The puppet emerging from the shadows
The traditional art form adapts to changing circumstances and appeals to a younger audience, report Shan Juan in Xi’an and Chen Nan in Beijing.
A show that brings together the spice of modernity mixed with a good dose of old-fashioned entertainment and marinated with a stand-up routine will always be a recipe for delight. This 2,000-year-old approach to puppetry has brought ancient art to life and won over younger audiences in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province.
Chinese Shadow Puppetry, an experimental show, debuted at Xi’an Concert Hall last month and has been well received by the largely urban young audience, according to Hu Ruonan, director of the show.
The 60-minute show includes two traditional shadow puppet plays Hell King Happiness and the Monkey King subdues the White Skeleton Demon. These are interspersed with standing performances showcasing traditional local culture during the intervals.
Simple and well-known storylines made the background opera, Wanwanqiang, a traditional opera based on the dialect of Shaanxi province, easier to understand for audiences, including non-locals. Subtitles are also available, broadcast simultaneously on screens on both sides of the stage.
“I found the show to be entertaining, artistic and quite modern,” says an audience member nicknamed Feng. The 29-year-old from Sichuan Province was present with eight members of her family.
Traditionally, the puppets are mostly staged at night with the performer casting shadows on an illuminated white fabric, while the musicians provide a dramatic soundtrack, according to Wei Jinquan, a famous local artist who performs in the show.
“For hundreds of years, the show engaging five puppeteers to manipulate the hand-carved puppets colored in red, yellow, black, white and green, as well as to provide musical accompaniment, has been popular, especially in rural areas, ”Wei says. .
“It entertains and, most importantly, enlightens by telling easy-to-understand stories, especially among rural audiences.”
As China rolled out massive urbanization programs, much of the mainstream public moved to cities in search of better jobs.
“We had about 20 shows a month in the 1990s, which dropped to three or four shows after 2010,” he says. The shrinking number of audiences and the lack of visibility left the traditional art form struggling for survival.
As the show’s director, Hu joined in the effort to restore and impart shadow puppet skills and knowledge. His team has an average age of 30 years.
“We know our audience and figured out how to repackage the show to entertain them and, most importantly, bring the treasure of our traditional art to life,” says Hu.
In the new show, the live band has been replaced by recordings with vastly improved sound effects, while effects and props such as huge flames, cloud-shaped screens and bright stage lights have been introduced. to attract a younger audience with more modern tastes in entertainment.
According to Hu, most of the spectators are young people. “They appreciate it and can catch the ‘old spirit’ on the show.”
In Happiness of the King of Hell, the protagonist entertains the King of Hell by singing operas and, as a result, gets a longer life.
12-year-old audience member Liu Jiawei said, “The man is courageous and calm, while singing operas to please the King of Hell. You never know when your expertise will help you.”
For Wei, dedicated to making shadow puppet games known and loved, he saw new hope.
“After the modern overhaul, the show will reach a wider audience, especially young people. They are the future of ancient art, ”says the optimistic artist.
In addition to performing, the 58-year-old also gives talks promoting shadow puppet games in local elementary and secondary schools.
Born into a local family of shadow puppets, Wei learned the art as a teenager. Through his own experience, he has seen the ups and downs of art and believes that with the commitment of young audiences and the artists’ continued efforts to produce modern adaptations, the traditional entertainment format will thrive again.
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