Visiting Asia

by Kathy Foley 

In June and July, I traveled through Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia. While I was there, I had the chance to interact with various groups of puppeteers and theatre people. In Korea with Matthew Cohen (Royal Holloway University of London) and Song Jungmin, we went to the Asian Cultural Center in Kwanju where we learned of the artistic residencies and research opportunities that the center provides for anyone doing research on the Asia-Pacific region. We saw the artist studios and learned of the residencies they offer. Anyone doing research or creative work that has to do with Asia should consider it. Cohen presented on his work on wayang and I presented on how one can approach exhibiting puppetry by trying to recreate the liveness of puppetry in the still environment of a museum, citing the recent exhibit Indian Puppets: The Great Stories and Dancing Dolls at the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Asian Cultural Center facilities for residencies and research in Kwanju (photo via  ACC website )

Asian Cultural Center facilities for residencies and research in Kwanju (photo via ACC website)

In Seoul, I was able to meet with members of UNIMA-Korea and explore the idea of doing an exhibit that might include Korean Masks and puppets.   Artstage San which brought Dallae's Story, about a young Korean Girl caught in the Korean war, is one of the largest companies and has a repertoire that ranges from Western fairy tales, to Shakespeare, to tales of orphan David Misang McKenzie, a Canadian-Korean adoptee who goes to South Korea looking for his roots. The latter was a co-production with a Canadian company and based on a true story. Theatre Ro Gi Narae, led by Bae Geunyong, did a lovely production at Jongno Children's Theatre about the michevious Korean dokkaebi trickster spirits of Korean folklore who interacted with a contemporary Korean boy.

A small puppet festival in Seoul ranged from solo avant-garde pieces to an elaborate children's show with live pungmul (Korean drumming). From Theatre Company SaniNeomeo, I learned of their production of Park Chumji Returns which reprises traditional puppetry (with Punch-and-Judy-like action) using larger puppets and more manipulators, while interpreting the work for contemporary audiences. A new president of UNIMA-Korea received me as the last president had just been elected mayor of Chuncheon, which appropriately holds the country's largest puppet festival every Fall and always welcomes foreign companies to its lineup.

Sunan Kalijaga.jpg

In Ipoh, Malaysia, I was a speaker at the Fifth World Conference on Islamic Thought and Culture, presenting on the intertwined history of puppetry and Islam in Southeast Asia. I told the stories of the fifteenth century Islamic Saints who converted Java to Islam using puppet shows, music, and female performance.

The image to the left is Sunan Kalijaga - the most famous of these fifteenth century saints - and who is credited with inventing the shadow show (wayang kulit purwa) among many other artistic endeavors.  I remarked on the irony that puppeteers who consider themselves as the descendants or students of such saints are being banned from performing in their home state of Kelantan in Malaysia and discussed the plight of puppeteers in Southern Thailand who find that the current strife between the state police and Islamic fundamentalist is making it hard for nang talung, the puppet art of Southern Thailand, to persist, even as it is being converted into a dance drama form at the local school of performing arts in Nakorn Sri Thammarat.

Students rehearse the opening of a dance drama based on nang talung shadow puppets in Nakorn Sri Thammarat. (Photo: Kathy Foley)

Students rehearse the opening of a dance drama based on nang talung shadow puppets in Nakorn Sri Thammarat. (Photo: Kathy Foley)

In Indonesia, I had the honor of seeing the final projects of the dalang puppeteers class at Institut Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Institute of the Arts) led by I Nyoman Sedana who has written on his own cross cultural adaptations for  Issue #38 of Puppetry International. Student work ranged from marionette adaptations to pop-up book scenery to traditional shadow work. Young energy and creativity were rampant as young dalangs took on issues of land grabs for resort or business that disenfranchises villagers. Their teachers encouraged them to know tradition but explore the new.

It was cremation season so I also saw a performance of the story of how Bima goes to release his parents' souls from hell (a necessary part of any cremation ritual), performed by a young puppeteer mourning his own father in the rites. Understanding the context and personal engagement gave the viewing additional meaning as the Burly Bima opened the gates of hell.

The puppeteers in Denpasar spoke with anticipation of the April 2020 World Puppetry Festival that will be held in Gianyar. They invited UNIMA-USA members to come and learn of the deep cultural meanings and the modern permutations they are taking with wayang.