Chinese Shadow Puppetry: Revived at Longzaitian Theatre
Official Blog (Site) of Longzaitian Shadow Theatre (龙在天皮影)
http://blog.sina.com.cn/longzaitianpiying (In Chinese).
Longzaitian Shadow Theatre: the ONLY theatre in Beijing with regular performances.
Faded glory of Chinese shadow puppetry
Chinese shadow puppetry had its prime time during Qing Dynasty. Then after 1840, in the continuous turmoil of social and political instability, the ever-prosperous shadow puppetry was repressed hardly to almost extinction. A little portion was luckily saved as grass-root folk art.
After 1978, when political stability and economic order were re-established in China, both the government and the public started to revive this ancient art. It is crowned as “the DNA of Chinese culture”, “the ancestor of motion picture and animated cartoon”, etc. However, to survive in modern society, to compete with electronic visual arts and pop culture, it is definitely not enough just to recapitulate what’s played 100 years ago. Lots of aspects of this traditional art need to be redesigned and recreated to fit into modern culture.
Longzaitian: Bring Shadow Puppetry back to Main stage
In 2007, Mr. Lin Zhonghua and his wife Ms. Wang Xi opened the “Chinese Shadow Puppetry Culture City” (aka. Longzaitian (龙在天: Dragon in the sky) Shadow Play Theatre) in Beijing. As the ONLY regular puppetry theatre, their goal is to preserve this traditional performance art, to explore how to make it fit into modern society, and eventually to bring it back to the main stage of entertaining industry.
They had a hard time in the beginning. People are not so interested in the outdated content of those traditional plays. And the audience could not understand the accent of “authentic” performers invited from remote local troupes.
How to attract audience to their shadow theatre, impress them with great performance and convert them into return customers? This is the question that Mr. Lin had to answer.
Dwarf Troupe for Kids and Combining Pop Culture for Adults
He focused on two different audience groups:
Kids: To get closer to kids, he searched and hired about 10 dwarf adults to form a dwarf shadow play troupe. Although their average age is around 24, they are as tall as kids (1.0~1.3m), they look like kids, their voice sounds like kids’ voice. The kids love them so much, as well as their shadow play fairy tales. They not only play shadow puppetry behind the screen, but also play with the kids after the shadow play.
This is a great success in marketing. On the other hand, he also helped those pessimistic dwarfism people fit back into the society.
To make it more entertaining to adult audience, they combined the traditional shadow puppetry with current pop culture. They make puppet of popular celebrities and play them on the screen together with audio recordings of those celebrities’ best plays. Furthermore, they also try to market shadow play with other pop culture, such as Valentine’s Day. (Shown in the right picture). This is great success, too.
Besides regular theatre performance, they also maintain a great museum of shadow puppetry. They collected lots of rare ancient delicate puppets. Further more, they actively participate in community activities, such as visiting performance in primary schools, trying to inspire the interest of our next generation. They are the future.
Gustavo Thomas’s experience at Longzaitian Theatre
Gustavo Thomas is a Mexican playwright currently living in Beijing, China. He is also a playwright who uploaded a great collection of shadow puppetry videos on youtube. The list is here. He recently visited Longzaitian Theatre and shared his experience on his blog and youtube:
What I found most enjoyable during this visit was the possibility to (finally) watch and watch again shadow puppet performances in Beijing; it had always been hard for me to find an established place where shadow puppet performances took place regularly and by a stable company. Until then, I had only been able to see isolated performances by provincial groups or, in very special events, by pekinese groups.
Last October 12th (Sunday) 2008 I saw two performances with two of the company’s groups: “The story of the goat and the wolf”, addressed to children, and “The three defeats of the skeleton-demon”, a traditional performance based on a story taken from “Journey to the West”, one of the greatest pieces of Chinese fantasy literature.
Read his full post about Longzaitian Theatre here. 北京龙在天皮影 Longzaitian, Chinese Shadow Puppet Theatre Company: “Tale of the goat and the wolf”
Thanks to Gustavo for allowing me to use his photos and videos.