New Roles for Puppets in the Arts

Robert Smythe, Festival Director, Puppeteers of America

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Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas -Mum Puppet Theatre

Adventure of a Boy and His Dog on the High Seas: Mum Puppet Theatre

As with many artistic fields, the world of puppetry is seeing a lot of change. Performers are facing new challenges in an increasingly complex marketplace, but there are new opportunities for crossover in the arts as well.  This month, more than 500 puppeteers came from across the U.S. to participate in Puppet Festival (r)Evolution, hosted at Swarthmore College and organized by Robert Smythe, this year’s festival director for The Puppeteers of America.

Today, puppets, are finding their way into an increasing number of arts disciplines and Smythe believes this reflects a growing understanding that puppets can play a unique role that goes beyond special effects or standing in for human characters. “People engage differently with puppets, because puppets represent an alternate type of reality, and so require a person to suspend disbelief and be willing to connect with the character differently than we would with one portrayed by a person,” says Smythe. “What you realize once you’ve worked with puppets, is that they broaden the range of possibilities for telling a story. For example, in theater, you normally have to allow time for action to shift – whether that involves making a scenery change, or having characters move in or out of the action. With puppets, you’re working in an alternate reality, so they can say and do things the people can’t, they can appear and disappear instantly, and exist in a fantasy world.

“The integration of puppetry with other fields such as theater, music and dance, reflects a larger trend in puppetry, which is that it’s become a much more collaborative art form than it’s traditionally been which I believe is a good thing. In the past, if you wanted to do your art, you’d hire staff you’d teach your methods to, and then you’d focus on having the group create your vision. Now, people in the field are much more specialized, and no one’s expected to do everything. As a result, you gain the benefit of having a group of individuals with specific talents, training and expertise, come together to produce a great performance.

“The Internet has also had a big impact, and we’ve seen that effect even in the make up of our conference. It used to be that the people who attended were primarily coming to learn how to build and operate puppets. Now, anyone can learn that online. So, we shifted our focus to be more about what you’d do after that, so our focus is on storytelling, performance and about the business of puppetry. Our organization also wants to create a place for people to connect and to learn from each other.”

Not surprisingly, technology is also a driving factor in change. There are many new things possible and at the same time, new questions are arising about what puppets even are. Some practitioners would prefer to see that answered in the purist, traditional form; but others see a lot of overlap with disciplines like robotics, animatronics, and even with computers, which is why one of the festival workshops was about creating digital puppets.

Robert Smythe has been working with puppets for about 45 years. He is the Director of Writing for The Puppet Theater at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center and the Director of the 2013 National Festival of the Puppeteers of America. He was also founder of Mum Puppettheatre, which ran in Philadelphia for more than twenty years.

For more information, visit The Puppeteers of America.

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Championing Chinese Shadow Puppetry – Annie Rollins

Annie Rollins, Puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry

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How did you get involved with Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Chinese shadow puppetry is the sum of all my independent interests and, of course, so much more.  As a part-Asian puppet lover with a penchant for the historical, Chinese shadow puppetry has sustained my interest in all of those things and continues to inform my personal and professional life.

How does shadow puppetry differ from other performance arts in its approach?

It is similar to other folk art performance forms in that its main purpose is to transmit oral history to a largely illiterate class and to educate and community build through entertainment and a collective experience. It differs from other traditions insofar as its incredible artistry has really pushed boundaries both with the figures themselves and performance techniques.

What about this art form is important to the heritage of China and to yourself?

Chinese shadow puppetry is an amalgamation of Chinese culture in both content and aesthetics as seen from the masses. While most elite and upper class art forms are well documented and preserved, Chinese shadow puppetry is lesser known and understood but more informative as to the majority’s ideology and beliefs at any given time. In a broader context, this is Chinese shadow puppetry’s most important heritage.

I consider it a high art form in its own right, with regional differences in nearly every province that reflect a rich inheritance of idiosyncratic tradition and craft.  My particular focus is practice-led research in traditional shadow puppet making methods in the three main regional styles and that has remained largely uncovered in research both in China and internationally.  Because the methods and aesthetic significance was largely overlooked until recently, many of the remaining masters have passed already with no apprentices in place and many others threaten the same scenario.

How does this influence your artwork?

My research and creative work have a symbiotic relationship – both inform the other and not necessarily in any particular order. Through research I find questions that can only be explored through creation and vice versa. Currently, my work is almost wholly focused on both Chinese shadow puppetry and how that learning is processed through me as an artist with a very different background than the traditional learner. With permission from my masters, I’m creating my own pathway to modernizing the form that fits within my understanding of how best to honor the tradition.

How is shadow puppetry being preserved in China?

Other than commercial endeavors, little has been done to preserve the form in China. With the official induction into UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage project in 2011, there is much more attention and support currently being focused on traditional Chinese shadow puppetry, but the long-term results remain to be seen. Little, if any, funding is being given to two designated members of a nominated troupe (equal to a peasants’ monthly wages) and no funding or support for students or apprentices. And, while this greatly eases the stress for shadow puppet artists in the aging stages of their lives, it does little to answer the more imperative questions about lack of students to carry the tradition through to the next generation.

Some people have criticized China for their lack of effort to preserve this and many other dying traditions as their country races towards a progressive modern future, but I find that they are doing what all countries have done at one point or another – prioritizing.  Folk art forms are in this position worldwide.

Are there any schools or programs that specialize in Chinese Shadow Puppetry?

Sadly, there are no formal institutions that teach Chinese shadow puppetry, save a workshop here or there.  The masters who are still working are very open to students – even foreign ones – who show an interest. Because it is a folk art form it is unlikely that Chinese shadow play education would become formalized anytime soon.The hope is that the form will garner more support to continue teaching as they always have – through hands and hearts.

If anyone has interest and will be traveling to China shortly, feel free to contact me for connections. Additional puppetry information is at: http://annierollins.wordpress.com/links.

Annie Rollins is a puppeteer and recent Fulbright Fellow in Chinese Shadow Puppetry. She has a MFA in theater design from the University of Minnesota and has been studying traditional Chinese Shadow Puppetry in different regions of China for the past year. Annie considers herself an artist first, creating experimental puppet shows, design and teaching workshops when she isn’t studying puppetry in China. Recently, she was invited to speak at the Chinese Shadow Puppetry Symposium at the Ballard Institute & Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut.

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