If you are looking to see a performance of traditional Thai puppetry then look no further than the ‘Joe Louis’ Puppet Theatre in Bangkok It’s a remarkable story for an art form that had virtually died out in Thailand and is testimony to the efforts of the late Sakorn Yangkhieosod (nicknamed Joe Louis) who revived the ancient art and whose legacy can be seen at the Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre in Bangkok.
The theatre officially opened in 2002, but was renamed in 2004 by HM the King’s oldest sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana. The new title was ‘Nattayasala Hun Lakorn Lek (Joe Louis)’ known in English as ‘The Traditional Thai Puppet Theatre’. Although the history of the theatre itself is recent, the roots of the story behind it go back to the early 1900s.
Traditional Thai Puppets
The puppets are up to 1.5 metres tall with numerous joints that enable them to be controlled by sticks. The skilled work of the puppeteer brings the characters to life. Sakorn (Joe Louis) himself once said, ‘Hun lakhon lek puppets are charming because they can act like humans. They can nod, wave their hands, and point their fingers. They dance like we can. It is the heart of the performance that the puppeteers bring life to the puppets.’
In Thai puppetry, each puppet requires the synchronised efforts of three puppeteers all of whom appear on stage with the puppet and all of whom are accomplished Thai classical dancers in their own right.
There are three main types of traditional Thai theatrical performances:
Khon is the most sophisticated of the performances with carefully choreographed movements and elaborate costumes. Khon usually features episodes from the Indian epic Ramayana (known in Thai as Ramakian) which details the story of a battle between vice and virtue and which features Hanuman, the great monkey warrior.
Lakhon is derived from khon but is used to recount a greater range of stories performing all the other classics of Thai drama.
Likay is also derived from khon, but compared to khon and lakhon, likay is the least sophisticated of the trio. The performances are based on common dramas and the action tends to be light-hearted with romance, comedy and singing all adding to the story.
Born in 1922 to parents who were both puppeteers in a travelling troupe, Sakorn Yangkhieosod was a sickly child and spent part of his childhood in the care of monks where he was renamed ‘Lhiew’ meaning ‘Willow’. The later nickname of Joe Louis came about in the late 1930’s when the legendary boxer Joe Louis became heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Lhiew, who was already used to his name being pronounced ‘Lui’ suddenly found friends calling him ‘Joe Lui’ which in turn became ‘Joe Louis’.
The young Sakorn grew up to be a talented khon dancer and lakhon and likay performer. Being brought up in an environment where puppets were common, it was probably inevitable that he would also go on to become a master puppeteer. However, the Second World War and subsequent modernization were to have an impact on the traditional theatre in Thailand. The introduction of motion pictures and then television hastened the decline in traditional art forms which were viewed as old-fashioned. With the decline in public interest, the traditional Thai puppets were placed into storage and some were even destroyed. Sakorn made a living making khon masks although he found there was little demand for them too.
In the 1980’s it seemed that the old tradition would die out with Sakorn being the last known living exponent of traditional Thai puppetry. Apparently driven by nostalgia, Sakorn decided to make one more traditional puppet. When the puppet was finished, his 9 children were fascinated and became keen to learn how to make the puppets and how to manipulate them. Gradually, more puppets were made and in 1985, Sakorn and his family gave their first performance of ‘hun lakorn lek’ (traditional Thai small puppets). More performances were held over the years at local fairs and temples and the Joe Louis troupe became known throughout Thailand. In 1996, the King of Thailand granted Sakorn the title of National Artist in recognition of his work. The prestige of this honour enabled the necessary funding to establish the original puppet theatre near Sakorn’s home in Nonthaburi, but the theatre’s small size and quiet location meant that it did not attract many visitors.
Sadly, a fire at Sakorn’s home in 1999 resulted in his house being destroyed along with all but one of his 50 puppets. It was a cruel blow for an old man who must have wondered whether it was worth carrying on with the traditional art form. With the help of family and friends and donations from the public, the Joe Louis troupe were able to re-establish themselves and in 2002 a new theatre was opened which proved to be hugely popular with local people and tourists and the Joe Louis troupe have regularly performed in front of Thai royalty.
Sakorn ‘Joe Louis’ Yangkhieosod died on May 21st 2007. His legacy is the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre now run by his family and which remains the sole guardian of traditional Thai puppetry. Take a look at the website – it is quite fascinating.