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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLADance Disassembled: Seeing Beyond the Curtain

Puppets bringing cultures together

By Clara Polley

April 29, 2008 9:00 p.m.

A young girl mysteriously transforming into a crane, a witty trickster trying to become rich, and a ghostly encounter with dead ancestors will appear in a colorful spectacle of actors and puppets, illuminating a piece of Asian culture.

Based on three traditional Asian folktales, the UCLA theater production “Mukashi Mukashi” will premiere May 3 at the Geffen Playhouse in conjunction with the Geffen Education Department.

The show is the master’s thesis of third-year graduate directing student Louise Hung. After a second show at the Geffen on May 10, “Mukashi Mukashi” will go on tour to six elementary schools in the Los Angeles area.

Through the three tales, the children will be exposed to some of the old traditional customs of Asian culture, especially from Japan and China, but not in way that “feels like a history lesson,” Hung explained. Rather, the learning process is supposed to take place primarily through the general “Asian feel” of the show conveyed through sound, design, and the use of puppetry techniques representative of Asian culture.

However, while the tales may differ in detail from traditional Western fairy tales, their core themes ““ the magical and the supernatural ““ might be familiar elements for children from L.A. It is this fusion of the different with the familiar that the show celebrates. For instance, the title “Mukashi Mukashi” loosely translates to the “once upon a time” formula of Western fairy tale story.

“The title sort of bridges the gap between Asia and Western thought because kids can see “˜oh, once upon a time, they have fairy tales and we do too’ and so we are not that different,” Hung said.

While the children can experience stories from other countries, the production also uses the stage to present puppetry as a serious art form for theater performances. In a class specially designed for the creation of the puppets in the show, UCLA undergraduate students learn about the history and craftsmanship of puppetry.

Often regarded as rather simplistic and representative of a sort of “beat each other over the head humor,” Hung said she wanted to introduce puppetry in a more sophisticated manner.

“When people think of puppets, they think of something that is only for really young kids and just silly,” she said. “I would love to introduce young children and other audiences to a form of puppetry that can tell a clear story and can do just as much as an actor can do, if not more.”

The show uses small and large puppets, as well as many hand-cut shadow puppets, which are typical for Asian theater. Erik Finck, a third-year theater student and puppet designer said that it was more important to give the children an impression of Asian culture ““ not a lesson on the history of puppetry.

“None of (the puppets) are meant to be really authentic, it’s all suggestive, just as we are Southern Californian college students performing these traditional Asian folk stories,” he said.

Finck also explained that puppetry has been perceived differently by different cultures.

“In Europe puppets were often used for entertainment. … They were funny or politically subversive. In Asia, puppets were often associated with religious activity,” he said.

Even though the show is designed for children, the puppetry in the play is treated very seriously, like a high art form, as has been traditionally done in Asia.

“This show uses puppets in a way that’s sometimes funny but I don’t think we are ever using our puppets like clowns,” Finck said. “We are treating the puppets a little bit more like actors.”

Associate professor Patricia Harter, who teaches the puppet-making class, teaches her students about the various forms of puppetry as they make the puppets for the show. She explained that shadow theater comes from a long tradition of ritual in Asia that was often used to connect the dead with the living.

“Originally, it was a way of communicating with the ancestors,” she explained.

One of the tales, “Hoichi,” deals with a man who encounters the ghosts of dead warriors. In order to capture the atmosphere of this mysterious moment, shadow puppets are especially useful.

“When you are looking at a shadow, you can see it and it exists in our reality because you can see it, but at the same time it’s intangible, it disappears. And so it exists in both worlds,” Harter said. “And that’s what makes it so special about relating (shadows) to spirits because spirits are thought to be otherworldly. And yet we believe them in this world and sometimes people can sort of see them but they’re not really there.”

For the students in the class, the encounter with new forms of puppetry proved especially interesting because shadow puppets are merely created with paper and their hands.

“I think it’s really magical that you can turn paper or something flat and make it look almost three-dimensional and alive and you can’t really see who’s controlling it,” said Melanie Portney, a first-year theater student who is taking the puppetry class.

Portney, who is also participating in the show, said that manipulating the puppets brought out the child in her.

“It’s the best thing to be an actor because you never have to stop playing,” she said. “We had to gear this towards children so we had to think how a child would watch this and whether they believe it or not.”

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