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Paper puppets help tell monk's story

Life-sized handmade animal puppets and other special effects give an epic spin to the tale of the 5th-century monk who translated Buddhist scriptures from Sanskrit into Chinese.

Kumarajiva will be staged next month by Toy Factory Productions for Foo Hai Buddhist Cultural & Welfare Association.

The association hopes to bring the story of the translator monk to a wider audience and is also raising funds for a new dialysis centre.


Australian artist Anna-Wili Highfield’s life-sized puppets are a patchwork of rag and paper suggesting the animal’s form. PHOTO: ANNA-WILI HIGHFIELD


PHOTO: ANNA-WILI HIGHFIELD


PHOTO: ANNA-WILI HIGHFIELD


 PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS


 PHOTO: TOY FACTORY PRODUCTIONS

The play, performed in Mandarin with English surtitles, opens after Vesak Day. It runs from May 27 to 29 at Victoria Theatre.

Timothy Wan stars in the title role, playing the Indian prince who gave up his royal life to study Chinese for more than a decade and who translated well-known Buddhist scriptures such as the Lotus Sutra and Amitabha Sutra into Chinese.

Audrey Luo plays his mother, the Kucha princess Ji'va; Jodi Chan, the royal fiancee he gives up for a monastic life, while Wan's long- time collaborator Tay Kong Hui is a mysterious monk.

All male actors playing monks will shave their heads - no bald wigs - and have spent time learning about the history of Kumarajiva and Buddhist practices at Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery.

Wan, 28, is not a Buddhist but was moved by his character's story.

"He gave his life so all of China could learn. How else would Buddhism have spread across China?"

Director Goh Boon Teck, 44, has in his mind a lavish period drama for this staging. The play is written by Beijing's Ma Hui Tian, a well-known professor of acting, and was first staged by the monastery in 1996 at Kallang Theatre to raise funds for Ren Ci Hospital.

This year, Goh is working with set designer Chris Chua, lighting designer Gabriel Chan and Bangkok costume designers Tube Gallery - all nominees at this year's Life Theatre Awards - to recreate the varied period clothing and geography of north India and China, where Kumarajiva lived and worked. He also plays with the Buddhist notion of the physical world as sensual, but illusory. He says: "In Buddhism, form is not reality, so what we're seeing on stage has multiple interpretations."

To that end, he has engaged Australian sculptor Anna-Wili Highfield to create about a dozen animal puppets in her signature style - life-sized and realistic, but a patchwork of cotton rag and paper suggesting, rather than detailing, each animal's form.

The puppets represent various stages in Kumarajiva's journey. A wolf moves across the stage in echo of Buddhism's spread across China, while the Eurasian steppes are evoked by a two-humped Asian camel or endangered saiga antelopes with trunks like elephants'.

Goh discovered the 35-year-old sculptor, who has done scenery for the Sydney Opera, on Instagram. This is her first theatrical venture and one of her biggest projects.

She usually makes at most 15 sculptures a year for galleries or private collections. To meet Goh's deadlines, she is forgoing her usual technique of sewing the cotton rag and using hot glue so the sculptures will be hardy enough for stage use.

She is doing this as she is moved by the story of Kumarajiva and also because Goh's vision is in line with her own.

She says: "I see animals as representations of spirits or characteristics we can relate to. A horse has strength, integrity and beauty; a parrot is humorous, fun and colourful. That's what's so nice about the play. It incorporates animal symbolism and represents different stages in someone's life."

  • BOOK IT / KUMARAJIVA

  • WHERE: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

    WHEN: May 27, 8pm; May 28, 3pm; May 29, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $60, $70 and $90 for May 27 and 29 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Tickets for a special charity show on May 28, 8pm, are available from Foo Hai Ch'an Monastery (call 6748-6676)

    INFO: Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2016, with the headline 'Paper puppets help tell monk's story'. Print Edition | Subscribe