A Heavy Wei-ght

Shen WeiDriving home from work recently I heard an interview with Chinese-American choreographer and director Shen Wei. Sometimes late to the party, I knew I had heard the name before and with my interest piqued by the interview, which ran as a strand on the BBC World Outlook series, I went digging. Shen came to international renown as lead choreographer at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In itself this says something about the man and his international standing. To be invited to return to a country which would have once banned and perhaps renounced him for taking citizenship elsewhere, is powerful statement about his talent. It wasn’t this so much that attracted my attention, but his childhood in Hunan Province. Born during the cultural revolution, his father was a director of a Chinese Opera company and he literally grew up in the theatre. This is the BBC interview

Shen went onto study Chinese Opera at The Hunan Arts School and then to perform lead roles with the Hunan State Xian Opera Company. His journey from there to his own celebrated dance company in New York, Shen Wei Dance Arts is a fascinating one and detailed in these two interviews:

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Clearly never a man to stand still, Shen is now gaining credence as a visual artist too and there is a clear link between the two art forms in much of his dance, easily illustrated by his piece for the Olympics:

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You can watch the same video, with an english commentary here. In another piece, Second Visit of the Empress, he brings together Chinese opera and modern western dance in a wonderful fusion of the two forms:

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Before leaving China Shen was one of the founder members of the Guangdong Modern Dance Company and was asked back in 2000 to create a piece called Folding which particularly caught my attention with its stunning imagery. Shen not only choreographed Folding but also designed the costumes, set and make-up.

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Like much contemporary dance, it is hard to draw a line between dance and theatre and the excerpts above make that evident in Shen’s work. For the boy who grew up back stage, the act of making theatre would appear never to be far from the surface.

Dancing Revolution

gz-political-mother-blurd-dancers-circle_1000Sometimes a trip to the theatre can be truly exhilarating, confronting and prescient. Last night I went with my friend Sara to see Political Mother by British based Israeli choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, and it was indeed all of those things – and a lot more besides. In essence, it is a piece that explores the relationship between society and state, duty and service and brutalisation by a repressive power. The staging is epic – and very loud (being issued with ear plugs by the theatre was a first for us, although they remained unused). Political Mother has had a few incarnations and we witnessed another one, with it being re-worked a little for the festival it was part of and the addition of young, local musicians, largely drummers, to an already significant cast of dancers and musicians.

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It has toured significantly around the world and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to see something I had been reading about with envy – the reviews have been almost uniformly outstanding. You can see for yourself here and here.

Hofesh-Shechter-Political-Mother-600x399However, it wasn’t simply the piece that was so enthralling, it was also the context in which it was being performed. The monolith of a building in which it was staged, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, was commissioned and built under British colonial rule and is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Ten minutes walk away is the commercial district of Mong Kok, where protests for universal suffrage continue. Across Victoria Harbour from the theatre is the other site of protest, with roads closed and a growing tent city springing up. It was palpable that the irony of a governmental sponsored festival hosting Political Mother was not lost on the majority of the audience. We were left wondering what the performers thought about the timeliness of their work in Hong Kong.

Dance and politics have never been far apart. One of the founders of contemporary dance, Martha Graham was no stranger to this fact, as this short documentary shows:

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Taking To The Streets

P_E_2008030706450314Politics and theatre are, and have always been, inextricably linked. So following on from my previous post, this one explores real theatre on the streets, this time in Nepal.  I came across an article in the South Asia Monitor, written by Deepesh Paudal and originally published in The Kantipur DailyRoad ActSadak Natak or Street Theatre emerged in Nepal in the 1980s, during the height of monarchial rule, as a way of protesting against the excesses of the ruling royal family. Ashesh Malla, Artistic Director of Sarvanam, a Nepali theatre company, is credited for starting the movement and in a country where many live in rural poverty, street theatre has proved to be an effective way of raising awareness of a host of issues,  as well as entertaining people.

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However, in his article, Paudal sounds a note of of caution about the continuing existence of Nepalese street theatre:

Fading interest The development of  street theatre in Nepal has seen its peaks and troughs. Periodically, some have been critical, raising questions on its objective. Some of them have tagged  street drama as a mere developmental play (bikase natak), ‘farming dollars’, while others have sternly criticised it for an absence of aesthetics. Non-governmental organisations’ and other social institutions’ direct or indirect involvement in  street theatre s has drawn both positive and negative remarks from stakeholders. The lack of transparency in fund allocation and management has frequently put theatre groups under scrutiny, often exposing their dependency on donors and foreign aids. Additionally, the progress of cyber entertainment and communication has widely overshadowed the essence of  street theatre . street Even the interest of the pioneers and of those who had been actively performing in  street drama s in the past has significantly dropped. Under these circumstances, the sustainability and even the survival of  street theatre are increasingly in a vulnerable state. All theatre aficionados need to quickly apprehend that appreciating the contributions of  street theatre just as well as that of the commercial theatre will help save this form of art from extinction.

Little is written (in english, anyway) about the history of theatre in Nepal. Even in Jukka O. Miettinen’s wonderful online book Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance, Nepal fails to get a mention. It does, however, get a few pages in The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific as it does in Ashis Sengupt’s book Mapping South Asia Through Contemporary Theatre (both available through Google Books). You can also read a interesting overview of the history of Nepalese theatre here on HubPages.

Defiant Gestures

456423004I want to share an article today that was sent to me by an ex-student of mine, Clarissa Ko.  Clarissa is studying at the University of San Francisco and is taking a class called Embodied Activism. Given the current political unrest and student protests here in Hong Kong, the article struck a particular note with us both.  A number of gestures have been used by the Bypt2n1IMAE_MX-.jpg-largeprotesters that are now recognisable.  The crossed arms  has come to represent mistrust of the Central Government in Beijing. Hands held in the air was seen after tear gas was employed against them and borrowed from the non-violent protests held in Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown. Adapted from it original “hands up, don’t shoot” meaning in Missouri, it was used here by the student protesters to indicate to the police that their intentions were entirely peaceful. Universal gesture at its most potent.  The Washington Post wrote about gesture used in mass protests around the world in the last few years, and produced this  info graphic:imrs

The article I referred to at the beginning, entitled Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson, was written by Anusha Kedhar, Assistant Professor of Dance at Colorado College and makes fascinating reading. My colleague, Lou, has already used it as a way into the study of Peter Brook, the grand master of universal theatre . Published on The Feminist Wire, the piece is lengthy so I am only going to reproduce an extract here – you can read the rest at your leisure.

A Choreopolitics of FreedomAndré Lepecki recently wrote about “choreopolicing” and “choreopolitics.” He defines choreopolitics as the choreography of protest, or even simply the freedom to move freely, which he claims is the ultimate expression of the political. He defines choreopolicing as the way in which “the police determines the space of circulation for protesters and ensures that everyone is in their permissible place”—imposing blockades, dispersing crowds, dragging bodies. The purpose of choreopolicing, he argues, is “to de-mobilize political action by means of implementing a certain kind of movement that prevents any formation and expression of the political.” Lepecki then asks what are the relations between political demonstrations as expressions of freedom, and police counter-moves as implementations of obedience? How do the choreopolitics of protest and the choreopolicing of the state interact?

Powerful stuff, I’m sure you’d agree. Brecht would have loved it too!

Alternative Experiences

Today I would like to share two new excellent video documentaries from the American Theatre Wing. The first is about the creation of site-specific theatre. Since I Suppose is a site-specific theatrical experience based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which allows the audience to travel on an immersive journey through downtown Chicago.

The video follows members of the Melbourne-based theatrical group, one step at a time like this and Chicago Shakespeare Theater who share a behind the scenes look at how the experience was created using digital technology and the architecture and culture of Chicago.

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The second explores another visceral theatre experience but this time of the immersive kind. In the documentary Randy Weiner (Producer, Sleep No More), David Korins (Scenic Designer, Here Lies Love) and Zach Morris (Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects) describe the ‘staging environment, the state of heightened theatricality, and the effect of the immersive movement on the audience and its influence on today’s theatre scene.’

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If you are a first year IB Theatre Arts student reading this, both of these videos would be superb for your Collaborative Project.

Over Our Heads

salomeA blog post by theatre critic Lyn Gardner brought me to a realisation this week.  Virtually every theatre-going experience I have in Hong Kong is dominated, literally, by surtitles – either in English, Cantonese or sometimes both. I have often wondered how the complexity of a play in one language translates into another for a live audience. Are my Cantonese speaking compatriots having an easier time understanding the nuances of King Lear than I am? I know for sure that my students read the Cantonese surtitles when the spoken language of a play is impenetrable to them or the dialect or accent is too strong. In her post, Mind your language: the trouble with theatre subtitles, Gardner notes that great translations make foreign productions accessible, that poor ones are a distraction and asks whether surtitles always a necessity in communicating meaning to an audience:

One of the pleasures of London theatre-going over the past 20 years has been just how many foreign-language productions it has been possible to see. Shakespeare performed in another tongue has been a particular revelation as the Globe’s 2012 Globe to Globe season amply demonstrated, although what made that – and it’s ongoing spin-offs – so pleasurable was the chance to see Shakespeare amid an audience whose native tongue was the language in which the play was being performed. If you want evidence that London is truly an international city, this is it.

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

HEDDA GABLER, director Thomas Ostermeier

But there have been plenty of other opportunities to see oh-so-familiar classic plays in other languages, particularly at the Barbican, where Thomas Ostermeier has made us rethink Hedda and A Doll’s House and Hamlet, and will shortly be pitching up with An Enemy of the People. The London international festival of theatre has also done more than its bit to bring the world to London. In many of these cases it is the arrival of surtitles that have really made foreign-language productions accessible to those of us who do not speak or understand enough to get by. Without them I suspect many such shows wouldn’t get an English-speaking audience.

I remember a time when if you went to see a play in another language the best you could hope for was headphones and intrusive simultaneous translation or a free sheet detailing the action in each scene.

Good surtitles are a real art. One issue with surtitles is positioning. Poorly sited surtitles are like trying to hold a conversation in a room where a TV is on. However much you try not to look at them, your eye is constantly drawn towards them, even if you speak the language. You end up relying on the text rather than looking for other clues, which in a great production of a play in any language are demonstrated in a myriad of ways from the positioning and space between the characters to the timbre and tone of what is being said. It’s possible to understand a great deal about a production from its look and sound, even if you don’t speak a word of the language in which it’s being performed. Too much reliance on surtitles turns audiences into dummies, a bit like those tourists you see at Stratford who follow the entire production with their nose buried in the text on their lap as if it’s only the text that matters and looking at the stage is not necessary.

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare's Globe

Rakata perform Punishment Without Revenge by Lope de Vega at Shakespeare’s Globe

Poor surtitles can be a hindrance rather than a help, as I found at the Globe last week with a Spanish-language production of Punishment Without Revenge. In this instance they were simply describing the action and not particularly well: it’s enormously frustrating and sometimes bewildering to be told that someone is speaking in metaphor or telling a joke and not to be told what the joke is. I reckon that in this instance no surtitles – and a simple synopsis sheet – would be far better than surtitles that distract the eye from what is happening on stage and are way too blunt to add any value to the viewer. What do you think? And if you’ve ever seen any real surtitle howlers do share.

I have considerable sympathy with Gardner.  I have, on occasion, found myself at the front of the stalls, unable to read the surtitles (which are almost directly above me) and watch the stage action without needing a visit to the physio the following morning.  In some of our smaller and older theatres the surtitles are shown to the side of the proscenium and you end up looking like a spectator at a tennis match. I’ve also experienced the earphone and recorded translation version elsewhere in Asia when watching theatre – once I had to leave a Bunraku performance in Osaka after about an hour because of my ever-growing irritation with the mono-tonal drawl of the voice in my (one) ear.

UntitledThe comments section that follows Gardner’s blog continues the debate as does this post from BTI Studios, which talks about the difficulties of ‘captioning’ in the theatre. One theatre in Germany, the Komische Oper in Berlin, has the surtitles shown on the back of seat in front of you, as does La Scala in Milan (both opera venues you’ll notice). This is clearly a move in the right direction in terms of being able to view surtitles clearly, but of course, does nothing to address the translation issues or how they are used by a venue (as in the example given by Gardener at The Globe Theatre). It seems that any large city with cultural aspirations now stages an international theatre festival, so watching performance in a language other than your own is no longer an unusual or unique experience. Given this, I think it’s about time venues in particular, but theatre makers more widely, become a little more adept at making captioning work for the audience, both technically and artistically.

By way of a post script, and not unconnected, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK have just announced that they are going to translate all of Shakespeare’s plays into Mandarin, as well as translating 14 seminal Chinese plays into English (although these have yet to be named). Quieting the cynic in me and over-looking the PR puffery about boosting business and cultural links between Britain and China, this could mean some exciting Chinese work being available in translation for the first time.

Cultural Refugees

Much of our news during the summer has been dominated by what is happening in the Middle East – Gaza, Iraq, the marauding of the Islamic State, not to mention the horrific execution of American journalist James Foley and countless Kurds. The latter act in particular, as these events are wont to do, connected the horrors in the region to the rest of the world.

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It is with considerable sadness then, that I read in The Washing Post the article  I am about to share. Earlier this year I wrote about a production of Trojan Women performed by women refugees who had been forced to flee from Syria, No Longer A RefugeeThese dispossessed woman have been invited to perform their play in Washington D.C. in September, but have been denied visas because they are, of course, refugees. A wasted opportunity for so many reason, I feel. Written by Peter Marks, it makes infuriating reading.

Visa denials scuttle play with Syrian actresses at Georgetown

It had the potential to be one of the most galvanizing cultural events of the season: a dozen Syrian women, refugees from that besieged country, performing in Washington a version of a 2,500-year-old Greek tragedy revised to include their own harrowing stories.

But now the show can’t go on — simply because the women are, in fact, refugees. The State Department rejected the women’s applications for entertainers’ visas for the performances — scheduled for Sept. 18-20 at Georgetown University — because it is not convinced that the women would leave.

The decision has thrown into turmoil plans for the first staging outside the Middle East of “Syria: The Trojan Women,” a production organized by ­journalist-screenwriter Charlotte Eagar, her husband, filmmaker William Stirling, and Syrian stage director Omar Abu Saada. The Syrian women they recruited, living in exile in Jordan, are all amateur actors from varying strata of Syrian society and of diverse backgrounds. Some had never set foot in a theater before working on the play. But they wanted to come here, say Georgetown organizers of the event, to give their accounts of the toll the war has taken on them and their families.

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“This is the greatest tragedy, because in the United States we really don’t have access to the voices of the Syrian people. Who are we hearing from? ISIS,” said Cynthia Schneider, a former U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands who is co-chair of Georgetown’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, which organized the event. “We are completely missing this absolutely vital human perspective of the war in Syria.”

“It’s really so sad,” added Abu Saada, interviewed via Skype from Cairo, “because me and all the team, everyone was very excited about this. Now it is so sad that they will not get the chance to do it.”

Georgetown officials were offering “Syria: The Trojan Women” as the launching point of a two-year festival, underwritten by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, aimed at reducing ethnic and religious misconceptions by examining the culture, history and politics of the Muslim world. Flummoxed by the State Department’s decision, they are scrambling to salvage the event by turning it into a conversation with the women by remote hookup from Amman.

The scuttling of “Syria: The Trojan Women” is the second major setback in efforts to bring groundbreaking theater to Washington this fall from hot spots around the globe.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration lawyer based in Fairfax, Va., who was engaged by Georgetown to consult on the “Trojan Women” application, said the denial of the women’s visas reflects a broader problem: “What’s in play is the growing involvement of DHS [Department of Homeland Security] in visa affairs, in a post 9/11 environment,” he said. “And it is affecting the arts across the board. It is more difficult than it has been in years to get the underlying petitions approved” for visas for artists.

The play, first performed last fall in a community center in Amman, Jordan’s capital, splices into Euripides’s tragedy about the surviving women of a brutal war the tales of the Syrian refugee women, some of whom lost husbands and other relatives in Syria before fleeing to Jordan. As Eagar described it in an article she wrote for the Financial Times, the production makes the leap “from Greek spears and the Towers of Ilium to air raids, mortars, snipers and shattered homes in Homs.”

And the experience has proved a profound one for the women in the play — so much so, Abu Saada recounted, that one of the actresses decided a few days before the Amman performances that she would for the first time uncover her head in public.

Plans for the North American premiere in Georgetown’s Gonda Theatre were augmented by an invitation to the women from Columbia University to give an additional performance in New York. None of this was persuasive to the State Department. Although a visa for the event was granted to Abu Saada, who still maintains a residence in Damascus, the women’s applications were turned down this month by consular officials in Amman.

In a letter to Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, a State Department official, Michele T. Bond, said that the women “were refused under section 214(b) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.” That part of the code requires applicants to prove that they have a residence abroad and, according to the department, that they have “no intention of abandoning” it.

An additional wrinkle in this case, the department told the university in the Aug. 18 letter, was that there was no firm assurance from the Jordanians that the women would be allowed back into Jordan. “As you are aware,” wrote Bond, the acting assistant secretary for consular affairs, “a significant complicating factor in these cases is that the applicants have no assurance they will be permitted to return to Jordan following their trip to the United States.”

Derek Goldman, artistic director of Georgetown’s Davis Performing Arts Center and co-chair with Schneider of the laboratory, said that efforts to secure the visas involved contacting former and current Middle East diplomats, and even those with connections to King Abdullah II of Jordan. “We thought there was so much going on our side,” Goldman said, “and that basically it should be unimpeachable that these women should be able to get here, and that it would be so obvious that they would go back.”

Of the possibility that they would seek asylum, Schneider said: “I honestly thought the fact that these women had dependent small children and dependent parents [in Jordan] and none speaks English, and they don’t have any connection in the U.S., what would be the likelihood under those circumstances that that would happen?”

To add yet another twist, Abu Saada said that he learned Thursday that the Swiss government had approved visas for the women for a visit of the production to Switzerland in November. How or whether that might possibly alter the decision by the U.S. consular officer in Jordan remains unclear. As Ginsburg noted with chagrin, the decision of the officer in the country involved tends to hold a great deal of sway within the State Department.

Goldman and Schneider say they are determined to go ahead with a program involving the play. On Sept. 19, they have in mind an evening titled “Voices Unheard: The ‘Syria: Trojan Women Summit’ ” that will include excerpts from a documentary, “Queens of Syria,” about the play and a live feed from Amman, so the women can participate.

Abu Saada and two other members of his creative team who received visas are being encouraged by Goldman and Schneider to travel to Washington for the event. But as of Thursday, the director was on the fence. Without his Trojan women, he is not sure he has the heart for it.

“I’m still thinking what is the right decision,” he said.

 

Walking In The Footsteps Of Giants

s_r18_71390039One of the most fascinating companies that has been gaining an international reputation in the last few years is Royal de Luxe. Founded in 1979 by writer and director Jean-Luc Courcoult, the company has played to 18 million spectators in more than 170 cities across the globe. In and of itself, this is impressive, but it is the nature of their work that makes them extraordinary. The company, based in Nantes, France, create giant, and I mean giant, puppets that appear in site-specific shows which take over whole cities, the narrative played out in front of thousands of people at a time. They have a reputation of being one of the best street theatre companies in the world and it isn’t hard to see why. Theatre critic Lynn Gardner, gave one of their shows, Sea Odessy, a five-star rating, and spoke about the audience reaction thus:

Look at the faces of the audience and you see wonder.

Yes, this is a spectacle, but one that in its simple storytelling, skilled manipulations of the lifelike puppets (the little girl seems steeped in watchful sadness; her dog gamboling through the streets, his tongue lolling) and playful changes of scale offers a theatrical experience that is both epic and intimate, joyful and sometimes sad. Follow it through, rather than just glimpsing it as a carnival-style parade, and you become as much invested in it as you do in King Lear, and as admiring of the craft and imagination employed to put it together.

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It’s certainly a marvel, but it is not just the extraordinary feats of engineering that hold the attention. These giants may dwarf us and even our great cities…….but it is human endeavour that animates them.

Tiny figures in wine-coloured coats crawl across the bodies of the little girl and diver like Lilliputians. Each step of the diver takes gargantuan human efforts. The result is inclusive theatre where young and old rub shoulders with the giants. We walk together in their footsteps, and we walk taller because they are with us.

If your French is any good, there is a fabulous documentary about the company and their work:

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Another one, this time in English, from the BBC, covers a 2012 visit of the company to Liverpool, UK, as part of the 100 year commemorations of the sinking of The Titanic

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What I love about their work is not just the sheer scale of it, but the way they bring theatre to a much wider audience.  Theatre critic Catherine Usher commented that:

The Sea Odyssey Giant Spectacular tapped into something very special in terms of public reception and makes extremely significant steps towards a successful future for large-scale street theatre…..

The reactions that both Usher and Gardner speak about are evident here in this video. Royal de Luxe are truly a global company having performed in a diversity of countries – from Vietnam to Chile, Iceland to Australia – the list is long and impressive. Not all their performances include The Giants, but never the less they certainly have a global reach, as this set of images from The Atlantic shows.

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The latest performance for The Giants is happening this weekend, again in the city of Liverpool in the UK, which seems to have taken the company and their puppets to it’s heart. This time, as part of the commemorations of World War I.

For BBC Arts, Actor Sue Johnston, from Liverpool herself,  has written about the emotional power of these now iconic giant marionettes:

Growing up in the 1960s and spending so many years in the world of entertainment, I have seen and been part of some incredible things……I have been lucky enough to have had some experiences that I will remember for ever.

But one of the things I will never forget came two years ago, when alongside tens of thousands of people from my hometown, I took to the streets to follow a 30ft wooden ‘giant’, her uncle and her dog around the streets of Liverpool.

The city truly fell in love with those characters, and the French artists – Royal De Luxe – who brought them to life.

On that occasion, the giants came to Liverpool to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic – a seismic moment in history and certainly for the city, where so many of the crew from the ship were from. Some questioned if these giants were an appropriate way to commemorate such a disaster.

Royal de Luxe

They were proved spectacularly wrong.

This week, Royal De Luxe return to the city, and this time to mark something even bigger in our history – the centenary of WW1.Liverpool was the birthplace of the Pals regiments – groups of friends who, with the words of Lord Derby and Kitchener ringing in their ears, signed up together to go on an adventure abroad from which so few of them ever returned. Over the course of the coming years, there will be hundreds of commemorations around that terrible war – some big national moments and some small intimate affairs – but for me, it is this performance – titled Memories of 1914 – which I know will be as powerful as anything which will follow it.

Artistic endeavour such as this – big, bold and exciting – is a vital way for us to mark key historical events, no matter how sombre. They engage our senses and emotions in a way that other forms of commemoration would never be able to, and they break down barriers of age, class and race effortlessly. What is so compelling for me about Royal De Luxe is the way that they take the art to the people rather than wait for the people to come to them.

Between them, the three giants who will be in the city this week – the little girl and her dog again, but this time joined by a brand new grandmother giant – will travel a total of 30 miles around the city, going down the streets of forgotten terraces, past the two incredible cathedrals which hug the Merseyside skyline, and into parks quite a way off of the beaten track.

Vielle Geante (Old Giant), a puppet in the Royal de Luxe street theatre production Le Mur de Planck

This spectacle will engage and impact more people in this story, than any normal form of commemoration ever could, getting people to invest in something they didn’t even know they should care about.

Art can do this. It can touch us, thrill us, enrage us and engage us in things we might otherwise just let us pass by or choose to ignore. It makes us look and think differently about ourselves, where we live, our history and our future.

I have been lucky enough to be at the centre of some of those moments myself, but this week I am looking forward to experiencing it again, like everyone else. Being one of the million people who are due to come together to commemorate, pay our respects and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice, by being brought together by a giant girl, her grandmother and a dog.

Only art will ever be able to do that.

What Johnston doesn’t mention is that the puppets are so large that the company employ local volunteers wherever they perform to be assistant puppeteers, otherwise known as Lilliputians. One such volunteer is Colin Bordley, who talks about his experiences here.

I’ll leave the final words to their creator, Jean-Luc Courcoult, explaining how his characters come to life:

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Shadows Of The Empire

I find myself in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo this week and as coincidences go this is a good one.  On the way here I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal about shadow puppet theatre – but with a difference. Entitled Star Wars as Shadow Play, the writer John Krich  talks about a new shadow play called Peperangan Bintang, which translates from the Malay into Star Wars. str2_cn_2710_cnbintang_A

In the article Krich outlines a three-year old project by Tintoy Chuo to find a new, younger audience for the ancient Malaysian art of Wayang Kulit:

George Lucas credits the success of his Hollywood blockbusters in part to traditional forms of mythmaking. Now, his storytelling is coming full circle. Those heroes and villains from “a galaxy, far, far away” have landed in Malaysia with the mission of reviving its traditional art of the “shadow play.”

“I’m trying to combine the traditional with the high-tech to find a unique way to preserve Malaysian culture,” says originator Tintoy Chuo. “I myself sometimes find shadow play too long and boring. But this is something cool that young people can relate to. Even my mom knows ‘Star Wars.'”

A 25-minute preview of “Peperangan Bintang” (Malay for “Star Wars”) premiered last October. Drawing on the first of the films to be released—whose full title is “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope”—it features Sangkala Vedeh (Powerful General Vedeh, or Darth Vader), Perantau Langit (He Who Walks in the Sky, or Luke Skywalker) and Puteri Leia (Princess Leia), plus the familiar squeaking robots, augmented by banging gongs and screeching horns, eerie graphics, dramatic recitations and sound effects of heavy breathing and robotic squeaks. Mr. Chuo is still working on turning it into a full-length shadow play, usually 1½ hours.

“I thought it was a brilliant idea from the start,” says the retiring president of the Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club, Adi Azhar Abdul Majid. The club of 200 paying members—”from architects to kids who flip burgers,” says Mr. Adi, a former lawyer and freelance professional emcee—stages movie marathons and garage sales of memorabilia to support local charities. With the fan club’s help, Mr. Chuo was able to contact Mr. Lucas’s Lucasfilm, which said through a spokeswoman that Mr. Chuo’s “art was beautiful” and “was impressed with his passion for ‘Star Wars.’ ” Lucasfilm said it has offered to put Mr. Chuo’s photos in its fan publication, Bantha Tracks.

It was three years back that Mr. Chuo, 42 years old and a father of three, first struck on the idea of redesigning Luke Skywalker and the gang in shadow-play style. He raised funds by selling T-shirts displaying his fantastical hybrid creations. He seems perfectly suited to the project: By profession he’s a “character creator,” designing creatures for use in games, advertisements and other applications. But in the end he decided he needed help from a shadow-play “jedi.”

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“At first, I made them in plastic with lasers,” Mr. Chuo says. “Soon, I realized I needed to find a real puppet master to help me stage a performance.” A long search across rural villages ended with a Facebook inquiry from Muhammad Dain bin Othman, 62, a shadow-play master known familiarly as “Pak,” or Uncle, Dain. “That Christmas,” Mr. Chuo recounts, “I saw my first shadow play and he watched his first DVD of ‘Star Wars.’ ”

Pak Dain’s conclusion: “It’s a simple story, not difficult.”

The master soon helped Mr. Chuo fashion 10 puppets the old-fashioned way, of cowhide, the holes made by nails. Pak Dain’s only hesitation was over his reputation for authenticity. He decided it was acceptable to adapt “Star Wars” because tradition allows “outside stories” to augment main mythic plot outlines. “Nobody has complained so far,” Pak Dain explains, because musical themes specific to the Hindu characters Rama and Sita were changed.

“I told him that if some found us inauthentic, I would take the blame as the Chinese guy,” Mr. Chuo says.

Hailing from the Tumpat district of Malaysia’s northern state of Kelantan, a shadow-play hotbed, Pak Dain was taught by three learned masters and began mounting performances in the 1980s. He retired in 2008, but kept a connection, pouring his money into training musicians to keep alive this art that was once a regular feature of weddings and village celebrations. Unable to perform, he opened a Kota Bharu gallery for the puppets. It is estimated there are only 10 surviving master puppeteers around Kelantan, where the form of theater was adapted from Indian sources. Compared with the better-known Indonesia version, Malaysian wayang kulit features rounder, more transparent figures—colors shine through the silhouettes. The characters have one movable arm, as compared with two in Indonesia.

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The slow and relatively static performances have lost ground to movies, television and videogames. Today, the Malaysian shadow play is performed mainly for tourists in the Cultural Center of Kota Bharu, Kelantan’s state capital. One of the motives for basing a production on a Hollywood legend is, in Pak Dain’s words, to “change the mood” of authorities by “showing that shadow play doesn’t just belong to Rama.”

Though he’d like more funding to improve backdrop effects and perform overseas, Pak Dain says he will “continue to sacrifice a lot because we all love it and we want to promote it to the younger generation.”

This put a huge smile on my face for a number of  reasons. One, the attempt to keep, revive even, a traditional theatrical form like Wayang Kulit is admirable and innovative on Chuo’s part. Two, as contemporary theatre is using the big screen to widen its audience base, I am taken by the idea that the world of cinema is finding a place on the ‘theatrical screen’. Three, I have to admit I’m a Stars Wars fan – but of the original films, not the dross that Lucas produced later

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Tintoy Chuo and his team have been working hard to publicise their work. Firstly an interview with Chuo, Take Huat, Pak Dain and Ahmad Azrai by Gloria Kurnik about the project, which you can watch here.  Secondly, Chuo and Huat took part in the TEDx event in Kula Lumpur, and spoke about their work:

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There is also a Facebook Page which follows the development of the project, which is planned to be finished – a full length Wayang Kulit piece – by the end of the year. There is a little trailer here, which just made grin from ear to ear, especially the scene with R2-D2 and C-3PO

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1479328_634266829961483_1618726353_nThe fact that traditional techniques of puppet making and puppeteering are the centre of this effort is heartening, as is the use of traditional Malay instruments to play the soundtrack. Also, there is an alignment of characters with those in the traditional Wayang Kulit stories, which will hopefully widen the appeal. On the flip side, when the New Straits Times wrote about the venture, they did so on their ‘Tech’ pages, because of the computer generated visual effects being used.

This truly is fusion in so many ways.

Specifically Epic

Last week I had a moment of enlightenment while doing some reading around site specific theatre. Actually it was more of Homer Simpson ‘duh’ moment. We tend to view site specific/responsive theatre as something new, simply because of its huge and growing popularity. This was my Homer moment, the realisation that of course it has been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, both in the East and the West.

Ramnagar-AA-20-700One site specific performance that is almost 200 years old is the Ramlila of Ramnagar performed in Varanasi, India every year. It was started in 1830 by the Maharaja Udit Narayan Singh and is a theatrical portrayal of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Ramlila or Ram Leela (which means, literally, Rama’s story) take place all over India, but the one in Ramnagar is an epic in its own right. It lasts 31 days and takes place over an area of almost 8 square kilometres – basically the city is turned into an open-air set.  It is steeped in tradition – characters are played by local actors and major roles are often inherited by families, a good example being, the role of Ravana  which was held by same family from 1835 to 1990. It is reckoned that over 1 million people come to watch the spectacle every year. What interested and heartened me was that the ‘audience’ are indeed pilgrims. Very few foreign visitors are amongst the spectators as Ramnagar currently has no real tourist infrastructure. It wasn’t until 2013 that it was officially allowed to be documented on film.

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There are many Ramlila that take place across India, particularly in the North, but they generally last 10 days. Like Kabuki in Japan, Khmer Shadow Theatre in Cambodia, Commedia dell’arte in Europe and many performance traditions across the world, Ramlila is recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity:

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There are two excellent articles which are worth reading if you’d like to know more. The first is by Richard Schechner, a professor of performance studies at New York University. Written for the The New York TimesA Maharajah´s Festival for Body and Soul is an Untitledexcellent insight to the Ramlila of Ramnagar and details the potential problems that face it in the 21st Century. The other, equally as informative, is by Saudamini Jain for the Hindustan Times, entitled A look at the grandest Ramlila in the world

Another interesting online source comes from ZeeNews and is about the Dussehra Festival during which the Ramlila takes place.

In his Introduction to Theatre in India, David Mason,  Associate Professor of Theatre, Rhodes College draws the parallels between the Ramlila and the liturgical dramas and passion plays of Medieval Europe.  This ties in with my opening paragraph to this post,  as one of the traditions I realised was effectively site-specific is the Oberammergau Passion Play which is performed every 10 years by the inhabitants of the village of Oberammergau, Germany and been done so since 1634.

One more excellent resource that I have come across is The Ram Lila by Norvin Hein. Very detailed and clearly part of a larger work, although I cannot attribute it beyond that.

So there you have it – my ‘duh’ moment has left me a wiser person.