11 January 2015

Cambodian Shadow Puppetry

In May 2014 I was selected as one of the Cambodia Creative Four, four international artists destined for Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Each of us would spend one month doing arts workshops with underprivileged kids, hosted by Let Us Create. LUC is an NGO that serves more than 100 kids, providing education, nutrition, and artistic experiences. They provide a safe and nurturing environment where kids can just be kids.

This expedition was part of my ongoing Puppets Without Borders project. This trip was particularly exciting for me as my artistic medium of choice, shadow puppetry, is indigenous to the country. However, the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror in the 1970's took a serious toll on Cambodia's culture; 90% of the country's artists were executed, and those who survived were left understandably fearful of practicing their craft. Decades later, Cambodia is still struggling to rebuild the culture that was lost; Let Us Create works with artists like me to help inspire the younger generations with various art forms.

Shadow puppetry by Sovanna Phum Art Associaton
I landed in the bustling capital, Phnom Penh, in late November, and wasted no time seeking out my people. After checking in to my hotel I headed to Sovannah Phum Art Association, where I saw a performance which included dance, live music and Sbek Thom: large shadow puppets. The puppeteers entered from the back of the audience in darkness, handheld flashlights used to cast large otherworldly shadows across the theatre. Puppets held high above their heads, they dance both behind and in front of the screen. During battle scenes they even slapped these huge puppets together... Incredible!

Sovannah Phum Art Association
The performance was mesmerizing. I had never seen this style of puppetry performed before, and was surprised at the variety of ways in which the puppeteers used the large leather tableaux to such dramatic effect, bringing to life part of The Ramayana.

Surrounded by the amazing talent of Sovannah Phum Art Association
I was thrilled to have a chance to meet the cast afterwards, and even took a moment to show them photos of my very different shadow puppetry work from Canada.

The following day, I returned to Sovannah Phum to learn how to make a traditional shadow puppet; this one Sbek Toch,  or small shadow. I picked out a pattern, Sita from the Hindu epic The Ramayana, and settled down on a low wooden stool. The pattern was taped down to a dried cow hide, and I was presented with a mallet and a range of chisels and punches.

Tools of the trade
I first carved all the interior details of the puppet before chiselling the outline. I say this like it's no big deal, but it took 5 hours! It wasn't terribly difficult for someone with lots of patience and good hand-eye coordination... The hardest part was sitting on that tiny stool for so long!

Puppet in progress
Once the puppet was cut out I painted in details using a small brush and black ink, copying a finished sample. Finally, the puppet was assembled by one of the crew: control rods made of bamboo and joints tied with leather cord. The puppet was whisked away for a quick spray of sealant, and voila!

Finished! Shadow puppet of Sita from The Ramayana
The trip was off to a brilliant start! A few days later, I was settled in to the volunteer house in Sihanoukville, and getting ready for my workshops at Let Us Create.

The kids I worked with were aged toddler to high school, so I had to have a pretty big range of programming; everything from drawing shapes and singing nursery rhymes, to sewing, paper cutting and my main project: creating a shadow puppetry performance with 30 + high school students.

Our bilingual script
The story I selected for our play was Crocodile Nen Thon, which I found in Khmer Legends by Demaz Tep Baker. It's the story of a young monk and his extremely loyal pet crocodile. LUC's director, Sopheap Kong, translated the story into Khmer, and the story was read in both languages to the students. I started working with the youth building their puppets. Despite our very limited time together and a bit of a language barrier, they made some really great puppets.

Students making shadow puppets
We had two rehearsals, and then it was showtime!

The shadow play would be part of the first ever performing arts show at LUC. I worked with one of the other Creative Four, João Telmo from Portugal, to program the rest of the show to include all the 100+ kids from the centre. Although I thought this was all a pretty big deal, I wasn't sure what to expect. Would the kids show up? Would their families?

The day of the performance arrived, and the kids not only showed up, but they were dressed in their best clothes and bouncing off the walls with excitement! I'd made all of the junior students colourful wristbands from scraps I picked up at the local tailor, and the kids went crazy for them. The energy before the show was electric - everyone was so excited!

Art Assistant Vutha helps hang the blackout curtains
My biggest concern with the shadow play was the lighting; normally I would never perform shadow puppets at 2 pm in the afternoon in semi-outdoor conditions. Shadow puppets need darkness! After trying out a few different options, I decided the best choice would be to use the sun as our main light source, and black out the audience area as much as possible. I had brought two point-source lights with me from Canada, and I placed them very close to the screen for an extra bit of illumination. It worked!

Our play was narrated in Khmer by teacher Touch Dara and in English by João Telmo. It went off without a hitch in front of a huge and completely enrapt audience. Success! As far as I know, not a single student or staff member had ever seen shadow puppetry in person, so I was really thrilled to just be able to expose so many new people to the art form.

The shadow play was followed by several other performances by the rest of the centre's kids, concluding with a dance party! The centre was overflowing with joy and pride, and I was so lucky to have been a part of it.

Learning about traditional Cambodian shadow puppetry was a chance of a lifetime, and I'm hoping to try making some leather shadow puppets at home. Working at LUC was a great honour, and I loved the chance to pass on the tradition of shadow puppetry to a new generation of young artists.