Into the Dark

Published on 26 September 2017

This month sees two Asian puppet theatre companies explore very grown-up issues, albeit in different ways.

By Jo Tan

Think puppets, and you might think cute, comical and childish. Yet the works of Singaporean company The Finger Players and Indonesia’s Papermoon Puppet Theatre are anything but juvenile. Both companies have much in common. They had their beginnings exploring traditional puppetry — Chinese hand puppetry for The Finger Players, and Wayang Kulit with Teater Boneka for Papermoon — which they later fused with international puppetry forms. Also, both explore mature topics ranging from death and discrimination, to prisons and pollution.

For Papermoon’s founder, Maria Tri Sulistyani, it is precisely because puppets are perceived as harmless and cute, that they are so effective in exploring serious themes. “Puppets always project fun, so audiences are not afraid of coming to a performance. That makes puppetry the perfect medium to present difficult subjects.”

Photo: Tuckys Photography

Oliver Chong, Resident Director of The Finger Players, agrees. “Using puppets with — or instead of — actors to discuss darker issues adds a cushion which makes them seem less confronting. It’s the same reason puppets are also used to communicate with autistic children who find it difficult to interact with people directly.”

In fact, The Finger Players is known for productions like I’m Just a Piano Teacher, which is about family resentments that lead to multiple murders, in the form of graphically disemboweled puppets; Turn by Turn We Turn, that follows the rise and fall of a puppet master’s fortunes alongside China’s twentieth-century tumults; and the recent Itsy the Musical, which explores a child’s terminal illness, and features a two-storey tall spider puppet.

Photo: Papermoon Puppet Theatre
Grasping in the Dark Performances such as Poop! (right) and Mwathirika (below) both use elements of puppetry to depict people trying to make sense of difficult circumstances. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)

Papermoon, meanwhile, is internationally celebrated for its touring productions, including Mwathirika about the 1965 Indonesian mass jailings and executions, as well as for its puppet-centric workshops, exhibitions and installations that discuss topics like pollution, or that target children in villages devastated by Indonesian earthquakes.

This month, the Indonesian company comes to Singapore to present a non-verbal piece about prejudice in The White World of Siwa and Malini; while The Finger Players stages two productions — Poop!, about death in a Singaporean heartlander family, and the classic Kuo Pao Kun script The Spirits Play, about the casualties of war. At the same time, each production’s use of puppetry is very different.

Tri Sulistyani recalls being first inspired to diversify Papermoon’s oeuvre after seeing a German puppet production specifically targeted at adults. “It was solemn, gloomy, and very theatrical. It made us think, we can do this with our puppet theatre!” Since then, the company’s puppets run the gamut from cute to creepy, and Tri Sulistyani has said that audiences often never know what to expect. However, The White World of Siwa and Malini is a family-friendly show, presenting a perfectly PG tale about racism to child and adult audiences, as mythical creatures learn to deal with arbitrary value judgements when different colours begin to appear in their completely white world.

The Finger Players, however, has, increasingly, ventured away from puppetry. Chong’s one-man-show, Roots, for instance, essentially features just him on a stage. “As a physical theatre practitioner and toy designer before joining the company, learning to make and operate puppets so that different movements conveyed different ideas and emotions came quite intuitively for me,” he says. “It was good to add these to my list of tools on how to tell a story. For the first few productions that I wrote and directed for the company, I consciously put puppets in there because I thought all our productions must have puppets. It got to a point where using puppetry felt restrictive, rather than liberating.”

This was until The Finger Players’ Company Director Chong Tze Chien (TC) explained that puppets aren’t required per se, as long as the show channels the company’s ethos of inspiring imagination the way its puppets do. “Puppetry is so much a part of our identity that elements of it constantly creep into our work whether we intend them to or not. But when they do, we make sure that they support the storytelling, instead of screaming ‘Look, puppetry!’”

Photo: Papermoon Puppet Theatre

This is evident in Poop! — which TC wrote and directs — which is executed predominantly in the format of blacklight theatre, which originated with bunraku puppeteers wearing black to become invisible relative to their puppets, says TC. To create this effect, the actors thrust different parts of their bodies selectively into light or shadow, so it seems as if a deceased character’s disembodied head or arms continue to move through the various spaces he inhabited during his lifetime.

While Poop! features elements of shadow puppetry and object puppetry (where everyday objects are made to move or talk), it was a conscious choice to have the performance played mostly by actors rather than puppets, so that it would be more gritty and relatable. Says Chong, “While it’s sometimes useful to sugarcoat issues with puppetry so that the audience finds them more palatable, at other times, you don’t want that.” His production of The Spirits Play, for instance, depicts war and death in its full horror with actors playing both victims and Furies, with shadow puppetry harnessed to render wartime scenes, such as a hail of bombs.

Birth and death The White World of Siwa and Malini (left) deals with a completely white world alarmed by the unusual colour of a newborn, while The Spirits Play (right) tells the tragedies of the war dead. (Photo: Tuckys Photography)

Says TC, “With today’s technology, it’s easy to recreate fantastic events using multimedia, or animation. But for The Finger Players, we want to create space for the imagination. When you see shadows of bombs falling from above, or inanimate objects talking in the hands of a puppeteer, your imagination runs riot.”

Maria Tri Sulistyani agrees. “The audience is always open to fantastic surprises.”

The White World of Siwa and Malini runs from 6-8 Oct at the National Gallery Singapore. Poop! runs from 20-22 Oct and The Spirits Play runs from 27-29 Oct, both at Victoria Theatre.

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