Monday, November 28, 2016

Wayang Kulit (shadow puppetry)

Thanksgiving weekend was a pleasant, familial affair. For several years we have been feasting in the Cleveland area, to be with my folks. As this was the first holiday without father, we decided to return to Athens. I drove my Mom down, my brother flew in from the Twin Cities with his family. It has been relaxing with books and puzzles and games and television and not too much Facebook.

There were so many journeys and events I only got one run in down by the bike path. For a Thanksgiving weekend, that is odd.

Saturday I connected with Dr. Condee, the subject was shadow puppets. Since the early Aughts the good doctor has been collaborating to bring the arts into O.U.’s Southeast Asian Studies program, with an emphasis on wayang or shadow puppetry. He’s traveled extensively in Bali and Malaysia and in our brief interview he had many delightful stories and information.

He also brought a portfolio of puppets!

Traditional wayang focuses on two narratives, Rāmāyaṇa, the love story of Rama and Sita, and the Mahābhārata, and epic tale of good and evil which, according to Condee, makes The Odyssey read like a short story.

Performing the entire Mahābhārata would take ages. Peter Brook produced part of it, and it took over nine hours. Most often artists choose the present part of the tale, which is called a trunk story. However, you can also tell original stories using various characters from the epic, and that would be called a branch story.

Red Onion, White Garlic is a folk tale for children, not part of either of these epics, though we will be incorporating wayang into the performance. Part of my conversation with Condee was to gain further insight into the practice, and how that might affect the way I think about my script, which I am in the process of writing.

We met at Donkey, which is apparently our established hangout. He had brought both plastic puppets, and also two more traditional characters made of hammered leather. The walls of the coffee shop were hung with art so available projection space was cramped, but it did mean there were several bright spot lights which was very helpful in cast these incredible, colorful shadows on the wall.

He described to me several companies, including those which experiment with certain performance traditions, expanding the possibilities of shadow art while maintaining the spirit of the craft.

In the most traditional performance, one player works all of the puppets and provides all the voices from behind a screen roughly four feet high and eight feet wide. Flickering light from an oil candle give the characters the illusion of subtle movement, like a living thing. The closer a puppet is to the screen the greater the detail, the further away they become diffuse - but much larger.

Larry Reed’s company ShadowLight often uses many players, behind but also in front enormous screens employing computer projections and light which keeps puppets in focus no matter how far they are from the screen and close to the light.

Our meeting, though brief, greatly improved my understanding of the practice, and I look forward to further study. Later, I got a plaid, wool sportcoat from Athens Underground.

Red Onion, White Garlic at Talespinner Children's Theatre opens April 8, 2017.

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