherever he went and in Sumatra collected Malay manuscripts and natural history material too. Tragically, quite a lot of it was lost when his ship sank. It caught fire, and a large collection of Malay manuscripts were all destroyed. He went on in 1819 to found Singapore and so of course that’s what he’s famous for today. In 1824 he returned to Britain and died in 1826 but these objects didn’t come to the British Museum until 1859 when his nephew gifted them to us.
Can you talk me through the mechanics of a typical shadow puppet show in Southeast Asia?
Dr Green: Traditionally there’s usually a little pavilion outside and a sheet is stretched across to make the screen. Electric lights are used today but in the past it was oil lamps. The banana log is put behind the screen and this is where the puppets are stored until they’re needed. The musicians will be seated on this platform which forms the stage and they’ll play here and the puppeteer will sit in the front of them and direct the musicians as well as moving the puppets. He will also produce all the voicing and singing. Sometimes in Java you have women singers as part of the orchestra and then again they are conducted by the puppeteer. In terms of the audience, as I mentioned before, they are the spirits, but they’re also the family who commissioned the show. People come and go. Some of them watch for a bit from the front and sometimes they go and look round the back.
There’s been some evolution of the shows too as puppeteers develop new plays from novels and films. In some of the cases you can see how heroes and villains now include corrupt bureaucrats, business leaders, wealthy individuals and even hip hop artists.
Are there any well-known puppeteers?
Dr Green: There’s a blind puppeteer who performs in southern Thailand and he’s very popular and sometimes there are thousands of people coming to watch him. Then again, there are celebrity puppeteers in Java who get huge numbers of audience too. Now shows are amplified and you can watch them on youtube, so social media is very much involved in the publicity.
How long do the shows last?
Dr Green: The puppet shows generally take place at night. The performances last such a long time, the ones with the spirits in central Thailand can be two to three hours continuous; the ones in Java traditionally start at 8pm or 9pm and go on till dawn. Then the ones in Malaysia are a bit more truncated; they used to be longer but have been curtailed a lot more. In the puppet show I saw in Southern Thailand the puppeteer performed from 8pm to 10pm and then there was a break and he continued on till midnight.
Shadow Puppet theatre from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand
8 September – 29 January 2017
Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG
A full public programme accompanies this exhibition. Booking line: 020 7323 8181
1. 1. Composite animal made of an elephant, bird, and quadruped.
Kelantan, Malaysia; hide and bamboo; mid-20th century
Made by Tok Awang Lah
© The Trustees of the British Museum
2. Naga, a mythical serpent
West Java; hide, wood, gold leaf; late 1700s to early 1800s
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Southern Bali; hide, bamboo; mid-20th century
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Southern Thailand; hide, bamboo; early 1970s
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Roxana spoke to Ailin Conant, the founding artistic director of Theatre Témoin to talk about their show The Marked. Animations Online have already seen the show up in Edinburgh and are pleased to see it's coming to London and touring again.
Ailin: Theatre Témoin was founded in Toulouse in 2007 by graduates of the London International School of Performing Arts (LISPA) as a forum for creating new works of theatre that are both socially engaged and fun. Our first project, Borderline, was a farcical look at the bureaucracy of the French immigration system. The cast was concurrently volunteering at the CIMADE – an organization that provides legal counsel for undocumented immigrants and their families – and it was this work that gave the piece most of its vitality, depth, and relevance. While creating Borderline we came to understand the importance – not just socially, but artistically – of dialoguing and collaborating with the communities around us. In 2010 we moved our base back to London and have since produced projects in the UK, USA, Mexico, Rwanda, India, Israel, and Lebanon.
Tell us more about the show:
Ailin: There’s an epidemic in this country at the moment of more and more people finding themselves in situations where sleeping rough seems to be the only option. There’s are stories here that are not being told enough. But "homelessness" isn't really a plot for a play is it? Really what I wanted to explore was the individual stories of people who happened to be, among many other things, homeless, and crucially what was happening inside the heads of these individual people, people who had gone through traumatic experiences. In 2012, I worked in Rwanda with a group of ex-child-combatants turned poets, and witnessed an incredible relationship between poetic, creative, mythological thinking and the ability to bounce back from the darkest of traumas.
When we began to work on The Marked, a similar relationship with the poetic and mythical began to surface, where people that we spoke to who had gone through incredible traumas had developed an almost mythical language to speak about the world. This is what I wanted to explore in making this play.
What about the puppetry in the show?
Ailin: Puppetry wasn't in our original conception, when we set out we were going to focus on masks. But then the story drifted into the childhood of the protagonist (which makes sense, adult experience is formed by childhoods), as well as the idea of the "poetic companion" of the pigeon, and so puppetry became a natural way to create a child and an animal that fit into our world of masked adults. We've worked a great deal with Puppetry in the past, notably with "The Fantasist", so we know how endearing and devilish puppets can be!
And finally can you tell us a show that you saw recently and loved?
Ailin: Us / Them by Bronks, stunning show, simple concept, not to be missed!
You can catch The Marked from tomorrow at The Oval House Theatre and then at The Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham. For more information or tickets please click here.MORE INFORMATION
a conversation with Frank Soehnle of Figurentheater Tübingen
Talk to me about the inspiration behind the Cabinets of Curiosity.
"The Cabinet of Curiosities really provided a frame for two colleagues to work with together" Frank admits. Although Figurentheater Tübingen always invite other artists to create work (their past shows for example have included dancers, actors and musicians), this is the first project where they have invited other puppeteers to collaborate on the project as well.
"Normally I am the puppeteer and I work with other art forms" Franks says giggling, "because I am already the puppeteer - so it never seemed as interesting for me".
The two other puppeteers are Alice Therese Gottschalk and Raphael Mürle and Frank explains that their devising process was mostly about offering. Sometimes scenes would start with a question, idea or some material one of the artists brought in, and other times it began with a finished puppet. Offering in a devising process can take both extremes and provides different beginning points especially when working with puppets. Frank speaks very fondly of this opportunity to work in a trio with two other very good solo performers, who he knew were both able to work with complex string puppets.
"A lot of people think that String Puppeteers are solo performers... but I think this is only one part of the string puppets possibility, the other part is that you can really do things together."
Frank also introduced me to the Swiss puppeteer Sophie Taeuber-Arp who was a big visual inspiration for the show, working at the very beginning of the Dadaist movement with String Puppets. She had skills in a variety of art forms, combining her knowledge of costume, dance and choreography, making text and scupltures as well as puppets. This made her work incredibly multi-faceted, and with these same clear Dada foundations that are apparent in Frank's work.
After so many years of working in puppetry you are still exploring the art of the marionette. Is there something unique about string puppets that keeps them as your focus?
"For a string puppet creator, I think they really are the freest form to create something." Frank explains there is a great versatility to what you're able to make because it is such a unique type of puppetry and as the audience are frequently quite far away he thinks there's another level of freedom with size, colour and precision to play with.
Frank also likes the whole concept of the pendulum:"As a puppeteer, you give an impulse into the mechanism of the pendulum, and then in a few moments it comes back. Then you receive another impulse that you can continue to react on. It's so much like a dance piece, you and the puppet are in the flow of doing something together. Its funny because people think the image of the marionette is like 'controlling' something, but especially with the string puppet it's not possible to completely control it."
This is a question you probably get asked quite a lot, but I think it's quite important. How did you get started in puppetry? Were you always interested in puppets?
"I really started as a child, but I must tell you a very funny story" Frank says, "I started with puppets from England!" He stops briefly to politely check if I'm old enough to have heard of Pelham Puppets and then goes on to explain that his mother bought one for him from the toy shop near where he grew up. With a few friends, Frank then began writing shows for his Pelham Puppets, which, he giggles, was not dissimilar to the scene from The Sound of Music.
So Frank, is now a good time for puppetry?
"I think so, yes. On one side it brings back to us the feeling to materials - we tend to lose the contact of materials, the sensation of touching. And on the other side, we are able to make a wonderful combination of old and new media in puppetry." Although there's no video or projection in Wunderkammer it does appear as a central element to many of Figurentheater Tübingen's other work. The use of projection in performance illuminates therelationship between what is two dimensional and three dimensional on stage, especially in a form where the live-ness of object is so important.
What was the best piece of advice you have been given?
Frank's teacher Albrecht Roser would remind his students: "In the end you have to listen to your puppet."
"I think there is something very essential in the sentence - you have to listen to the thing you are working with" he says sincerely. "Yes," I add as a closing thought, "whether they are puppets or not!"
Wunderkammer is being performed at The Barbican as part of The London International Mime Festival from the 2nd - 6th February. Due to popular demand, only return tickets are available now and your best chance is to arrive early on the day of the performance.
On the 3rd February we will be having a Puppet Gathering in the Barbican bar space on Level -1 from 6pm. This is an open and informal networking opportunity for puppetry practitioners to meet before the show. On the same evening our founding member Penny Francis will be hosting the Q&A session with Frank and Figurentheater Tübingen after their show. We hope to see you there.
I wanted to leave you with my favourite video I've found of Frank so far, understandably drawn from my combined love of opera and puppetry. Dog Opera (or Visits to the Opera, with a Dog).
Interview by Roxana Haines
Bonnie Mitchell and Rachael Canning, both co-directors of The Wrong Crowd, took time out from their rehearsal and previewing process for their new show Kite to answer some questions for Animations, letting us know about the inspiration for the show, the benefits of a designer/director who understand puppetry as a fundamental building block of everything that happens on stage, and development of the company to this point.
Bonnie is the Producer, and Rachael the Director/Designer, of Kite.
Tell us about what got you interested in indoor kites. Did the story grow from the kite idea, or vice versa?
Rachael: Working on a production of Kes at Sheffield Crucible I used a kite as the kestrel at one point. It gave such an emotional aspect to that union that I immediately came back to The Wrong Crowd and suggested there was definitely something in kites we should explore. It was exciting, as previously we’d always started with story. And it felt right as visual theatre makers to be trying a different way in to making a show, starting with the visual idea and then seeing what story the visual idea lends itself to.
So after a bit of googling of indoor kite flying, which there is a lot of, especially in America and China - in sports halls, to power ballads - we took our own indoor kite into research and development with actors. Very quickly it became clear that the part of the beauty of an indoor kite in a theatre space is the connection between the kite and an actor. We understand the kite by how the actor responds to it. And so a story came very quickly out of early R&D that saw the kite, and the wind that animates the kite, as benevolent characters, coming to the help of a young girl – Mary Poppins style. We’re also massive fans of stories where inanimate objects have a personality and come to life to combat loneliness such as The Red Balloon and The Snowman.
Bonnie: The resulting story, developed with a gifted set of actors in multiple R&Ds and rehearsals, is of a young girl, whose mother has recently died, being sent to live with her grandmother. Both are struggling to come to terms with their loss and are grieving in isolation and silence.
And then one night our magical kite comes to life and so ensues a journey across rooftops and clouds that ultimately enables a processing of that grief and a moving forwards for both the girl and her grandmother.
Are there other puppets in the show?
Rachael: The kite is the primary puppet, but we also have smaller versions of both the girl and the grandmother, bunraku puppets, that we use to demonstrate scale, perspective and heighten moments of magical realism. We could have gone for a more dancey approach to address these challenges but to us there’s something wonderful about making the audiences imaginations work that little bit harder in certain moment of our story with the use of puppets.
As it’s an adventure that take place in London, we of course had to have some newspaper pigeon puppets in too… And really the whole design concept of the show is about manipulation of the set. The fridge and wardrobe become the cityscape of London; the dinnerware becomes the moon.
Again, we hope exercising the imaginations of our audiences young and old.
Tell me more about your decision to work without text in this project.
Rachael: In 60% of our interactions with other people we don’t use any words. It’s really interesting to me how much of human communication is wordless. So much can be said with just a touch. It think it takes things to a more emotional level, because you are having to work harder as an audience.
As visual theatre makers, and in particular coming from a background in puppetry direction, it's a very natural development to make a show without text. I feel like less is more. I’ve always enjoyed silent films. There’s a story, but there’s also ambiguity where you the audience can fill in the gaps. Which is something we’ve done before, especially with our puppetry, but in Kite we’ve taken it even further by taking out all of the text.
Rachael, you also design sets, costumes and puppets for other companies. How is it different from working with the Wrong Crowd?
Rachael: I love the diversity of working on other companies shows, meeting brilliant new people, who I often then rope into our future Wrong Crowd shows! But there is something deeply satisfying as a designer/puppet director to be involved in an idea from its genesis. Kite was an idea I had, and now it’s a show. If I hadn’t created my own company then this sort of opportunity wouldn’t have presented itself to me. I also love being involved in all aspects on the visuals of the company including our branding, publicity, trailers, who we partner with to make shows, who we employ and most importantly what we’re doing next!
Is this a good time for puppetry?
Rachael: It’s a brilliant time for puppetry. Huge profile was shone on puppetry by Handspring’s War Horse. Mainstream theatre directors really took hold of puppetry being able to be at the centre of a story rather than just an add-on, or as a tool to solve a problem. Directors realised that puppets can be a central character as part of a production’s initial conception.
Bonnie: And in particular there’s such exciting developments with puppetry in theatre that tackles hard hitting issues, perhaps for adults, or like Kite, for cross-generational audiences. For example, Theatre-Rites are currently making a show that addresses self-harm with a puppet made of paper cutting herself. The brilliant Suspense and Manipulate festivals feature shows about euthanasia and mental health. And we are using puppetry within theatre to examine bereavement. Puppetry in children’s theatre is amazing, but it doesn’t have to be only in children’s theatre.
Rachael, how did you get started in puppetry? Were you always interested in puppets?
Rachael: From a young age I puppeteered, like most kids did. I made tiny characters out of Fimo, and then I moved onto actual marionettes. I studied Theatre Design at Royal Welsh College, which has a big puppetry strand as part of the course, which inspired me further, as did meeting brilliant people like Chris Pirie of Green Ginger who really inspired me, and I’ve been making, designing and directing puppets ever since. Its influenced my theatre design work too where I love everything to be moving and animated. I see my design as an object to be manipulated too.
For me, puppetry and object manipulation comes out of a fascination with observing how things move – people, animals, the wind – and then striving to find a way of communicating that to the actors who are puppetering. Puppetry has enabled me to go into co-directing and now directing. It wouldn’t have happened just through design. Working with the actors a lot more, focusing on storytelling.
Bonnie, Kite is the fourth show from the Wrong Crowd. Have you found the company changing across the productions?
Bonnie: We set The Wrong Crowd up as a company where designers and writers can co-create work, where a piece is conceived and written with visuals and story at the same time. And both aspects are given equal importance. We also give equal footing in the rehearsal room to the director and the puppetry/movement direction. This has been our aim and vision from the outset and it remains today.
We have also always wanted to make work that speaks powerfully to both young audiences and adults, whether they come to the theatre as a family or just wind up sat next to someone in the audience of a different generation. Something brilliant happens when cross-generational audience experience a piece of theatre that resonates with them both. This has always been important to us Wrong Crowders, and remains so today.
What changes from production to production is inevitably that each story requires a different approach to its telling. Our last piece was a co-production with the brilliant Opera North of Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s Swanhunter. Our approach there was all about clarity of storytelling and finding the most incredible singers who were keen to puppeteer swans, dogs and an elk! We worked with a spine tingling orchestra of live musicians on stage, telling a story which in this case was sung. So each production sets different the challenges.
Bonnie: We hope that Kite will tour internationally in 2017, and we are also looking into re-moutning our debut show The Girl with the Iron Claws. We have recently relocated the company from London to Devon, a return home from the big smoke. So it will be brilliant to start making theatre in the West country and developing local connections, becoming part of that thriving scene. As for new work, we’re looking forward to getting to grips with a much-loved children’s book and adapting it for cross generational audiences.
Kite plays as part of the London International Mime Festival at Soho Theatre for 26th Jan – 6th Feb, and then tours to Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, London, Liverpool, Canterbury, Ipswich. Bath and Mold this spring.
We send Ana Diaz Lopez to see Kite last week, watch this space for her review.
Photos by Richard Davenport.
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Our Edinburgh Fringe reviewer Kerrin Tatman went to see In Our Hands by Smoking Apples.
Underbelly - Cowgate (Belly Button), Venue 61
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Sunday 7th August 2016, 4pmMORE INFORMATION
Our Edinburgh reviewer Kerrin Tatman went to see The Marked by Theatre Témoin
Pleasance Dome, Venue 23
Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Sunday 7th August 2016, 1.30pm
Lori Hopkins writes PCT an article about how she views the future of the beloved string puppet and why she thinks marionette theatre is becoming more scarce.MORE INFORMATION
Luckily for us, Norwich Puppet Theatre released some last minute tickets for Julian Crouch's Birdheart on 10th February and first in line was one of our reviewers Addya Panayiotou.MORE INFORMATION
20 Stories High and Theatre-Rites have joined forces to create a unique mash up of hip-hop, theatre and puppetry and Roxana spoke to two of the creatives behind this collaboration, Keith Saha and Mohsen Nouri.MORE INFORMATION
A review of The Ugly Duckling by Thingumajig Theatre at The Little Angel Theatre.MORE INFORMATION
Our review of Figurentheater-Tuebingen's Wunderkammer as part of The London International Mime Festival.MORE INFORMATION
Roxana chats and laughs with Frank Soehnle of Figurentheater Tübingen ahead of their sold out show Wunderkammer this week at the Barbican.MORE INFORMATION
A review of Kite by The Wrong Crowd at Soho Theatre last week.MORE INFORMATION
Mervyn interviews Bonnie Mitchell and Rachael Canning the co-directors of The Wrong Crowd talking about their show Kite and their making process as their appear this year at the London International Mime Festival.MORE INFORMATION