In September, we were invited to hold two days of Chinese Puppetry workshops at the ESF Drama Conference at West Island School. These workshops introduced four types of traditional Chinese puppetry, teaching students the basics of manipulation for each type of puppet, as well as the history and traditional uses of these types of puppet. We also explored the principles of puppetry, and how the traditional skills of puppetry can be integrated into contemporary theatre, and why they are still relevant today.
Chinese Puppetry Workshops
The four types of traditional Chinese puppet introduced:
Shadow puppets are traditionally made of goat or cow skin, although modern performances sometimes use plastics. Puppets are controlled by wooden or bamboo rods, which are held perpendicular to the screen. The screen is illuminated from behind by a soft light source close to the screen, which allows the colours of the puppets to show, without casting shadows from the performers or the rods.
Depending on the number of rods and the complexity of the movement of a puppet, more than one person may manipulate a single puppet at the same time. For example, some animal puppets may have five or more rods, requiring at least two people to operate it. However, it is also possible for one person to operate two puppets at the same time, for example, making them fight. There are techniques for holding more than one rod in the same hand while still moving them independently, and being able to control many rods with detailed independent movement is one of the biggest challenges in shadow puppetry.
String puppets are perhaps the most challenging type of puppet to master, requiring a significant amount of strength as well as precision to control many strings simultaneously. These differ from Western marionettes in that all strings are attached to a simple ‘paddle’, with movement of the puppet’s arms and legs achieved through directly manipulating strings rather than rocking the paddle itself (which only directly affects the puppet’s head). Depending on their complexity, these puppets have around 20 strings, and detailed articulation of the joints, allowing them to flex their fingers and even pick up and grab objects. Strings are held in different configurations between the puppeteer’s fingers, and must be frequently switched around in order to achieve different ways of walking or moving. One hand must also always be holding the paddle, so that it is necessary to hold the full weight of the puppet in one hand while simultaneously flexing the fingers of that hand to control the strings.
This type of puppet is occasionally performed with the puppeteer behind a stage as in more traditional Western marionette theatres, but the most impressive displays of this type are done in a three dimensional stage with the puppeteer fully visible. The movement of this string puppets is especially graceful, circular and flowing.
Hand puppets, also known as glove puppets or even bag puppets, are worn on the puppeteer’s hands, with the thumb in one arm, the index finger in the head, and the other three fingers inside the other arm. They are often performed behind a screen which reaches up to head height, and the puppeteer holds their arms above their head in order to perform. Puppets sometimes have additional control rods attached to one of the hands in order to achieve special tricks or effects: spinning sticks, plates, or fans for example. This is then manipulated by the puppeteer’s second hand.
Puppets of this type are particularly effective in fighting, because of the fast movement due to being directly manipulated by the hands. Weapons can be placed in puppets’ hands, with sticks often attached on one hand and passing loosely through the second hand in order to enable detailed movement. Fighting is often done by one performer using two hands to fight one another, since the synchronisation between the two can be particularly effective.
Rod puppets can be performed either behind a screen in a similar way to hand puppets, or in a three dimensional space in a similar way to string puppets. One hand holds a central wooden rod which goes inside the body and up to the head, while the other hand controls both of the puppet’s hands via thinner metal rods. In some (Southern) styles of Chinese puppetry, these rods are contained within the body, but more often they are outside and fully visible. The central rod within the body usually has additional controls which can tilt the head independently, and even move the eyes and mouth. The rods attached to the hands sometimes have controls to articulate the puppet’s fingers.
To perform this style of puppet with the puppeteer visible, it is important to be able to move in a way which is coherent with the puppet’s own movement. For example, the performance of traditional dances or Chinese opera pieces should be treated as though the puppeteer’s body is an extension of the puppet, with stylized leg movement appropriate to the genre. Puppets often have long flowing sleeves, allowing for extended graceful movement of the arms, as well as highlighting their movement through space.
Ivor Houlker studied traditional Chinese puppetry with Master Wong Fai in Hong Kong, as well as studying Western and contemporary puppetry at DAMU in Prague. Ivor has included puppetry as a technique in contemporary theatre since 2010, as well as participating in more traditional puppet performances.
In Hong Kong, for Rooftop Productions, Ivor developed the puppetry in A Series of Unexpected Events and recently Milk and Honey, which made use of the manipulation of found objects in a form inspired by Tadeusz Kantor. For We Draman, Ivor created the puppetry in Building with Bamboo, and for the Sidekick Project performed in The Puppet Whisperers.