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November 13, 2011

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Puppets offer mirth, mystery and audience interaction

PUPPETRY these days appeals mostly to preschool children, but the Shanghai Puppet Theater is trying to come up with new plays that appeal to older children and their parents.

Colorful morning performances of "The Monkey King Subdues the White Skeleton Demon" will be performed on November 19 and 26 and on December 3 at the Shanghai Puppet Theater on Nanjing Road W.

Puppetry - hand puppets, string puppets, rod puppets and shadow play - have entertained people for more than 2,000 years in China. The puppet master's art was highly sophisticated and puppets themselves were painstakingly made and considered works of art. Many of them still are.

The playfulness of puppet shows, the mystery of how the characters move, and the interactions with the audience are special elements that cannot be found in other entertainment.

Though generations of people grew up watching puppet shows, today's digital media and technologies and pop culture have swept away all but the vestiges of many forms of traditional theater.

It's a difficult time, but also one of challenge and possibilities.

Yu Yinong from the Shanghai Puppet Theater is directing an hourlong play "Nezha Conquers the Dragon King." It is to be performed next year during the Labor Day Holiday in May and Children's Day in June.

Yu heads one of four troupes in the theater with a total crew of 50.

Yu and his team of 15 recently returned from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where they performed Hans Christian Anderson's sentimental "The Little Match Girl," about the dreams of a poor little match seller who dies in the snow. Puppeteers using string puppets skillfully conveyed the girl's hopes, desperation and death.

Since there are only 15 people in the crew, each must undertake several jobs to lower the cost - stage and prop design, lighting and manipulating the puppets.

The troupe presents around 160 shows around China ever year. Altogether the Shanghai Puppet Theater stages around 500 shows a year. It performs every Saturday and Sunday morning at Ciro's Plaza on Nanjing Road.

It takes more than three months to create a play, including script writing, directing, designing and making the puppets.

"Puppetry is not as simple as it looks," says Yu, who is in his 50s.

Before he became a puppetry director and producer, Yu spent 10 years making puppets. There are four basic types, including glove puppets, string puppets, rod puppets and shadow puppets.

The glove or hand puppets move the characters "bodies" very well and string puppets move very precisely and can perform a surprising array of gestures.

Shadow puppets are often exquisitely fashioned and painted in bright colors; performances are lively but of course it's not three-dimensional. Puppets held aloft on rods tend to be heavy and can be difficult to handle; they emphasize facial expressions.

Making a puppet requires at least a month and a half, depending on its intricacy. Each is hand made, designed and costumed for particular performances.

To make a rod puppet, craftsmen use modeling clay to build a sculpture that is supported by a long rod running through the body. The head is made separately with many layers of paper. Arms are attached. Everything is finally painted, costumed and decorated, jewelry may be added and the puppets are given props and accessories.

Since 2005, the Shanghai Puppet Theater has had to become largely self-supporting through ticket sales, since state funding was gradually withdrawn during market reforms. The city's culture and art funds still cover some projects, but the theater makes its own management decisions and is responsible for profit and loss, says Zhong Xiaoting, the artistic director of the troupe.

"That means we have to choose the right stories to perform and interpret them very carefully to make them appealing," she says.

Over the past decades the troupe has created more than 160 plays. The most popular are shows about ancient legends and European fairy tales, such as "The Little Mermaid" and "The Ugly Duckling." The Monkey King's "Journey to the West" is always popular.

"Most of our performances cater to children, but it's up to the parents to buy the tickets," Zhong says. Parents like the classics since they often carry a moral and message that can be inspiring.

Since the audience are mainly preschool children, the tickets are sold at low prices, normally no more than 100 yuan (US$16) per person.

In modern Shanghai, puppetry was popular in the late 1960s and in the 1990s when troupes produced "Monkey King Subdues the White Skeleton Demon" and "Nezha's Encounter with Aliens."

But Hollywood and Chinese animations and digital games are far more appealing to children.

Today the Shanghai Puppet Theater is the only significant professional troupe in the city.

"Almost our entire audience today consists of preschool children," Zhong says, "but we don't want puppetry to lose its appeal to older children and adults."

As veteran puppeteers and craftsmen age and retire, there aren't enough young people to take their place. Many puppeteers will retire shortly. In 2008, around 10 puppetry graduates from the Shanghai Theater Academy joined the troupe. But only four of them remain today: the others sought more stable and profitable work.

To popularize puppetry, the troupe hosts regular workshops for children and their parents, so they can learn what happens behind the scenes in a puppet show.

The troupe also adopts popular animation figures, such as the classic Black Cat Detective.

The troupe is preparing a shadow puppet play about the famous Chinese female general Hua Mulan who disguised herself as a man and took her father's place in the army.

The most highly anticipated puppet play will be "Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea," which has been in the works for two years. It is expected to be the first puppet show in China to include new elements and techniques of animation. Images of the puppet characters will be projected on a multi-media LED screen and short animated videos will supplement the story. The premier date has not been decided.

Many parents would like their children to spend less time on cell phones, computers and iPads, and less time in front of a TV.

"Puppet shows seem to be a good alternative," says Wang Wenting, mother of a four-year-old boy. Fairy tales and characters leave a deep impression in children, she says. "Puppetry can be part of enlightened education."

Enthusiasts appreciate the playfulness of puppetry and say they enjoy the mystery about how it works.

Chen Daming, a critic from the Shanghai Dramatists Association, says he is optimistic that puppetry can win fans if artists continue to innovate and develop interesting characters and stories, using more modern sets, lighting and performing style. He'd like to see more animal and plant or flower puppets for fantasy scenes. The popular screen animation "Pleasant Goat and Big, Big Wolf" could also be turned into a puppet show, he suggests.

What makes puppetry special, he says, is that "puppets have something that cartoon films can never offer - perfect interactivity with the audience."

"Monkey King Subdues the White Skeleton Demon"

Date: November 19, 26, December 3, 10am

Venue: Shanghai Puppet Theater, 5/F, 388 Nanjing Rd W.

Tickets: 90-100 yuan

Tel: 6334-5200


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