Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama Conference

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

Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama Conference

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

Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama Conference

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

Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama Conference

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

Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama ConferenceRod 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.

Puppetry Training

Chinese Puppetry at ESF Drama ConferenceIvor 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.

Fame Jr.

The Musical


Fame Jr. was produced by Rooftop Productions for HKUSPACE Community College and performed at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall.


Director: Michelle Li Yuen Jing @ Rooftop Productions
Singing Coach: Melodee Mak Chi Kwan
Choreographer: Jenny Lui Ching Kwan
Lighting Designer: Samuel Chan Kwan Chi
Set & Costume Designer: Yumi Keung
Sound Designer: Michael Tang
Make Up Artists: Kawayi Alma So Makeup & Hairdo
Production & Stage Manager: Candy Lau Nga Ting
Deputy Stage Manager: Ray Wong Wai Lok
Backstage Assistants: Chu Xi Yu, Melody; Yim Shuk Ying, Irene; Chan Uen Yin, Banana; XuYun lin, Winnie


CARMEN DIAZ – Khan Jessah Ma. Josefa Ramirez
NICK PIAZZA – Lam Muk Fung, Blaine
SERENA KATZ – Lui Ho Yuen, Joyce
TYRONE JACKSON – Loo Long Yuk, Mike
IRIS KELLY – Ma Sze Wing, Cherry
MABEL WASHINGTON – Chan Wing Ka, Ashley
GRACE’LAMBCHOPS’LAMB – Lo Yeuk Nam, Christina
JOE VEGAS – Li Man To, Raymond
GOODMAN’GOODY’KING – Lui Kei Kwan, Karisson
MS.GRETA BELL – Chan-Myae-Mon-Mon
MS.MYERS – Lei Hong Yee, Connie
MR.SHEINKOPF – Fung Wing Kin Rodney
CHORUS (OTHER STUDENTS) – Chu Wai Yan, Dorothy; Lai Mei Ki, Maggie; Li Wai Ki, Lusan; Liem, Mielin Grace; Ng Tsz Wing; Ng Yuk Ki, Yukki

A Series of Unexpected Events

School Touring Performance about Global Citizenship

Creative Team
Team Biographies

Concept: Students Vote For the Story

Rooftop Productions is dedicated to bringing innovative ideas to schools. In this programme, we are introducing “Immersive Theatre” (a popular contemporary genre) as an ideal way of delivering Global Citizenship education.

Students will participate in the show by voting on every decision that the protagonist, a puppet called Jackie, has to make. Jackie’s decisions reflect the choices students will encounter in their everyday lives, especially in relation to their roles as global citizens.

Synopsis: Values and Attitudes as Global Citizens

As well as conveying the knowledge and understanding that a Global Citizen should have, we help the students develop a positive and engaged attitude towards making choices when they are put in a dilemma of self interest vs. their duties as a Global Citizen.

Using a combination of storytelling, songs and different kinds of puppetry, the following themes of ‘Global Citizenship’ will be encountered and explored in this professional production:


Respect for difference and diversity, valuing all people as equal and different.

Global Identity and Self-Esteem

Belief that the individual can make a difference and that things can get better.

Social Justice and Equity

Concern for injustice and inequality; willingness to take action against inequality and speak up for others.

Sustainable Development

The effect of our lifestyle on other people and the environment.

Creative Team

BOOK | DIRECTOR – Michelle Li
SONGS | LYRICS | BOOK – Ivor Houlker
PERFORMERS – Phoenix Cheung, Vincent Chiu, Ivor Houlker, Cyrus Lee, Isabella Leung
PUPPET MAKER – Fa Studiooo

Team Biographies

Michelle Li (Director, Book)

Michelle Li is the founder and co-artistic director of Rooftop Productions. She holds an MA in Performance Making from Goldsmiths, University of London, and BA in English Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has returned to Hong Kong to develop her work as a multidisciplinary theatre artist. Apart from making her own work, she is also a theatre director, performer, singer and theatre educator. Her recent overseas works include: Festa Farina e Forca (Cantieri Culturali alla Zisa, Palermo, Sicily), Ch-ch-ch-changes (London, UK), Making a Difference (Goldsmiths, University of London, UK), Beware (Helen Chadwick Song Theatre, UK). Recent local works include: The Beautiful Ones (Rooftop Productions), The Story of Leaping Fish (We Draman), Puppet Whisperers (Sidekick Project), CCAS 2014- Musical in Harmony (Theatre Noir Foundation), Woman in Black (We Draman), Miss Rose (Theatre Noir Foundation), 13- The Musical (Theatre Noir Foundation), Animal Farm (Theatre Noir).

Ivor Houlker (Music, Lyrics, Book)

Ivor Houlker is the founder and co-artistic director of Rooftop Productions, having relocated from London to Hong Kong in 2014. Ivor trained as a multidisciplinary performer and theatre artist (BA Hons Rose Bruford, MA Goldsmiths), and now works internationally as an actor, musician and director. He specialises in physical theatre and site-specific performances, involving live music, choral movement, multimedia projection, sound installation, and audience interaction. Ivor’s work has been shown in London, Hong Kong, Edinburgh, Brighton, Prague, Palermo, Epidaurus, Wrocław, Warsaw and Lublin. He has worked and trained with many famous theatre groups and independent theatre artists around Europe, such as OPT Gardzienice (where he spent several years), The Grotowski Centre, Andrzej Wełmiński (Cricot2), Mischa Twitchin (Shunt), Helen Chadwick (Song Theatre), Andrea Cusumano. Ivor’s most recent performances in Hong Kong include Superheroes Don’t Give a Sh*t! (director/actor/multimedia), Wild Boar (live musician), No Exit (director), The Puppet Whisperers (actor), and for Rooftop Productions, The Beautiful Ones (director/musician/actor).

Isabella Leung (Performer)

Isabella Leung graduated from the University of Manchester with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Drama. She has been Resident Actress in Theatre Noir Foundation, where she performed in bilingual Theatre-In-Education productions, community theatre and musicals. She is also a drama educator and playwright, specialising in teaching English Drama and Musicals. Isabella’s credits include: Two Heads Are Better Than One (Pure Box Production), The Beautiful Ones (Rooftop Productions), Taking Roots (Pants Productions), Histoire du Soldat (Theatre de la Feuille), Frozen Festival Show, Horrors of the Amazon (Hong Kong Disneyland), Animal Farm, 2012-1997: Hong Kong Impressions, With Love, William Shakespeare – the musical with touring to Kaohsiung and Changsha (Theatre Noir Foundation), Hard Times (Library Theatre, Manchester UK), Do We Ever See Grace? (Contact Theatre, Manchester UK).

Vincent Chiu (Performer)

Vincent Chiu graduated from Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts in 2013, majoring in acting. While studying, he received the Outstanding Actor Award for his performance in Quartet. His school performances included The Desired, Fuente Ovejuna, All’s Well that Ends Well, and Stars in the Morning Sky. After graduation, he has been actively involved in various productions, including Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s The White Blaze of the Morning Sky, Pure Box children’s show Two Heads Are Better Than One, Theatre Horizon’s Century-old Dreams of a Fishing Harbour – Episode I, and Chung Ying Theatre’s The Happy Prince. In August 2014, he joined Theatre Horizon in performing The Lu-Tings at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, playing the Narrator. Vincent also has a strong passion for dance, and was a back up dancer for the G.E.M. X.X.X. Live concert (mainland tour). He is now a freelance performing artist and teacher.

Phoenix Cheung (Performer)

Phoenix Cheung is the Founder and Executive Director of ie Studio, and holds a Master of Arts Degree in Cultural Management (CUHK). She is currently a freelance actress, drama teacher, MC, music writer and producer. Phoenix graduated from The Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, majoring in acting in 2009. During her studies at HKAPA, she was awarded a scholarship from HSBC, and also the Lam Lap Sam scholarship. Performances that she has been involved in at HKAPA include The Visit, Duchess of Malfi, and The Wedding, in which she was awarded the Best Actress Award. Main stage productions include The Sound of Evolution, The Reminiscences, What’s Next, And Baby Make Seven, With Love William Shakespeare – The Musical, and Animal Farm. Secondary school touring performances include True Man Show Cinder-Ella, Blue Blood, With Love William Shakespeare, Kids on the Block, WWF, STEP, Arabian Nights.

Cyrus Lee (Performer)

Cyrus attended Moorpark College and California State University Northridge, and had been involved with theatre arts since his senior year in high school. Taking part in school’s musical productions from the year 1998 to 2002 such as Bye Bye Birdie, Sweet Charity, South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and drama productions of Shakespeare’s Sampler and The Crucible. He then relocated to Hong Kong in the year 2006 and continued his theatrical path, taking part in Seal’s Players’ 3 Sisters, Theatre Noir’s Animal Farm and With Love, William Shakespeare the musical (premiere, Beijing and Shanghai tour, re-run), A Charles Dickens Christmas Musical, I’mperfect and Of Mice and Men.

Booking Now Available

Starting date
Fee per show
HKD 10,000
For booking and enquiries
9231 9196 / (Booking Form)

  • This performance is suitable for senior primary to junior secondary students.
  • The performance duration is approximately 1 hour 15 minutes, with a 30-minute post-show talk.
  • The maximum audience size is 400.
  • Teachers’ education packs and student handbooks will be provided for further discussion.
  • In-class workshops with further discussion are available with additional charges. Please contact us for more info.


You can download our A Series of Unexpected Events Flyer
And Booking Form

Guangzhou Tianhe Changle Elementary School

While we were in Guangzhou, we also held some site-specific theatre workshops and a seminar at a local school (Guangzhou Tianhe Changle Elementary School), at the invitation of the teachers’ group of Tianhe district. We taught two example lessons for P5 students with teachers from different schools in the Tianhe district observing, as well as a seminar after lunch, introducing site-specific theatre and our previous work. This was followed by a class for the teachers to experience site-specific theatre practice themselves. We really have to thank Chun Fai, Fai Fai and Yang Yang for organizing this.

The kids were all very active and eager to participate in something new. I think they were also delighted to be working outdoors in spaces they didn’t normally get to use. There were some very creative presentations, and they really took to the principles of site-specific work very naturally, noticing things about the space in incredible detail. We hope they’ll be inspired to continue their interest in performance, and that they and the teachers will help spread an awareness about the potential for site-specific theatre in Guangzhou.
Continue reading Guangzhou Tianhe Changle Elementary School