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Puppet Kaos - where Kelvin Kao plays with puppets and tell random stories

Review: Chen Kuai Le Puppet Theater (Taiwanese puppetry) at Music Center

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

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.

The Music

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.

The Venue

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.

The Group

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

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.

The Explanations

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? 😀

Moved RSS Feeds from FeedBurner to Google

I’ve just moved my RSS feed from Feedburner to Google. If you haven’t noticed any difference, then I’ve done my job.

If you know what RSS is and would like to surprise, here is my feed:

For those who are not familiar with RSS, let me just say that it’s really awesome. It stands for Really Simple Syndication (though on many college campuses it stands for Regent Scholar Society). You can use this thing called an RSS reader to grab updates from different blogs to read in the same window. That’s right. No more need to go to the blogs you read one by one to see if there are updates, because the updates are delivered to you! Perfect for people who are lazy (me) and perfect for people that do not appreciate blog design (not me). I use Google Reader. Try it out and you won’t regret it. (If you’ve never gretted, you can’t re-gret it, right?)

PS. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the icons on the upper right-hand corner of the page.

WordGirl: My New Favorite PBS Show

Over the winter break, I discovered a new show and it quickly became my favorite show on PBS. The show is WordGirl, a show about Becky Botsford, a fifth grade girl who is secretly WordGirl, a superhero that fights crime around the city. Becky has a pet monkey Bob, and WordGirl has a monkey sidekick Captain Huggy Face. Though Becky looks and talks like WordGirl, and Bob looks and acts like Captain Huggy Face, somehow people never figured that out. WordGirl was from the planet Lexicon and was adopted by the Botsfords when her spaceship (piloted by Captain Huggy Face) crashed onto the Earth. The Botsfords, though living with Becky and Bob and never seen them appear together with WordGirl and Captain Huggy Face, do not know their secret identities.

Why do I love this show so much? For one thing, it has my favorite formula: silly crisis and silly solution. Well, silly for the sake of being silly is also not that impressive. The writing is quite creative, and in fact, quite clever. And they constantly make fun of themselves, which I also love. The narrator also talk to WordGirl a lot. The characters are quite silly too. Just reading the character descriptions about the villains alone on Wikipedia cracks me up:

The Butcher: A criminal with the ability to shoot any type of meat out of his hands. He has the strange habit of mixing up words (such as saying “sunbeam” instead of “supreme,” or “robbify” instead of “robbery”) or even whole phrases (“So, WordGirl, we meet again for the first time!”). This is a play on his name, as he tends to “butcher” the English language. The Butcher’s powers are nullified by tofu. In one episode, after tiring of being defeated by WordGirl, the Butcher chooses a very unlikely ally to help him out, a kitten. Because WordGirl has a love for cute animals, she was powerless against The Butcher and Lil’ Mittens (the kitten).

Granny May: A senior supervillain who pretends to be a sweet, deaf, elderly grandmother in order to deceive those she burglarizes. Her main weapons are knitting needles that shoot yarn, petrified purse mints that burn the eyes, strong-smelling perfume which acts as a sort of stink gas, and her giant but timid grandson Eugene; she can also produce a cutting-edge steel suit of armor with a jetpack to wear.

This is the kind of stuff that makes me wonder…
What? Who came up with all this? It’s so damn brilliant!

Here’s a taste of one of my favorite episode. You can find more on Youtube.

Now let’s all watch the show (provided that you are age 6 and up) and learn some new words.

Word up!!

Past Weeks and Next Weeks

Ah, been busy these two weeks, but these two weeks have actually been filled with a bunch of puppetry and theatre related stuff. I just didn’t get time to write about them yet.

LCC Theatre

Two weeks ago I went to a meeting of LCC Theatre Company, the UCLA theatre company that I performed with during my college years, where the new cast members, current cast memebers, and alumni meet one another. Each generation played an improv game. I played the interrogation game with Jarrett and Tru, two other alumni who I haven’t done improv with for quite some time, but there was no sign of rustiness at all. In fact, I think we did better than most newer generations because we are more used to listen to each other and a lot less likely to try to talk over each other, which just introduces unnecessary chaos confusions to the scene. I guess that sort of comes with experience. And then we also went on the retreat. It was good to meet the newbies. I think the producers picked a good mix of people for the new batch. But even more importantly, it was good to be able to see and hang out with the other alumni that I haven’t seen for a while. The bond is strong and the tradition shall carry on.

Taiwanese Puppet Show

The Music Center has this program called World City that invites a group from around the globe to put on a free show every month for family audiences. This month, they invited a well-known Taiwanese puppet troupe to perform. I grew up watching this stuff so it was really great to see it again. I will write more about it later.

New Puppets and Video

These two weeks had been pretty busy, not only because of those activities, but also because of a video that I was making. I built new puppets for it too, with my new sewing machine. It was quite time-consuming. I am not going to say that the end result is a masterpiece or anything, but I liked the way it turned out.

What to Expect Here Next

  1. More info on Taiwanese puppets: I’ve always meant to do this but haven’t gotten to it. I would like to write more about the art that has, I guess you can say, major impact on my life. Also you’ll see a review of the performance I’ve just seen.
  2. New video and the-making-of: I am going to post the video here. I’ve put a lot of work into it and tried a bunch of new things, so you will see more about the making of the video, and the making of the new puppets.
  3. My new favorite show: I wrote about my second favorite PBS show, Between the Lions, earlier. And I am going to reveal and share with you guys what my new favorite PBS show is, as promised.

So look out for those things, as I have this list on my journal to cross out. (Oh yeah, and I have a new journal in which to jot down ideas.)

Between the Lions: My Once (Now Second) Favorite PBS Show

Do you watch kid’s educational shows on PBS? I sure do that a lot. (For non-US readers, PBS stands for Public Broadcasting Service. It’s the American non-profit public broadcasting television service, and the home of shows like Sesame Street, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Clifford the Big Red Dog.)

Contrary to what many people might think, Sesame Street is not my favorite show on PBS. My favorite is Between the Lions. It’s a show about a family of library lions that love adventures in books. The format is similar to that of Sesame Street with repeating characters and skits, but Between the Lions has a bigger emphasis on reading. While Sesame Street focus on letter and number of the day, Between the Lions would focus on a vowel or a consonant, what words are spelled out and how they are used. I love all the tongue-twister-ish writing and silly puns. And it’s a also a plus that they used many types of puppetry.

There are many recurring segments. For example, there’s Cliff Hanger that can never seem to get off the cliff:

There’s Monkey Pop-up Theater:

There’s the very mindless Dot and Scot, and Chicken Jane who always winds up in some kind of disaster:

Aw… poor Chicken Jane. And here’s my favorite song of all time from this show, When Two Vowels Go Walking:

Ah, this show puts a smile on my face. Up till about two weeks ago, this was my favorite show on PBS. But over winter break, a relatively new show became my new favorite and she sure stole my heart. Do you watch PBS Kids? Can you guess which show it is? I’ll reveal the answer in a later post. (Unfortunately, this show is relatively new so it hasn’t been picked up by that many PBS stations yet.)

Goodbye 2008, Hello 2009!

2008 was over and it’s now 2009! Let’s see what I wrote down on January 1st, 2008. I said that I would:

1) Keep the website running and updated: They say that an average blogger burn out after 6 months, and if they can keep going after 6 months, it will keep going for quite a while. I started doing serious posting in July 2007 so I’m around the 6 month point. We’ll see what happens.
2) Make a new header for this site (or at least try) that has pictures of puppets
3) Install the Comment Luv plug-in
4) Make more puppets (possibly learn how to use a sewing machine?)
5) Make some music for the videos instead of always use Creative Commons stuff

Did those things get done? Yes and no.

#1 was not hard. I am already way past that. So hooray for me and this blog.
#2 is still not done. The fact that my camera wasn’t working doesn’t help either. Actually, I can use my video camera for that, but I’ve been procrastinating… Now I’m waiting for the new lights to be set up before I do anything with it.
#3 was done and we still luv it.
#4 was not done so that shall be the goal this year. I’m pretty sure that it will get done this year, since I am planning to either add more characters or start a new project altogether.
#5 will be started once I figure out my computer’s sound issues.

2008 wasn’t that great of a year because there are a few things that certainly slowed me down and killed some momentum that I’ve built up. I’m not saying that nothing good happened. There are still quite a few good things, but hey, I always want more good and less bad stuff. So anyway, so long, 2008. I’ll see you later. (If time travel is ever invented, or if I ever meet a Time Lord.)

Usually I’m not one to make new year resolutions. And for the ones I’ve made, I generally would like to keep them to myself anyway. But yeah, there are two things that I’d already said (in public, sort of) that I’d like to accomplish by the end of the year:

1) find my soul mate
2) make a video that’s viewed by 10000+ people

Let’s see how 2009 goes!