Another note from Nick Wilson and the team in Japan:
Wow, what an unbelievable couple of weeks! It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced a People’s Puppet Project what it is that we actually do out here: how much we ask of ourselves and our collaborators, the dense networks of amazing people that form around us, and of course the seemingly miraculous end-product; a world-class giant visual theatre spectacle made from conception to presentation, including puppets, story and soundtrack, by and about a community that has never done or even seen anything like it before. All of this in just ten days.
We arrived in the beautiful, dwindling mountain town of Urada, population 300, with little knowledge about it, and sunk in deep, quickly seeking out a sense of the culture and environment, its quirks and points of difference, the experiences and stories people seem to have in common.
On our first workshop day we met the residents, played some games, had some discussions and decided on which puppet characters to make. Two weeks later they were on stage performing their own fully realised Snuff Puppets show at an international arts festival in the neighbouring village of Matsudai.
That was at Noh Bu Tai theatre last weekend, and it was every bit as powerful, chaotic, ambitious, serene, touching, hilarious and beautiful as we could ever hope a show like this could be. The venue staff were beyond professional, Echigo-Tsumari management, staff and volunteers all went out to get us over the line, and our Urada cast completely blew us away. Surviving a heavy puppet for 45 minutes is a big undertaking even for professional performers, and these guys weren’t just surviving they were excelling. The energy of the crowd was bordering on euphoric. Urada’s elderly rubbed shoulders with Tokyo art crowds and local politicians, getting pushed and ushered around the space together in delighted awe.
The rain held off long enough for us to use the terraced rice-fields across the river, behind the venue, as a multi-levelled natural stage, through which the Kamoshika weaved and the marching band played, looking amazing in their woven rice-straw costumes. Jisa and Basa crossed this idyllic scene by foot and truck, before Magomusume’s big frenzied Tokyo fashion scene entered from behind, circling the audience in promenade style, inviting everybody to dance.
The show featured a boisterous all-singing giant Akashobin, a rural train journey, an eight-metre cucumber being dropped from a great height and paraded overhead, a cheeky cucumber-loving Kappa, his dismemberment by wild animals, his bowl-shaped head spilling out water and irrigating the fields, and some gorgeous sit-down storytelling moments with elderly residents voicing the Grandparent puppets.
The basic story was of Magomusume returning to Urada to see her grandparents. The idea of return was partly a composite of stories from young people we’ve been working with, and also topical because the show dates fell on Obon Festival weekend, traditionally a time for family reunion and remembrance all over Japan.
In another sense though, it’s also dealing with the deeper theme of the survival of the town, the region, and many others like it, a theme at the heart of these Art Triennali, which bring artists and audiences into remote areas to stimulate and revitalise stagnant and disappearing communities.
We’ve seen for ourselves the hope of youth in a rapidly ageing region: our show beamed with the warmth, excitement and talent of the children living there. We’ve seen artworks fill abandoned village schools with adult audiences, and our show at Noh Bu Tai drew the biggest crowd the venue has ever hosted: a full theatre in a town of empty homes.
At the heart of the whole thing is the paradox of preserving and revitalising a way of life by modernising and adapting it. Both of these festivals are immense, sprawling, ambitious, and potentially game-changing, growing in community support and involvement with every event. Seen in that context this project has been a very real opportunity for our participants to take centre stage in that transformation, and to use their creative talents to seize ownership of the future of their area.
It’s one thing to transplant art and import crowds, and a very different thing to facilitate community-based work of a professional standard. In these projects we bring materials, a style and a methodology. We’re not writing the story, we are helping people to tell it. Arming them. With puppets. That’s what the PPP process is about, and it’s one I find deeply rewarding every time. “Isseichidai” (“Once in a lifetime”) one boy said. I couldn’t agree more and say it right back to all of them.
So that was last week. More has happened, more is happening, watch this space. We’ve been joined by filmmaker Amiel Coutin-Wilson who is documenting our work here and also experimenting with the puppets, people and landscapes. So for the first time you’ll be able to meet some of these characters and share in the moments that are so hard to describe. We’re excited. The footage is stunning.
Now we’re settling into Honjima Island, where we’ve brought the puppets on a whole second leg in collaboration with Setouchi Art Triennale. It’s another unique landscape and community, quite a contrast. We have new people to meet and new challenges to deal with. We’re loving our disused 1862 Kabuki Theatre facing the beach. The midnight swims sparkle with bioluminescent plankton. Two typhoons are brewing to the South, and one of them is on track to hit us on show day.
Wish us luck & talk again soon.
From Nick & the Snuff Puppets Japan team:
Andy, Stephane, Rosalind, Ignatz, Amiel & Sheah.
This is an Asialink Arts Residency Project supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy, Tokyo.