Two weekends ago I went to a performance by a Taiwanese puppetry group, Chen Kuai Le Puppet Theater, aka The Happy Puppetry Company. This is the kind of traditional puppetry that I grew up watching in Taiwan and it certainly brought back a lot of memory. I had a great time. 😀
World City is a program at the Music Center (officially The Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County, better known for Walt Disney Concert Hall and Ahmanson Theater) where they invite a performing arts group from around the world to put on a free show each month for family audiences. There were many loving parents enjoying quality family time with their kids at these shows. It was well-advertised and we were on the waiting list by the time we got there. When we were outside chatting with the staff, they told us that puppet shows are particularly popular because parents take their children to see these shows. I am glad to hear that, because good puppet shows are simply magical.
They did two shows this time: one at 11:00am and one at 12:30pm. We were there to see the 12:30 one, so when we arrived, the 11:00am show was in progress. As we walked towards the theater, I got more and more excited because I could hear the music becoming louder and clearer. I was very happy to hear live music, because some of the theater troupes started using stereo systems to play recorded music to save money. But really, live music with traditional instruments is just so much more exciting. In Taiwan, before a show starts, the band will play their music really loud. This is a signal for all the kids to hurry up and get the best seat. You know, we were on the waiting list at the time and we weren’t even sure if we would actually get in, but I was thinking, even if I only got to listen to the music from outside, it was already worth the trip for me.
We eventually got in (yay!) and saw the set-up. They sure brought everything. The puppeteers, the musicians, the puppets, the beautifully decorated puppet stage that’s hand-carved out of wood, everything. This was outdoors (hm, should’ve brought sunblock) in the amphitheatre where people sit on steps instead of individual seats, and there were many children too. No wonder that they had a hard time figuring out how many people would actually fit in the place.
Chen Kuai Le (真快樂, literally, really happy) Puppetry Company is directed by Taiwan’s leading female puppeteer, Ms. Sih-mei Chiang (江賜美). Her son Chia-tsai Ko (柯加財) and grandsons Shih-hong Ko (柯世宏) and Shih-hua Ko (柯世華) serve as puppeteers as well. The company is one of the most famous traditional puppet troupe in Taiwan. Shih-hong Ko and Shih-hua Ko also received The Most Popular Puppeteer Award in the Golden Dolphin International Puppet, Bulgaria in 2002 for the Carnival of Taiwanese Hand Puppetry.
The program was broken up into two halves. The first part is Wu-Song, the Tiger Hero. It was about Wu-Song defeating a tiger that eats people. The second part is Carnival of Taiwanese Hand Puppetry. This portion shows the many intricate movements of the puppets. There were very few lines spoken. This is typical for a show that’s presented to people that don’t understand Taiwanese (the language these shows are traditionally in). When they are performed in settings where not everyone is expected to understand the dialect, such as in schools as a cultural program, or performed in other countries, the version with less talk and a whole lot more action is often presented. Otherwise, in a setting where everyone understands Taiwanese, the shows are usually performed in front of a temple during festivals and have stories based on folklores and classic literature (or just random things made up by the troupes).
In the Wu-Song story, before Wu-Song went to fight the tiger, there were four brothers who also went to fight the tiger using different martial art skills (sword, knife, fists, etc.) and of course, they all failed before the hero arrived. And of course, this was just a convenient way to show off puppets fighting in different styles. And watching this kind of stuff growing up is why I love puppets doing martial arts so much, and even did my own version in Think, Outside the Box.
In the Carnival of Taiwanese Hand Puppetry, a series of archetypal characters are presented. The ones presented this time (and most of the time) are the man, the woman, the old, and the clown (生、旦、末、丑). They often show the (intellectual) man reciting poetry, using a fan in one hand, and picking up a pen to write. Since I watched quite a few of these, I’ve seen those things done many times. However, I was impressed when the puppet lit a candle. That I did not see coming. The woman typically came out and played with her hair and such. The old man showed his special way of walking, because he’s old and slouching. He also lit a pipe and blew smoke. The clown came out and clowned around. These things are a little hard to describe unless you saw it with your own eyes, I guess. Oh yeah, and these things are usually done as seperate segments, but in this particular performance they came up with a simple story to have these four characters interact and have a conflict and resolution. It was clever. And then they also showed puppets spinning plates and handkerchieves. What I haven’t seen before were a man chopping down a tree, and a woman ribbon dancing. I’ve seen ribbon dancing done with Chinese rod puppets, but I haven’t seen them done with Taiwanese puppets. They are definitely very skillful and are pushing the envelope coming up with innovations too.
Between the Wu-song story and the Carnival half, someone came in front of the stage and gave a little bit of an introduction of Taiwanese puppetry in English. It was short, and also they had a little bit of a workshop thing explaining the mechanisms of these puppets. Oh yeah, during the show I was also explaining / translating stuff for a Chinese friend sitting next to me, and a dad with his kid we just met while in line. Those information wasn’t entirely necessary, but hey, I’m there, might as well. I am talking about information like, a puppet come out one side of the stage, and then quickly swings by and exits another side of the stage, and then he proceeds to do this a few times… what does that mean? It means he is travelling a long distance in a hurry. Is that essential to know? No. But it’s a convention that you pick up when you watch it growing up.
These shows don’t need to teach you everything about the art form. These shows are entertainment, and an exposure to another kind of art. If anyone is interested in the details and more background information, they can always look it up afterwards. Oh yeah, guess where you can get that info? Subscribe to this blog (wink, wink). One of my major goal this year with this blog is to write more about Taiwanese puppetry, since I don’t really see a lot of information about it on the internet. When I see introductions to Taiwanese puppetry on the internet in the English-speaking (uh, typing) world, it’s often just what they are… introductions. There are not enough details for people that actually want to know more about it. And I think that’s what I should be doing this year… writing more about this art.
Oh yeah, did I mention that the show was totally awesome and I was so glad that I went? 😀