There is something otherworldly about puppets. Seeing these inanimate objects brought to life on stage is a magical experience.
If you pay enough attention, a traditional wayang kulit (shadow puppet) performance can transport the audience to a supernatural realm.
Recently an episode from Chinese classic Journey To The West was also presented in puppet glove theatre, otherwise known as “potehi”, by the Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio in Penang as part of the George Town Festival 2016’s A+SEAN showcase. It plays again this weekend at the Butterworth Fringe Festival. As many Malaysian arts festivals grow in stature, local puppetry traditions have also been co-opted into this scene.
“Think of puppetry as a vehicle that will help us explore beyond what we know, taking us anywhere our imagination can lead us. Through our puppets, we can make our dreams a reality,” says Dr Loy Chee Luen in a recent interview.
The 39-year-old senior lecturer at Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris’s Faculty of Education and Human Development in Perak has spent most of his adult life researching and teaching puppetry.
His PhD research area was about puppets as a pedagogical tool for pre-school children. Loy is currently pursuing his second doctorate in creative arts at Aswara (National Arts Culture And Heritage Academy).
It comes as no suprise then that Loy, together with Gan Eng Cheng, the senior production manager at the Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre (KLPac), are co-curating the puppetry programme for this year’s Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival (YSDAF).
The two-day event at KLPac on Aug 20 and 21 boasts an impressive line-up of arts programmes, with over 100 exciting activities such as workshops, performances, drum circles, art market, film screenings, exhibitions, installations and even a lawn concert.
And puppetry has a big presence at YSDAF. If you remember, the inaugural YSDAF in 2014 kicked off with a parade of giant puppets along the then Jalan Ipoh. Puppetry workshops have also been a part of the festival.
This year at YSDAF, there will be several showcases throughout the day alongside workshops and a puppetry exhibition.
Gan and Loy are no strangers to each other. Gan was Loy’s student at Universiti Malaya where he pursued his Bachelor of Performing Arts.
The student-lecturer relationship turned into a partnership when the duo founded the Malaysian Puppetry Association (MPA) in 2014 to promote and preserve traditional and contemporary Malaysian puppetry.
Gan, 29, feels that YSDAF is an “excellent platform to introduce different types of Malaysian puppetry to the public and this includes not only traditional forms like wayang kulit but also contemporary forms of puppetry.”
Pentas Wayang is the puppetry space at YSDAF.
“We chose to focus only on local groups to showcase the breadth of puppetry and puppet masters found in Malaysia that also reflects our multi-cultural and multi-ethnic history.
“Not only do we want the festival goers to watch an authentic puppetry show but we also want them to have a deeper and more enriching experience by having the chance to join our workshops,” he adds.
Describing puppetry as an art form which “exemplifies how we live in Malaysia which is a whole melting pot of cultures as well as blend between the traditional and the modern”, Gan hopes that festival goers will be able to experience, interact and celebrate the history of Malaysian culture through our traditional and contemporary puppetry.
One of the highlights of Pentas Wayang is the award-winning MyTali string puppet performance by PuppetKu’s Theatre (founded by Loy in 2003) in collaboration with Orang Orang Drum Theatre, which composed the drum score, and the Art Baiduren duo, which made the puppets and the costumes.
MyTali, which literally means “Malaysia’s String”, sets out to reflect the multi-culturalism of society here by using the string as a symbolic uniting factor. The show features three musicians and two puppeteers.
In fact, as a concerted effort to nurture, promote and preserve traditional and contemporary Malaysian puppetry, the PuppetKu’s Theatre Puppet House is currently under construction at Tanjung Malim in Perak.
“This will act as the puppetry arts centre for MPA and it will be a fantastic resource for anyone wishing to explore the world of Malaysian puppetry.
“The Puppet House’s facilities include a mini puppetry library, a mini puppetry theatre as well as a space for puppet exhibition. The Puppet House will exhibit a collection of Malaysian puppets which encompasses the different types of puppetry in the country.
“The Puppet House will also run a series of exchange programmes and residencies to encourage Malaysians and foreigners to collaborate and exchange ideas,” describes Loy.
Another performance to look out for at YSDAF is a modern version of shadow puppetry based on Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew, directed by Mark Beau de Silva, and performed by Deda Abdullah, Ho Lee Ching and Thomas Alexander.
This was part of the YSD Wayang Shakespeare Sekolah programme, in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. It toured eight schools around the Klang Valley earlier in the year.
Some of the schools, which were part of the tour, are SMK USJ 8 (Subang Jaya), SMJK Chong Hwa (Gombak) and SMK Alam Megah (Shah Alam).
The students from the participating schools had a hands-on experience at making their own puppets, apart from watching the show.
Pentas Wayang will also feature Wayang Kulit Purwo, hailing from Johor. The traditional shadow puppet show will be performed by the troupe from Pusat Seni Kebudayaan Belia Warisan UTAG in Johor.
Other performances include Bunny’s Adventure by Lee Yee Han of Good News Art Space, A Journey With Master Cheng’s Way, a table-top puppet show performed in Mandarin with live singing by Master Cheng’s Way Puppet Group, and Sarung by the Oral Health Division of the Ministry of Health, which made it into the Malaysian Book of Records for the longest puppet performance by dentists.
Beyond the showcases, there will be two puppetry workshops.
One will be conducted by Mei Yee where participants (children and adults alike) will learn how to make their own shadow puppets based on the award-winning children’s book The Gruffalo. Mei Yee is a pre-school speech and drama facilitator at KLPac’s The Actors Studio Academy.
The other will be conducted by Amelia Tan from ACX Productions, who will guide the participants to make their own puppets and script their own shadow puppet show.
Gan promises that the programmes lined up for the puppetry segment will appeal to all ages.
“Parents can sit down with their children and enjoy a performance and it does not even matter if you do not speak the same language. Each group is different so, in one day and at one event, you can already have a very rich experience,” he promises.
For more info about Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival 2016, visit klpac.org/ysdarts fest.