2 hands, 36 strings

Expert puppeteers to be featured in The Finger Players' showcase on traditional Chinese puppetry

The Finger Players taps its roots and looks to the future with next month's triple bill of productions.

This begins with The Collectors from April 1 to 10. The site-specific production at Centre 42 features experts in traditional Chinese puppetry and is helmed by the troupe's co-founder Tan Beng Tian.

Then come two plays at the Drama Centre Black Box: Inheritance from April 14 to 17 and The Truth About Lying: Heresy And Common Sense For The Theatre from April 21 to April 24. Both are created by talents from its programmes to mentor playwrights and directors (see story below).

The three productions do not form a trilogy, but are united under one theme, says company director Chong Tze Chien, 40. "We want to present new possibilities," he adds.

If Inheritance and The Truth About Lying represent the talent of the future, there are also possibilities of renewal in the traditional art of Chinese puppetry, as showcased in The Collectors.

The two-hour show begins with Tan, 49, playing tour guide from a flat-bed truck in a nod to Chinese puppetry's origins as travelling entertainment that went around villages. In the 1960s, the Chinese government invited puppeteers into the theatre, encouraging them to use technical wizardry to elevate the art into something that could be showcased internationally.


Leading Chinese puppeteer Zhuang Lie, manipulates the 36 strings attached to each puppet with deft fingers. ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

  • BOOK IT / THE COLLECTORS

  • WHERE: Centre 42, 42 Waterloo Street

    WHEN: April 1 to 10, 7.30pm

    INFO: Performed in multiple languages including English and Mandarin

    INHERITANCE

    WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, 100 Victoria Street, National Library Building 05-01

    WHEN: April 14 and 15, 8pm; April 16, 3 and 8pm; April 17, 3pm

    INFO: Performed in English, Mandarin and Chinese dialect (with English surtitles)

    THE TRUTH ABOUT LYING: HERESY AND COMMON SENSE FOR THE THEATRE

    WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box

    WHEN: April 21 and 22, 8pm; April 23, 3 and 8pm; April 24, 3pm

    INFO: Performed in English

    ADMISSION: Tickets are $35 a show, $58 for two shows and $81 for all three, from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

Tan, too, will guide viewers from the outdoors into the theatre space at Centre 42, via several stops. These include an exhibition recalling The Finger Players' journey from its 1999 origins as a puppet troupe, to its expansion into other forms of theatre and also running training programmes.

Tan says: "As an artist, I collect things that help me carry on my craft. The Collectors is about why we keep some things and not others."

The Collectors is co-directed by Lim Chin Huat, 46, artistic director of now defunct dance troupe Ecnad. He started Tan thinking when he said he would like to see a solo puppet show by The Finger Players. "I wanted her to bring back the unique reason she started the company," he says.

Through a video installation in The Collectors, he pays tribute to Tan's teacher, Chinese puppetmaster Li Bo Fen, and the late Singapore theatre director Christina Sergeant, whose work ethic inspired Lim in 1996 when he started Ecnad. He and Sergeant had adjoining workspaces at the old Drama Centre in Fort Canning.

The Collectors includes a performance by sound artist Bani Haykal, whom Tan considers a puppeteer as well, for his ability to coax music even from a bicycle wheel. "I define a puppeteer as someone who brings an object to life," she says.

In the theatre, viewers will watch traditional puppetry performances by two experts. Hong Kong's Li Yi Hsin continues an unbroken family tradition of hand puppetry at the Gim Eng Seng Hand Puppet Troupe formed by his great-grandfather. Zhuang Lie is a leading string puppeteer from Quanzhou Puppet Theatre in China's Fujian province.

Tan met her 22 years ago, when she went to China to study under puppetmaster Li.

Zhuang, 41, manipulates the 36 strings attached to each puppet with deft fingers and without the extra devices usually added to the central rod of, say, Czech marionettes. It takes at least a decade to attain proficiency in moving the strings suspended from the central rod. For this reason, her state- owned troupe takes in new talent only every 12 years. Zhuang, who has been doing this for 23 years, just got promoted to Grade 2 puppet- master, one level below the top.

She makes and modifies her puppets, buying head and hands from a skilled puppet-carver, but improving on the traditional cane and wire structure with styrofoam.

She will use two puppets here, one she created for a piece about mythological moon goddess Chang Er. The other she acquired from an older expert. She modified that puppet, but refuses to repair the chipped wooden hands or touch up the fading paint on its face.

This is for the same reason she is continuing a 2,000-year-old art form. Speaking in Mandarin, which is translated by Tan, she says: "I'll strengthen only the parts that are weak. I'd like to keep it as authentic as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline '2 hands, 36 strings'. Print Edition | Subscribe