A few performers move with Balinese-style carved masks upon an empty stage. The illumination from a single light source casts shadows on the wall, dark reflections of the masks that grow and shrink as the performers move.
It’s an arresting sight, that’s for certain. But just as fascinating as the performers is the sight of the man directing them: a Westerner. He speaks in fluent Malay as he tells them to move ke sana and lebih dekat.
This is Larry Reed, one of the few Westerners trained in traditional Balinese shadow theatre (wayang kulit). Over the years, he has performed over 250 shows in this tradition around the world.
Reed, an acclaimed theatre artist fluent in five languages, is considered a trailblazer in the field of contemporary shadow theatre.
“What I like about shadow play is that one person can play all the parts. Usually as an actor, you can only play the role that fits your character. Here, you can do everything!” says Reed, 72, about the appeal of the medium.
Reed is a “dalang”, or shadow master, and a master multi-tasker. During a show, he can manipulate over 20 carved leather shadow puppets, while simultaneously serving as the conductor of the accompanying gamelan orchestra, the director, and the stage manager!
The shadow master was in KL recently to prepare for an upcoming shadow theatre show with the local Masakini Theatre Company. He also visited local Orang Asli communities, and spoke to experts on their song and dance tradition.
“Malaysian shadow puppetry is closer to Thai than it is to Balinese shadow puppetry. The look of puppets are the same as Thai ones. The music is completely different. Here, it's mostly percussion. The stories are similar, though. Like the Ramayana, they all came from India and later became part of the local culture in some way,” explains Reed.
Reed was introduced to shadow puppetry in an unusual way.
Growing up in Los Angeles, California, he was fond of the performing arts, having been exposed to theatre and film a lot. However, he wasn’t completely satisfied with those two mediums.
“I was looking for a certain kind of theatre I wasn’t finding. I had this idea in my mind, and as I described it to people, they told me I should go to Bali. And I didn’t want to, I thought it was going to be this touristy thing,” he admits. “But went I got there, I realised it was really interesting. One day, I went to see a performance of the shadow theatre, and then things really fell into place!”
Reed eventually returned to the United States, where he discovered the American Society for Eastern Arts (now the Centre for World Music), which had a programme teaching these shadow theatre traditions. He would later return to Bali, where amazingly, he honed his craft under the guidance of the father of his first teacher from school.
In 1972, he founded ShadowLight Productions, with the aim to nurture indigenous shadow theatre traditions, and to explore and expand the possibilities of the shadow theatre medium. His major works include In Xanadu, The Wild Party, Coyote’s Journey, A (Balinese) Tempest, Monkey King At Spider Cave and Poro Oyna: The Myth of the Aynu, which have been seen at many festivals and US venues such as the Henson International Festival of Puppet Theatre, the World Puppetry Festival and the Eugene O’Neill Theater Centre’s National Puppetry Conference.
He has garnered numerous awards and honours, and has also written, directed and produced films in the US and Mexico. Shadow Master (1979), his documentary on the family of a Balinese shadow artist, has been shown on PBS and Discovery Channel.
Many of Reed’s shows are based on the mythologies of cultures from all around the world.
“I think a lot of the time, mythologies are very misunderstood, or are just treated as children’s stories. But there’s a lot of it that’s very interesting to me, because they’re so ancient,” he mentions.
It is the live aspect of shadow performances that appealed most to him, as well as the fact that it could be enjoyed by all ages.
“The ideal audience is not just children, or adults, it’s the whole village! It’s a mixture of old and young. And that allows you to sometimes say silly things, which will make the children laugh, and when the children laugh then the adults will laugh.
“Or you can say something serious, and while the children may not get it, you can see the adults all listening. That’s a deep inspiration that comes from my original experience in Indonesia.”
The main challenge of creating shadow theatre, according to him, from transitioning from one shadow-shape to another.
Sometimes, Reed says, the live aspect meant things could go wrong, but it was always possible to fix them. For example, during a production of his show Seven Visions, the theatre’s electricity ran out during a full house on opening night.
“We had to run out to the store to buy candles and flashlights, and improvise both in front and behind the screen until the power came back. And then we started over again! We had to bring the musicians and voice actors to the front. It was fun!” recalls Reed with a smile.
In the 1990s, Reed entered a new phase of his career by inventing an ingenious shadow casting method, which integrated traditional shadow theatre techniques with film, modern theatre and dance styles. Many of his shows now combine traditional puppetry elements with contemporary touches such as voice-overs, projections, graphics, and complicated light sources.
Did Reed think that shadow theatre could survive in this modern day and age, when entertainment seemed to become more hi-tech by the day? Yes, the shadow master said: indeed, it is the low-tech format of shadow theatre that makes it unique.
“I think it’s okay to mix some hi-tech elements with it, but I think the low-tech aspect is important. We’re so used to seeing so much hi-tech stuff, that I think sometimes it’s a relief for people to see something that isn’t computer animated or anything like that. Hopefully it gives people an appreciation for something very basic,” says Reed.
“That’s the power of the shadows. It’s different from cartoons or movies. They’re closer to dreams.”
Larry Reed’s production with Masakini Theatre Company is expected to be in August 2017. The show will be sponsored by Elektrisola, with Sabera Shaik attached as producer and Datuk Ramli Ibrahim as special consultant.